Monday, November 17, 2008

Holiday Reading or Holiday Gifts

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.


Elizabeth Zelvin said...

What a delicious topic, Julia. Brat Farrar is on my all-time top ten mysteries list, though Gaudy Night is my favorite Sayers. The three books I've given away the most copies of (at different periods of my reading life) are not mysteries:
John Barth's The Sotweed Factor
Ursula LeGuin's The Dispossessed
Elinor Lipman's Isabel's Bed
And my number one favorite book these days is Lois McMaster Bujold's A Civil Campaign, which is the perfect marriage of comedy of manners and galactic space opera. Books--can't live without 'em!

Julia Buckley said...

Thanks, Liz! Maybe I'll check one of these out over Christmas--or give it to my mom, who is a voracious reader, especially of mysteries.


Lonnie Cruse said...


I recently bought a Raymond Chandler omnibus and I love his writing. Great suggestion for a Christmas gift.

I can't resist buying books. Sigh.

Darlene Ryan said...

It's non-fiction and technically not a mystery, but I'd put David Simon's Homicide on the list.

Auntie Knickers said...

I'd second all your recommendations, and add Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons, for anyone who could use a laugh.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Julia, for a woman whose literary tastes and comfort level I don't know, I'd recommend Isabel's Bed. Every woman I gave it to (a broad range indeed) found it laugh out loud funny. Not a mystery, though. The most foolproof mysteries I can think of for someone who hasn't discovered them yet are Margaret Maron's The Bootlegger's Daughter and Laurie R. King's The Beekeeper's Apprentice. But if your mom doesn't mind a smattering of grit, how about Death Will Get You Sober? (Sorry, couldn't resist.)

Julie Kramer said...

"Last night I dreamt I went to Manderly again."
I reread REBECCA every couple years. One of my all time favorite books. Glad to see it on your list.

Julia Buckley said...

Wow, what great suggestions here! And Liz, your book is on MY list, which automatically puts it on my mom's list. :)

Darlene, I will check SImon's book out as well--I've heard good things about it.

Auntie Knickers, for the title alone I might have to look up COLD COMFORT FARM!

And Julie, REBECCA is indeed a book that transcends time.

Sandra Parshall said...

Julia, you must read COLD COMFORT FARM. I'm surprised that an English teacher has never read it! It's priceless and timeless and very British in a way that's difficult to define.

Julia Buckley said...

Okay, I'm convinced. :)

I'll look for it pronto!

Joyce said...

It's not really a mystery, but I'd add "To Kill a Mockingbird." It's my all-time favorite book, I think, because of the voice. When I'm reading the book, I feel like I *am* Scout.

Julia Buckley said...

Oh, I agree, Joyce. Such a perfect little book, and with such wisdom. I've often thought it's as much a book about parenting as it is one about prejudice.