Mysteries without conventional detectives
June 3, 2011 10:29 AM   Subscribe

I need mystery novel recommendations! Looking for good mysteries with unconventional characters as the lead.

The better half has read all the Holmes on the Range books by Steve Hockensmith. She likes the cowboy narrators. What other good mysteries have as their lead character someone other than a cop or a detective?

Humor's good, but not strictly required.
posted by echo target to Media & Arts (57 answers total) 52 users marked this as a favorite
Just to get it out of the way: Girl with a Dragon Tattoo
posted by Grither at 10:33 AM on June 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

this is half right: the alienist has a doctor (an alienist, aka psychiatrist) as one of the lead characters - one of my favorite books.
posted by anya32 at 10:38 AM on June 3, 2011 [3 favorites]

I really love Lisa Lutz's Spellman novels.
posted by BlahLaLa at 10:38 AM on June 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

Tony Hillerman wrote a *ton* of murder mysteries set on the Navajo rez. They're a lot of fun.
posted by notsnot at 10:39 AM on June 3, 2011

The Flavia de Luce novels feature a precocious 11-year-old girl (and aspiring poisoner).
posted by scody at 10:43 AM on June 3, 2011 [6 favorites]

Kinky Friedman's mysteries fit the bill precisely. The Stephanie Plum series is also great.

She may also like the Dead End Job series and Josie Marcus, Mystery Shopper series, both by Elaine Viets.
posted by SisterHavana at 10:43 AM on June 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

Dorothy Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey series is still my favorite. They're set in 20's-era London. Just back from the Great War, Wimsey is a delightful dilettante and something of a fop, with a taste for first editions and rare manuscripts. His unconventional habits and lack of regard for societal norms cause his family great distress. He's like the love child of Bertie Wooster and Sherlock Holmes. Read them now!
posted by kitarra at 10:45 AM on June 3, 2011 [4 favorites]

She might like Laura Lippman's Tess Monaghan books. She becomes a private detective, but starts off as a journalist. (Note: I thought the first one was kind of weak but they get better).
posted by something something at 10:46 AM on June 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

The Hitchcock Sewell mysteries by Tom Cockney are great. The protagonist is a wise cracking undertaker who gets himself into trouble investigating crimes. The books are reasonably well written and I found them quite funny.
posted by SpaceWarp13 at 10:47 AM on June 3, 2011

Cozy mysteries are traditionally the "Jessica Fletcher"-type civilian busybodies. Those range from the fluffy "The Cat Who..." series to Charlaine Harris's non-vampire work (variously cute or grim, depending on the series.) (Charlaine Harris, I think, gets too much credit for the Sookie Stackhouse novels and not enough for some of her other work.)

I totally dig Ellis Peter's Brother Cadfael novels (medieval monk solves crimes!) If you like the medieval thing, Ariana Franklin's Mistress of the Art of Death series involves a female doctor as the lead (I have mixed feelings about that one for a variety of reasons but I wouldn't disrecommend it.)

Kelley Armstrong (better known for her Women of the Otherworld series) wrote a couple of mystery novels featuring a female assassin as the protagonist - I really liked the first one, Exit Strategy.

If you ever saw Father Dowling on TV, you may find the original Ralph McInerny novels charming. Fair warning, though, there is way more church politicking in them than the adorable but much more secular TV show.

I am fond of the Stephanie Plum novels (slapstick romance/crimefighting by a bumbling bounty hunter) that SisterHavana mentions kind of against my will.

(My goodreads page is linked in my profile and I'm happy to offer further commentary on anything in it!)
posted by restless_nomad at 10:49 AM on June 3, 2011 [2 favorites]

The Gideon Oliver series, by Aaron Elkins, concerns an anthropologist. It's a pleasant series, and there are lots of books in it. The way the main character, wherever he may travel, always encounters a murder, and the odd, innocuous quality of these deaths remind me very much of the powerfully soothing Murder, She Wrote. I mean that in the best way possible.
posted by Francolin at 10:51 AM on June 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

Simon Brett has written a number of mystery novels featuring Charles Paris. Paris is marginally successful actor with a marginally more successful drinking problem and a definitely unsuccessful marriage. The only thing he appears to be any good at is being an amateur sleuth and he doesn't enjoy doing it.
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 10:54 AM on June 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

I love Jonathan Kellermanbooks. The lead character is a psychologist (and Kellerman actually is one) -- they're really good.
posted by la petite marie at 10:55 AM on June 3, 2011

Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency
posted by The White Hat at 10:55 AM on June 3, 2011 [4 favorites]

Of course, G. K. Chesterton's Father Brown books (in which a retired Anglican priest and a former jewel thief solve spooky occult crimes) are unbeatable, and although Chesterton was clearly religious the message in practically all of them is that people who believe in the occult are gullible idiots who will be taken advantage of at every opportunity. It's kinda like Scooby Doo in that way.
posted by nasreddin at 10:59 AM on June 3, 2011 [5 favorites]

Also, I think Miss Marple is the prototypical Jessica Fletcher type.
posted by nasreddin at 11:01 AM on June 3, 2011

Seconding Jonathan Kellerman.
posted by fivesavagepalms at 11:06 AM on June 3, 2011

I only occasionally read mysteries, but I somehow came upon the site Stop Your Killing Me which has an alphabetical list of mystery novels by the job of the character. The A's alone include: Academics, 'Acting, Theater, Movies', Activists, Advertising, Antiques, Archeologists & Anthropologists, Architecture, Art & Artists, and Aviation. They also have a list of humorous mysteries.
posted by nooneyouknow at 11:06 AM on June 3, 2011 [7 favorites]

Many of Peter Bowen's books are out of print (but are available used) - and his protagonist is a half-Metis Montana cattle brand inspector. I've enjoyed the heck out of the ones I've read.
posted by rtha at 11:08 AM on June 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

My first thought was the Matt Cobb novels by William Deandrea. Matt handles "special projects" for a film studio (IIRC) and is accompanied on many of his adventures by his friends' dog, a Great Pyrenees (named "Spot" for the white spot that covers the whole dog).
posted by DrGail at 11:12 AM on June 3, 2011

Motherless Brooklyn
posted by mkultra at 11:27 AM on June 3, 2011

The Name of the Rose
posted by mkultra at 11:30 AM on June 3, 2011

Not sure you can say "humorous mysteries where the lead character isn't a cop or detective" without considering Gregory McDonald's "Fletch" series. And if you/she didn't care for the Fletch movies, the tone of the books is quite different (although I happen to love the movies on their own terms).
posted by pardonyou? at 11:34 AM on June 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

The Amelia Peabody mysteries by Elizabeth Peters feature a turn of the century female Egyptologist and her family. Lots of suspension of disbelief required for the modern ideas towards gender and such in these books ostensibly taking place in the 1880s, but sooooo good.
posted by wuzandfuzz at 11:34 AM on June 3, 2011 [6 favorites]

Jacqueline Winspear's Maisie Dobbs series. Maisie Dobbs is an ex-WWI nurse who opens a detective agency in a very unconventional way.
posted by rumposinc at 11:38 AM on June 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

I quite enjoyed John Dunning's Booked to Die and its sequels, featuring an ex-cop turned rare book dealer.
posted by Zozo at 11:43 AM on June 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

Sarah Caudwell wrote four very funny mysteries where the main "detective" was a Professor of Medieval Law named Hilary, whose gender is never revealed.

The stories are mostly told via letters and faxes (the books predate email) between the Professor and several strange barristers who are always getting wrapped up in bizarre crimes when they should be working on tax litigation.

The first book is Thus Was Adonis Murdered and I highly recommend it if you can find it.
posted by bcwinters at 11:44 AM on June 3, 2011 [6 favorites]

Can I put in a plug for Carol O'Connell's Mallory books? She is a detective, but she's unconventional. Also, Ariana Franklin wrote a number of books set around 1150 with a doctor who did a lot of crime solving; Cora Harrison writes about a judge, but in 1500ish in Ireland, so not really the normal sort of judge/lawyer. Alan Gordon is writing a series about a Fool who solves mysteries.
posted by jeather at 11:59 AM on June 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

How about the Anonymous Rex books, in which the investigator is a dinosaur?
posted by jbickers at 12:01 PM on June 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

I really enjoyed "The Man in the Brown Suit" by Agatha Christie. The lead character is a smart, feisty, young woman who doesn't want to live an ordinary life. It might have helped that I was in a similar situation when I first read it. ;-) But it is still a very entertaining novel!
posted by jillithd at 12:09 PM on June 3, 2011

There aren't many detectives more unusual than the sheep in Three Bags Full: A Sheep Detective Story. I loved it.
posted by travertina at 12:24 PM on June 3, 2011

Stefanie Pintoff's Simon Ziele series is set in turn of the 20th century New York and though Ziele is a detective, he works closely with a criminologist at Columbia. The books are atmospheric and suspenseful.

Naomi Hirahara's series protagonist is Mas Arai, a Japanese-American gardener who lived through the bombing of Hiroshima.

Jakob Arjouni's Kayankaya is a Turkish-German private detective and the books have a lot of thought-provoking things to say about the lives of immigrants in Germay.
posted by mlle valentine at 12:29 PM on June 3, 2011

You could also try Robert vanGulik's Judge Dee books. Judge Dee is a magistrate in 16th(?) century China who goes around hearing cases and solving crimes. I think they're the pip.
posted by From Bklyn at 12:32 PM on June 3, 2011

Johan Theorin's Echoes from the Dead: the protagonists are a middle-aged woman on disability with an alcohol problem, and her father, who lives in a nursing home. It's deliciously atmospheric (a Swedish island) and a very satisfying story.

Colin Cotterill's The Coroner's Lunch and others: a quirky coroner in Laos; light-hearted yet dark, and quite fun.
posted by Corvid at 12:38 PM on June 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

They've recently re-released Donald Westlake's Sam Holt series - it's a sort of proto-Castle, with an actor who played a cop on TV as protagonist. He's got tons of cash, real cops love him, he knows all the tricks from scripts - why not solve crimes? Fun stuff.
posted by ormondsacker at 1:07 PM on June 3, 2011

I liked Nevada Barr's Anna Pigeon series, if a park ranger isn't too close to a cop for her.
posted by ldthomps at 1:11 PM on June 3, 2011

Falco from Lindsey Davis' wry and nicely researched novels is technically a P.I. (also, a poet), but by the definitions of 1st century Rome.
posted by notquitemaryann at 1:47 PM on June 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

Shine by Lauren Myracle (disclaimer: she's my cousin) has a teenager investigating an attack when the local police won't dig deep enough.
posted by anaelith at 1:47 PM on June 3, 2011

How about a eunuch?

Mary Reed and John Mayer have a series of mysteries set in 6th century Constantinople, and the main character is John the eunuch, Emporer Justinian's Lord Chamberlain. Justinian and Theodora's Byzantium is an almost ideal setting for mystery.
posted by General Tonic at 1:48 PM on June 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

Seconding Colin Cotterill's Dr Siri Paiboun series. Dr Siri is an elderly coroner in communist Laos--the only coroner--in the 1970s. Very humorous, wonderful characters. You'll want to read them in order, starting with The coroner's lunch. Cotterill is up to #7 now and every one is delightful.

Also seconding Sarah Caudwell's books.

I love threads like this and will return to it to see what else turns up. Thanks for starting it.
posted by sevenstars at 2:30 PM on June 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

From Ms. Vegetable:

I second jeather in the Ariana Franklin books - Mistress of the Art of Death and such.


tess gerritsen (one of 2 main characters is a coroner)
patricia cornwell (also coroner)

oh and then the bubbles books by sarah strohmeyer. main character is a reporter. they're along the veins of stephanie plum books.

maggie sefton's knitting mysteries - main characters are a knitting group
joanne fluke - main character is a baker
posted by a robot made out of meat at 2:43 PM on June 3, 2011

J. S. Borthwick's Sarah Deane mysteries feature a young woman who becomes an English Professor over the course of the series; I thought of them particularly because one takes place on a dude ranch, which might appeal.
posted by dizziest at 2:46 PM on June 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

Ok, technically this may not fit your criteria in one sense, but I'll add to your list anyway because they're excellent.

Eliot Pattison has a series of 4 (I think) books wherein Shan Tao Yun, formerly a Beijing police detective but now a prisoner in the Chinese gulag in Tibet, solves murders while hanging out with Buddhist monk prisoners and dissidents. Titles are Bone Mountain, The Skull Mantra, Water Touching Stone and Lord of Death.
posted by qurlyjoe at 2:57 PM on June 3, 2011

The protagonist of Lee Child's book, Jack Reacher, is an ex-military drifter. These may be too conventional - Reacher was in the military police and definitely has that perspective/skills - but they are suspenseful and a lot of fun.

Julia Spencer-Fleming writes mysteries set in New England with a female Episcopalian minister (and ex-helicopter pilot) as the protagonist, although her crimesolving partner (and love interest) is the (married) chief of police.

Rei Shimura, the protagonist of Sujata Massey's mysteries, is an American ESL teacher (IIRC) living in Japan - I really enjoyed these books since they strongly evoke a sense of place.
posted by solipsism at 4:43 PM on June 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

The Beekeeper's Apprentice (and several sequels) by Laurie R. King, features a young girl, who gets hooked up with Sherlock Holmes and joins in the mystery-solving fun. Super engaging characters, fun writing, all thumbs up.
posted by rosa at 5:02 PM on June 3, 2011 [2 favorites]

Seconding: Laurie R King, Laura Lippmann, Carol O'Connell, Aaron Elkins.

I have a great fondness for Dick Francis. Most of his protagonists are unconventional. My favorite of all his books is Decider featuring Lee Morris, an architect with a rather unconventional life.

Josh Aterovis' has a mystery series featuring Killian Kendall, a teenager on Maryland's Eastern Shore. (


Margaret Maron's series starting with Bootlegger's Daughter. The protag is a lawyer/judge whose father was indeed a bootlegger.

Philip R. Craig's J.W. Jackson series - ex cop now living on Martha's Vineyard, fishing and doing odd jobs.

William G Tapply's Brady Coyne series - lawyer in Boston

(I'm not sure of Tapply's series would really fit your criteria; I'm including him as he and Philip R. Craig were friends and wrote three crossover novels featuring JW Jackson & Brady Coyne working together. I have a weird thing for xover characters in fictional works)
posted by jaimystery at 5:23 PM on June 3, 2011

Believe it or not, there's another series of Turkish eunuch books - The Yashim the Eunuch books by Jason Godwin. They're not funny, very much, but they are supremely enjoyable.

Edmund Crispin wrote several books featuring Professor Fen - a literary professor in Oxford. The books are a little bit Wodehousey and very camp. I'm enjoying the one I'm reading at the moment.

Glen Cook's Garrett, P.I books are a Chandler-esque private eye working in a city from classic fantasy novels with elves etc. Generally I find the crime/fantasy mash-up to be fairly unprofitable, but I get a kick out of these books. Similar - but not as good, in my opinion - are the Thraxas books by Martin Scott.

Nthing Brother Cadfael. You might also like the Lindsay Davis, ancient roman mysteries, starting with Silver Pigs. I've not read any of them, so can't really rate them myself.

Sticking with the Scooby Doo theme mentioned above, William Hope Hodgson wrote a series of stories about Carnacki The Ghost-Finder, where Carnacki goes around revealing the sources of supposed hauntings. I think they're fucking terrific; great victorian prose, and genuinely scary sometimes - even if the haunting is a fraud!

I also just finished an Inspector O book, but James Church. Yes, he's an inspector, but the catch is he's an inspector in North Korea (Church is apparently a former intelligence agent), I rated it; thought it was quite interesting.

You may also like the Aberystwth series by Malcolm Pryce - humorous PI pastiche set in small welsh village.

I also finished The Little Sleep, by Paul Tremblay last year, about a wannabe P.I who's narcoleptic, and I enjoyed it a lot. It's funny, but also quite tragic. Made my top ten of the year.

I realise some of these reccomendations feature traditional detectives, but much like the Hockensmith novels, they are detectives in name but sufficiently different I think youw ould enjoy them.
posted by smoke at 5:43 PM on June 3, 2011

How is it that no one has mentioned The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency yet? The series is enchanting.
posted by SLC Mom at 6:16 PM on June 3, 2011 [2 favorites]

I can't believe I forgot Denise Swanson's Scumble River mysteries. The lead character is a school psychologist.
posted by SisterHavana at 6:47 PM on June 3, 2011

Jo Nesbo's books.
posted by PickeringPete at 6:54 PM on June 3, 2011

I love CS Harris's Sebastian St. Cyr mysteries. Very gritty Regency setting, with an aristocrat hero.

If you like Stephanie Plum, I can recommend Skating Around the Law, by Joelle Charbonneau. (Full disclosure: she's a friend of mine.)
posted by sugarfish at 8:01 PM on June 3, 2011

Christopher Fowler's Bryant & May series. Two elderly detectives head up London's Peculiar Crimes Division since WW II.
posted by lazydog at 8:18 PM on June 3, 2011

Daniel Hood wrote a series of mysteries set in a fantasy world, where a dispossessed lordling-turned-adventurer inherits an wizard friend's dragon familiar. Where Cook's Garrett PI draws from hard boiled PI tecs, this series reads more British to me, especially the place names, though Hood is a New Yorker, I think.

Come to think of fantasy mysteries, at least one of the early Brust Taltos books was a mystery, Yendi, perhaps? Taltos is a witchy human thief in a world of imperial sorcerous elves.

I think that the Roma Sub Rosa (Gordianus the Finder) mysteries of Saylor's, featuring the events leading to the fall of the Roman Republic, may fit your bill, though the lead character is an investigator.

Anthony Price wrote a series of counterespionage mysteries with Dr David Audley, set in contemporaneous Britain, starting in the Seventies. Terrence Stamp played Audley at one point,
don't recommend the TV series though.
posted by gentilknight at 10:40 AM on June 4, 2011

I enjoyed the Medicus series by Ruth Downie, about a Roman military physician in Britain who solves murders.

The aforementioned Falco and #1 Ladies' Detective Agency are also quite enjoyable.
posted by thinkingwoman at 3:08 PM on June 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'd like to put the Arkady Renko series of books by Martin Cruz Smith forward, especially Gorky Park, which is set in Cold War Moscow in the 1980's.

I have no idea how much of the novel is factual (i.e. actually resembles Iron Curtain-era Moscow) but the whole novel feels slightly askew, as if a police procedural was taking place in an Escher painting. They have the same tropes, but they're all tinted a different, decaying communism color.

The hero-detective, himself, is as much a mystery as the plot driver, where three skinned corpses are discovered buried under the snow in a park. Arkady Renko is utterly inscrutable, almost completely lacking an inner monologue. In a sense, Arkady is the novel's mystery, and part of the joy of it is trying to understand what motivates him.
posted by jpolchlopek at 11:07 AM on June 7, 2011

Tales of the Black Widowers (and sequels) by Isaac Asimov. The setting is a gentleman's dinner night, none of the characters are specifically detectives. It's a collection of short stories, so not quite as immersive as a novel, but they do run together nicely and the mysteries are really interesting. And Asimov is fabulous, of course.
posted by anaelith at 9:45 AM on June 10, 2011

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