My Favorite Mystery Writers 2

When I’m not reading history or biography I tend to read mysteries, suspense novels,  and / or thrillers.  I have written in this blog before about some of my favorite mystery authors.  Here goes with some more!   I love British police procedurals, series that have a strong woman as the main character, mysteries with a touch of humor to them,  thrillers with an international twist, the noir genre,  and mysteries that are set in the near past (19th and 20th centuries).  Over the years, I’ve come to realize that some authors mean to have their books read in the order in which they are published, so I read them thusly.

Some authors are content to let their characters live in a particular time and others stretch their lives out to encompass long periods of time.  Here are some examples.   Jacqueline Winspear enters Maisie Dobbs’ life when Maisie is a young teenager in the first decade of the 20th century.  In her twelfth book,  an adult Maisie travels to Berlin in 1938.   Contrast that with Sue Graftons Kinsey Millhone, who appears to be stuck in the 1980s and  ages  one year every two and half books.    Anne Perry‘s character Thomas Pitt has been combating criminals and traitors in London for the last twenty years of the nineteenth century through thirty-one volumes in the series.  He and his wife, whom he met in his first case, married at the end of the first book and now have two teen-aged children.   Elizabeth George‘s Inspector Lynley mysteries seem to follow chronologically one right after another.

Although I prefer British mysteries written by British authors, I have found there are American writers who write mysteries set in the British Isles almost as good as the natives.  Elizabeth George is one of these.   Inspector  Thomas Lynley is a peer who likes to downplay his title, but dates a woman who is also an aristocrat.  His creator has paired him with a duo of detectives, Barbara Havers and Winston Nkata from totally different cultures:  Havers is from a lower middle class background who lives with aging parents  in council (public) housing;  Nkata is a black man who came from a violent, troubled youth.

Martha Grimes is another American author whose main character is a Scotland Yard detective.   Grimes is unique because all her mysteries have titles that are the names of real pubs in Great Britain.   Her main characters are Richard Jury, and Melrose Plant, a friend who helps Jury with some of his cases.   Plant is a hereditary peer who has given up his titles to the dismay of his American born aunt.  Jury and Plant’s worlds go from Islington, the area of London where Jury lives, to New Scotland Yard where he works, to Long Piddleton, where Plant’s ancestral home is located.   Secondary characters inhabit these locales and other places where Jury has to go for his cases.

An author’s success with a series of books inhabited by the same characters, such as Grimes’,   depends on similar characteristics that make for hit series on television.  First, of course, there has to be good writing.   The main characters have to be believable and supported by an entertaining secondary cast of characters.  A good example of this is one of my favorite authors whom I haven’t mentioned yet, Daniel Silva, who writes thrillers that could mirror tomorrow’s headlines.  The main character of Silva’s books is Gabriel Allon, an Israeli art restorer who doubles as a spy/assassin.  Among Allon’s supporting cast is his second  wife, Chiara, also an agent for the Office, the Israeli intelligence agency they both work for.  In addition to her, he has a team who supports him in whatever op they are running.  Various agents from MI6, CIA, etc. also populate these books, along with villains from a number of Arab organizations, both real and fictional.

To close, I’d like to remember one of my favorite writers, Ruth Rendell.   She died in May 2015 at the age of 85.  She was honored by the Queen as a Commander of the British Empire (CBE) in 1996 and as a life peer, Baroness Rendell of Babergh, in 1997.  As such she was an active Labourite member of the House of Lords until she had a stroke four months before she died.  “The last words of Ruth Rendell’s 66th novel, which can be revealed without a spoiler, consists of someone declaring: “Now it’s all over. ” May she rest in peace!

BOOKS AND MORE BOOKS

This, I believe, is the 50th blog in this series, so I thought I would review, to the best of my memory, some of books I have read over my lifetime.  I have always had books at home.  Being I was a history major in undergraduate and graduate school (not counting MSLS degree) and history is a reading intensive subject, my education brought me in contact with even more books.
Like me, Emily Dickinson loved books and even wrote a poem about them:

There is no Frigate like a Book

There is no Frigate like a Book
To take us Lands away
Nor any Coursers like a Page
Of prancing Poetry –
This Traverse may the poorest take
Without oppress of Toll –
How frugal is the Chariot
That bears the Human Soul –
                                        EMILY DICKINSON
 I do not recall what my parents read to me before I could read.  Babar is the first character in book I can remember.  Enid Blyton, who was a famous author of children’s adventure stories in Great Britain, had published six of the “Famous Five” series by the time I left Scotland in 1948. I think I had read them all.
When we moved to Memphis in 1949, one the first things my mother did was to visit the old Cossitt Library downtown to get us both a library card.     There I discovered Joseph Altsheler, who wrote a number of series of historical novels for what we now call middle school boys. (I was delighted to discover Altsheler’s books are still available in either paperback or Kindle editions from Amazon.)  As a sixth grader and on into junior high I read his books and a series of biographies of famous baseball players and managers and other sports figures.   In fiction my choice was also sports including John Tunis, who wrote about all sports, not  just basketball, baseball, and football.
In high school and college I had little time for pleasure reading, but when I did, I read Leon Uris, James Jones, and James Michener each of whom wrote historical novels, some based on their experiences in World War II.  Meantime, in classes, I was introduced to a number books I still have in my personal library:  The Tennessee: the Old River by Donald Davidson, which I had to read for class in Tennessee History;  and  Mont Saint Michel and Chartres by Henry Adams, which was required reading for Medieval History.  A graduate reading course in Southern history made me familiar with William Faulkner’s  Absalom, Absalom!, Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men, and Eugene Genovese’s powerful study of the world slaves lived in Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made.    For other classes I read Nixon Agonistes by Gary Wills and The Quiet American by Graham Greene.
In the mid-1970s a colleague introduced me to a genre of fiction that has given me pleasure ever since:  the mystery.  In this vein, I just learned that one of favourite mystery writers, Ruth Rendell, died last May.   She was equally at home with psychological mysteries or police procedural  novels.  In fact, her Inspector Wexford series was adapted for television.   Anne PerryTess Gerritsen, Rhys  Bowen, Jacqueline Winspear, and, of course Agatha Christie, are a just a few of my favourite mystery authors.
Mysteries are my habitual fiction reading tastes.  In non-fiction I tend to read military (mainly Civil War, WWI and WWII) history and biography.  Such interests have seeped through onto this blog.  See, for example, previous  blogs on Shelby Foote, Winston Churchill, and John Keegan.  During the last few years, when I’ve evidently have had more time,  I have read and am reading multi-volume works such as Foote’s The Civil War, Douglas Southall Freeman’s Lee’s Lieutenants: a Study in Command, Rick Atkinson’s The Liberation Trilogy,  about the American army in North Africa and Europe, Volumes 1 and 2 of Ian W, Toll’s in progress Pacific War Trilogyand Carl Sandburg’s massive biography of Abraham Lincoln, The Prairie Years and The War Years.
About fifteen years ago, I decided to keep a log showing what I had read and the date I finished the book.   Beginning in 2002, I have, on my computer, a complete list of books I have read each year.  I also keep a record of the number of pages in each volume so I can see how many pages I have read.  (BWT: I don’t tell my wife because she thinks I read too much already!)  That came in handy a few years ago when a friend accused me of reading nothing but boring history books, I could tell that person that over the past few years I had read fiction and non-fiction equally.   And I plan on doing that as long I can read!

Georgiana, Maisie, and Amory: Detectives All

Most of my blogs in this series have been about non-fiction books, but occasionally I write about fiction, most often mysteries. I have lately discovered a mystery sub-genre that is set in 1920s or 1930s Great Britain and features  lone female detectives.   Two different examples of this genre are Rhys  Bowen’s series of “Royal Spyness” novels and   Jacqueline Winspear’s “Maisie Dobbs” series.  The heroines in these two series come from opposite  ends of the British social spectrum with one series featuring humor while the other is more serious.  Joining these two authors,  Ashley Weaver, a Louisiana librarian, has published Murder at the Brightwell, the first book in a new series in this type of mystery.

 Bowen’s heroine,  Lady Victoria Georgiana Charlotte Eugenie, the sister of the impoverished Duke of Atholl and Rannoch,  a penniless Scottish family, is a second cousin to George V and is  34th in the line for the throne. Using her, the Rannoch family,  and her friends, Bowen pokes fun at the British aristocracy.  At the outset of the series, Georgiana moves into the family town house in London to get away from the Rannoch’s   drafty Scottish castle and her sister-in-law, whom she detests.  Through most of the series, Georgiana lives in London with no servants and little money, thanks to her father gambling  away his fortune in the French Riviera casinos and then committing suicide, leaving Georgiana’s brother with expensive death duties to pay.   On the other side of her family, Lady Georgiana’s mother is an actress, the daughter of a retired Cockney policeman.  The series is populated with real people including King George V and Queen  Mary, their eldest son David (who became Edward VIII) and the love of his life, Wallis Simpson.   In fact, Queen Mary encourages Georgiana to spy on David and his  inappropriate American lover.  Her adventures include showing London to a German princess, whose knowledge of English comes from American gangster movies,  helping her sister-in-law entertain a castle full of obnoxious guests, including the Prince of Wales’ favorite American, Wallis Simpson, representing the Royal Family at a wedding in Transylvania, retrieving a snuff box belonging to Queen Mary from a shady British earl, etc.  In the latest episode, she accompanies her mother to Reno, Nevada to get a quickie divorce from her Texas millionaire step-father.  Georgiana has a habit of showing up where murders are taking place, so not surprisingly, she becomes a suspect, especially when she is abroad.

Maisie Dobbs comes from a similar background to Georgiana’s mother.  Maisie’s mother dies when Maisie is thirteen, so her father, a cockney costermonger, persuades one of his rich customers to take Maisie into service as a maid.  When the lady of the house discovers Maisie reading in their library early one morning, she recognises her young  servant has above average intelligence and decides to see to her education.  Eventually Maisie is accepted into the women’s college at Oxford, but World War I interrupts her education. She enlists as a nurse and is sent to France, where she meets a doctor and falls in love.  Tragedy strikes when their aide station is hit by an artillery shell, seriously injuring Maisie and the doctor. Returning to England, Maisie continues her education and then fulfills her ambition to be a private detective.    Although the war is long since over, Maisie carries external and internal scars that influence her life and the cases she investigates.  The series is full of characters, like Maisie, who have to deal with physical and psychological effects from their experiences in the war.   Her assistant, Billy Beale, is one of these.   The doctor she served with in the war is another.   In the latest episode, Maisie finds herself in Gibraltar, on the southern tip of the Iberian peninsula,  with the Spanish Civil War raging close by on the other side of the border.  She is drawn into intrigue that puts her life in danger.

Set in England in the same time period as the other two series, Ashley Weaver’s Murder at the Brightwell falls between the satire of the “Spyness” novels and serious themes of the “Maisie Dobbs” stories.  The main character, Amory Ame,s is a wealthy young woman married to a playboy who would rather travel the globe than stay home with his wife.  Amory lets a former fiancee talk her into going to a ritzy hotel on England’s south coast to help talk  his  sister out of a bad marriage.  Of course, murder rears its ugly head.  Amory finds herself a suspect, but then her wandering husband shows up and they solve the case together.     Amory will appear in the second book in the series, Death Wears a Mask, due to be published in October this year.