The Sirens Sang of Murder Mysteries
July 25, 2008 3:37 PM   Subscribe

Can you recommend some good mystery novels for me to read? The last mystery novels I read that I really liked were the Hilary Tamar series by Sarah Caudwell. I liked those because they were fairly light and not gory. But I especially liked them because the dialogue/narration was sharp, witty, and wry. What are some other mystery writers who write like this?

I also like reading ones by Umberto Eco (would you call those mysteries or thrillers?) mainly because the writing and description is so awesome. I know Eco and Caudwell can be very dissimilar, but I'm looking for mysteries where the writing itself, the diction, is smart and just really, really good.
posted by bluefly to Writing & Language (33 answers total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
Reginald Hill is always my go-to guy for this type of mystery. Also, Ian Rankin.
posted by thomas j wise at 3:50 PM on July 25, 2008

Sharp, witty dialogue? Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe mysteries, of course!
posted by prefpara at 4:15 PM on July 25, 2008

Read my profile....
posted by Confess, Fletch at 5:00 PM on July 25, 2008

Seconding Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe mysteries. They made me want to write my own, so I went to school, learned how, and I did.
I cannot hold a candle to Stout or Eco but I have my fans :)

I would also recommend Ed McBain's 87th Precinct novels, if you feel like branching out a bit into police procedural territory. They are fast, easy reads. Great characters. And, as a bonus, you learn a bit about how and why the cops do what they do.
posted by willmize at 5:00 PM on July 25, 2008

Or to be more plain....The Fletch series by Gregory Mcdonald
posted by Confess, Fletch at 5:01 PM on July 25, 2008

I really like Dorothy Sayers mysteries with Lord Peter Wimsey.
posted by francesca too at 5:02 PM on July 25, 2008

Dorothy Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey stories hew pretty closely to the median between Caudwell and Eco (and are delightful in every possible way).

Georgette Heyer wrote some (Regency and 1930s) mysteries which are pretty light and charming. I seem to recall The Black Moth as being fairly charming.

Some Agatha Christie books fit the bill, particularly the Tommy and Tuppence ones.

It might be worth taking a look at some of Stephen Fry's stuff, particularly The Liar. It's not quite the right genre but may have the right feel. Similarly, the Vlad Taltos series is fantasy but has a certain kind of good dialogue.
posted by inkyz at 5:10 PM on July 25, 2008

this might be a bit ooff the mark, but my first thought when reading "mystery... dialogue/narration was sharp, witty, and wry" was todo modo be leonadro sciascia. i read it in spanish translation, but an english translation seems to be available. there's a list here with one-line summaries of some other books of his in english. not all are mysteries.

wouldn't say he was "light", but todo modo, at least, is not at all gory.
posted by not sure this is a good idea at 5:22 PM on July 25, 2008

Sacred Games by Vikram Chandra
posted by vkxmai at 5:24 PM on July 25, 2008

Janet Evanovich
posted by SuperSquirrel at 5:33 PM on July 25, 2008

Elizabeth Peters' Amelia Peabody series. Martha Grimes's Richard Jury series (the earlier ones are the best -- she's been getting weird lately). Colin Dexter's Morse series.
posted by The corpse in the library at 6:07 PM on July 25, 2008

Edmund Crispin. Deborah Crombie. Lindsey Davis. Aaron Elkins. Jasper Fforde. Christopher Fowler. Cynthia Harrod-Eagles. Tony Hillerman. P.D. James. Ngaio Marsh. Dana Stabenow (sort of). Ayelet Waldman (sort of).
posted by The corpse in the library at 6:10 PM on July 25, 2008

Jane Langton.

(All my suggestions are authors you should get from the library, not invest a lot of money in -- everybody's flawed. Plus I second pretty much everything everyone else said.)
posted by The corpse in the library at 6:11 PM on July 25, 2008

Agatha Christie.
posted by The corpse in the library at 6:13 PM on July 25, 2008

Not really mysteries but if you like Eco, have you read any José Saramago? He's best known for Blindness, but based on your question I think you might like The Double or All the Names.
posted by JaredSeth at 6:52 PM on July 25, 2008

Patricia Carlon. write: "Carlon is an absolute master of wringing every drop of suspense from a simple phrase or an exchange of glances--as good as Alfred Hitchcock at his best at showing us the skull beneath the suburban skin."
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 6:56 PM on July 25, 2008

I can't say enough about the Inspector Montalbano series. They were originally written in Italian, but have been wonderfully translated (including a helpful glossary of Scillian terms) into English. Easy to read, and there are about 9 total books that have been translated.

The books are so popular in Italy that the "fictitious" town they are set in inspired the real town it was based on to change it's name.
posted by qwip at 7:51 PM on July 25, 2008

There's no one quite like Sarah Caudwell, sadly. That said:

I totally second Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe (Avoid the new ones written by someone else!), Daphne Du Maurier's Lord Peter Wimsey, and Jasper Fforde's Tuesday Next mysteries. I like Elizabeth Peters too, but I prefer her Vicky Bliss and Jacqueline Kirby series for lighter escapist fare that doesn't insult.

Not yet mentioned: Katherine Neville's books which are epic mystery, fantastical, and bend history just enough to entertain without setting my National-Treasure-o-meter buzzing. The wit isn't as strong as the puzzle, but they're fun. Start with The Eight. I also really like Sharyn McCrumb's Appalachian mysteries (very well written, and ring very true to the region, but they're 180 degrees from Caudwell.)
posted by julen at 9:20 PM on July 25, 2008

nthing Ngaio Marsh: 32 novels of awesome.

Witty, genteel ... everything you could ask for in a murder mystery
posted by the.carol.baxter.experience at 11:58 PM on July 25, 2008

Seconding Reginald Hill and Ian Rankin. They're both brilliant writers and I enjoy their phrasing and dialog as much as the story itself - although they have very different styles.

Also, if you don't mind something older, P.G. Wodehouse.
posted by mmoncur at 1:23 AM on July 26, 2008

Sharp, witty and wry? Try "The man who was Thursday" by G. K. Chesterton.
posted by Termite at 3:49 AM on July 26, 2008

I love Laurie King's Mary Russell Holmes series and enjoy her Kate Martinelli books. The former require one to not be offended at messing with the Sherlock Holmes canon but they are very well and entertainingly written.

If you like historicals I also recommend Edith Pargeter/Ellis Peters - the Brother Cadfael books among others.
posted by leslies at 5:33 AM on July 26, 2008

I love Sarah Caudwell. I think she herself favored Chesterton. I highly recommend the Man who was Thursday.
posted by gesamtkunstwerk at 7:39 AM on July 26, 2008

oops, sorry termite!
posted by gesamtkunstwerk at 7:41 AM on July 26, 2008

Another thought. You sound like a mystery reader who isn't that into crime. I love Alexander McCall Smith's Ladies' No 1 Detective Agency. They're light, and smart and show the good things about Africa. Funny, sweet, and enough to get you to book a plane ticket.
posted by gesamtkunstwerk at 7:45 AM on July 26, 2008

I haven't read all of these, but the Mrs. Murphy Series is pretty excellent. Mind you, though, they're from a cat's point of view, helping to solve human mysteries. Pretty light, definitely funny, not too gory.

Also, if you like (or can put up with) with the farcical Discworld setting, the City Watch novels are mysteries. Don't read them and drink milk simultaneously.
posted by Netzapper at 11:26 AM on July 26, 2008

Kerry Greenwood's Phryne Fisher series, about a 1920's flapper in Australia?
posted by exceptinsects at 2:26 PM on July 26, 2008 [1 favorite]

As close to Sarah Caudwell as I can think of is another English author, Anne Morice--a series of mysteries, all told in the first person by a likeable and smart heroine/amateur sleuth, with some charming running characters. Cyril Hare may be somewhat dated now but charming. Colin Watson wrote wittily and a little more outrageously than most English mystery authors. Reginald Hill also wrote as Patrick Ruell and these books are just as good as the Dalziel-Pascoe series. My favorite English mystery writer is Peter Dickinson because he is so creative and so smart and surprising. Josephine Tey is a good writer who likes her characters (but doesn't overdo it as DL Sayers did with Peter Wimsey).

In the US, Susan Rogers Cooper's Milt Kovacs series is funny as all get out; she's a witty writer with an Oklahoma (I think) sheriff as hero, a nice guy with a wry sense of humor (read series in order for most enjoyment).

Also in the US Sarah Shankman has created a great character whose name I now forget, though I remember her boyfriend's name.

As above, Edmund Crispin, though I seem to recall some misogyny.

All of these are light but not dumb.
posted by sevenstars at 4:53 PM on July 26, 2008 [1 favorite]

Correction to julen's post...'Daphne Du Maurier's Lord Peter Wimsey' should read Dorothy Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey--and she is a fantastic author.
posted by lemonade at 10:22 PM on July 27, 2008

gesamtkunstwerk: don't apologize, two recommendations are better than one!
posted by Termite at 10:51 PM on July 27, 2008

Thanks, Lemonade! That is why I shouldn't be allowed to post after midnight. Du Maurier is also awesome, of course. *studiously ignores current time*
posted by julen at 10:59 PM on July 27, 2008

Response by poster: I can't mark any answers as best yet because I haven't had time to finish any of these suggested books, but I can't believe how many people responded! I asked one of my friends for advice on books, and he seemed to think my favorites (Caudwell and Eco) were sort of stuffy writers. It's nice to see other people don't think so.

I am taking a list of these authors/titles to the used bookstore tomorrow to try and find some of them. Thanks so much for adding to my summer reading list. I'll come back and report on which ones I liked.
posted by bluefly at 11:41 AM on July 28, 2008

Response by poster: Also, in my search on the rest of the Internet for recommendations, I found this Literature Map thingy which seems really cool in its own right.
posted by bluefly at 12:03 PM on July 28, 2008

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