Thursday, January 22, 2009

Seminal and Exemplary Mysteries

Elizabeth Zelvin

I recently heard that a gentleman with an encyclopedic knowledge of the mystery genre will soon be revealing the seven mysteries he considers “the” books all mystery writers must read. I don’t know his list, but if I’m allowed to guess, I believe he will probably choose works by Edgar Allan Poe, A. Conan Doyle, Wilkie Collins, Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Ross Macdonald, and Rex Stout. (If I may hedge my bets, I’ll nominate Sheridan LeFanu, Mickey Spillane, and Erle Stanley Gardner as alternates.) As it happens, I won’t get to hear his talk. But before I realized I had a schedule conflict, I had already compiled an alternative list of works that, if not the seven progenitors of the mystery heritage, are a lot more relevant to my heritage as a mystery writer. My feminist dander is up, and I’m ready to charge to the defense of the traditional and especially the character-driven mystery, as well as the matrilineage of mysteries by women. I hasten to add that none of these have been attacked in any way. This is purely speculation on my part. But I had a lot of fun selecting my seven candidates. So here they are.

Agatha Christie, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd
Dame Agatha is perhaps the most likely to appear on a male mystery historian’s list. After all, she is the mother not only of the cozy, but also of the puzzle in which the murderer turns out to be the least likely suspect. Her plots, highly original in their time although they have become clich├ęs through imitation, are widely admired. Having to pick one book, I chose Roger Ackroyd, although it’s not my favorite, but as the exemplar of the unreliable narrator.

Dorothy L. Sayers, Gaudy Night
The presiding genius of the Detective Club during the Golden Age of mystery in the 1930s, Sayers reached her peak in this mystery without a murder that is also a richly textured novel, which I believe earned her the right to be considered the mother of the character-driven mystery. I’ve posted this opinion elsewhere, but it bears saying again. The key passage is one in which Harriet Vane asks Lord Peter Wimsey for advice about her novel.

"'Well,' said Harriet...."I admit that Wilfrid is the world's worst goop. But if he doesn't conceal the handkerchief, where's my plot?'
[Peter suggests a way to define Wilfrid's character that would give him motivation for concealing the handkerchief.] ....'He'd still be a goop, and a pathological goop, but he would be a bit more consistent.'
'Yes--he'd be interesting. But if I give Wilfrid all those violent and lifelike feelings, he'll throw the whole book out of balance.'
'You would have to abandon the jig-saw kind of story and write a book about human beings for a change.'
....'It would hurt like hell.'
'What would that matter, if it made a good book?'"

I suspect that Sayers and her muse had precisely this conversation in her head, and Gaudy Night was the result. The creation of Harriet and Sayers’s increasingly three-dimensional portrayal of her both in relation to Lord Peter and grappling with her own dilemmas regarding her work and what kind of life to choose ushered in the transition of the traditional mystery from primarily a puzzle to a puzzle embedded in a character-driven novel.

Josephine Tey, The Daughter of Time
Tey’s work falls in the period between the Golden Age and what I’d like to call the age of Sisters in Crime, analogous to the Second Wave of feminism in the 1970s and 1980s. My favorite among Tey’s books is Brat Farrar, a character-driven novel that is both endearing and enduring. But The Daughter of Time stretches the boundaries of the genre by applying modern detection, by a temporarily bedridden British police detective, to a famous historical puzzle, the character of King Richard III and the fate of the Little Princes in the Tower.

Sara Paretsky, Indemnity Only
Paretsky was not only chief among the founding goddesses of Sisters in Crime, but also the mother of the American woman private eye novel, along with Sue Grafton and Marcia Muller. Paretsky’s protagonist is not only physically tough but also finds most of her cases in the “man’s world” of business, politics, and finance. Indemnity Only was the first outing of V.I. Warshawski, and it revolutionized the depiction of women in mysteries.

P.D. James, An Unsuitable Job for A Woman
All of the highly acclaimed P.D. James’s novels are works of literature as well as British police procedurals in the Adam Dalgleish series and P.I. novels in the works featuring Cordelia Gray, of which this is the first. James is one of those writers who is always being said to transcend the mystery genre, to the annoyance of mystery writers. I was dismayed to find, among the blurbs of the most recent Wexford novel by Ruth Rendell, her closest rival, a statement by James herself that Rendell “has transcended her genre.” Let us say, rather, that both these writers have set the bar high for the rest of us in our chosen form of literature.

Laurie R. King, The Beekeeper’s Apprentice
King is another superb literary stylist who earned her place on this list by stretching the boundaries of the canon of one of the progenitors and masters of mystery fiction, by giving Sherlock Holmes an apprentice and mate who is not only female, young, and feminist, but just as smart as he is: a worthy partner.

Elizabeth Peters, Crocodile on the Sandbank
A male mystery historian might find this a frivolous choice, but the first Amelia Peabody mystery by Egyptologist Peters (or Barbara Mertz, to use her real name) has it all. It’s an exemplar of the historical mystery, informed by legitimate scholarship and a shovelful of literary license, in a context of romantic suspense. Its protagonist is one of mystery’s memorable characters. And it’s tremendously funny, a welcome and crucial element in the genre.


Anonymous said...

Agatha Christie has written a much better and seamless example of the unreliable narrator in Endless Night

Anonymous said...

Great list! Here are the writers I want to be when I grow up:
Carolyn Hart
Donna Andrews
Earlene Fowler
Julia Spencer-Fleming
Louise Penny
Margaret Marion
Sujata Massey
Susan Wittig Albert

Anonymous said...

Good list. If there was any one book that inspired me to be a writer, it was Gaudy Night, which I have read at least ten times (and I own three copies).

Amongst current writers, I second Julia Spencer-Fleming, whose books I save for when I really, really need them; Vicki Lane; and Kate Flora.

Terry Odell said...

I've read all but one of these. Most of the authors are on my keeper shelves. Thank goodness for The Mystery Guild's price breaks.

Anonymous said...

Yah, the "best ever mystery lists" always seem to be comprised of writers like Hammett, Macdonald, Chandler, Ross, Stout, Spillane, etc. Though I've read at least one book by each of those authors, somehow I've rarely read the books included on those lists.

But I've read every single book on Liz's list.

Wonder what that means....

Janet K.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

It's delicious to talk about favorite books with those who agree. I've recently discovered Sujata Massey's work (after meeting her f2f at a conference) and am looking forward to meeting Vicki Lane at Murder in the Magic City in a couple of weeks--I've heard great things about her books and will certainly come home with one. I loved Earlene Fowler's standalone, The Saddlemaker's Wife, and was blown away both by Julia Spencer-Fleming's latest and Laurie King's Touchstone. And Margaret Maron goes without saying.

Anonymous said...

I've read all these books and the only tweak I'd make to your list is to take off Indemnity Only (just a personal choice) and add Rest You Merry or any of the other wonderfully funny Charlotte McLeod books. Love all the rest!

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