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!

Anne Perry

By Stephen

Besides history, some of my favorite reading materials are mysteries.  I just read the latest Thomas and Charlotte Pitt novel by Anne Perry.  Perry is noted for her mysteries set in Victorian London.  That city in the late nineteenth century was the largest metropolis in world.  The gap between the richest and poorest was vast and, as a result, London had a problem with crime.  Charles Dickens’ books tended to reflect life in the poorer sections of the city, while Anne Perry’s mysteries are mostly set  in the wealthiest neighborhoods.

Viewers of “Downton Abbey” and “Upstairs, Downstairs” will find themselves in familiar territory in the world of the Pitts.  Thomas and Charlotte meet in the first volume, “The Cater Street  Hangman,”* while he investigates her older sister’s murder.   By the second book in the series Thomas and Charlotte are married and set up housekeeping in their own place.  Perry makes it clear that Charlotte has married beneath her station and can no longer take part in society events.   You  see, Thomas, as  a policeman, is considered on the same level as a tradesman.  When he goes to investigate a crime at an upper class mansion, the servants expect him to go to the tradesman’s entrance, not the front door, which is what Pitt is prone to do.

The Pitts haven’t been married long when Charlotte begins to help her husband with solving crimes.   She is familiar with the mores of British high society and besides her younger sister, Emily, is married to a nobleman.  Charlotte, in the company of  Emily, wearing gowns borrowed from her sibling, attends balls and society events, where she will observe the persons involved Pitt’s cases,  in the company of  Emily, wearing gowns borrowed from her sibling.

One my favorite recurring characters in this series is Emily’s great aunt by marriage Vespasia Cumming-Gould.  Aunt Vespasia is an elderly woman who has aged gracefully and has friends and acquaintances in the upper levels of society and even in the nobility.  These connections, on occasion, help Thomas as he solves murders.

Another character who takes part in Thomas’ detecting is Gracie, the Pitts’ diminutive maid.  Barely a teenager when she comes to work for the Pitts, Charlotte teaches her to read so she can keep up with current events in the paper.  Gracie eventually gets married and leaves service, but she helps pick her successor.

In one of the later books, Pitt is forced out of the Metropolitan Police, where he was Commander of the Bow Street Street Station.  Instead he moves to the Special Branch, an unit that sees to the security of the country as a whole.  Instead of solving murders in the homes of the powerful and wealthy, Pitt has to deal  with anarchists who want to disrupt British society.   In this job, he often has to be away from home for extended periods; one time, for example, he find himself in France, while Charlotte is helping a friend in Ireland.   However, when a friend of the Prince of Wales is murdered in Buckingham Palace, Pitt is summoned to solve the crime.  Later, when the head of the Special Branch resigns, Pitt is appointed in his place.

In the background of these novels looms the continent of Africa.  Britain was competing with other European nations for control the “Dark Continent.”   Cecil Rhodes in South Africa was making plans for a Cairo to Cape Town railway.  Leander Starr Jameson was leading a ineffective raid into the Transvaal Republic that led to the Boer War.  In the latest book in the series, “Midnight at Marble Arch,” the trial of Jameson plays a vital part.

In her personal life, Anne Perry (nee Juliet Hulme) has had a close association with murder herself. At age 15, she and a friend were convicted of murdering the friend’s mother in New Zealand.    Being too young for the death penalty, they were detained for five years and released.

Her first novel was published in 1979.  Since then she has published 27 books in the Pitt series (28th is due in 2014), 18 in the William Monk series, 5 books in the World War I series, 12 Christmas novellas, 2 fantasy novels aimed at young adults, and 4 stand alone volumes.

For reader who are interested in the society portrayed in Perry’s books, there are two non-fiction works  that provide background  information.  Judith Flanders’ The Invention of Murder, describes how crimes were portrayed in the press of the period and how the crime novel industry evolved.   Shooting Victoria, by Paul Thomas Murphy, recounts assassination attempts on the queen, but also gives some insight to nineteenth century English police work.

*If possible, it is better to read these books in order.   See for a complete list.