Classic Mysteries
March 22, 2024 9:28 AM   Subscribe

I'm looking for golden age or other older mysteries to catch up on. I really only started reading mysteries recently so "older" could even mean almost current. I've been reading the Mrs. Pollifax ones and enjoying those, and I've read Mrs. Marple and Dorothy Sayers too. What other mysteries hold up to the test of time that I might find enjoyable to dive into?
posted by azalea_chant to Media & Arts (32 answers total) 43 users marked this as a favorite
Consider The Hollow Man (The Three Coffins) by John Dickson Carr. Not only do you get not one but three "locked rooms" packed into one story, but you also get a chapter in which Carr's detective, Dr Gideon Fell, explains the "rules" of the locked room mystery.

I'll also suggest The Laughing Policeman and other books by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. Actually, any of their Martin Beck novels are worth reading.
posted by SPrintF at 9:42 AM on March 22 [2 favorites]

I would always recommend Michael Innes. I might start with his second one, Hamlet, Revenge! (1937). There's a short review here, with a note about the "facetious language" used to describe an Indian man, and a longer review here. Some of his novels are more surreal than others, and the quality falls off after about 1960, but that still leaves a lot of good ones.

Marsh and Allingham of course. Heyer has some mysteries, some of which are good. And ECR Lorac, whom we have talked about on FanFare. You will see the relevant golden age tags there you can look at. PussKillian did a good MF post on golden age mysteries: An Invitation to a Country House.
posted by paduasoy at 9:50 AM on March 22 [6 favorites]

On a cruise last year, I stumbled upon a Nero Wolfe novel. I've never been a fan of mysteries, but this book grabbed me from the start. Turns out, Nero Wolfe grabs a lot of people — including Mefites (also). The books are deeply entertaining and the characters fun. The author (Rex Stout) was a vocal progressive of his day, even if some of his characters are anything but.
posted by jdroth at 9:54 AM on March 22 [8 favorites]

Chester Himes. Black author of the Harlem Detective series and other works.
posted by seanmpuckett at 9:55 AM on March 22 [1 favorite]

Based on the books you like, you would probably also enjoy the works of Ngaio Marsh and Josephine Tey.
posted by The Elusive Architeuthis at 9:55 AM on March 22 [5 favorites]

If you like Christie and Sayers, you might also enjoy Josephine Tey.

I also really love Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe novels, but they have a very different tone to Christie or Sayers. Some Buried Caesar is a fun one to start with, if you want to check them out.
posted by darchildre at 9:55 AM on March 22 [4 favorites]

the Thursday Murder Club series is newish and probably comes very close to a "golden age" type of mystery vibe.

The Appeal, by Janice Hallett also has a bit of that vibe, but more cheeky perhaps. The mystery unfolds via letters, emails, and texts.

I also think you'd like the Vera Stanhope series by Anne Cleeves.
posted by brookeb at 10:00 AM on March 22 [4 favorites]

Much earlier than golden age but you might have a good time with these: Wilkie Collins' The Moonstone (1868) is considered either the first detective novel or one of the firsts and is a fun read. Note: some exotification of Indians and Indian culture. The Woman in White, an earlier book by Collins, is also a mystery. Both of them have a multi-narrator structure that lets you follow the mystery from various perspectives.

The wikipedia article on detective novels has some other early examples if you're interested.
posted by trig at 10:10 AM on March 22 [2 favorites]

I also love the Perveen Mistry books by Sujata Massey. Parsi woman lawyer in 1920s Bombay, with an exploration of intersectional feminism in the colonial context. They have everything I love about Golden Age Mysteries without the awkward casual racism. (To be clear, there are racist characters in the books, but they aren't the good guys, y'know.)

You might like the Shedunnit podcast for additional recommendations.
posted by basalganglia at 10:21 AM on March 22 [4 favorites]

Our First Murder and Our Second Murder but alas they had no more murders.

Both reprinted by the Rue Morgue Press which is not even the only classic mystery re-publisher. Check re-publishers out, if your tastes match theirs you’re in gravy.
posted by clew at 10:25 AM on March 22

Nth-ing Josephine Tey and Rex Stout. Nero Wolfe has some of that Poirot charm, in a more noir-ish setting. The OG Sherlock Holmes stories are also well worth a read, if you haven't already.

Gladys Mitchell, if you can find them. There's a really fun (if loose) BBC adaptation of her Mrs Bradley mysteries starring the incomparable Diana Rigg. (And speaking of adaptations, the movie Mrs. Pollifax--Spy stars Rosalind Russell and is delightful.)

Kerry Greenwood's Miss Fisher is a modern series in a golden age period setting. Alexander McCall Smith's Ladies No 1 Detective Agency, has the small-village mystery vibe, set in Botswana.

There's also a great podcast called Shedunnit, all about classic mystery stories that runs the gamut from well-known to obscure authors and stories.

On preview, yes to Amelia Peabody, but also Peters' Jaqueline Kirby and Vicki Bliss mysteries are great. (The Kirby novel Murders of Richard III is how I learned about Josephine Tey, actually.)
posted by radiogreentea at 10:30 AM on March 22 [5 favorites]

Also Ovidia Yu's "Tree" Mystery Series set in colonial Singapore has all those classic vibes while centering the voice of a young Singaporean woman.
posted by brookeb at 10:40 AM on March 22 [1 favorite]

How about P D James?

I really liked the two Cordelia Gray books and wish there were more.

I see from the linked site that they were published 38 years apart, which surprises me. And they are her only books in which the detective protagonist is a woman.
posted by jamjam at 10:43 AM on March 22 [1 favorite]

Phoebe Atwood Taylor's Asey Mayo mysteries.
posted by purplesludge at 10:56 AM on March 22 [1 favorite]

Ellis Peters wrote quite a lot of mysteries, beyond just the Brother Cadfael stories (which I recommend). She is not quite Golden Age, but very similar in tone.
posted by suelac at 11:04 AM on March 22 [1 favorite]

Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers and Ngaio Marsh are considered the queens of classic crime. I would suggest starting the Lord Peter Wimsey series from Sayers next, which begind with Whose Body? (The series improved riapidly from that novel on, and Gaudy Night is one of the best books in the English language of any genre.

It is very important to figure out if it's the Golden Age Mystery you like, the Cozy Crime mystery you like, or the intersection of the two. There are epic numbers of cozy mysteries. There are fewer Golden Age mysteries simply because unlike cozies, they are not written much these days but the Flavia de Luce series is an exception and I love these books. The protagonist is fully formed and it doesn't make any difference that she's 11; these are bestsellers because they are huge fun. They are Golden Age, cozy-adjacent but with more poison. What's not to love?
posted by DarlingBri at 12:00 PM on March 22 [2 favorites]

Patricia Wentworth is a Golden Age mystery novelist who is often overlooked; I really like her Miss Silver mysteries and feel like they can hold their own with, if not Sayers (nobody is as good as Sayers) then at least Ngaio Marsh or Marjorie Allingham. I really like Allingham but am not as fond of Marsh. Georgette Heyer, better known for her Regencies, also wrote a few mysteries. I will nth any recommendation for Ellis Peters, particularly Brother Cadfael and if you want to go 50s/60s you could totally do worse than Mary Stewart of Merlin fame; her gothics are so fun.
posted by mygothlaundry at 12:17 PM on March 22 [2 favorites]

P.D. James Golden Age Favourites
In 2006 P.D. James wrote in The Wall Street Journal about her favourite detective novels. Four were Golden Age novels and I shall focus on them. For the record, her fifth choice was Dissolution by C.J. Sansom published in 2003.

Her choices were: Tragedy at Law by Cyril Hare, The Franchise Affair by Josephine Tey, The Moving Toyshop by Edmund Crispin and Murder Must Advertise by Dorothy L. Sayers.
posted by jamjam at 12:41 PM on March 22 [1 favorite]

Peter Dickinson wrote in a few genres but this wiki entry lists his mystery novels, some with a (retired?) British police detective and some stand alone; they mostly set in England, post war, and well-written. He's just really really good.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 1:12 PM on March 22 [1 favorite]

Sarah Caudwell wrote I think 4 in this style, beginning with Thus Was Adonis Murdered, which are delightyful and have the unusual bonus of the main character's gender never being identified.

Seconding The Moonstone, absolutely a classic and a great page-turner - bigger than Dickens at the time.

I have not read these yet but it is my understanding that E.C.R. Lorac (pseudonym of Edith Caroline Rivett) wrote a ton of excellent mysteries with great mise-en-place, like Crook o'Lune.

The Mystery of the Yellow Room is considered the grand-daddy of all locked-room mysteries, and is definitely a great one.

If you're thinking of doing Poirot, you may, like me, find the TV film adaptations with David Suchet better than the books! The ABC Murders is particularly fine but plenty of the others are excellent.

if you wish to go back further, the French have two amazing mystery-adjacent writers in Gaboreau's Monsieur Lecoq (part mystery, part period drama) and the original gentleman-thief Arsene Lupin by Leblanc.

And of course there is the big man himself, Poe, with Dupin in the Murders in the Rue Morgue, as well as pre-riffing on true crime with The Mystery of Marie Roget.
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 2:14 PM on March 22 [2 favorites]

If it's classic mysteries you're after, anything by Cyril Hare--mysteries with a legal setting, starting with Tragedy at Law. Do a trawl through Project Gutenberg and Faded Page for H C Bailey, who created the medical detective Mr Fortune. And did you know that A A Milne (creator of Pooh) wrote a mystery novel, The Red House Mystery, with a real snapper of an ending?

Less classic (and less cozy) but good in their own way: the Mary Russell mysteries by Laurie R King, which are part of what is now an immense fictional universe--stories that use Sherlock Holmes as a character. But he isn't the central character--Holmes has taken a much younger wife, and the stories are mostly told from her point of view.
posted by Logophiliac at 3:20 PM on March 22 [1 favorite]

E.C. Bentley's Trent's Last Case, which is great and also important to the genre, in that it features a detective who makes a terrible mistake in deducting whodunit, in the wake of Sherlock Holmes and his imitators, who are always right.
posted by goatdog at 3:47 PM on March 22 [1 favorite]

How about Harry Kemelman's Friday the Rabbi Slept Late? Written in 1964, the first of an unusual series and winner of the Edgar Award in 1965. I read this at around the same time that I was reading the Polifax mysteries and I found that they went well together, although still quite different.
posted by ashbury at 4:58 PM on March 22

Response by poster: I also appreciate general adventure books - the Mary Russell series and the Mrs Pollifax series both feel like adventures so more along those lines also appreciated.
posted by azalea_chant at 6:50 PM on March 22

The Last of Lieutenant Boruvka by Josef Skvorecky is a 1975 police procedural mystery with an interesting Czech political subtext. There's a series of them, this one is the best.
posted by ovvl at 8:57 PM on March 22

Mod note: [btw, this thread has been added to the sidebar and Best Of blog!]
posted by taz (staff) at 3:44 AM on March 23 [1 favorite]

Ngaio Marsh, Martha Grimes, Mary Stewart, Mary Roberts Reinhart.
posted by SemiSalt at 5:02 AM on March 23 [1 favorite]

Some of the Michael Innes books have more of an adventure structure than a mystery one. Another author who plays with different classic mystery structures (some veering into adventure) is Boris Akunin. You might also like the Vera Kelley books, by Rosalie Knecht - written recently but set in the late sixties, about a curmudgeonly lesbian detective/former spy.
posted by yarrow at 5:15 AM on March 23

I myself am partial to the Golden Age- type puzzle mystery rather than cozy, and I’m now exploring translations of “Golden Age” honkaku “orthodox” (1950s) Japanese mysteries, which are reprinted by Pushkin Vertigo. They also include some shin-honkaku or “new orthodox” books from the 1980s and 90s.
posted by Hypatia at 7:40 AM on March 23 [3 favorites]

Also came here to recommend the 'Shedunnit' podcast - the host has a great back catalogue and details all kinds of authors. Josephine Tey, Ngaio Marsh, Dorothy L Sayers and others as above.

I always recommend Ruth Rendell for more 'modern' books with a great golden age feel. Not very cosy, but well-written with some great characters. I am less fond of her Wexford series, but her standalone novels are great, as are her (more psychological thriller) written as Barbara Vine. Recently got into another bunch of books from the 70's and 80's by the author Margaret Yorke - lots of great unlikeable characters.

I've also listened to all of the audiobooks of a series of novels by Nicola Upson featuring Josephine Tey as the main character. They are historical crime fiction and very enjoyable - I get a golden age feel from them.
posted by sedimentary_deer at 10:59 AM on March 23

-The Moving Toyshop by Edmund Crispin

Crispin can be a niche taste, but I generally enjoy him. His detective, Gervase Fen, is a flippant, poetry-quoting Oxford don who knows he's a fictional character. You'll know best whether kind of thing appeals to you. I'd start with Love Lies Bleeding, on the strength of Mr. Merrythought, one of the best/worst dogs in fiction, but The Moving Toyshop is good too.

-The budget publisher Dover has reprinted a lot of mysteries over the decades, and they tend to favor books with a golden age-y feel, some combination of light, cerebral, urbane, intricate. Here's a checklist of most everything they've produced in that line. In addition to the names mentioned above, you might want to check out Grant Allen, Freeman Wills Crofts, R. Austin Freeman (who popularized both the forensic procedural and the Columbo-style reverse mystery), Gerald Kersh, C. Daly King, Baroness Orczy, Mary Roberts Rinehart.

-Some borderline suggestions:
  • Avram Davidson is best remembered as a fantasy/sci-fi writer, but see The Investigations of Avram Davidson for short, ironic mystery stories and The Enquiries of Doctor Eszterhazy for Sherlock Holmes reimagined as a Viennese dandy.
  • Lord Dunsany: ditto, but see Two Bottles of Relish and Other Stories for a vicious locked room mystery.
  • Stanley Ellin generally worked in the crime/noir/suspense regions, but there are quite a few mysteries among the stories collected in Specialty of the House. (Like Davidson, he liked a twist ending.)
  • Randall Garrett's Lord Darcy books are old-fashioned, play-fair mysteries that happen to be set in a universe where magic is real and the Angevin Empire is locked in a cold war with Poland.

posted by Iridic at 3:06 PM on April 3

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