What mystery novels do you recommend?
March 8, 2005 11:07 AM   Subscribe

Solve This! I love mystery novels and have a hard time finding some that I like. What do you recommend?

To give you some frame of reference as to my literary tastes, I revel in the works of P.D. James, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and Wilkie Collins, am indifferent to Ian Rankin's books, and avoid Agatha Christie's and Anne Perry's respective oeuvres like the plague.
posted by orange swan to Writing & Language (35 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I've been enjoying Van de Wetering's Amsterdam cops series. I just recently finished Hard Rain and it was fantastic, a good mix of brooding philosophy about human nature and old-fashioned suspense.
posted by vacapinta at 11:15 AM on March 8, 2005

I'm not normally a mystery reader, and these aren't my cliche of a mystery novel (i.e. there's no detective type character trying to solve the mystery) but I really liked An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears and Affinity and Fingersmith by Sarah Waters.
posted by duck at 11:20 AM on March 8, 2005

I like Dorothy Sayers; in fact I just finished rereading all her stuff. Classic 1920s & 30s brit mysteries. Ngaio Marsh and Marjorie Allingham are in the same genre. I like them all better than Christie, but there are similarities, so YMMV. I second the recommendation for Van de Wetering; he's great.
posted by mygothlaundry at 11:26 AM on March 8, 2005

I recently discovered Ruth Rendell. An excellent starting point would be her novel Judgment in Stone. Her books aren't as "old-timey" (for want of a better word) as those by the authors you mention, but they're worth a look. She's the kind of author whose works are sometimes shelved in mysteries and sometimes in literature, if that prods you in one direction or another. She also writes under the name Barbara Vine.
posted by scratch at 11:31 AM on March 8, 2005

Lately, my favorite mystery novels are in the Contemporary British style, which eschews brilliant amateurs in favor of professional cops and blends police procedure with intellectual puzzle. Some of my favorite series characters are Peter Lovesey's Inspector Diamond, Reginald Hill's Dalziel & Pascoe, Colin Dexter's Inspector Morse, and Ruth Rendell's Inspector Wexford. The most acclaimed author in this style is P.D. James, but I find her tedious.

Also, I've just discovered Ian Rankin and his Edinburgh-set John Rebus mysteries. Fleshmarket Alley is terrific.

Genre I've had enough of : brilliant serial killers playing cat and mouse with the police.
posted by barjo at 11:32 AM on March 8, 2005

Whoops, I missed your "more inside" -- otherwise, I wouldn't have recommended Rankin and dissed PDJ. Sorry.
posted by barjo at 11:42 AM on March 8, 2005

Have you ever read Rebecca? It's an all-time favorite. Though it's not a conventional sleuth-solving-a-crime, there are mysteries aplenty.
posted by agropyron at 11:48 AM on March 8, 2005

Hey, tastes differ. The funny thing about P.D. James is that although I enjoy reading her books I can never remember the plots and all her books tend to blur together in my mind - I can understand why she wouldn't be for everyone.

Great suggestions so far, thanks. I haven't even heard of many of these authors.
posted by orange swan at 11:48 AM on March 8, 2005

Oh, and yes agrpyron, I consider Daphne du Maurier to be the mistress of suspense, and just re-read Rebecca this past weekend.
posted by orange swan at 11:51 AM on March 8, 2005

For something entirely different, might I suggest the Judge Dee books, translated by Robert Van Gulik? Murder mysteries set in China hundreds of years ago. Absolutely brilliant.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 11:52 AM on March 8, 2005

You might want to give Patricia Highsmith a try. An absolute master of psychological suspense, she will often presents mysteries -criminal or non-criminal- from within. A guaranteed page turner of top literary quality. A truly significant writer.
posted by magullo at 12:01 PM on March 8, 2005

I'll third Van de Wetering and second Reginald Hill. You may also want to have a go at Stephen Booth and the late Joseph Hansen.
posted by thomas j wise at 12:22 PM on March 8, 2005

You might like Peter Robinson's Inspector Banks series. There's a relatively inexpensive omnibus of the first three novels available. It would be made even less expensive if you'd like to borrow my copy.

Of course, I consider Ian Rankin's Rebus novels to be the finest example of the form, so you might take my advice with a grain of salt.
posted by jacquilynne at 12:24 PM on March 8, 2005

I really, really agree with vacapinta about the Amsterdam Cops. I've not read one that I did not like. Right now Van Wetering is published in the US by SOHO books, and I have like other of thier mysteries as well. (They also look good.)

I also think that Michael Connely is one of the best mystery writers working. He has a series about a detective named Harry Bosch and some stand alone books. They're all set in LA and make good use of it.
posted by OmieWise at 12:43 PM on March 8, 2005

I really enjoyed both of Mo Hayder's books. Some parts were a bit graphic, but wholly kept my interest.

If you are not looking for strictly Brit style authors/characters, I would also recommend Carol O'Connell and Laurie King (although I am unmoved by her series in which the protagonist is the wife/paramour of Sherlock Holmes).
posted by sillygit at 12:45 PM on March 8, 2005

I'm not a huge fan of mysteries in general, but Minette Walters' first few books were excellent.
posted by sauril at 12:57 PM on March 8, 2005

her series in which the protagonist is the wife/paramour of Sherlock Holmes


Sorry, it just drives me crazy when some writer tries to exploit another writer's work. Susan Hill, you shameless, talentless hack, I'm looking at you.
posted by orange swan at 1:04 PM on March 8, 2005

there's an interesting review in the london rev of books that i'm reading (which is 20 jan 2005 - post takes a while to get here!) of "the oxford murders" by guillermo martinez. it sounds like an interesting read - a good balance of action and "philosophy". unfortunately, i can't find the review on their web site, but you might consider it (i've decided it looks good enough for me to read it in spanish, which i do only if it looks really interesting, since it hurts).
posted by andrew cooke at 1:31 PM on March 8, 2005

Mystery novels are my favourite form of work-avoidance, and by now I must have read practically the entire canon of Golden Age detective fiction (as well as a good deal of later stuff), so this is a question after my own heart.

Among the classics: Dorothy L. Sayers (The Nine Tailors and Gaudy Night are generally reckoned the best); Margery Allingham (More Work for the Undertaker, The Tiger in the Smoke); Ngaio Marsh (Death in Ecstasy, Died in the Wool); Michael Innes (The Secret Vanguard or Operation Pax if you like thrillers, Death at the President's Lodging or Hamlet, Revenge if you like whodunits). Other personal favourites include Christianna Brand (Green for Danger, Death in High Heels), John Dickson Carr (The Hollow Man, classic locked-room mystery), Josephine Tey (Miss Pym Disposes, The Franchise Affair), J.C. Masterman (An Oxford Tragedy), Hilda Lawrence (Death of a Doll). Many of these are in print, but some you may have to get secondhand (all the titles I have mentioned should be easy to find on ABE).

Among the moderns: P.D. James you have already mentioned (personally I think her early novels are excellent but her later novels are disappointingly self-indulgent); Ruth Rendell (Talking to Strange Men, The Lake of Darkness, and as 'Barbara Vine', A Fatal Inversion, The House of Stairs). Rendell is far and away the best English mystery novelist writing today; she really knows how to ratchet up the suspense, and the Barbara Vine novels, which generally have more psychological depth to them, are (in my opinion) considerably better than most of the novels that get onto the Booker Prize shortlist. Ian Rankin is getting repetitive, but you might try some of the earlier Rebus novels, particularly Black and Blue which I think is his best. Colin Watson (gently parodic English small-town police procedurals) deserves to be better known. Colin Dexter I detest (the TV adaptations are great but the original novels are terrible).

On preview: if you like Daphne du Maurier, you certainly ought to try the Barbara Vine novels.
posted by verstegan at 1:37 PM on March 8, 2005 [4 favorites]

I'm not big on crime lit, but I was thoroughly captivated by 120 Rue de la Gare by Léo Malet (which Amazon manages to list as "Léo Malet"), first by the graphic novel by the great Tardi, then by the novel itself. Set in France during WWII, it follows Nestor Burma of the Fiat Lux Agency, who is a detective of the hard-boiled kind, yet also something of an idealistic dreamer.

The novel brilliantly evokes the period and setting in way which reminded me of The Third Man (Graham Greene's story, equally the film), which, when I think about it, is also a mystery novel, and one I would warmly recommend.

Malet is big in France, but disappointingly rare elsewhere; you may be forced to get it through a shops uch as abebooks.com. In fact, I just noticed ABE has a special section on mystery novels.
posted by gentle at 1:42 PM on March 8, 2005

I like a certain kind of mystery, and for my dollar Gregory McDonald is one of my best bets. I've read all of his Fletch books - and am waiting for the chance to crack into the Flynn ones. Can't go wrong with Dashiell Hammet - naturally - and I've never been wowed by they mystery part of one of Steven Saylor's mysteries, the setting is top notch. (Ancient Rome) Though it never gets press as one, the Harry Potter books (the first one especially) are mysteries at heart.
posted by absalom at 2:22 PM on March 8, 2005

Excellent post by verstegan. I can only add that if you're interested in a quick way to catch several different ones, a friend who knows of my Sherlock Holmes fancy bought me The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes. It's a collection of stories from the same time frame as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's works. Might give you a good springboard to other authors. I found the collection to be a mixed bag (as might be expected) but several were pretty good. Here's a review (not by me).
posted by Dallasfilm at 2:22 PM on March 8, 2005

Patricia Cornwell. Her earlier works are generally speaking, a lot better than her later stuff (IMHO). I recommend starting with her first novel, Postmortem.
posted by invisible ink at 2:24 PM on March 8, 2005

Unless I missed it no one mentioned Henning Mankell, a Swedish mystery writer, and his character "Detective Kurt Wallender"--his books are simply the best of the best--wonderfully complex characters, thoroughly human protagonists and tales of morality without being the least righteous. As a serious mystery reader I can not say enough good things about Mankell--good luck and good reading
posted by rmhsinc at 2:25 PM on March 8, 2005

You name three giants in your question, they are hard acts to follow. I wish I could point you in the direction of a forgotten genius who could join their ranks but I haven't found one yet. Instead, I can only offer a few recent reads, different in style, period and atmosphere perhaps, but I enjoyed them as I do the writers you name. Recently I have enjoyed Caleb Carr's "The Alienist" and "The Angel of Darkness" which have a period feel and hints of Collins and Conan Doyle. Lawrence Block has written a huge number of novels, I have enjoyed every one I have read so far, the "Bernie Rhodenbarr" series may have some of what you're looking for, although they are pretty short, read in an afternoon novels. Alan Furst writes novels about minor players in WWII which are particularly intelligent and interesting, and John Lawton's Troy series, set in 40's and 50's London are pretty good too. I also really like Robert Littell's novels, though I am drifting pretty far from the era and genre I assume you prefer by now.

Incidentally, the sites I have linked under Caleb Carr and John Lawton may have some other gems, I just found them on a Google search for a listing of their novels and have bookmarked them for further exploration myself.
posted by aisforal at 2:32 PM on March 8, 2005

Travis McGee gets my vote.
posted by darkmatter at 3:36 PM on March 8, 2005 [1 favorite]

Painfully obvious choice, but not mentioned yet: some of my favorite mysteries are Raymond Chandler's Phillip Marlowe books (I've read the first four. I've heard at least one of the later books is a mess.) I've also like Bill Pronzini's "Nameless Detective" series. And John Dunning's Booked to Die.

I also like Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum series and Sparkle Hayter's Robin Hudson series, but they're very different books -- the humor is more important than the mystery.
posted by Zed_Lopez at 5:05 PM on March 8, 2005

I don't believe anyone has mentioned my all-time favorite mystery series: The Nero Wolfe stories by Rex Stout.

These were written from the early 30's to the mid 70's, and to mind anyway, create a genuinely believable world of their own, and are endlessly re-readable.

There have been a few, in my opinion lame, attempts at filming and televising these stories over the years... if you've seen these and not liked them, you should really give the books a chance.
posted by JeffL at 5:30 PM on March 8, 2005

I'm reading "Skinny Dip" by Carl Hiassen now, typically great, and same for anything by Elmore Leonard IMO. A less known (but not by me since we went to school together for 8 years) though well-regarded (awards, sales) American writer is Harlan Coben. His first six books are a series of comic mysteries featuring a sports agent who was a first round NBA draft pick but blew his knee out in rookie preseason and went on to law school and FBI before the current gig. Each book one of his clients, in a different sport, gets into some trouble which he (of course) resolves. His last few books have been completely different, not funny at all, though still quite good; his next, "The Innocent", is out next month. Orange Swan, given your initial post, I would say the latter set would be more appealing unless you want a good laugh with your puzzle.
posted by billsaysthis at 5:47 PM on March 8, 2005

I quite enjoyed Edmund Crispin's The Moving Toyshop, but it is a little goofy if that puts you off.
posted by PinkStainlessTail at 8:38 PM on March 8, 2005

In my opinion much of the above is crap. Take Janet Evonovich-- light hearted crap-- she used to be a romance novalist and it shows. Cornwell is Queen of the serial murderer taunting the police genre. Hiassen is funny but not necessarily mysterious. Pronzoni is a hack. Etc, etc.

The best is Dorothy Sayers for flat out writing ability (If you ever want to read Dante, she did a "hell" of a translation.) Read Ruth Rendell for sheer mystery (especially her Barbara Vine novels.) And for page-turning psychological suspense read Minette Walters.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 8:41 PM on March 8, 2005

She only wrote four books before she died, but Sarah Caudwell's mysteries are light, crackling and satirical. Also, the Edward Gorey covers.
posted by zadcat at 1:48 AM on March 9, 2005

Not straight detective novels, but some of Iain Banks (non-SF) novels are really about people trying to unravel a mystery, perhaps try The Crow Road for starters.
posted by biffa at 3:39 AM on March 9, 2005

The best is Dorothy Sayers for flat out writing ability

I adore Dorothy Sayers, but think Tey is a better writer, especially after her first book, which is a bit rocky. Odds are excellent that you will like her stuff. Verstegan has covered most of what I would suggest (and some more, too, which I'll have to check out), but I'd also recommend Peter Dickinson, if you aren't averse to more contemporary and slightly off-kilter mysteries. Those starring Inspector Pibble are particularly notable because they are perfectly fair classic English mysteries that also serve as character studies of the tired, disgruntled Pibble, while simultaneously inventing wholly spurious but entirely believable cultures and subcultures that serve as the books' MacGuffins. Unfortunately many of his mysteries are out of print, but you should be able to get some at the library. Sleep and his Brother is probably my favorite.
posted by redfoxtail at 5:27 AM on March 9, 2005

I much enjoyed Isaac Asimov's "A Whiff of Death" and Michael Crichton's "A Time to Kill." Both are very scientifically-based mysteries.
posted by ikkyu2 at 9:03 PM on March 9, 2005

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