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May 29, 2014 7:57 AM   Subscribe

Want to get a couple of mystery novels for my husband. Ideally these would have 1) very good writing and a compelling protagonist 2) have at least a mild sense of humor, though this is not a deal-breaker, and 3) be set in New York, though also not a deal-breaker.

But really, only #1 is critical. I'm thinking the Dortmunder novels (though these actually may be TOO comic-capery) and possibly Elmore Leonard (but which? There are so many!)

He's particularly interested in a well-structured mystery--with the classic several-act structure, with reveals that are exciting and heighten the stakes for the protagonist. I suggested The Yiddish Policeman's Union but he couldn't get into it.

Any other suggestions?
posted by Ollie to Media & Arts (35 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
Do you know Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe books? Set in New York with two compelling main characters (Wolfe and his assistant Archie Goodwin, the narrator). I thought they were clever if not laugh-out-loud funny, but it's been a while.
posted by rustcellar at 8:01 AM on May 29, 2014 [2 favorites]

The Dortmunders are mostly caper novels rather than mystery novels. You might want to check out Lawrence Block's Burglar series. I will warn you that they're often a little exasperating, with the narrator intentionally not revealing clues that he's uncovered until the big "Here's who did it and how" scene. Also, that can lead to an exploration of all of Block's work, most of which is less humorous but just as New Yorkous.

Also, lots of Carl Hiaasen's stuff is pretty good. His most recent, Bad Monkey is more mystery-ish than a lot of his stuff (which tends to run less whodunit-ish).
posted by Etrigan at 8:03 AM on May 29, 2014 [2 favorites]

+1 for the Burglar series and Block in general.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 8:05 AM on May 29, 2014 [2 favorites]

Yes! Nero Wolfe!

Try "Champagne for One" and "Murder by the Book" to begin with.

Some of the books in the series take place elsewhere: "Some Buried Caesar" is in upstate NY; "Too Many Cooks" is in West Virginia, "The Black Mountain" mainly takes place in what was then Yugoslavia. But most of the series takes place in NYC.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 8:05 AM on May 29, 2014

Response by poster: Great, thanks so far--I forgot to say: Nothing super gruesome. The Stieg Larsson books would definitely be out.
posted by Ollie at 8:05 AM on May 29, 2014

Lots of ideas here.
posted by aught at 8:06 AM on May 29, 2014

Thirding Block, that's the first author I thought of. The Matt Scudder books are also very New York, though not nearly as light and humorous as the Bernie Rhodenbarr books.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 8:07 AM on May 29, 2014

Also here to say Rex Stout! This question was basically made for Rex Stout. Set in NYC, not gruesome, with a compelling duo in Archie and Nero Wolfe. Very well-structured. They are terrific. They are from the mid-century (roughly) but they hold up well, although they're shorter than we're used to these days.

What other series does he enjoy?
posted by pie ninja at 8:08 AM on May 29, 2014

Oh! Jeffery Deaver is also New York, and has great plot twists that will keep you guessing.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 8:09 AM on May 29, 2014

Lethem's Motherless Brooklyn sounds like a perfect match.
posted by griphus at 8:09 AM on May 29, 2014

dorothy l. sayers meets your first two criteria, so does the more modern p.d. james.
posted by bruce at 8:12 AM on May 29, 2014

If I may suggest something that meets only the first two criteria, he may enjoy Alan Bradley's Flavia De Luce mysteries. They're charming and funny and the protagonist is a delightful 11 year old obsessed with poisons.
posted by Lemmy Caution at 8:15 AM on May 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Pie Ninja: He doesn't enjoy any, at the moment. He reads nonfiction pretty much exclusively (lately, David Halberstamy, Nathaniel Philbricky type stuff). The only fiction he loves is PG Wodehouse. *I* like Carl Hiasson, Linda Barnes, Donald Westlake, etc. and will get a few samples of those to see if he likes them. He's requested a few mysteries for our summer vacation, but mostly, I think, to study good writing and the classic mystery structure.
posted by Ollie at 8:15 AM on May 29, 2014

I love The Gods of Gotham, which is outstandingly well-written with a great first person protagonist and set in NYC at the start of the police force. The main plot is a little disturbing but not gruesome like Dragon Tattoo.
posted by mlle valentine at 8:16 AM on May 29, 2014

He also might like Inherit the Dead, which is a private detective novel set in NYC and it's a fun read. As a bonus, it's written by a lot of different mystery authors who collaborated and each wrote a chapter, so he could see whose writing style he enjoys.
posted by mlle valentine at 8:20 AM on May 29, 2014

Set in FL, not NY, but the Travis McGhee novels by John McDonald may be a good option. I think they are a little more "lightweight" than some of the other options suggested so far.
posted by COD at 8:27 AM on May 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

Matt Scudder can be gruesome but love the burglar books. Try Sarah Paretsky?
posted by latkes at 8:28 AM on May 29, 2014

Another vote for Rex Stout, especially given his love for Wodehouse.

There are a lot of Wodehouse-Stout connections. Both were fans of the other's work, a significant amount of fan overlap. Bertie Wooster even reads Rex Stout's latest of one of the J&W books.
posted by pseudonick at 8:41 AM on May 29, 2014

The Junior Bender series takes place in Los Angeles, but ticks the first two boxes, for me (although "very good" writing is probably a significant stretch; the third in the series, The Fame Thief, is the strongest entry, and would best be called "workmanlike" and "pleasing to read").
posted by uncleozzy at 8:42 AM on May 29, 2014

Wodehouse you say? The most Wodehousian mystery writer I can think of is Sarah Caudwell. Her mysteries are set in various European locales, although almost all of the action takes place at a distance as a group of barristers (along with an Oxford don of indeterminate gender) solve the mysteries from the comfort of a wine bar in London via an increasingly implausible series of letters, faxes and telexes. And they're very, very funny (if you like that sort of humor):
On my first day in London I made an early start. Reaching the Public Record Office not much after ten, I soon secured the papers I needed for my research and settled in my place. I became, as is the way of the scholar, so deeply absorbed as to lose all consciousness of my surroundings or of the passage of time. When at last I came to myself, it was almost eleven and I was quite exhausted: I knew I could not prudently continue without refreshment.
None of the books are gruesome—most of the murders are of the "heiress plonked on the head with a large stone urn" sort and generally the motive is tax evasion.
posted by bcwinters at 8:45 AM on May 29, 2014 [2 favorites]

I've been adoring Sophie Hannah's Zailer & Waterhouse mysteries. They're set in England, not NYC, unfortunately, but they are at times laugh-out-loud funny, while also being quite psychologically dark (though not gruesome). In a way, they remind me of Agatha Christie novels, although they're much more sophisticated and better written- they all start out with an almost outlandish, high-concept premise that seems impossible to logically explain, and a great deal of the pleasure is the meta-enjoyment of figuring out how in the hell the writer is going to pull off the puzzle.

The first book in the series, Little Face, is quite good, but the book that launched Hannah straight onto my favorite authors list was the most recent one, Kind of Cruel, which you could definitely plunge into without having read any of the others.
posted by pretentious illiterate at 8:45 AM on May 29, 2014

Lisa Lutz's Spellman novels. Very good writing, great protagonist, lots of humor, not violent...set in San Francisco.
posted by BlahLaLa at 8:58 AM on May 29, 2014

Nthing nero wolfe, but if you want something more contemporary, the lydia chin / bill smith books by SJ Rozan are also just what you're looking for: well written mysteries set in nyc, compelling protagonists, relatively light and humorous tone. I recommend Ghost Hero to start.
posted by neat graffitist at 9:10 AM on May 29, 2014

Allegedly coming out in ebook format this year: Sparkle Hayter's Robin Hudson mysteries are quite entertaining.
posted by Etrigan at 9:12 AM on May 29, 2014

I've really enjoyed all of the Pendergast books. Full chronological list is here (strongly suggest reading them in order).

To address your points they are:

1) Written fine. It's not Nabokov or anything, but the writing is clear and well-paced. The FBI agent protagonist dude (Pendergast) is entertaining.

2) Ehhh, when the humor comes up I'd say they're on a polite chuckle level.

3) If he wants set in NYC, this will really make him happy. For most of the books, the central action takes place in New York. Lots of street names, public landmarks, subway station references, etc. Even in the few books where the primary setting is somewhere else, there's almost always at least a scene scene that takes place in NYC.

I've finished all of them, unfortunately, but just started (if you'll scroll down a bit on that link) the first of the Gideon books. I like the main character in this one better (he's a little more everyman relatable). Also set in NYC.

Not high literature for sure, but they're very entertaining.
posted by phunniemee at 9:27 AM on May 29, 2014

Donald Westlake wrote both the Dortmunder and the Parker series. Both are caper-driven.
Dortmunder is funnier, kind of an everyman crook, while Parker is all business. But there's great humor in the latter, too; IIRC Dortmunder makes an appearance or two.
I'd offer the Parker books. My family went thru them a few decades ago and couldn't put them down. We still talk about them.
posted by LonnieK at 9:35 AM on May 29, 2014

Carol O'Connell writes a mystery series about a NYC detective named Kathleen Mallory. She was a homeless orphan adopted and raised by a NYC detective and his wife. She is brilliant, broken, most likely a sociopath, and absolutely fascinating. The writing is very strong, with great characters. There are currently nine books in the series. I wouldn't characterize them as funny, but there is a fair amount of dry humor.

The first book is Mallory's Oracle. The cover makes it look like a cheesy horror novel, so please ignore. I recommend them highly!
posted by Bresciabouvier at 11:10 AM on May 29, 2014

Alafair Burke lives in lower Manhattan and her Ellie Hatcher novels have an excellent sense of the city, as does her recent non-series novel Long Gone. She's a criminal law professor and the details of legal and police procedure are quite accurate. (Disclosure: we're good friends and I'm thanked in her most recent book All Day and a Night, out on June 10.)
posted by nicwolff at 11:46 AM on May 29, 2014

Sandra Scoppetone's Lauren Laurano books.
posted by brujita at 1:23 PM on May 29, 2014

What about Agatha Christie? Specifically, her Hercule Poirot novels and And Then There Were None.
posted by Night_owl at 7:35 PM on May 29, 2014

The great distinction of Westlake's books, especially the Parker series, is that they take the POV of noncop criminals. That's what made the Sopranos, too.
OTOH, James Ellroy succeed by rightly and relentlessly portraying cops as criminals.
posted by LonnieK at 7:37 PM on May 29, 2014

Harlan Coben's Myron Bolitar novels are great.
posted by agatha_magatha at 10:24 PM on May 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

Seconding Harlan Coben and Carol O'Connell and adding Reginald Hill"s Dalziel & Pascore series.
posted by BoscosMom at 2:40 PM on May 30, 2014

Response by poster: Thanks everyone. I have a long list of holds at the library, a bunch of Kindle samples, and bought a Nero Wolfe and a Parker novel. There are too many great suggestions here to mark best answers! I am going to dip in pretty much every book on this page.
posted by Ollie at 10:34 AM on June 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

And thanks for the post! I'm going to do the same.
posted by LonnieK at 6:13 PM on June 1, 2014

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