I do a great deal of book-recommending in any given week, and every aspect of it is a pure joy – the challenge of matching the perfect book with the perfect reader, the little joy of being able to hand (or mail) somebody the instant gratification of their curiosity, of course the longer-term happiness of learning that the recommendation hit the right spot – all aspects but one: since there are far more books than real, open-minded readers, recommending books often means recommending some books repeatedly. The good books don’t change, but the book recipients change all the time – so some of the following recommendations will no doubt be familiar to some of you. Consider the repetition emphasis!
One little genre dear to my reader’s heart, the murder mystery, makes for some easy recommending; the comfort of the formula can shine an extra light on the ingenuity of the writer. These six will please all but the most hardened fiction-cynic:
If the ability of the sleuth to interest the reader is – or ought to be – key to the whole enterprise, then surely Lillian De La Torre’s irresistible books have the right guy: none other than the Great Cham himself, Doctor Samuel Johnson (faithfully recorded although not substantially helped by his faithful chronicler Boswell). The first in the series is 1944’s Dr. Sam: Johnson, Detector, and in many ways its stands as the best in the series as well (although not, as a drunken Ellery Queen once blurbed, the best in the history of the entire world, for cripe’s sake), full of narrative firecrackers to keep the reader smiling:
Suddenly, the air was rent with scream upon scream of terror. My companion started to his feet; Mrs. Clarke almost dropped the candle.
“Rouze up the apprentice!” cried Johnson. “Give me the candle! Come, Boswell!”
La Torre also does a great job weaving research (and sheer wonkery) into great background atmosphere for Boswell’s London itself – this is always a great plus in a historical novel, although more murder mysteries ignore it than you’d think.
Deanna Raybourn lays the historical atmosphere on nice and thick in her debut mystery, 2007’s Silent in the Grave, in which our feisty, intelligent heroine gets her start in the detecting line when her husband keels over dead. Julia Grey’s husband Sir Edward Grey had already been nervous enough to hire private investigator Nicholas Brisbane, but before he and Grey can unravel the thread of threats Grey’s been receiving lately, Grey pitches over at his elegant London home, in front of all his guests – and his wife:
I stared at him, not quite taking in the fact that he had just collapsed at my feet. He lay, curled like a question mark, his evening suit ink-black against the white marble of the floor. He was writhing, his fingers knotted.
I leaned as close to him as my corset would permit.
“Edward, we have guests. Do get up. If this is some sort of silly prank -”
“He is not jesting, my lady. He is convulsing.”
Lady Julia is the perfect foil for Brisbane as they team up to solve – and avenge – the death of her husband, and Raybourn plays on that tension wonderfully throughout this book and the ones that follow it. It’s a pleasure to keep recommending these books to readers who like lots of sumptuous detail surrounding their sleuthing.
A leaner and far tauter affair is Ariana Franklin’s 2007 debut Mistress of the Arts of Death, starring Vesuvia Adelia Rachel Ortese Aguilar, who, despite being a woman – and despite the year being 1171 – is a full-blown forensic pathologist, trained at the medical school at Salerno and sent to the England of King Henry II to solve a brutal and mysterious series of child-murders. I’ve praised this book before here at Stevereads, and it’s a joy to praise it again: re-readings only discover more of its supple strengths – foremost of which is the lady Adelia herself, utterly unsentimental, brusque, and her own worst enemy when it comes to giving the powerful men of the realm the deference they expect, a stubbornness we see right away when she’s speaking with a powerful prior whose life she saves (with a simple but disturbing medical procedure before the book is six pages old):
She sighed with impatience. “I see you are regretting that the woman, like the doctor, is unadorned. It always happens.” She glared at him. “You are getting the truth of both, Master Prior. If you want them bedecked, go elsewhere. Turn over that stone” – she pointed to a flint nearby – “and you will find a charlatan who will dazzle you with the favorable conjunction of Mercury and Venus, flatter your future, and sell you colored water for a gold piece. I can’t be bothered with it. From me you get the actuality.”
We do indeed get the actuality from Adelia, in this and all the later books, all of which are delightful.
Delight comes also from an author who never failed to provide it: Georgette Heyer, who balanced out a very lucrative career writing romance novels by also occasionally writing mystery novels. She was highly disciplined when generating material for either of her beloved genres, and in both cases, she brought her millions of readers satisfaction mainly by serving up the extremely familiar with infectious gusto. Her 1969 novel Envious Casca (one of the two books on our list with Shakespeare-derived titles) centers around that most tried-and-true of mystery novel venues, the English country house, Lexham Manor in this case, where an eccentric family’s attempt at a picturesque English Christmas is punctured in just the way you’d expect:
“No use waiting for Uncle Nat. As you’ve no doubt guessed, he’s dead.”
“Dead?” Mathilda exclaimed, after a moment’s stupefied silence. “Are you joking?”
“I am not. To put it plainly, someone stuck a knife in his back.”
Valerie gave a scream, an clutched at the nearest support, which happened to be Roydon’s arm. He paid no heed to her, but stood staring at Stephen with his jaw dropping.
Mottisfont said in an angry, querulous tone: “I don’t believe it! This is one of your mistaken ideas of humour, Stephen, and I don’t like it!”
Maud’s hands were still clasped in her lap. She sat still, a plump, upright little figure, with a rigid back. Her pale eyes studied Stephen, travelled on to Mottisfort, to Roydon, to Valerie, sank again.
“It’s true?” Mathilda said stupidly.
“Unfortunately for us, quite true.”
A by-the-book inspector turns up on the scene to ask the Christie-style questions, and the locals give their Christie-style drawled evasive answers, and the whole thing unfolds with the warm-bath comfort of sharp, pure predictability.
Less predictable at least in setting is the 2008 debut novel by the pseudonymous Michael Stanley A Carrion Death, which opens with a hyena chased away from feasting on the dead body of a white man at the edge of the Kalahari game reserve and features the far-sighted, unhurried investigation of Assistant Superintendent of the Botswana Criminal Investigation Department David Bengu, nicknamed “Kubu” (“hippo”) for his enormous size. Kubu is an opera fan and a lover of fine wines, and he has an even temper most certainly not shared by his animal namesake:
“People always talk about the perfect murder,” he said. “There isn’t any such thing. Murderers always make mistakes. It’s not a natural thing to do – killing another human being in cold blood. It never works out quite like you expect. You’re tense. You’re nervous. You make mistakes. You leave clues.”
Clues are plentiful and cold as stone in Steven Saylor’s debut murder mystery, where a middle-class Roman named Gordianus the Finder is visited at his homely villa by an emissary from an obscure young lawyer named Cicero, who needs help investigating the background events of his first murder trial. Cicero’s client, Sextus Roscius, is accused of killing his own father, and Cicero needs Gordianus to find out whatever might lurk in Roscius’ background before it can spoil the high-profile case Cicero badly needs. Gordianus accepts the case, and Saylor excels in showing us the seedy, up-thrusting welter of the City under the dictatorship of Sulla:
No other city I know can match the sheer vitality of Rome at the hour just before midmorning. Rome wakes with a self-satisfied stretching of the limbs and a deep inhalation, stimulating the lungs, quickening the pulse. Rome wakes with a smile, roused from pleasant dreams, for every night Rome goes to sleep dreaming a dream of empire. In the morning Rome opens her eyes, ready to go about the business of making that dram come true in broad daylight. Other cities cling to sleep – Alexandria and Athens to warm dreams of the past, Pergamum and Antioch to a coverlet of Oriental splendor, little Pompeii and Herculaneum to the luxury of napping till noon. Rome is happy to shake off sleep and begin her agenda for the day. Rome has work to do. Rome is an early riser.
The story that results will give you an hour’s perfect escape from the lesser mysteries of your own ongoing day – all these books will do that (and also teach you some history in a fairly painless way, if you’re the type who finds history painful), and they’ll keep doing it no matter how many times I recommend them, which is nice.