In Defense of the Detective Novel

This essay came out of some thoughts I had on detective novels and their function in society. I’m not sure any of it is terribly earth-shattering–I’m fairly certain it’s all been said before–but it was important to me, so I wrote it all out, then decided it was worth polishing and sharing. So here it is.

Truth, justice, mercy. All very big, abstract concepts that can be hard to wrap our heads around in concrete terms. What is truth? How do we balance justice and mercy? To whom do we show justice, and when is mercy appropriate? If I were to tell you I was writing a story exploring these concepts, you might reasonably expect some weighty, literary piece of work, with dense prose and a somber tone. What you might not expect would be a detective novel.

Yet it is in mystery stories that I have had some of my most profound realizations regarding said subjects. From Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot I have learned that the truth has a beauty and a virtue of its own, quite apart from its subject. From Lord Peter Wimsey and Brother Cadfael I have learned the importance of understanding human nature and acknowledging one’s own weaknesses. I have grasped the concept of not setting oneself above others–that elusive idea we call humility. These books have taught me the danger of shrugging one’s shoulders at small evils, because they open the way for larger ones. Above all, I have learned that justice must be pursued for those who have no voice of their own, that it the responsibility of everyone who can be heard to speak for those who can’t.

In Dorothy L Sayers’ second Lord Peter novel, Clouds of Witnesses, Lord Peter falls victim to a bog in which he is almost lost. At first glance, it can read as cliche, but I think there’s a deeper metaphor to be drawn from it–whether Sayers meant it or not. Sometimes, in the pursuit of truth and justice, it is easy to get lost in the fog, to get stuck in a mire and lose our way, nearly drowning in uncertainty and confusion. It is only through steadfast patience–as Bunter showed in keeping Lord Peter up until rescue came for them both–and light to show the way that we can make it out.

As a result of his unplanned fall into the bog, Lord Peter comes across the clue which allows him to unravel the entire mystery. The origin of the word “clue,” as I’m sure many of you already know, comes from the ball of thread Theseus used to guide himself through the Labyrinth. In that way, mystery stories themselves can act as clues, providing a thread for people who are stumbling in the miry dark, trying to see truth, walk the path of justice, practice mercy. In the assurance that justice will come, that the killer will be punished, that the dead are not left voiceless, mysteries act as lights against the darkness that can sometimes cause us to despair as we look at all the injustice and horror in the world around us.

I think it is no coincidence that the “Golden Age” of detective fiction was the between-war period, a time when life was changing, the rules by which everyone had always lived were upended, the values and morals they had always held immutable shifted and changed under their very feet. It was a time when an entire generation was trying to learn who they were, and what sort of a world they lived in–perhaps more importantly, what sort of a world they wanted to build. In a time of chaos and uncertainty, when the very ideas of truth and justice seemed like fairy tales, detective stories provided some assurance that good could conquer evil, and that justice was worth pursuing.

We are living in a time of chaos and change ourselves. We hope that the change will be for the better, but sometimes we can lose faith when we look at everything around us. I see an entire generation passionate for justice and truth, and sometimes getting too weighted down by the burden of those concepts to keep going, sometimes feeling like they are one lone voice shouting against the dark. Now, more than ever, we need detective stories to help give us that clue, to help guide us through these times, to remind us that we are not alone, and that even the small acts of justice, mercy, and truth we can do in our everyday lives matter.

Characters I Would (or Have) Dress Up As

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I love costumes. I love theater, and acting. Carl surprised me this weekend by taking me to our community theater’s production of “Arsenic and Old Lace,” which was brilliantly done, and which I would have adored even if it had been less professional, because I haven’t been to a live performance since … well, before college. Carl had never seen live theater (aside from high school plays) before, so it was a whole new experience for him, and he was surprised at how much he enjoyed it, too.

Anyway. Because I love acting and theater, I also love dressing up as various characters. Always have, probably always will. Here are some of my favorites from the past, and some I still dream of attaining:

1. Raggedy Ann. My kindergarten Halloween costume! My mom sewed me a dress and pinafore, and made a red yarn wig; we couldn’t find striped stockings anywhere, so I still remember sitting in class and my dad showing up right before the parade with wide red elastic bands to put over my white tights, to look like red and white stripes. It worked beautifully, and set the tone for going all out with costumes in our family.

2. Robin Hood. This was for a friend’s 18th birthday party, where she wanted everyone to dress up as a character from their favorite movie. I chose Robin Hood, being a big fan of the Errol Flynn version, but also of the character himself from the many stories I read. Having short hair worked really well for that one; I recall I used an eyebrow pencil to give myself a mustache.

3. Joe Hardy. This was a last-minute costume. The well of inspiration ran dry, and we had a Harvest Party that night, and I had no idea what I was going to do. Staring at the bookshelves finally gave me an idea. I ran to the local department store and bought a pinstriped Oxford shirt and clip-on tie; borrowed my dad’s old leather bomber jacket, and slicked my (again, short) hair down with a disgusting amount of gel. Success!

4. Regency Lady. This was not any specific book character, but definitely inspired by my fondness for all the Jane Austen books and adaptations. In one week, I bought the pattern and fabric, cut the dress out, and sewed it. Still one of the fastest sewing projects I’ve ever managed to complete. I sewed the sleeves in backward, but no one ever noticed! We tied a wide ribbon around my head and my sister coaxed a few curls out of my hair, and there I was. (Fun side note: that was the night both Carl and I started having more-than-friendship feelings for each other.)

Now for characters I would want to dress up as, even still!

5. Lucy Pevensie. I want to wear this dress, and be Queen Lucy the Valiant. Someday.

6. Eowyn, Shieldmaiden of Rohan. Let’s face it, fantasy-medieval characters are pretty much the best, especially when they get to carry weapons with them. I made Joy a blue princess outfit for Halloween this year, and we are figuring out how to concoct a shoulder belt and scabbard out of ribbon for her foam sword, while her shield clips at her waist, and with a headchain/crown on her head, she is a pretty uncanny representation of Eowyn (not that she knows who that is, of course – she rolled her eyes when I called her a Shieldmaiden of Rohan).

7. Rounding out my medieval list would be Eilonwy, daughter of Angharad, daughter of Regat, daughter of – oh, it’s such a bother going through all that. Carl recently read “The Book of Three” for the first time, and he told me afterward: “So, Eilonwy … pretty much you as a kid?” Hey, there are far worse book characters I could have been.

8. Anne of Green Gables. Though to tell the truth, I would honestly mostly like to dress like Anne for everyday life, not just as a costume. After watching the movie with some of my neighbors recently, I found myself craving long wool plaid skirts and hand-knitted sweaters for autumn and winter wear.

9. Harriet Vane. An excuse to wear 1930s clothing and say clever and biting things! What more could one want?

10. I had a terrible time narrowing down this last one, but I think I finally settled on Albert Campion. I’ve already got the glasses and pale hair and indeterminate face (I love that descriptive phrase, by the way: indeterminate face. Isn’t it evocative? And since I cannot go anywhere without having people say “Oh yeah, I know you … don’t I?” because my face always looks like somebody else, I think I can claim that phrase for myself). All I would need would be a natty 1920s gentleman’s outfit.

Carl could accompany me as Lugg.

Top Ten Places Books Have Made Me Want to Visit

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Oh man, how to narrow this down to ten?

1. Wales. Susan Cooper and Lloyd Alexander chiefly are responsible for my love affair with Wales. Between Prydain and Will Stanton I was hooked early, and Brother Cadfael and Celtic lore in general only strengthened my love. I’ve even attempted to teach myself the Welsh language, that’s how much I love it.

2. The Rest of the UK. I have read way too many books set in England, Scotland, and Ireland to not want to visit every corner. Carl is looking at getting his PhD in either Scotland or England, and the thought of actually living there for 3-4 years seems like a dream. A really good one.

3. Greece. Books like MWT’s Queen’s Thief series and CS Lewis’ Till We Have Faces, and Lloyd Alexander’s The Arkadians, not to mention all the Greek Mythology I grew up on (did anyone else ever play the board game By Jove? Friends of ours owned it, and we would play it all the time) kindled in me a deep, deep desire to someday visit the land that has inspired so many wondrous stories.

4. Oxford, England. I know I already listed Great Britain above, but Oxford deserves its own special spot. Not only is it the home of my beloved Lord Peter and Harriet Vane, but so many of my favorite authors attended or lectured (or both!) there, that I can’t even imagine walking around there.

5. Mankato, Minnesota. Maud Hart Lovelace based Deep Valley on Mankato, her own home town, and someday I intend to visit there and pay my respects to Betsy Ray properly.

6. Prince Edward Island. Because Anne and Emily and Kilmeny and the Story Girl and Jane and Marigold, that’s why. Because LM Montgomery. And because it’s beautiful.

7. Mythology is to blame for a lot of my travel lust, it seems, because I also really want to visit the Scandinavian countries due to my fondness for Norse mythology. Also, as with PEI, because I think they’d be beautiful. And because Carl’s heritage is largely Swedish. But mostly because of myths.

8. Colorado. The first time I read Susan Coolidge’s Clover and In the High Valley, I fell in love with her description of Colorado. I am 100% certain it’s nothing like that today, but I would still love to visit and see for myself.

9. Egypt. Yup, blame it on the myths again. Also on Zilpha Keatley Snyder’s The Egypt Game. And the Amelia Peabody books.

10. Narnia. I know it’s not a real place. But oh, how I’ve always wished it was.

As always, check out The Broke and the Bookish for more Top Ten lists.

Book Recommendations: Cozy Mysteries

I asked for some book recs on Twitter the other day, as I’ve gotten burnt out on too much YA (when all the protagonists start sounding alike and you want to shake them all for normal, teenage behavior, I think it’s a clue that it’s time for a break). I got some good suggestions, but it occurred to me how difficult it is to give recommendations when you’ve only got 140 characters to understand what sort of books the other person likes and dislikes. So I thought it was time for a new series on the blog – Book Recommendations!

This will be where I list off various books I love, like, etc. in a genre, and you can feel free to offer up suggestions for others based on what I already like. I’ll throw in some specifics of things I dislike as well, to provide balance.

This isn’t purely selfish, either: I’ll update the post with suggestions from the comments, and then whenever someone is looking for a good book in a particular genre, they can just click on the post and have a handy list right at their fingertips.

So, to start off: Cozy Mysteries!

Cozies I Love:

Agatha Christie, of course. Still, and always, the Queen of Crime! (But I’ve no intention of reading the new Poirot novel, because that to me seems like even greater sacrilege than Jill Paton Walsh’s attempts at Lord Peter.

And speaking of Lord Peter … Dorothy L Sayers. I love Peter, and I love Harriet, and I love Bunter, and I most especially love the way she writes.

Ellis Peters. I have almost all the Brother Cadfael mysteries, and I just started collecting the Inspector Felse series. At this point in my life I almost even prefer Felse to Cadfael. Shocking, yes?

Mrs. Pollifax. Dorothy Gilman’s other books are a little weird for my taste, but I adore Mrs. Pollifax. More adventures than mysteries, they’re still pure entertainment, and pure delight for me to read.

Josephine Tey. The woman was brilliant. That’s all.

Cozies I Like:

Ngaio Marsh. Sometimes she can be a little too dry for my taste (it seems half the mysteries are less “mystery” and more “Alleyn and Fox collect evidence and by the end of it know who did the crime, and sit around and snigger at Nigel’s ignorance until they Reveal All), but she’s still brilliant.

Carola Dunn. I have read all the Daisy Dalrymple books, and the Cornish mysteries, and while they aren’t necessarily the best things ever, they are delightful period pieces. And since they are set in the ’20s in England, I can justify buying them as “research” for my own stories. Score!

Margery Allingham. Sad to say I recently gave away all my Campion books. I like them, but not enough to let them continue taking up space on my shelves.

Laurie R King. I only like the Mary Russell stories (I read Touchstone and hated it so much I couldn’t read anything by King for months afterward), and even those have started appealing to me less with the most recent books. Not exactly cozy, but also not really hard-boiled or noir either.

Charles Todd. These can get a little grim for me (and I can never, ever read them late at night), but they are brilliantly crafted. Like the Mary Russell series, these are a little darker than typical cozies, but they also don’t fit into any of the other mystery categories.

Anna Dean. The Dido Kent books are imperfect, but they stay true enough to the time period (Regency) while still managing to feature an intelligent and independent heroine, that I thoroughly enjoy reading them.

Anthony Berkeley. Technically I’ve only read one Roger Sheringham book (they are even harder to find than Campion books), but it cracked me up, and I’ve been on the lookout for more ever since.

Cozies I Sorta Like:

Elizabeth Peters. These hover between farce and genuine mysteries, and I wish they’d make up their mind which they are, because the in-between makes it hard to like them, but there’s a lot of brilliance in them all the same.

The Cat Who books. I pick them up every once in a while, enjoy them for a bit, and then promptly forget about them afterward.

P.D. James. Are these even cozies? I really don’t know. I like them all right, but I can only read so many in a row before I have to turn to something else.

Georgette Heyer. They’re OK, but I always expect the detective to be much more clever than he/she ends up being, and I inevitably guess the culprit long before anyone else. Which is lovely for my ego, but does get boring to read after a while.

Cozies I dislike:

Anything that takes a real person and turns her (it’s usually a her) into a detective. I’ve tried a few of these, and I end up hating them with a passion every time. (Tell the truth, I’m not really a fan of any book that fictionalizes real people, unless said book is by said person him- or herself, i.e. the Little House books.)

ANY mystery featuring Jane Austen characters. Please, no.

Cozies that insist on featuring the exact same characters and developments and “quirks” in every single story, that go through a dozen books and never let the main character grow in any way, that feature protagonists being Too Stupid to Live or doing idiotic things like hiding evidence from the police for no other reason but that they want to prove something, that rely on people being idiots in order to keep things a mystery. Whew.

Anything too “cutesy.” Most themed mystery series get on my nerves after the first book or two. I realize that themes are an essential part of many cozies, but they tend to get repetitive quickly.

~

I’m sure I’m missing some, but that sums it up as best I can. Make your suggestions in the comments, and I’ll update the post with them as they come in!

Update:

If you don’t mind real people fictionalized, Stephanie Barron has written a Jane Austen mystery series which is rather well done.

Over on FB, someone mentioned the Flavia de Luce series by Allan Bradley, which are written for adults despite featuring an eleven-year-old protagonist.

The Phryne Fisher series is delightful fun for the most part, even though I had to quit them after a few books due to my own personal inability to read casually about child abuse.

The Nero Wolfe series is not quite cozy, but reportedly not too hard-boiled, either.

The Mrs Bradley series is quite extensive and shooting to the top of my list of books to find!

Top Ten Authors I Own the Most Books Of.

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1. Agatha Christie I own a lot of cozy mysteries: almost all the Cadfaels, a lot of Ngaio Marsh, plenty of Dorothy Gilman, a fair amount of Margery Allingham, almost all of Dorothy L Sayers, a few Laurie R King’s (until I decided to get rid of them because the series was descending in a way that started annoying so much I couldn’t appreciate the first ones as much anymore, nor could I see the point in keeping a few books in a series I would never finish) … but unquestionably, it is the Queen of Crime who holds the top spot on my shelves. Her books literally spill off the shelf that holds them.

2. Brian Jacques. I own the entire Redwall series, and have doubles of some of them (paperback and hardcover), plus I have the three Flying Dutchman books. I’ve packed away most of the paperbacks for now, while we’re in a small apartment with limited shelf space, but I still have the hardcovers displayed. The quality of the Redwall series might have gone slightly downhill with the later books, but I still love them all. (Except the Legend of Luke – as much as I love Martin and Gonff, the disjointed nature of that book was a disappointment – and Loamhedge, which leaves me cold every time I read it, though I can’t pinpoint why, exactly.)

3. Lloyd Alexander. I don’t own all of Lloyd’s books – yet – but they do take up significant space on my shelves. As well they should. The Prydain Chronicles, all save The High King, which I’m saving to buy as celebration for finishing Magic in Disguise, are in place of honor on my living room shelves, along with The Chronicles of Narnia and the Lord Peter Wimsey books.

5. LM Montgomery. I have almost all Maud’s books, including the short story collections. I don’t have the Pat books, because I hate them, and I’m missing one or two short story collections, but I still have enough to take up plenty of room. (And Cathy, I have the chunk of sandstone you sent me from PEI sitting atop the box set of Anne books!)

6. Maud Hart Lovelace. All the Deep Valley books! All the Betsy-Tacy books (including hardcovers of the first two on the kids’ shelves), Emily of Deep Valley, and the joint edition of Winona’s Pony Cart and Carney’s House Party. If she’d written more about Deep Valley, I’d own those, too.

7. Elizabeth Enright. I have all of her books except the picture books. Like with Lovelace, if she’d written more, I’d own them too.

8. Michael A Stackpole. Technically these are in my boxes, not my shelves. When I (sadly) sold off most of my Star Wars EU collection, I kept all the Stackpole, Allston, and Zahn novels. Out of those three, I only have original novels from Stackpole. I haven’t read anything by him in years, but his books taught me an enormous amount about world-building and writing in tight third-person POV. I owe him a lot.

9. CS Lewis. All the Narnia books – between Carl and I we have three box sets of Narnia, one hardcover and two paperback; we bought a stunningly beautiful illustrated copy of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe at a used bookstore recently to give to Joy for her seventh birthday; I also own a couple Narnia companion books. Then there’s Till We Have Faces (also on my living room shelves), the Space Trilogy, and a goodly selection of his nonfiction work.

10. Miss Read. I’ve been slowly collecting Miss Read’s Thrush Green series over the years; once I complete that, I’ll begin on the Fairacre books. Nothing is better on a chilly fall or winter night than curling up with one of those and a cup of tea. They are my go-to reading for when life is getting overwhelming or bleak.

I realized, writing this list, how rare it is for me to only own one or two books by an author (unless that’s all he or she has written). Usually I don’t buy anything until I find an author I really like, and then I buy everything I can by him or her, rather than scattering my affections across many different authors. There were plenty more I could have added to the list … Austen, Gaskell, Dickens, Eager, Nesbit, Wrede, Cooper, all the cozy authors I mentioned in the first point … really, it would be harder for me to find an author whose books I don’t own a wide selection of than vice versa.

A creature of habit, that’s me.

Check out The Broke and the Bookish for more lists!

Top Ten Unique Books

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1. Gaudy Night, Dorothy Sayers A detective story, a romance, a psychological novel, or something else entirely? I’ve never been able to make up my mind, but never have I read something so utterly unique and intriguing. I love this book.

2. Code Name Verity, Elizabeth Wein This one seems an obvious choice. A book one can’t even discuss without giving away crucial parts? Totally unique.

3. Jinx, Jinx’s Magic, Sage Blackwood At first glance, these seem like typical MG fantasies, with shades of Diana Wynne Jones, Lloyd Alexander, CS Lewis, (even Doctor Who!), and many others. But Jinx himself is such an unusual protagonist, a quiet, self-contained boy, enormously observant, often rude without realizing it, responsible yet frequently impulsive … I like to call these books quiet fantasy, which in no way takes away from their intensity. In fact, it might just increase it.

4. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Agatha Christie It’s not entirely unique, because after she wrote this many others have copied the same trick – even Christie herself managed to recreate it a few times – but she was the first to attempt such blatant trickery of the reader, and to do it in a way no one could even justifiably resent afterward. Genius.

5. The Rope Trick, Lloyd Alexander All of Alexander’s books are faintly reminiscent of each other, with similar character types popping up in all. The Rope Trick stands out, though, in that Lidi, the main protag, is not like most of his heroines. And I’ve certainly never read any other fantasy of this type that ends with (Spoiler!) all of them dead.

6. Emily of Deep Valley, Maud Hart Lovelace Oh, Emily. I’ve talked before about how much I love her. What makes this book truly unique, though, as well as contributing to its beauty and strength, are three things: (Spoilers ahead) Emily doesn’t marry her first crush; she doesn’t get to finally achieve her dream of going to college at the end; she is a quietly strong character, without a hint of feistiness. All three so very rare.

7. Winnie-the-Pooh, The House at Pooh Corner, AA Milne OK, random yes (although not if you know my household – we either listen to the audio books or have the hard copy lying around for anyone to browse through almost all the time, and Carl just finished reading them to the girls for bedtime stories AGAIN), but still. Have you ever read any other children’s book that is even remotely similar to these? That has humor for both adults and kids, that can suck you in whatever your age, that makes stuffed toys come so vividly alive? Good old Winnie-ther-Pooh.

8. Queen’s Thief series, Megan Whalen Turner Another obvious choice. I love these books, and even more do I love how MWT writes the books she wants to write, without worrying about conventions or expectations of the genre. These books are their own books, and they aren’t ashamed of that. (Because they’re AWESOME.)

9. Dark Lord of Derkholm, Diana Wynne Jones A rollicking, wickedly funny tear on traditional fantasy, this book, as with most DWJ, also manages to slide in some pretty sharp truths amidst the humor and nonsense. A book that both makes you laugh hysterically and catch your breath with its poignancy.

10. Wives and Daughters, Elizabeth Gaskell I include this mainly because of my husband. He’s not a fan of most Jane Austen movies, because he can tell right off the bat what’s going to happen, who is going to end up with who and why, and he finds the progression boring. W&D, however, he started out confidently predicting how it was going to end up, and then found himself confounded at every turn, and ended up truly loving it. So I say that makes it pretty unique in its genre! It also happens to be one of the only unfinished books I love and adore and don’t even care that it’s unfinished, so there’s also that.

And there you have my top ten! I am realizing there’s a great deal of overlap between all of my top ten books. Either that means I have a very narrow selection of books to choose between (possible, since although I read a lot, most books I forget about almost as soon as I finish), or that my favorite books are my favorites for good reason: they all share a lot of great qualities.

Head over to The Broke and the Bookish for more lists!