by Julia Buckley
This holiday season people are watching their pocketbooks; October was called a dismal retail month, and it doesn't seem that things will get much better. Many of us don't have much cash to spend this Christmas, but we still want to give something special to our loved ones. As ever, I'm contemplating the gift of books. When I sat down and tried to come up with five top titles that I thought would make great Christmas presents (and soothe the savage cash register), I came up with these.
First: NINE COACHES WAITING, by Mary Stewart. This is an ever-fave with me; I've purchased it for several family members and, whenever there's a new cover, for myself. It's a classic suspense tale in a 1960's setting--but Mary Stewart transcends the genre with her literary style and her intelligent heroines. In this adventure, a young English woman (whose mother was French) goes to France as a governess in a sort of JANE EYRE scenario--she is orphaned and without a job. In France she meets her diffident young charge, Phillipe, who is also an orphan and who seems unliked by his strange, strange family . . . . The book combines suspense with humor and enjoyable doses of romance.
Second: BRAT FARRAR by Josephine Tey. This book amazed me the first time I read it, and even upon re-reading I am impressed by the layering of Tey's plot and the cleverness of the resolution.
The Amazon review reads "Brat Farrar has been carefully coached to assume the identity of Patrick Ashby, heir to the Ashby fortune who disappeared when he was 13. Just when it seems that Brat will pull off the deception, he discovers the truth about Patrick's disappearance, a dark secret that threatens to tear apart the family and jeopardize Brat's carefully laid plans. Called "the best of its kind" by the New Yorker, Josephine Tey's classic is a tale of unrelenting suspense and tension." I agree with that, and I'd add that, while Tey gets her share of attention in the mystery world, she should be more often listed with the greats of the genre.
Third: REBECCA by Daphne Du Maurier
This book, like NINE COACHES WAITING, continues the Gothic tradition while exploring the notion of class consciousness in an England where the wealthy set don't mix with the genteel poor, and the conflict created when a young, inexperienced girl marries the rich, widowed Maxim DeWinter is ratcheted higher and higher as the novel goes on. Rebecca, his former wife, hovers like a malignant ghost over the giant estate called Manderley.
REBECCA is a favorite among many mystery writers and readers, and a colleague of mine at the high school told me that it was this novel which made her want to be an English teacher. It continues to be a compelling tale and an example of one of DuMaurier's best.
Fourth: THE LONG GOODBYE, by Raymond Chandler. This novel is a classic of the hard-boiled tradition. It contains all of the great things about a Chandler novel: a tough, wise-cracking detective; a variety of beautiful, mysterious, and flawed women; and a "lost dog" of a main character who draws the compassion out of the supposedly hard-hearted Philip Marlowe. There are many scenes that are truly funny, but in many ways this novel can break your heart--and the mystery is labrynthine, so read carefully.
Fifth: HAVE HIS CARCASE is my favorite Dorothy Sayers mystery; in it, Peter Wimsey continues to pursue a rather distant Harriet Vane. What brings them together, of course, is murder.
Harriet, while escaping to the seaside, stumbles across the body of a young man on the shore, and the events that follow create one of the most satisfying puzzles that I have ever read, not to mention some of the best dialogue and some surprisingly sweet romance.
If any of these sound good, do buy them. Anyone would be happy to receive one of these great reads in her or his stocking.
And if you'd like to add to the list, tell us what we might want to buy in lieu of--or in addition to--these fine mysteries.