As a follow-up to my last post on mystery, now that I’ve provided several deep philosophical reasons to read mystery- have some detectives!
- Brother Cadfael of the Cadfael series by Ellis Peters He’s a monk, ex-crusader, and a detective in medieval England, during its civil war. And in the chaos of that landscape he solves murders, facilitates romance, and has his patience tried by his fellow monks.
This series is one of my favorites. I love the atmosphere in these stories, and Ellis Peters does a fantastic job showing that, for all the time and priority differences, people in the Middle Ages were still people and every bit as difficult to deal with then as they are today. The setting is really colorful and the side characters are amazing. Of particular note is Hugh Beringar, deputy sheriff in the province. He and Cadfael work spectacularly well together and between the two of them they keep law and order with as much effectiveness as can be expected. As far as detection goes, the medieval “forensics” are particularly entertaining and clever, with Cadfael often using his extensive knowledge of herbs to track down the movements of victims and their killers.There’s also a TV series staring Derek Jacobi, which is fantastic as far as he’s concerned- he’s a perfect Cadfael. I have to admit I have trouble watching after season 1 because Sean Pertwee played Hugh Beringar to perfection in that season and then left for some reason, which leads to some very boring/bland actors playing one of the most interesting characters in the series (the fact that I’ve had a crush on Hugh ever since reading One Corpse Too Many in high school is IRRELEVANT. Irrelevant, I tell you). But overall it’s still lovely, with great music, beautiful scenery and (for the most part) decent adaptions of the plots. Books are still better, but as far as adaptions of stories go, this one of the more quality ones you’ll see.
- Miss Jane Marple of the Miss Marple series by Agatha Christie.
She’s a little old lady who solves crime when she’s not gardening or visiting her neighbors. Really, how much cooler can you get?
Well, you can always be accurate about 99.9 % of the time. And she always has examples from her home village that, while sometimes nasty, seem to have nothing to do with the murder at hand- until she explains the key aspect of human nature that both incidents illustrate. She’s a very gentle character, somewhat unusual for a detective, but she can be as tenacious as the best of them. There are quite a few adaptions of Miss Marple out on TV and DVD, but if you were to watch a specific version, I highly recommend Joan Hickson’s performance; Agatha Christie actually wrote to the actress earlier in her career saying that she hoped Joan would play Miss Marple, and if you watch these versions, I think you’ll see why.
- Roderick Alleyn of the Inspector Alleyn series, by Ngaio Marsh.
This is one of the rare instances where the detective is an actual policeman rather than a consulting amateur, and it lends the series a very different flavor than most stories. Alleyn is anything but eccentric, being very cultured, well-mannered and polite, and has a gift for stepping back from the narrative to allow other characters to shine. Many of Marsh’s novels seem like dramas or literary fiction that happen to contain murders, and unlike many novelists, she rarely recycles characters under new names. The best of her mysteries, though, center on the theater, where she had worked with a travelling company since she was fifteen. There’s also a heavy focus on art, since painting was another of Marsh’s interests.
There is a TV series for this as well, but I haven’t watched it and frankly don’t want to because I feel like the only way justice could be done to her characters would be a full-length film or something like the BBC’s Sherlock. Even then, it would still feel stunted. Suffice to say the books are great and I don’t think they need much in the way of supplements.
- Gideon Oliver of the Gideon Oliver series
This guy is a college professor/forensic anthropologist who perpetually stumbles across skeletons that bear signs of death by violence. His discovery is usually followed by an attempt on his life to prevent any further information coming to light, followed by the dredging up of old crimes and very current hatreds.These books are fantastic for a rainy day or for when you’re craving relaxation and entertainment that doesn’t take too much thinking. Of course with my luck I ended up giving most of mine away before college on the assumption that out of all my mysteries, these were the ones I would miss least (too be fair, I’ve felt the lack of these least often, but that’s massively disproportionate to how badly I want to read them when the craving hits). The characters are really nice and likeable, and there are a lot of really fun moments. It’s a different kind of detective work, deciphering bones, and reading about it is fascinating.
- Sammy Keys of the Sammy Keyes mysteries by Wendelin van Draanen
These books are awesome. They are also technically way too young for me, but I really don’t care. Sammy is a middle-schooler (seventh grade when the series opens, I think) who has a penchant for getting into trouble and seeing things she shouldn’t. She’s a great narrator with a lot of problems that are actually difficult and engaging, and she has a great voice. Her problems actually feel like those of a seventh grader, and she copes with them in a believable manner- which is to say she’s not always competent in going after what she wants. She’s like a much grittier and action-orientated Nancy Drew, and reading about her adventures both in school and in crime-solving is a blast.
- Sherlock Holmes in all the stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Yes, an obvious choice. No, I don’t care. Nancy Drew/Hardy Boys may have been my first mysteries, but the Sherlock Holmes tales are what convinced me that mysteries could be AWESOME. I had never read anything like Sherlock Holmes before- someone who could read almost everything about you by just looking at you, a master of disguise, brilliant mind, and a very poorly concealed darker side to top it off. The influence and impact this character has is still being traced, and the general quality of the original stories is astounding, especially when you consider that Conan Doyle wrote them to pay the bills. To this day, Sherlock Holmes remains one of the most engaging and charismatic literary characters I’ve read, and from the staggering number of adaptions the character has seen, I’m not the only one who agrees. If you haven’t read these, do yourself a favor and get thee to a library. And if you’re looking for a good adaption, the Jeremy Brett ones are the best, in my very stubbornly held opinion.