Hi! I am looking for some detective fiction to read, and I was wondering if you could help. I love Dorothy L. Sayers, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Agatha Christie's "Tommy and Tuppence" series (although not so much Miss Marple or Poirot). I would be so grateful for any suggestions. Thanks!
A kindred spirit! Splendid! I love discussing/recommending detective fiction. I’ll do my best to provide appropriate suggestions. I’ll try to subdivide these suggestions according to which of your given authors/series they resemble (based on my subjective characterizations of each…!)
Conan Doyle: briskly and vividly told stories, occasionally macabre adventures, endearing characters at their heart. Alas, many are the disappointing epigones of the canon.
- Laurie R. King’s The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, and her subsequent Mary Russell books, are in my opinion really enjoyable novels featuring the Master and postdating the canon.
- Georges Simenon’s Maigret novels. If you’ve never read Simenon, treat yourself. Maigret is a humane, humorous, sometimes grumpy sensualist, and Simenon is a dazzlingly good prose stylist.
- Donna Leon’s novels featuring Commissario Brunetti and the city of Venice are atmospheric, literate, and clever. The eerie canals are evoked as vividly as the streets of late Victorian London.
- Ngaio Marsh’s Inspector Alleyn novels. Like Conan Doyle, Marsh wrote over the course of many decades, and her taciturn but compassionate detective has to confront a changing world. Alleyn is an urbane, Shakespeare-quoting Inspector (later Chief Inspector) at the Yard. The tabloids always comment on his good looks, much to his irritation. Accompanied by his loyal, laboriously French-learning Sergeant, he solves crimes everywhere from country houses to theatres to the hills of New Zealand.
Christie’s Tommy and Tuppence novels: breezy, lighthearted novels, occasionally melodramatic. Young Man and Young Woman meet, fall in love, solve crimes.
- Patricia Wentworth’s Miss Silver novels. Miss Silver is a bit Marple-ish, but she’s less eccentric, and less prominent in many of the novels (I happen to rather dote on Miss Marple, but even if she puts you off, I don’t think you’d mind Miss Silver.) Anyway: Wentworth was enormously prolific, and could be formulaic, but her novels are generally gentle and charming. The good end happily, and the bad unhappily. The one I regularly reread is The Case of William Smith, which I find irresistibly heartwarming.
- Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher novels. I’ve read only the first few of these in their entirety, but I find them great fun, and they’re deliberately playful with the tradition of detective novels.
- Ashley Weaver’s Murder at the Brightwell is a romp set in the 1930s. Heroine Amory Ames has to juggle a wastrel husband, an old flame, and an unexpected death at a seaside hotel. Hijinks ensue! The second volume in the series was recently published, but I haven’t gotten my hands on it yet.
- Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael series. Wrongs are righted and crimes solved by… a Benedictine monk in the 12th century! Young love blossoms! The social setting is nicely evoked, and the characterizations are good. Brother Cadfael is sometimes aided by a taciturn sergeant-at-arms. It’s all quite pleasing.
Dorothy L. Sayers’ Wimsey novels. (I love Sayers SO MUCH; she’s one of the novelists for whom a shared passion can jumpstart a friendship.) For me, what distinguishes her novels are their superb literary quality and their nuanced engagement with social issues.
- Elizabeth George’s Inspector Lynley novels. I know these look like doorstops, but they’re so addictive that I’ve gotten through the series in a series of binge-reading weekends, more or less. Lynley has Wimsey in his literary lineage: he’s a golden-haired toff with a soft streak a mile wide and a guilt complex a mile deep. His professional partner is Barbara Havers, junk food addict, fashion disaster, and 100% Good Person. I adore her. They in turn are aided by Winston Nkata, East Londoner, ex-gang member, and total sweetheart. Also featured is a disabled forensic specialist who shares Lynley’s taste in whiskeys. These are dark, and I have occasional quibbles, but I find them interesting.
- P.D. James. I’d recommend either the Adam Dalgliesh books or the Cordelia Gray books with a good conscience. James is an excellent writer, and her novels are atmospheric and subtle. You might start with Cover Her Face or The Skull Beneath the Skin.
- Josephine Tey, like Sayers, had a limited output, but her novels are fascinatingly varied. I think Brat Farrar might be my favorite; also good is A Shilling for Candles.
- Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse novels. Dexter’s novels are, I think, brilliant. They are distinguished by tight characterization, deliciously paced prose, plotting that shares Sayers’ tendency towards the absurd and the macabre, while remaining conscientiously within the terms of fair play for detective fiction. Also shared with Sayers is a delight in cruciverbalism and wordplay of all kinds. Morse is not the most likable of protagonists, but he is one of the most fascinating.
Bonus round: G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown novels. I think these are seriously underrated. Give them a miss if you’re likely to be bored by theology, but Chesterton’s prose is second to none. Worth reading for the descriptions of landscape alone, really. The plots are elaborate, sometimes delicate and sometimes melodramatic, and the dumpy little parish priest at their center is wonderful.
I hope this is helpful!