Saturday, January 11, 2014

It Was a Dark and Stormy Afternoon

When she sat down to right a blog post about her favorite mystery series.

Seriously, it's noon here in the Pacific Northwest; I'm sitting in the room with picture windows on two sides, and I just had to turn the lights on. 

Why a mystery review on this adoption blog?  Well, the other night I had dinner with my sister.  It was the anniversary of our mom's death four years ago (four years?  how?) and Sister's life is falling apart, and she said she needed something to read, and I started talking mysteries, and she wound up pulling a pen and a receipt out of her purse to take notes.  Because I have a lot to say on the topic. 

It started in my childhood with Nancy Drew, Trixie Belden, and Alfred Hitchcock's Three Investigators.  Then when I was ten, the same sister got me going on Agatha Christie as I was recovering from appendicitis, and from there I moved to Dorothy  Sayers, Barbara Pym, and eventually Ellis Peters' Brother Cadfael series, Sue Grafton, Martha Grimes, and Anne Perry's Victorian mysteries.  All of these eventually got...old.  (Well, finding out that the young Anne Perry helped murder her best friend's mom may have influenced my disenchantment with her.)  I've read dozens of mystery series, and there are several that I like and will continue to read as long as the author keeps them coming.  There are a few mystery writers, however, that I really believe are elevated beyond genre, and are among my very favorite authors overall.  These are, in order that I discovered them, Reginald Hill, Elizabeth George, and Tana French

Reginald Hill's series is based in Yorkshire.  He writes about a classic odd couple, the vulgar, boisterous Superintendent"Fat Andy" Dalziel and the educated, self-aware Sergeant Peter Pascoe.  (Actually, in researching spelling just now I found out that Mr. Hill DIED last year, which means there will be NO MORE Dalziel and Pascoe. I am heartbroken.  What a depressing turn of events.  Further research indicates that the last book I read by him is indeed the last one he wrote, so there will be no more new Dalziel/Pascoe books for me.  Ever.) 

The earliest books, written in the '70s, are not as great as the latter ones.  Like season 1 of Buffy, the main benefit of slogging through them is that you understand the character's background as you move into the truly great books.  If the first ones just feel too dated to you, then I'd start with 1983's Deadheads, which was the one that first made me sit up and take notice. 

The single complaint I can come up with--and it's a stretch--is that the character's timeline is a little off.  Not as extreme as Martha Grimes, where the hero ages five years while the books move from the seventies to the nineties, but not as accurate as Sue Grafton, who covers about five years of the 1980s in her series, meaning that what started as a contemporary series now requires historical research.  Pascoe marries (his wife Ellie is a major character in her own right) and has a child, while Dalziel (no, I don't know how to say it), ages and moves towards retirement, but the child seems to grow awfully slowly. 

What makes the books great is the interactions between the characters, the way their relationship develops and changes, and the strong supporting characters (besides the fiercely feminist Ellie Peters, there's also Sgt. Wield, the ugly, gay policeman who is beautifully drawn.)  Mr. Hill is the kind of writer who plays with words and forms, including one book that's a send-up of Austen, and a short story in which actors playing the roles of Dalziel and Pascoe in a TV series get caught up in a murder mystery.  Multiple points of view.  Sleight of author's hand.  All the fun stuff you wouldn't get in your average, predictable best-seller.  He's the only author I can think of that sends me to the dictionary each time I read--because he uses words that are not only rare, but interesting enough to bother looking up.  

I must now go back and re-read all of these.  I feel like sending a condolence letter to his wife, letting her know how much I will miss him.

Elizabeth George is an American who writes very British mysteries.   Her main character is Lord Peter Whimsey Inspector Thomas Lynley, who is indeed a titled peer, but prefers to ignore that fact.  Again, recurring characters are a major reason why this series is elevated above most, although honestly, I don't care for a few of them.  There is one novel in which his best friend's wife (and his former lover) Barbara St. James spends the whole time making herself and her husband miserable over her infertility issues.  I know it hits everyone differently, but as an infertile woman myself, FOR GOD'S SAKE SHUT UP AND GET ON WITH YOUR LIFE ALREADY.   I'm also not a fan of Lynley's lovely wife Helen, which, as it turns out, is all for the best.  But I love, love, loooooove Sgt. Barbara Havers, and it sounds like the next novel features her, so yay.  The other two things to know about these mysteries are that the stand-alone features are beyond excellent.  I still find myself thinking about characters and situations from individual books.  While a series must have compelling and interesting recurring characters, very few have as compelling and heartbreaking characters in each mystery.  For the Sake of Elena, Playing for the Ashes, What Came Before He Shot Her, Deception on His Mind--okay, apparently I need to stop, because I could list about 80% of her books as examples of mysteries where the characters and situations have stuck with me.  This is not true of the vast majority of mysteries, even well-written ones.  Another thing to be aware of is that there's a lot of kinky stuff.  Ms. George sees human sexuality as a powerful motivating force for all sorts of things.  I realized this when I enthusiastically recommended this series to my Catholic brother-in-law, and then was all, "Wait, um..."  But did I mention heart-breaking?  There is a lot of sadness in these books.  The love (romantic, platonic, parental, etc.) between the recurring characters is all that keeps this from being The Most Depressing Series Ever. 

Just last summer I started reading Tana French.   She better not die soon, because she's only written three books in her Dublin Murder Squad series.  And I need more.  The first one involved a detective who, as a child, was the only one of three kids to come back out of the forest after getting lost...and neither he nor anyone else ever found out what happened that day.  He's assigned a case with eerie echoes of his own history.  The next novel features the detective who was his partner in book one.  The next one features a detective who was a major source of annoyance in book two.  This certainly keeps things fresh, and it is very interesting to get into the head of someone who was formerly observed just from the outside.  Plus, everyone cusses Irish style, which is just so dang cute. 

I realize I told you next to nothing about any of the books.  I am a firm believer in No Spoilers.  My favorite thing is to pick up a book by an author I trust and read it without even looking at the cover blurb.  I want it all to unfold like the author intended.  Unless you a) hate mysteries or b) like sweet, fluffy mysteries, I can only recommend that you give all of these authors a try.  And I'd even say a) is not a deal-breaker.  I'm no sci fi fan, but Ursula Le Guin is one of my favorite authors, you know what I'm saying? 

Argh.  Julia Spencer Fleming.  If the previous three series are my grade A's, I'd say hers are an A-.  Her main characters are a small town police chief and the female Episcopal priest who covets him.  What's not to like? 


  1. Hi there
    I can't remember how I linked to your blog...from where...some other blog I"m sure ;) I have two kids from Ethiopia--we adopted sibs. I used to have a blog but couldn't keep it up. I really appreciate reading blogs of people who have also adopted older kids and ALL that comes with it!

    As for mystery writers I too like Tana French; I'll look into the others you mentioned. I'm tired of reading books on attachment, trauma, etc. etc. Have you read any Sophie Hannah books?

    1. I have not read her books, so I just marked her first one as "want to read" on Goodreads. Thanks for that! Yes, I need some escapism to read as a break from the trauma books.
      Thank you for commenting; it does make it feel more rewarding to write when I find that someone is reading it and can relate!

    2. Oh wow, I've now read two of her books and am really enjoying them. Not easy reads, but fascinating. Thank you for the recommendation!