Sep 01 2008
Or: The Great Beach Read, 2008
Or: Reading Genre Fiction So You Don’t Have To, Part I
I have always liked mysteries, particularly as summer reading. But I haven’t read extensively in the genre, and am unfamiliar with some of the most popular authors. I especially enjoy stories featuring female detectives, and this gave the idea for the Mysterious Summer Challenge 2008: in the three weeks left to me before fall quarter starts here, I will read as many of the popular female mystery authors writing about female detectives as possible. The good, the bad, the ugly: I’ll down 6 dollar paperbacks acquired at the chain bookstores or 50-cent paperbacks acquired at the library booksale, and I will report back to you, my faithful readers, on who’s worth reading and who’s worth recycling. Happily, this will also satisfy my craving for lightweight reading, which is my reward for finishing my own completely dull and un-mysterious book.
I started off with two of my favorite novelists in any genre, not just mysteries: Dorothy Sayers and P.D. James. These two were not, in fact, part of the original plan, but I happened to read them in succession, inspiring me to take on this challenge, and as the two historical queens of crime I leave them as a foundation for everything that has come afterwards.
Series: The Lord Peter Wimsey stories — a scant dozen novels and a handful of short stories
Style: drawing-room crime detection set in 1920s London, generally involving cases of bodies in bathtubs and missing jewels. Slyly humorous — Lord Peter is master of a good quip — and generally good-natured, in the way of Bertie Wooster’s world. Things are not always pleasant — Lord Peter himself served his time in the war — but people, by and large, are alright.
Detective: Lord Peter Wimsey, the debonaire and brilliant drawling member of the aristocracy, and his wife Harriet Vane
Sayers is widely acknowledged as an early queen of crime, and has herself been a role model for smart, academic women for decades. Not only did she have a successful career at Oxford, as one of the first women to be awarded a degree there, but was a successful commercial writer, a skilled poet and translator, and — most importantly for our purposes — was the creator of Harriet Vane and Lord Peter Wimsey, a totally unconventional and endearing duo. Lord Peter featured in more stories than Harriet did — and very good stories they are, too, brilliantly written, cleverly plotted, and smart — but my heart lies with Vane, the no-nonsense partner of Lord Peter, who writes novels for a living and refuses to marry Peter (despite his getting the murder charges against her dropped and his ability to lift her out of poverty) until she is convinced both of what she wants and that he wants her for who she is. Harriet doesn’t dress up, doesn’t take crap from anyone, and doesn’t let anything interfere with her work, though it’s difficult sometimes. She is not generally the detective in the Wimsey books (except in Gaudy Night, my favorite of all of them) but the stories would be incomplete without her. I have read the Wimsey books over several times, and every time there is an ache that there aren’t more of them.
Who: P.D. James
Series: The Adam Dalgliesh series (and the two Cordelia Gray novels)
Style: Serious crime detection and police procedural, set in contemporary England
Detective: Adam Dalgliesh, Cordelia Gray, and Kate Miskin, among others
James, who has won a good number of honors and a life peerage for her work, writes astoundingly well but her books always depress me. Dalgliesh, the poetry-writing high-ranking detective, is interesting (and handsome) but a very private man, and the reader has to work hard as James lets slip a piece of his character here and there. I have always liked the two Cordelia Gray novels, featuring the novice Gray as a private detective, better; and in the Dalgliesh books I have always been most intrigued with Detective Kate Miskin, who pulled herself up from being a beat cop from council housing to being a detective, and who still struggles with her history. James’ books are intricately plotted and engrossing, and very true to modern life, every detail recorded as if with a sharp camera, but there is no humor in them, and little faith in humanity. James’ villains are depressing precisely because they are so very human — people who make bad choices, are carried away by revenge or love, do the wrong thing. James explores the hearts and minds of both her (sometimes twisted and sometimes simply lost) villains and the detectives themselves, and the combination is unsettling. There is no separation, as in earlier detection fiction, of the people who commit the crimes and the rest of us, and everything is starkly realistic. I enjoy the books and think they are very good, but they always give me nightmares afterwards.
These two authors were already familiar to me — and are widely acknowledged as classics, anyway — but now it’s time to move onto the sordid ground of paperbacks: what do those modern women in modern crime fiction do, anyway?
To come: reviews of the Kate Martinelli books, by Laurie King; the Stephanie Plum books, by Janet Evanovich; the Temperance Brennan books, by Kathy Reichs; and the Kinsey Milhone books, by Sue Grafton (for which I suffered through good-natured teasing for even buying! The things I do for science).
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