While many admirable mysteries are being written today—and a fair number of the people writing them are friends of mine—few of them have the staying power of some of the classic mysteries, whether from the Golden Age of Dorothy L. Sayers and Agatha Christie or the equally beloved reign of Ngaio Marsh and Josephine Tey in the Fifties. Not only do I get great pleasure out of re-reading those I can get my hands on, but I remember memorable lines from some of these authors’ books for decades after the last time I saw them in print.
In Dorothy L. Sayers’s Strong Poison, Lord Peter Wimsey first sees Harriet Vane during her trial for murder and saves her from the gallows after a mistrial gives him time to find the real killer. I don’t have to google or open the book to recall Harriet’s goodbye when he takes his leave after visiting her in prison:
“I am always at home,” the prisoner said gravely.
Harriet is down on men and uncomfortable with gratitude and dependence, so she leads Lord Peter a dance for several books after finally accepting his proposal at the end of Gaudy Night (with dignity and in Latin). I don’t have to look it up to tell you that Harriet says at one point, If I ever marry you, it will be for the pleasure of hearing you talk piffle.” Another scene that remains vivid for me, though I can’t quote it verbatim, is the one in which the unknown, malicious villain destroys the exquisite chess set that Peter has given Harriet. She’s devastated, and Peter tells her her reaction is precious to him because she says, “You gave them to me, and they were beautiful,” rather than, “They were beautiful, and you gave them to me,” valuing the giving above the gift itself. I believe the evolution of Lord Peter’s and Harriet’s relationship and the deepening of their characterizations to sustain it mark the beginning of the character-driven mystery novel. And it’s character, along with language, not puzzle or plot, that makes me savor, revisit, and never forget a book I’ve read.
I did have to google the exact wording of a line from Agatha Christie that I remembered as referring to moldy bread as “practically penicillin.” The passage, from Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, was even more delicious, so to speak, than I remembered:
“I didn’t get to that pudding in time. It had boiled dry. I think it’s really all right—just a little scorched, perhaps. In case it tasted rather nasty, I thought I would open a bottle of those raspberries I put up last summer. They seem to have a bit of mould on top but they say nowadays that that doesn’t matter. It’s really rather good for you—practically penicillin.”
Then there’s Ngaio Marsh’s Troy, her detective Roderick Alleyn’s wife, taking a river cruise in A Clutch of Constables. Troy’s impulsive decision to take this trip, sparked by an appealing ad, has made me believe in the romance of such voyages ever since I first read the passage in which she tells herself, “For five days, I step out of time.” What an evocative and unforgettable line!
Among Josephine Tey’s wonderful books, my favorite is Brat Farrar, about an appealing foundling who undertakes an impersonation and ends up falling in love with a family and finding his sense of belonging in their home and way of life. Given enough time on a desert island with nothing to read, I could probably reconstruct the whole book from memory.
This is not to deny that some current writers and their characters achieve that kind of power over our imaginations. I’ve never forgotten how moving it is when Lawrence Block’s Matt Scudder speaks up in an AA meeting and says, “I’m an alcoholic” for the first time in Eight Million Ways to Die (1982). Granted, the topic of recovery is of particular interest to me as an alcoholism treatment professional and author of my own mystery series featuring a recovering alcoholic protagonist. But Block’s series, and that scene in particular, made me care so much about Scudder that I was thrilled when Block finally wrote his love letter to AA almost thirty years later, in this year’s A Drop of the Hard Stuff, set at the end of Scudder’s first year of sobriety.
Which of the mysteries you’re reading now have that kind of power over your imagination? What scenes or lines will you never forget, even ten or twenty years after the last reading?