Tuesday, August 25, 2015

TTT: British Mysteries 101

This week, The Broke and the Bookish have picked a fun top ten theme--If you were creating a course in ___101, what books would be on the syllabus?
 By overwhelming popular demand (read: one person voted and this is what they voted for), I will now start your crash course in British Mystery Writers 101.  I'm going to be very American and ignorant here (was that redundant?), and include Irish and Scottish authors, and also books written by Americans but set in England.  All images were taken from Goodreads.

1.  We shall start our course with Wilkie Collins, a contemporary of Dickens.  Born in London in 1824, Collins was a very popular novelist at the time.  These days, he is mainly remembered for his prototype mysteries, which could also be considered ghost stories or melodramatic novels.  The Moonstone is perhaps more famous, but I love The Woman in White, published in 1860.  Both are delightfully Victorian.  Collins died in 1889.  
2.  Skipping right over Sherlock Holmes, who did nothing for me until Cumberbatch and Freeman came along, the next author I'd like to introduce you to is Josephine Tey.  Born Elizabeth Mackintosh in Inverness, Scotland, the author known as Tey lived from 1856-1922.  She wrote a short mystery series--well, short by mystery standards--that feature the same detective, but the books can be read independently of each other.  Her books have a humor and sophistication missing in most early 20th century mysteries.  One of my favorites is Brat Farrar, about an impostor posing as a family's long-lost son and heir.  Brat Farrar came out in 1949, and has held up well over time.

3.  You can't teach a course in mysteries, let alone BRITISH mysteries, without bringing up Agatha Christie.  She was actually my first grown-up mystery writer, after a childhood of Trixie Belden, Nancy Drew, and the Three Investigators.  You already know that she's the best-selling author since Shakespeare, with the longest running play ever.  I was always fond on her Miss Marple stories, so I'll start you off with her first appearance, in the 1930 novel Murder at the Vicarage.  Christie was born in Devon in 1890 and lived until 1976, seeing a lot of change during her lifetime.  

4.  Contemporary with Christie, and writing mysteries that feature rather more in the way of character development, is Dorothy L. Sayers.  Born in Oxford in 1893, Sayers writes about a more elegant detective and milieu than most of Christie's. Lord Peter Whimsy made his debut in 1923, in Whose Body?  I found him fascinating, and he is definitely a precursor to Elizabeth George's Inspector Lynley.  The eventual introduction of writer, feminist, and scholar Harriet Vane made this series even better.  Sayers died in 1957.

5.  The first novelist on this list born in the 21st century, Ellis Peters (1915-1995) is less illustrious than most of the others I'm featuring.  Her series, about a medieval Welsh monk, doesn't necessarily stand above Elizabeth Peters' Egyptologists, Anne Perry's Victorians, or Charles Todd's WWI nurses and soldiers.  But we need a good historical mystery writer on this list, and there was a time when Brother Caedfael was a good friend of mine.  I even visited his home in Shrewsbury.  A Morbid Taste for Bones began the series in 1977.  (Besides, I remain eternally skived out by Perry's involvement in the murder of her best friend's mom when she was young.)  

6.  Reginald Hill was a contemporary of my parents.  Born in Shropshire in 1936, he died in 2012.  His early works are very much products of his time, and would have faded into oblivion if that was all he'd written, but in 1970 he wrote a mystery starring the coarse, vulgar, old-school Detective Superintendent Andy Dalziel and the college educated, enlightened Sergeant Peter Pascoe.  Their first few outings together weren't particularly remarkable, but if you catch up with them seven books along, in 1983's Deadhead, you'll be ready to follow them for nearly thirty years of growth, change, and ever more complex, literary, philosophical, witty, and humane novels.  He may have started with stock characters out of any Odd Couple fiction, but Pascoe and especially Dalziel developed into wonderfully complex and nuanced characters.  When I heard Hill had died, I grieved for the loss of these two detectives as much as for their author, who saw them through not just 24 novels, but also through several wonderful short stories, including a ghost story, some sci fi, and a surrealistic meta story about actors playing the characters on TV.  

7.  If Reginald Hill showed me how great mysteries could be, Elizabeth George proved that he wasn't the only author capable of writing like that.  Her style is very different--there's a lot more kink in her books, frankly--and I don't actually like about half of her recurring characters, which may be intentional on her part.  George is an American, born in 1949 in Ohio, but I sure can't tell from her writing.  She obviously has spent plenty of time in England and writes with confidence and authority.  Like Hill, her books stand up to re-reading, since the central mystery is only part of the story.  The inner lives of all the characters, recurring or not, are fascinating.  I still remember details from books I read years ago.  She has a knack for creating sensational situations and making them seem absolutely believable.  Oh, what does she write about?  A London murder squad headed by Inspector Lynley, a lord who refuses his title.  Detective Barbara Havers, a pudgy, belligerent, working class woman is his colleague (and my favorite character).  One of his oldest friends is, conveniently, a pathologist, and, less conveniently, married to an old flame.  Oh, and the friend is lame because of a drunk driving incident Lynley was responsible for.  And Lynley's manservant is the old flame's father.  We first meet this soap operatic cast in 1988's A Great Deliverance.  

8. Sophie Hannah was born in Manchester in 1971, making her two years younger than me, making my wonder what I'm doing with my life.  I first heard of her on an adoption blog I was working on.  Being the bookworm that I am, I couldn't help talking about books on there, and when I shared my enthusiasm for Hill, George, and the new-to-me Tana French, someone suggested trying Hannah's Little Spilling CID series.  So glad I did!  The main characters are beautifully screwed up, and the mysteries they solve are inventive and intriguing.  Starting with Little Face, in which a woman comes home from her first postpartum workout to find the WRONG BABY in her child's crib, the series gives you characters to root for while making them all deeply, humanly flawed.  

9.  I just mentioned Tana French.  She may be the best one on this list.  Maybe.  In her debut, In the Woods, a detective is called on to investigate a crime that seems a lot like a strange incident that happened to him when he was a boy.  He and a friend went into the woods, the friend never came out, and he was found dazed, bleeding, and unable to remember anything besides some sort of monster.  French was born in Vermont in 1973, but has lived in Dublin since 1990, so her Dublin Murder Squad seems very authentic.  One of my favorite aspects of this series is that instead of following the same cast around, each book features a supporting or minor character from another book.  The result is something like reading a multiple POV book, in that someone that comes across as a complete jerk from one point of view turns out to have a lot more going on once you learn their own point of view.  Also, French is the first author on this list since Collins to let a sliver of the supernatural into her stories.  They are very grounded in our world, but things happen that can't quite be explained by science.  

10.  My most recent discovery is Jane Casey, born in 1977.  Like her main character, Maeve Kerrigan, Casey was born and raised in Dublin, but makes her home in London.  Her first book, The Burning, was lots of fun, with plenty of twists and a sizzling romance.  But it was her second book, The Reckoning, that earned her a place on this list.  The romantic question more or less clear (if not settled), the subplot delved into female friendships and competition.  My main complaint about Casey is that everyone in her books is described as being gorgeous.  Really?  No ordinary people in the department?  Well, other than those nasty blokes who give Kerrigan a hard time, of course.  I expect everyone to be beautiful in a Hollywood adaptation of a book, but I hate being told I must imagine everyone as stunning when I'm reading too.  

It is, of course, impossible to include everyone relevant on a list like this, but I think if you were to read one book by each of these authors, you'd be well grounded in British Mysteries.  Go forth and detect!


  1. I love how in depth you are in explaining your reasoning behind picking certain authors I tried but didn't do so good lol! Check out my Fantasy 101 class if you'd like :D http://bookbabble.weebly.com/blog/top-ten-tuesday6

  2. I would take this class - great list! Here's my TTT list.

  3. this is a great list! and I love to be able to say that there is only two authors I haven´t read before, namely Sophie Hannah and Jane Casey. I thought of making a list of Victorian authors, but in the end I choose Japanese literature for foreigners from classics to current authors

    1. Ooh, that's certainly unique! I love how many different areas this topic encourages. I think they should repeat it again--I was also thinking of doing literature about the USSR for mine. We all have different areas of interest and expertise.

  4. Oh I love British mysteries - what a fabulous list! I would take your class :) My TTT

  5. 1,2 and 4 are favorites already. I need to read more of 3 and 5. The others are ones I have not read, but would like to! Great topic.

  6. Great topic choice. Of course I've heard of Agatha Christie, but I have yet to read something by her. I also have one of Ellis Peters books so you got me excited to give that a go some time.

  7. This looks like such an interesting read. You know your mysteries!
    Thanks for stopping by our blog :)

    Janhvi @ The Readdicts

  8. I haven't actually read any of these authors, but I love this list. I'll definitely need to check some of these out. Thanks for sharing, and for stopping by my TTT earlier. :)


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