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May 24, 2014


EVEN IF YOU DON’T LIKE MYSTERIES. I do actually like mysteries, but I’m not 

much of a one for those plotted-to-the-nines, can’t-figure-out-whodunit, the-puzzle-is- 

all stories: Agatha Christie, you might have guessed from this, bores me gormless. I prefer 

the ones that have some characterization, setting, and breathable air in them. With those provisos: 

         ---A Taste for Death is my favorite of P.D. James’s ample and somber novels 

about Superintendent Adam Dalgliesh. It traces not just the satisfyingly worked-out 

solving of a double murder but the disruption of the lives the murders come to involve. 

There is a maturity of observation in James that sets her above her competitors; she 

also has a superb sense of setting, and A Taste for Death is one the best stories 

of contemporary London I know of. (Devices and Desires, set around a nuclear 

plant in Norfolk, is a near-second favorite.) 

         ---In the stories about Inspector Wexford, Ruth Rendell tones down some of her 

fascination with abnormal psychology and centers the action in a believable English 

middle-class community, Kingsmarkham, which has given her later books great 

emotional force. In Simisola, when the daughter of a black professional family goes 

missing, the indelicate cards of race and class get thrown in. Though Rendell quietly 

pulls off an extraordinary stunt—we don’t know the meaning of the title until the next-to- 

last line of the book—what stays with you is the author’s very moving handling of 

violence and loss. 

         ---Following in this vein—contemporary mystery writers moving from their good 

but more conventional earlier works to books of much fuller characterizations and deeper, more somber tone—Reginald Hill has gone from the enjoyable earlier Dalziel and Pascoe mysteries to On Beulah Height, which has an intricate plot and good-size cast but which is given depth by the characters’ rounded emotional and family lives, an eerie setting (a drowned village) and a sense of moral urgency in the threat of the return of a serial killer. Be warned that it’s not cheerful—by the end of the book you know what it is to lose a child, and it ends with an emotionally wrenching dream sequence—but neither does it have the nastiness and psychosexual weirderies that have marred so much of, say, Elizabeth George or Minette Walters. (If you want cheerful, backtrack to Hill’s earlier and deliriously funny Pictures of Perfection.) 

       ---From the golden age my recommendation goes to Gaudy Night, which Dorothy Sayers thought the best of her novels. It’s the third of the four books (after Strong Poison and Have His Carcase and before the amusing postscript Busman's Honeymoon) of Lord Peter Wimsey’s romantic pursuit of Harriet Vane, herself a mystery writer. Harriet takes center stage in this one, and what makes it a perfect tie-up—a blending of theme and plot no one’s ever quite pulled off again—is that in order to solve the mystery she must also confront the obstacles to her romance with Wimsey. Even the setting becomes part of the plot: Oxford (with an attendant cast of female dons as eccentric as Oxford ever in real life produced) as the Cloud Cuckooland where passion and scholarship fight it out in heaven. It’s a supreme comedy with a surprising emotional kick in the solution: Sayers must have hugged herself when she pulled this one off. 

       ---Another supreme comedy, in fact one of the funniest books I’ve ever read, is The

Glimpses of the Moon, the last novel by Edmund Crispin. Crispin wrote his mysteries about Gervase Fen, the Oxford don-detective, up through the fifties and then, after twenty-five years of silence, delivered this last lunatic stroke. There’s a perfectly good mystery plot in there, of course, but there’s also Old Gobbo, a tune-deaf cavalry major who’s afraid of horses, the man from SWEB, Titty and Tatty Bale, the Botticelli, an unpredictable power station called The Pisser, a climactic chase worthy of Mack Sennett and the far-flying scattershot of Fen’s (and Crispin’s) witty remarks. If you have a susceptibility to British humor at all, I guarantee this one. Crispin’s Buried for Pleasure and The Long Divorce are also pretty spectacular. 

        Okay, that’s twelve novels, not five, but really, please. No one expects the Spanish Inquisition.

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