Reading all kinds of lists about the best crime novels of the past decade, I, of course, being incredibly opinionated, felt I needed to chime in. Looking through this list one of the things that stick out, as far as my favorite reads are concerned, are a very specific sense of time and place. Sometimes place is pre-eminent , sometimes time, sometimes both. These books also contain some of the loveliest writing and most indelible scenes, things that remind me of why I love to read. So in alphabetical order, my favorites of the last decade or so:
At a book club recently, one of the members asked what were my favorite police novels? The obvious answer, Michael Connelly, sprang up, but the writers who drew me in to this particular sub genre were women. One of the true pioneers in this sub genre, Lillian O’Donnell, is one of my favorite writers. My late father in law introduced me to her in the 80’s and I’ve gobbled up everything I could find by this talented and to me, ground breaking writer.
Lillian O’Donnell started her career as an actress, but when her husband asked that she not be on the road so often, she decided to try writing. She wrote and sold her first mystery in 1959, but it wasn’t until 1972 that she created the character of policewoman Norah Mulcahaney. The Norah Mulcahaney books stretch from 1972-1998, finding Norah starting her career, climbing the ranks, marrying, becoming a widow, and along the way battling the sexism inherent in a very male environment.
From Nurse Matilda to Nanny McPhee to Mary Poppins to Jane Eyre, the governess or nanny has proved to be a fascinating character in literature, and mystery fiction has it’s share of them. Interestingly, both Nurse Matilda and Nanny McPhee where created by mystery writer Christianna Brand (1907-1988), beloved by mystery readers for her Inspector Cockrill novels. Here are a few of my “nanny” favorites.
Patricia Wentworth’s sleuth, Miss Sliver, is a former governess, so the lions’ share of governesses come from her pen. While Miss Silver is now a comfortably employed inquiry agent, she retains some of her governessy characteristics and appearance, a great advantage when she aspires to invisibility within a household where a murder has taken place. Two of my favorites are Wicked Uncle (a.k.a. Spotlight, 1947) where penniless Dorinda Brown takes a job as governess to a spoilt little boy. It’s rare to have the governess be the main protagonist, and this is one of the few examples. The suspense is provided by Dorinda’s fear of her “wicked uncle” who turns out to be her new employer’s neighbor. He is so unpleasant he is of course murdered, but this is one of the most charming of Wentworth’s books.
In 1962, a woman named Phyllis James sat down and wrote Cover Her Face, the first Adam Dalgleish mystery. Two years later, in 1964, Ruth Rendell wrote her first Reg Wexford mystery, From Doon with Death. These two women pulled the golden age format created by Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers into the present, and as they wrote, they deepened the form psychologically, writing darker, more intense and longer books as their careers progressed. They were the godmothers of what I think of as the contemporary noir police novel, and writers like Jill McGowan, Colin Dexter, Ian Rankin, Val McDermid, Peter Robinson, Elizabeth George and many others have carried it forward.
This wonderful essay comes to us from occasional contributor Nancy Shaw.
The wait is over. The recently-released Maisie Dobbs mystery, The American Agent, puts her in the middle of the London Blitz on ambulance runs, bringing her back to the scenes of wartime carnage that molded her life into “psychologist and investigator,” the job she created after nursing in France in World War I. Jacqueline Winspear makes the trauma of war her major subject through her beloved series. Shell shock lingers in the lives of Brits and pops out in a variety of malignant ways, volume after volume.
The writer of this article, Carin Michaels, is a former federal investigator working on her first thriller. She is also a freelance journalist who has written for Gannett Newspapers, MLive Media Group, Third Street Publications and Crazy Wisdom Journal. She is also a playwright and has had productions in New York, Chicago and L.A. She reached out to me and I was intrigued because of her experience, and I think you will be as well, whether you are writing your own thriller or not.
This article was inspired after reading a bad crime thriller. As someone who was a federal investigator, I became incensed when I found the author’s story unbelievable. I have been writing for over 30 years, even though I’m just now working on my first crime thriller. I’ve earned paychecks, been reviewed and have developed a craft. Stephen King wrote in his book, On Writing, that “Every book you pick up has its own lesson or lessons, and quite often the bad books have more to teach than the good ones.” Given my unique experiences, I would like to discuss some minimum standards this bad book missed. This critique is an attempt to hone our skills as writers and readers. When creating intriguing crime stories, the basics for a good story are research, character, plot points and passion.
In the face of yet another list naming many male, noir writers as “the best”, I asked readers for their favorite books. You all answered with passion! As Julia Keller pointed out, “Lists are really just conversation starters.” You all started the conversation! You all really really love Dorothy L. Sayers and Louise Penny, but the answers ranged from Cornell Woolrich to Donald Westlake to Dorothy Gilman to two titles from the great Canadian suspense writer Chevy Stevens. I listed the respondents alphabetically, and if you didn’t include a specific title, you’re not here. But read on! You may find some food for thought and new books to love.
When we closed the store and no longer felt Amazon breathing down our necks, we went ahead and subscribed to Amazon Prime so we could catch up on things like Bosch, which customers had been telling us frequently they enjoyed. (And Bosch is excellent, very true to the books though not an exact replica).
Prime’s The ABC Murders is not an exact replica of Christie’s enjoyable, early serial killer novel either. First there’s the casting of John Malkovich as Poirot. He doesn’t look like everyone’s mental picture of Poirot – that would be David Suchet – he’s instead an older, defeated Poirot, scraping along without his faithful valet, George, and his nightly hot chocolate.
Jane Langton died last month, just short of her 96th birthday. Through 18 mysteries, her characters Homer and Mary Kelly studied transcendentalism while solving crimes. Langton wrote about the power of nature, art, and kindness. Her protagonists were often besotted with the natural world, or with art, while her villains and comically-awful annoyers were out of harmony with those worlds.
Though Langton hid clues and unveiled solutions, as the genre requires, her voice and presentations were utterly distinctive. She stitched plots together with quirky observations. A World War II-era University of Michigan alumna who studied astronomy and art history, Langton had prodigious powers of invention and spun plot complications from nuggets such as soil chemistry, the water table under a Boston church, and a flooded town under a reservoir. Her line drawings of the settings accompany most of the series, and the settings are integral to the stories.
Ngaio Marsh (1895-1982), was one of the four cornerstones of British Crime fiction in the 30’s and 40’s, and that is reason enough to love her. Along with Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers and Margery Allingham, they were the original Queens of Crime, reshaping the puzzle based mystery and adding the bonus of continuing characters readers grew to love. Christie’s Poirot and Marple, Sayers’ Peter Wimsey, Allingham’s Albert Campion and Marsh’s Roderick Alleyn are some of the best known British detectives ever created.