Let's solve a mystery (novel)!
September 7, 2010 9:52 AM   Subscribe

I want to read fun books like what I read when I was young.

Yep, yet another book recommendation question.

I'm a graduate student studying literature, and so much of my time is spent reading. I'm trying to find some books that I can read to unwind and relax, that don't take quite as much brainpower to get through. Basically, I'm looking for stuff that will take me back to the stuff I used to read before I went to university, when I'd spend an afternoon tearing through novel after novel.

I used to really love mystery novels, but it seems to me that most of the new stuff is all of the "dark psychological serial killer thriller" bent. I'm not so into that. Nor am I into CSI-style forensic thrillers. What I did love were whodunnits where the killer wasn't some socially maladjusted deviant, but a relative with a secret to hide or who was worried he/she'd been written out of the family will. In my younger days, I loved Lillian Jackson Braun's "The Cat Who…" novels, but I'm not feeling the main premise these days. But that is the type of thing I'm looking for, I guess: a sleuth who isn't tracking down a crazy psychotic killer whose bizarre fetishes mirror his or her own, but an interesting plot with memorable characters. I'm a huge Sherlock Holmes fan and know about Agatha Christie, obviously, but I'd love a new paperback series that runs along similar lines. (Just a few more data points of stuff I loved as a kid: The Three Investigators and The Hardy Boys, Encyclopedia Brown, and so on.)
posted by synecdoche to Writing & Language (39 answers total) 38 users marked this as a favorite
Mrs. Polifax to the rescue!
posted by sio42 at 9:55 AM on September 7, 2010 [3 favorites]

Raymond Chandler. Work through the Philip Marlowe novels, and the recently-republished wealth of short stories.
posted by Pickman's Next Top Model at 9:58 AM on September 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

How about the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency books?
posted by Metroid Baby at 9:59 AM on September 7, 2010 [3 favorites]

You may be looking for The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency books. They are fun, interesting and not taxing.
posted by caddis at 10:00 AM on September 7, 2010

posted by caddis at 10:00 AM on September 7, 2010

I'm a huge fan of the Agent Pendergast novels by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child. They're very much a wink-and-a-nod to Sherlock Holmes (the great detective in this case is a thin, sharp-dressed billionaire from New Orleans) and are crazy fun. I'd start with "Brimstone" and move forward from there.
posted by jbickers at 10:04 AM on September 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

There are a ton of contemporary mysteries that will suit your taste, what you need to search is the term "cozy mysteries." For example; there's a listing by theme there, including a page of mysteries similar to the The Cat Who series.
posted by taz at 10:04 AM on September 7, 2010

Nthing Mrs. Pollifax! She's really wonderful. Also there's Dick Francis, whose mystery novels all involve horses somehow, and they're really low key.

I also find Ralph McInerny to be a really "comfortable" writer of cozy mysteries. I particularly (when I was nine or ten or so) loved his books starring Father Dowling. I also liked the Sister Mary Teresa books, which he wrote under a pseudonym. Here's his Wiki page.
posted by shamash at 10:08 AM on September 7, 2010

I highly recommend checking out Tana French's books: In the Woods, The Likeness, and Faithful Place.
posted by questionsandanchors at 10:09 AM on September 7, 2010

It's not new, but have you read anything by Wilkie Collins? He was both my escapist reading and my (now defunct) dissertation topic, but if you don't mind 600+ page novels, you should read The Moonstone and The Woman in White.
posted by bibliowench at 10:10 AM on September 7, 2010

Whoops, meant to add this link: Tana French. I'd also suggest Nevada Barr if you like national parks, especially her early books. Most recently, I read Siren of the Waters, which I would recommend, especially if you like Scandinavian lit, such as The Millennium Trilogy and Per Petterson.
posted by questionsandanchors at 10:12 AM on September 7, 2010

Though, if you have a tendency to read a whole series in one gulp, you might find them repetitive in parts, you might enjoy the Brother Cadfael books by Ellis Peters. And if those suit you, you may want to look at the Sister Fidelma books by Peter Tremayne.
posted by korej at 10:21 AM on September 7, 2010

If you want some hard-boiled but modern crime fiction, there are two series which I wouldn't hesitate to recommend. Both contain very human main characters (male detectives) with well written and rounded minor characters too. As fairly serious crime novels there are nasty bits, and some novels do have crazed killers. But they're fantastic page turners - I can read one in a couple of days.

The books are Ian Rankin's "Inspector Rebus" series set in and around Edinburgh, and Peter Robinson's "Alan Banks" series set in Yorkshire. I'm not sure how popular these are outside of the UK, but I'd imagine you should be able to pick them up secondhand (in the UK, 10% of all crime fiction sold is by Rankin, so you can always find them in charity shops).

I'd recommend trying one of each; they're all good, but personally I'd recommend Resurrection Men or The Naming of the Dead by Rankin as good starting points. The characters do develop as the series goes on, so there is some merit in starting at the beginning. But it's not necessary, and the first books of both series are a little clunkier than later ones. An additional bonus of choosing a series like these is that if you do get into them there's tons to read.
posted by handee at 10:21 AM on September 7, 2010 [2 favorites]

Oh! Another good idea is Barbara Vine; this is the pen name of Ruth Rendell, for her mystery books that are more focused on suspense related to families/relationships and secrets from the past than her police procedurals and psychological thrillers. These are heavier than a typical cozy mystery, but may just hit the spot if the cozies begin to feel too fluffy.
posted by taz at 10:31 AM on September 7, 2010

You would totally love the Maisie Dobbs series by Jacqueline Winspeare. Really really good stuff.
posted by bibliogrrl at 10:39 AM on September 7, 2010

The Ameila Peabody books by Elizabeth Peters might fit the bill.

Personally, I didn't find the Tana French books at all "cozy," but maybe I'm delicate.
posted by amarynth at 10:50 AM on September 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

You might like some stuff by Boris Akunin. He does pastiche of Christie and Sherlock Holmes sometimes. The Erast Fandorin series is great fun.
posted by juv3nal at 10:51 AM on September 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

would you mind a detective based whodunit set in a fantasy universe? If so, the Watch novels that are part of Terry Pratchett's Discworld are very good and entertaining reading.
posted by jrishel at 10:52 AM on September 7, 2010 [2 favorites]

Tana French may be a bit dark for you (though I liked all of her books and recommend them), but I really enjoy the Spellmans books by Lisa Lutz--nice light funny reads about a family of PIs.
posted by leesh at 10:54 AM on September 7, 2010

A friend and I are really into the Russ Van Alstyne/Clare Ferguson novels. He's a small-town police chief; she's an Episcopal priest and helicopter pilot. An astonishing number of people in this small town commit murders! It has good characters, some humor, forbidden love, all kinds of good stuff. Readable and the kind of thing that will suck you in.
posted by not that girl at 10:55 AM on September 7, 2010

You like Sherlock Holmes? Then you should read Laurie King. She has a couple of series, but one of them features a young woman who meets up with a semi-retired Sherlock Holmes and becomes his partner. The first book (The Beekeeper's Apprentice) was great, the second two were, IMHO, a little tough going (the author has a fascination with Old Testament theology which I do not share) and then there were half a dozen great ones.

I agree that the premise sounds awful and in the hands of a worse writer it could have been "madcap" or "wacky" with Holmes and his sexy partner getting involved in all manner of crazy "hijinks". It's not that.
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 11:06 AM on September 7, 2010 [6 favorites]

I really like the mysteries published by SOHO. For the most part they are heavy on place, and lighter on the actual gruesomeness of murder.

The best are the Amsterdam cop stories by Janwillem Van de Wetering. But I have also liked the Laos novels from Colin Cotterill, and Disher's books set in Australia.
posted by OmieWise at 11:26 AM on September 7, 2010

Charlaine Harris' Aurora Teagarden series might fit, but I'm going to nth The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency.
posted by elsietheeel at 11:35 AM on September 7, 2010

What I did love were whodunnits where the killer wasn't some socially maladjusted deviant, but a relative with a secret to hide or who was worried he/she'd been written out of the family will

That sounds an awful lot like Ross MacDonald to me. From his wikipedia page: "Macdonald's plots were complicated, and often turned on Archer's unearthing family secrets of his clients and of the criminals who victimized them. Lost or wayward sons and daughters were a theme common to many of the novels."

The Doomsters, The Galton Case, and The Way Some People Die all strike me as titles that might be in your sweet spot.
posted by .kobayashi. at 11:43 AM on September 7, 2010

This isn't new, per se, but I like the Garrett novels - that is if you don't mind a little fantasy thrown in with your mystery.
posted by patheral at 12:10 PM on September 7, 2010

I hesitate to mention these since they're out of print, but you can track down used copies if you're interested. Stephen Dobyns wrote a series (in the 1990's) of about 10 mysteries, set in Saratoga, NY, all starting with Saratoga in the title. The main character, Charlie Bradshaw, is a private detective; most of the crimes have at least some connection to horses and racing. Mainly, the books are just so much fun. Very easy reads, yet well-written. Dobyns is a poet and has written several more literary novels, but this series is fun and light.
posted by daikon at 12:12 PM on September 7, 2010

Ross MacDonald for sure, also George Simenon and Katherine Haines Miller's Rosie Winter novels.
posted by dame at 12:18 PM on September 7, 2010

I found Deborah Crombie's books thanks to one of the many old threads (maybe this one) here in the green. I've now read maybe half of her Duncan Kincaid/Gemma James mysteries and enjoyed them quite a bit. They're kind of like Elizabeth George, but not so much with the disturbed loners and more the "desperate clerks/younger sons who did something bad."
posted by Madamina at 12:35 PM on September 7, 2010

FYI I live in Canada, and in my experience, Ian Rankin's books are in most major bookstores, and are easily purchased through amazon.ca or amazon.com. Love the Rebus!

Also, if you haven't read them, the "Harry Potter" novels do have classic "whodunit" elements, and make for wonderful breaks from academic reading.
posted by purlgurly at 12:44 PM on September 7, 2010

Seconding Laurie King! I have read and enjoyed almost all of her Mary Russell novels. She also writes a series about a detective in modern-day SF, Kate Martinelli. Most of those are fun to read as well (though not as much fun as the Mary Russell books).
posted by lucyleaf at 1:24 PM on September 7, 2010

The Marcus Didius Falco books by Lindsey Davis are set in ancient Rome and you might find them interesting. I enjoyed them quite a bit when I got sick of the cat books.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 1:27 PM on September 7, 2010

As another grad student studying literature, I read slightly older British mysteries when I need this kind of fix. They're a bit harder to find, but tend to be more my style (in some way that I'm sure I should be able to talk intelligently about, but can't, really), and the paperbacks are usually cheap when you can find them. My favorites include Margery Allingham, Josephine Tey, and Mary Stewart. They definitely all offer interesting plots with memorable characters, along with writing that's consistently good.

I also read a lot of Simenon's Maigret novels, but read them in French which makes me feel like I am being virtuous because I am keeping up my language skills. In this vein, I've been told that I would also like Fred Vargas's detective novels.
posted by dizziest at 3:58 PM on September 7, 2010

Anything by P. D. James should hit the spot.
posted by HandfulOfDust at 4:12 PM on September 7, 2010

Another ditto for the Laurie King/Mary Russel books. I'd probably avoid the latest 2 because they veer from mystery into more adventure type stuff (although Christie sort of did that too with The Secret Adversary, for instance). They're not horrible, but I didn't like them as much as the rest.
posted by juv3nal at 5:18 PM on September 7, 2010

Tamar Myers, Ayelet Waldman, and Jasper Fforde?
posted by eleanna at 10:48 PM on September 7, 2010

No mention of Stephanie Plum yet? You want memorable characters, you've got them, plus lots of laugh-out-loud funny moments.

You'll probably also like Denise Swanson's Scumble River mysteries, and Elaine Viets's Dead End Job and Josie Marcus, Mystery Shopper series.
posted by SisterHavana at 11:04 PM on September 7, 2010

Seconding eleanna, for a pun-filled alternate history mystery for literature nerds, you'll likely have a a good experience reading the Thursday Next series by Jasper Fforde.
posted by enfa at 10:24 AM on September 8, 2010

Dorothy L. Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsy detective series. Delightful, witty, super rich son of a Duke solve crimes because he feels like it. Much better than anything Chirstie ever wrote, and far more entertaining.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 4:33 PM on September 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

I think the Fforde's Nursery Crime series might be even better for the OP than Thursday Next. (But they're both worth reading.)
posted by the latin mouse at 1:47 AM on September 11, 2010

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