My All-Time Favorite Mysteries
Crime and Punishment (Fyodor Dostoevsky, 1866)
This 19th Century Russian classic is both suspenseful and relevant in the modern era. Rodion Raskolnikov, an impoverished but brilliant student, pursues a theory that leads him to murder--but then he, the hunter, becomes the hunted, and he meets his intellectual match in the police detective Porfiry Petrovich, who is determined to wring a confession from the tormented young man. I read this book as a high school senior, a college sophomore, and a grad school student, and I've also taught it now for many years--but I never tire of reading it, and each reading makes it more clear what a genius of human psychology was Mr. Dostoevsky.
Have His Carcase (Dorothy L. Sayers, 1932)
In Sayers' previous novel, STRONG POISON, Lord Peter Wimsey helps to acquit the beautiful Harriet Vane of murder charges. Vane tries to escape her notoriety in the countryside, but is confronted with the body of a young man who has been murdered. Lord Peter hears of her discovery and rushes to be with her, and together they investigate the murder of the unfortunate young man. Though the murder is gruesome and the plot is tense, this novel is also surprisingly funny and romantic, and I've always loved it.
They Came to Baghdad (Agatha Christie, 1951)
I suppose it's ironic that of all the wonderful Christie novels in the "whodunnit" genre from which I could choose, I ended up picking one of her rare action/spy novels, which she wrote after her own experiences in Baghdad with her second husband, archeologist Max Mallowan. This one is a nostalgic favorite for me; I read it as a young girl and it spoke to my imagination in such a way that I've never forgotten the joy of reading it. Christie was in a class by herself, and this book was an example of her having fun with writing.
The Long Goodbye (Raymond Chandler, 1953)
This is arguably the best novel Chandler ever wrote, and I had the privilege of teaching it in a history of mystery course. In it, the tough but moral Philip Marlowe meets the "lost dog" Terry Lennox. His white hair and polite demeanor win over Marlowe, who has a soft spot for the downtrodden. Thus begins a relationship that leads Marlowe into a world of murder and intrigue. The best part of any Chandler novel is the first person narration by the tough but funny Marlowe.
This Rough Magic (Mary Stewart, 1964)
All of Stewart's wonderful suspense novels are highly literary, and this one is an homage to Shakespeare's THE TEMPEST, starting with the title, which comes from Prospero's promise that "This rough magic I here abjure," to the epigraphs at the start of each chapter, which are quotes from THE TEMPEST, and are always pertinent to the content of the chapters. Lady Stewart died just this year, and I have never felt such melancholy about an author's death as I did with her passing. I have multiple copies of all of her books, and I still re-read them when I want my spirits lifted. You can look in the blog section of this website to read my tribute to Stewart.
An Unsuitable Job for a Woman (P.D. James, 1972)
P.D. James and Ruth Rendell were the reigning queens of British mystery at the end of the 20th Century. I read them both compulsively, but Rendell's books sometimes ventured into the macabre, while James stayed stolidly in the realm of the police procedural, a genre that I love. However, with Cordelia Gray, James created a woman in a man's world, since Gray decides to run her own detective agency and must face all of the critics who consider her an "unsuitable" choice, even as she shows an affinity for investigation and travels to Cambridge to investigate the death of a young man. (See my blog post about P.D. James on the main page).
The Blue Hammer (Ross MacDonald, 1976)
Once I read a Ross MacDonald mystery, I had to read them all. He is a master of plot and prose, and no one writes as satisfying a metaphor as does McDonald, whose books are grim but compelling--the kind you have to stay up all night to finish rather than wait until tomorrow. I loved all his books, but this one, his last, is perhaps my favorite.
F is or Fugitive (Sue Grafton, 1990)
There's not a bad book in Grafton's alphabet series, but this one was always one of my favorites, and Kinsey Milhone is such a wonderful, independent, smart and plucky detective that I never really wanted one of her investigations to end--except that I needed to know who committed the crime, and Grafton often fooled me. Grafton often writes of her admiration for Ross MacDonald (see above), and her writing reflects his effect on her. Like MacDonald, Grafton often has her detective investigating cold cases--in the case of this book, a murder seventeen years in the past--because it provides rich fodder for characterization: we are reading about people who have had a long time to contemplate the victim's demise, and this often gives them insights that they could not originally give the police. A terrific read.
A Shred of Evidence (Jill McGown, 1995)
Any mystery novel by Jill McGown is worth reading, and the author herself died too soon in 2007, while there were many Inspector Lloyd and Judy Hill novels yet to be written. McGown perfectly balanced the secret romance of her chief inspector and his colleague with the truly intricate crimes she dreamed up for them to solve. I love all of her books, and they are some of the rare few on my permanent keepers shelf.
The Millennium Series (Stieg Larsson, 2005-2007)
Larsson's Girl with the Dragon Tattoo trilogy was occasionally uneven in its writing, but he is one of the most dynamic storytellers I've ever encountered, and Lizbeth Salander is the greatest hero of the 21st century. The first book was slow to start, but once you hit the interesting details, you won't be able to put the book down--or the next one, or the next. It's a shame that Larsson died before he could see the immense success these books had al over the world, but what a masterful series he offered in praise of the strength and ingenuity of women!
Playing for the Ashes (Elizabeth George, 2008)
Elizabeth George is a captivating writer, and once I started her series starring Inspector Thomas Lynley and his unlikely sidekick Barbara Havers, I sought out every new book in the series. George writes very long books, and yet, thanks to her gift for including just the right details and spot-on descriptions, they are the kind of books one cannot put down until they've reached the resolution.