What’s Your Favorite Mystery?

By Nancy Jane Moore

I grew up reading mysteries, starting with Nancy Drew. My grade school girlfriends and I used to trade copies around — among the three of us, we had a complete collection — and even had slumber parties (old-fashioned term for sleepovers) in which we all curled up happily with books.

By the time I hit junior high I had graduated to my mother’s collection — heavy on Rex Stout and Agatha Christie — and by high school I expanded my mystery reading to include spy stories. I read all of Ian Fleming’s James Bond books, was particularly hooked on Len Deighton’s work, and was challenged by John Le Carre, whose complex stories are not only beautifully written, but will make you think seriously about how governments do things.

My reading habits expanded significantly in college, but I discovered more good mystery authors along the way. And even as I became a serious SF/F reader, I didn’t get rid of my mystery collection — I’ve still got a huge stack around here, some of them so old and well-read that they’re falling apart and I have to be careful not to drop them or all the pages will end up out of order.

My life’s been a little stressful lately, so I’ve been using books to hide from the world whenever possible. The nice thing about reading is that it looks like you’re doing something, even when you’re reading a book for the tenth time. And because your mind is engaged, you can forget about the things you’re supposed to be doing. I think I developed this habit as a kid, because in my family reading was a good excuse for not doing other things — most of the time, anyway. It gave me privacy.

So I’ve been rooting through my mystery collection, looking for books that I haven’t re-read recently in the hope that I won’t quite remember how the story goes and also picking up my old favorites, the ones I’ve practically memorized.

Since I’m thinking about my favorite mysteries, I decided to elicit lists of yours. As with the fantasy and SF lists, this isn’t an effort to create a definitive world’s best list; it’s just a place for everyone to list their favorites.

As always, a few rules:

1. It’s possible to be a purist about mysteries, defining them as detective stories, but I’m not in the mood to subdivide genre. Mysteries, classic detective stories, thrillers, spy stories, noir — whatever you think fits.

2. We’re not leaving out the big names this week: all authors are acceptable.

3. The usual limit of ten favorites per person applies. You can list individual books, or an author’s series with a recurring character or characters, or short stories.

4. YA is OK. Or even books aimed at younger kids. If you still love Nancy Drew, flaunt it.

5. Expand our horizons. My own list is heavy on US writers, with a few UK ones thrown in. I’d like to see something different.

OK? Here’s my list to get you started:

Nicola Griffith, Always. My favorite of the Aud books.

Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey books. Especially the ones with Harriet Vane in them.

Raymond Chandler, The Long Goodbye. I love all of Chandler, but The Long Goodbye is my absolute favorite.

Dashiell Hammett, The Glass Key. I also love all of Hammett, but this one always tugs at my heart.

Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins books. I love the way they provide historical context as well as an intense story.

Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple books. I didn’t like these much as a kid, but as I grow older, I am drawn by the portrait of a highly intelligent spinster in a time and place where such women were still disdained. Of course, all of Christie’s plots were ridiculous, but that’s true of a lot of mystery stories.

Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski books. In my recent spate of mystery reading, I’ve decided Vic is an excellent depiction of a feminist of our times: tough, vulnerable, angry, outraged even though she knows the score. And I love it that the bad guys in these books are so often the powerful.

Joseph Wambaugh, The Black Marble. This is more of a love story than a detective story.

Tony Hillerman’s Navajo mysteries. Another series that gives us culture and depth along with a story.

Rudolfo Anaya’s Sonny Baca series (starts with Zia Summer). This is a perfect example of blending fantasy elements with mystery, which is probably why I like it so much.

OK. Now it’s your turn.

******************

Flashes of IlluminationFlashes of Illumination, a collection of my short-short fiction, will be released by Book View Cafe in early August. Watch for the official announcement.

My story “Gambit” appears in the new anthology No Man’s Land, now available from Dark Quest Press. You can read an excerpt on Book View Cafe.

My novella Changeling is available as an ebook through Book View Cafe. It’s a coming of age story. And it’s not about faeries.

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What’s Your Favorite Mystery? — 24 Comments

  1. No fair that you took the Wimseys, all of which I love (although Gaudy Night may be my favorite–in some odd way it always reminds me of Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin–at its heart a schools novel, but a schools novel of almost unbearable subtlety and observation.

    I’ll add:

    Laurie R. King’s Holmes-Russell books, particularly The Beekeeper’s Apprentice and A Letter of Mary. When I first heard the idea of a mate for Sherlock Holmes I wanted to run in the other direction, but King pulls of something nearly miraculous: she makes it work.

    Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. Yes, it’s a detective story (there’s a Holmsian echo in the hero
    s name–William of Baskerville–just in case you doubt it), a mystery with the nature of faith at its core.

    Jedediah Berry’s The Detection Manual, a weird, compelling fusion of mystery and world-shifting fantasy. Really cool.

    Anything by Dick Francis, former jockey and sports writer. Francis specializes in deeply competent, deeply fallible heroes…and the British racing scene, which he knew like the back of his hand. My favorites: Banker, Proof, Dead Heat and Nerve.

    The Maltese Falcon, by Dashiell Hammett. I read the book first, and then saw the classic film, so I see a different Sam Spade in my head, but I hear Bogart’s voice. The film is a remarkably faithful translation from the book (but read the book).

    Ariana Franklin’s Mistress of the Art of Death, the first in a series of books featuring a medieval pathologist who has more or less been blackmailed into serving as King Henry II’s private detective!

    I think I’ve actually mentioned more than ten books, so I’ll stop now.

  2. I’m rather fond of Steven Havill’s Posadas County mysteries. I don’t entirely believe Undersheriff Reyes-Guzman as she’s a bit too good to be true, but I do enjoy the books so my suspension of disbelief is at a pretty high level.

    Havill had me in the first book of his I read, in which Bill Gastner (the soon-to-retire protagonist of his first several books) lumbers on stage and one of the townspeople tells hiim he should arrest the bycyclist who’s wandering around town apparently without means of support, and Bill Gastner says, There’s nothing illegal about riding your bicycle through town, leave the guy alone.

    Or words to that effect.

    Also fond of King, George, Leon, Paretsky, Francis, Barr; but I seldom see Havill mentioned so I thought I’d toss his name into the mix.

    Vonda

  3. I read fewer mysteries than I think I probably should, but among those:

    Nevada Barr, especially Blind Descent – lost in a cave system without a light…

    Lillian Jackson Braun, all the Cat Who books. I can’t help it, I have a weakness for Siamese.

    Thomas Harris, The Silence of the Lambs, though less for its mystery qualities than the characterization. (Hannibal too, but there’s not much real mystery about whodunit in that one….)

    Ian Fleming, In Her Majesty’s Service

    And Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Hound of the Baskervilles is what I remember to be my actual introduction to the genre (followed shortly by many of his others).

    Running a bit dry– Hammett, Chandler, Paretsky, definitely.

  4. Another vote for Lord Peter and Harriet – Have His Carcase being my favourite.

    And for Sara Paretsky’s superb VI Warshawski series.

    And Umbert Eco too.

    As for Agatha Christie – even though, IMO, her writing didn’t stand comparison with the divine Dorothy L – her plotting was both brilliant and innovative. Having the murderer be the narrator, and having characters you were certain were dead suddenly appear again, amazed this teenage reader.

    PD James is well worth reading. The Black Tower is one of my favourites.

    Jeffery Deaver is probably the trickiest writer around today. He can convince the reader that x is the murderer and then crush that belief in the last chapter.

    Edith Pargeter deserves a mention for the superb Brother Cadfael, but her Inspector Felse books should be avoided like the plague.

    Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch novels are excellent. As is Ian Rankin’s Rebus novels.

    Colin Dexter Inspector Morse complete my 10.

  5. I am going to skate past all the classics of the genre (THE NINE TAILORS) and point to one of the perfect blends of mystery and alternate history, KING AND JOKER by Peter Dickinson. In which a totally different descendant of Victoria is ruling England, and his daughter Princess Louise digs through secrets past and present. Dickinson only wrote one sequel to this, darn it — I could have happily devoured another dozen. When the unlucky Diana of Wales died, I wanted to email him and urge him to write more, so that we would have some stable and normal royals to read about.

  6. ditto on Dorothy L. Sayers.

    Josephine Tey, especially BRAT FARRAR and THE DAUGHTER OF TIME

    ditto the Brother Cadfael books

    To move on to living writers . . .
    ditto PD James

    Lindsey Davis, author of the Marcus Didius Falco mysteries set in ancient Rome. Start with SILVER PIGS.

    S J Rozan, who writes the Lydia Chin/Bill Smith mysteries. She does something interesting in that her two detectives are partners, a young Chinese-American woman and an older white man, and the books are all first person but alternate between Bill and Lydia’s POV. Start with CHINA TRADE, the first.

  7. I agree with most everything said so far.

    Special ditto Edith Pargeter and Ariana Franklin. I just started “Mistress of the Art of Death” and am thoroughly hooked.

    Sharan Newman’s Catherine Le Vendeur mysteries, historical France in the time of Abelard and Heloise.

    Madeline Alt is my current favorite cozy mystery author. It changes with my mood and ability to think. Most cozies I’ll give at least 1 read. They are my popcorn books, guilty pleasures.

  8. There’s a lovely new writer, Wendy Clinch, who writes ski mysteries (Double Black is her first) and I look forward to more from her.

    Laura Crum’s novels are excellent combinations of horse world and detective fiction.

    Dick Francis.

  9. All of you have named already many of my favorites, including P.D. James.

    Elizabeth George’s Havers and Lynnly titles, at least up to Lynnley’s marriage, when Havers is edged out of the stories — it’s the working class Havers and all huge troubles that she’s got to cope with due to lack of money. Her observations about her work partner, who is wealthy and an aristo, her conflicts with him, their loyalties to each, providing almost a relief from the troubles in their personal lives — I loved these books.

    James Lee Burke’s earlier Robicheaux and Cletus novels set in New Orleans; the books are less likely after they move out to Lafayette parish, and are so much older — no way can they take the physical punishment they absorb now. But the sheer crazy evil of the place, its tentacles back-and-forth to Miami, and back in time — plus the unspeakable beauty of the worlds there so rapidly and coldbloodedly despoiled for the profit of a few — brilliant stuff.

    Barabara Hambly’s Benjamin January novels in 1830′ – 1840’s New Orleans, the earlier ones, anyway.

    Donna Leon’s Commissario Guido Brunetti mysteries set in Venice.

    Alan Furst’s spy thrillers of lead up to WWII and the early years of the War.

    Lee Child’s earlier Jack Reacher suspense series — by now the formula is pat.

    Carol O’Connell’s Mallory series, featuring a very strange protagonist indeed — who hails from Louisiana, we learn in one of the volumes.

    C.S. Harris’s Sebastian St. Cyr novels — 18th century London – early Napoleonic era; the author lives in New Orleans. She went through Katrina but doesn’t write about it.

    Ann Perry’s series — early and middle periods.

    Ellis Peters / Edith Pargeter’s Cadfael series.

    Love, C.

  10. Oops, I forgot one of my biggest favorites — how could I?????

    Leonardo Padura’s Las cuatro estaciones (The Four Seasons) series, featuring lieutenant Mario Conde, a member of the Havana police force. There is nothing about these novels not to like, other than they deal with the most fortunate and powerful members of Havana’s elite, and though the religions are there, black people and their culture, by and large are not. But Padura still lives in Havana, and, he is a very good writer.

    Love, C.

  11. What Brenda Said about King and Joker, by Peter Dickinson — terrific book. Dickenson also has a mystery series (main character is Inspector Jimmy Pibble), the first of which is The Glass-Sided Ant’s Nest. Which was his first novel.

    Jamie Harrison has a short series of mysteries set in Blue Deer, Montana, which I loved. I heard she was working on another book in the series, but if it’s out I sure can’t find it.

    Liza Cody has a new book out: http://www.lizacody.com/

    She has two (slightly overlapping) series, both of which are well worth reading.

    V.

  12. Eco’s The Name of the Rose, no doubt. It’s the only one I’ve read twice. But I might give And Then There Were None by Christie another read one day, too.

  13. Vonda, do you know Robin McKinley, Dickinson’s spouse? We must get him to write another Princess Louise book before it’s too late; maybe she can pass an email on to him.

  14. I own a fair number of mysteries, as befits someone who forty-something years later still indulges in occasional nostalgia visits to Nancy Drew, Beverly Gray, and the Girl Scout Mystery Series. However, grown-up mysteries have this nasty tendency to splatter people over the landscape, plus the reread quotient of those I can stomach is low if the only focus is on solving the mystery. This may therefore be an odd list….

    Nancy Atherton, Aunt Dimity’s Death/Aunt Dimity and the Duke. (Ultimate cozy; no murders necessary)
    Ellis Peters, Brother Cadfael series
    Amanda Cross, Kate Fansler series
    Madeleine L’Engle, Canon Tallis series*
    Elizabeth Peters, Amelia Peabody series and others, notably The Summer of the Dragon (with copious cheese and chocolate)
    Jasper Fforde, Thursday Next series
    Andrew Greeley, Lord of the Dance
    Anne George, Southern Sisters series
    Margaret Maron, Deborah Knott series

    *not officially grown-up, but I avoided The Young Unicorns until college because of the lads with switchblades on the cover.

  15. I love that every list had at least one of my favorite authors or books.

    Here is my 10 (ie I will read and reread)

    Sayers Gaudy Night
    Tey’s Brat Farrar
    Laurie King’s Russel-Holmes series
    Deborah Crombie’s James-Kinkaid series
    Dana Stabnow’s Kate Shugak series
    Abigail Padgett’s Bo Bradley series
    Tony Hillerman’ series
    Margaret Maron’s series
    Van de Wetering’s Gripstra and de Gier Dutch mysteries
    Nevada Barr’s series

    Oh, how this makes me want to pull one of these books off the shelf right now and read it.

    M. Louisa Locke
    author of Maids of Misfortune: A Victorian San Francisco Mystery

  16. No one has mentioned the British Bill Slider mysteries by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles. Complete with puns and wordplay.

    Or Peter Robinson’s Inspector Banks series. More suspense than police procedural, but character-rich.

  17. Others have already mentioned Amanda Cross, Andrew Greeley, Laurie R. King, and Elizabeth Peters (as much as I like Amelia, my favorite Peters sleuth is librarian/writer Jacqueline Kirby).

    To those I’d add:

    J. S. Borthwick: the Sarah Deane mysteries, beginning with The Case of the Hook-Billed Kites. There are a surprising number of cozy series set in Maine; this one, for me, does perhaps the best job of balancing appealing protagonists with solid plotting.

    P. M. Carlson: specifically, her Maggie Ryan/Nick O’Connor mysteries, beginning with Audition for Murder. Maggie is a student and statistician, Nick’s a stage actor, and the 1970s/’80s period setting is evoked with deliberate care.

    Michael Kurland: I mention Kurland mostly for his “Moriarty” series (yes, that Moriarty, and these I like infinitely better than John Gardner’s take) beginning with The Infernal Device, but he’s also made a couple of credible posthumous additions to Randall Garrett’s “Lord Darcy” series.

    Emma Lathen: the John Putnam Thatcher mysteries, beginning with Accounting for Murder. Lathen (a pen name for a pair of Wall Street career women) made high finance entertaining and delivered devious whodunits at the same time. An older series, but not so dated as you might think now.

    Mary Monica Pulver: Murder at the War (sometimes found as Knightfall), a first-rate mystery set with extremely convincing detail at the SCA’s annual Pennsic War. Pulver produced several good sequels to that volume, then was briefly half of “Margaret Frazer” (the Sister Frevisse medieval mysteries) and now writes cozies as Monica Ferris. All these are quite good, but Murder at the War is a classic of its kind.

    Robert van Gulik: the Judge Dee mysteries, set in T’ang dynasty China, whose protagonist is based on an actual historical figure. These are police procedurals, fascinating both for the plots and for the period setting.

  18. My wife is the real mystery reader in the house, but I have a couple of loves. She got me hooked on Laura Lippman’s Tess Monaghan mysteries. That was an easy sell based on my having gone to college in Baltimore. I second the vote for Donna Leon’s Commisario Brunetti series, having discovered the first book myself shortly after we honeymooned in Italy, including a few days in Venice. I’ve also read a couple of David Liss’s historical mysteries.

    And, most importantly, I really enjoyed Phyllis Irene Radford’s “Lacing Up for Murder”, available right here from the BVC! 😎

  19. In addition to a lot of the authors mentioned above, let me recommend Jane Langton.

  20. As a child, my favorite was Trixie Belden. Later on, I would say Sherlock Holmes, Dorothy L. Sayers, Sue Grafton, Margaret Maron (Deborah Knott series), PD James, Colin Dexter, Sara Paretsky, Ruth Rendell, Ian Rankin, and Elizabeth Peters.

  21. Lots of Sayers readers here, I see. I think I’d have said Gaudy Night was my favorite, but I’m also very fond of Have His Carcase and Murder Must Advertise. I once had a conversation with someone who said there were two types of Sayers fans: those who liked the Harriet Vane stories and those who liked the complex puzzles. I fall firmly into the Vane camp; I gather the puzzle fans favor Nine Tailors.

    And I didn’t think of Name of the Rose as mystery, though of course it is.

    As usual, the makings of a lovely reading list here, including some authors I hadn’t heard of.

  22. its great to not be the first to comment-probably 20 of my favorites have already been mentioned, so i feel like i’m getting to pick 30. Robert Barnard, especially the Charlie Peace ones, Edmund Crispin, Cyril Hare, Reginald Hill, Michael Gilbert, Michael Innes, Rita Mae Brown(the Jefferson Hunt ones, even though her pack always has a great day), and I fiind the no.1 ladies detective agency books very restful. Also michael chabon Yiddish Policeman Union and could i get away with dorothy dunnetts lymond books?

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