Mystery Authors Guide: Adult Winter Reading Program 2010
The mystery and crime fiction genre is a favorite genre amongst readers, evidenced by its many styles: from the convoluted cast of suspects in the traditional Agatha Christie novel to the violent noir of James M. Cain and the fascinating but unsolvable tales devised by mystery originator Edgar Allan Poe. More than prose in service to plot, the best of the mystery genre offers unique characters, tangible settings, social commentary, a sense of history—and revelatory scenes that endure in literature as well as popular culture.
The following entries comprise a brief guide to exemplary mystery writers of the field, which in every instance includes a description of a signature novel that is an official Readers in the Rue Morgue selection. All official selections are available for checkout from the Kansas City Public Library collection.
Tasha Alexander gives readers thoroughly researched and nuanced novels set in the Victorian era that relish in period details and customs. Her heroine is the young Lady Emily Ashton, whose eccentric tastes include port, cigars, classical Greek literature and solving crimes. Hardly a proper lady, Ashton is an intense observer (and critic) of gender roles – as in Tears of Pearl (2005) – while Alexander is simply an intense observer whose enthusiasm for her subject is catching.
James M. Cain turned to novels as a last resort. A six-month stint as a screenwriter at Paramount Pictures left him broke and looking for a paycheck. He published The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934) and earned that much-needed payoff. Ever since, critics have argued whether his novels belong to the gutter, since his work was the subject of an obscenity trial in Boston, or the American canon, supported by an admission by Albert Camus that Cain served as his template when writing The Stranger (1942).
Raymond Chandler absorbed the hard-boiled traditions that preceded him and then channeled them through his uniquely moral filter, embodied in the character of private detective Philip Marlowe. From his debut in The Big Sleep (1939), Marlowe slogged through the corruption of Los Angeles without ever letting its filth stain his pristine sense of justice. The setting as much as his criminals allows Chandler to dissect the corruptive power of money in American life, while his untouchable hero suggests hope for the future.
Agatha Christie spent a lifetime writing novels that would elevate the mystery from pulp into the realm of literature. Her signature creations – Belgian egg-head detective Hercule Poirot and English spinster Jane Marple – earned millions of devout followers and served as the vehicles through which Christie shattered genre conventions, as she did early on with The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926). Only The Bible and Shakespeare have topped Christie when it comes to book sales, with hers estimated at more than 2 billion.
Arthur Conan Doyle dashed off his first novel – A Study in Scarlet (1888) – in just three weeks. Also his first foray into detective fiction, it introduced the world to Sherlock Holmes, who would evolve into an instantly recognizable literary figure. Conan Doyle did not share the public enthusiasm for his character, whom he considered a distraction from the historical novels that were his true ambition and went so far as to kill Holmes. Public outcry – and lucrative publishing offers – resurrected Holmes, whose further adventures appeared regularly for the next 24 years.
James Ellroy started writing in his thirties after more than a decade spent as an aimless drunk, supported in part by petty crime. He rose to prominence with his L.A. Quartet series, kicked off by The Black Dahlia (1987), based on a real-life unsolved crime that resembles the murder of Ellroy’s mother. Ellroy has since moved away from crime novels, though his Underworld U.S.A. books retain the staccato style and over-the-top violence that defined his earlier work.
Dashiell Hammett defined the hard-boiled school of crime fiction more than any other writer, and with good reason. He worked as a private detective for the renowned Pinkerton agency for years before tuberculosis contracted during military service in World War I side-lined him. His nameless Continental Op set the standard in Red Harvest (1929), in which the detective solves a murder and then sticks around to clean up a lawless community by pitting criminals against a crooked police force.
Patricia Highsmith specialized in novels deeply rooted in the psychology of characters whose gritty yet mundane realities were considered absurd by some critics, while others extolled her works as true literature operating within the bounds of genre fiction. She is best known for her amoral murderer Tom Ripley, but her first novel – Strangers on a Train (1950) – is a signature work and was quickly adapted into the classic film by Alfred Hitchcock.
Chester Himes earned no money and even less critical respect for his early works, now recognized as classic black American protest novels. In imitation of Richard Wright, his literary icon, Himes immigrated to France, where he wrote the first in his Harlem Domestic series, A Rage in Harlem (1957). Though devoid of straight-forward social commentary, these crime novels support the absurdist view of ghetto life articulated in his earlier work while following the exploits of renegade cops “Coffin” Ed Johnson and “Grave Digger” Jones.
Tony Hillerman specialized in police procedurals firmly rooted in the Four Corners region of the Southwestern United States and the Navajo culture that endures there. In 17 novels, he traced the exploits of Navajo Tribal Police detectives Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee – at first independently before bringing the two characters together in Skinwalkers (1986). These novels regularly illustrate conflict between traditional Navajo beliefs – which often lend perspective on the crime at-hand – and modern detective work.
Laurie King has expanded the Sherlock Holmes mythology with a series of mysteries that follows Mary Russell, a young emerging detective and heiress. Russell first encountered Holmes in The Beekeeper’s Apprentice (1994), becoming an astute student of his investigative methods before becoming his wife. But even at the start of this unique relationship, the independent Russell is no sidekick, leaving Holmes the cooking and other domestic affairs.
Dennis Lehane is a darling of critics and readers as well as Hollywood for his tense yet nuanced novels, which adapt easily to the screen. He found his mark early with a five-book series following two young private detectives operating in Boston. His first standalone novel – Mystic River (2001) – inspired a critical reassessment of Lehane as a great novelist, regardless of genre. Recently, Lehane expressed a desire to write the Great American Novel; not yet 45 years old, he may have time enough to deliver.
Elmore Leonard wrote western stories and novels before making perfection of the hard-boiled crime novel his lifelong pursuit. His work is driven by conversations and characters, all of whom are world-weary yet impeccably cool despite brutal plot-twists as in Tishomingo Blues (2002). His quick pacing and out-for-themselves personalities have made his work appealing to Hollywood for decades. In 2009, the PEN USA organization awarded Leonard its Lifetime Achievement Award for his signature literary style, which has influenced a generation of writers.
Ed McBain invented the police procedural sub-genre, making not just one detective but an entire police squad the focus of his 87th Precinct series – starting with Cop Hater (1956). McBain followed the exploits and evolution of law enforcement in the fictional town of Isola – strongly reminiscent of New York City – in more than 50 installments. He sought to depict police work in a realistic fashion, providing forensic and investigative details without slowing the pace or manner of the pitch-perfect dialogue.
Walter Mosley progressed quickly from an unknown to a favorite author of President Bill Clinton with just three novels in the space of three years. His character Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins is an accidental private investigator who relies on his street savvy only when forced by economic distress – as in Devil in a Blue Dress (1990) – or to extricate himself from legal difficulties. Rawlins is at home in Los Angeles and readers can experience his city as it shifts from its post-World War II manufacturing high to the Watts Riots.
Sara Paretsky revolutionized the hard-boiled crime fiction genre with the introduction of feminist private investigator V.I. Warshawski in Indemnity Only (1982). In 13 novels, Warshawski has rooted out corruption in Chicago – oftentimes seeking to right injustices (with her fists as much as her wits) encountered in her daily life. Paretsky combats sexual stereotypes in literature throughout the series even as her heroine takes on pernicious social problems and sordid politics.
George Pelecanos has mined Washington, D.C. for as much gritty noir as the city can yield. His novels are as notable for a keen sense of place and close acquaintance with the underbelly of the nation’s capital as for the unique characters that Pelecanos finds there: heroic cops, vigilante detectives, and psychos like the Palindrome Murderer. Hard Revolution: A Novel (2004) is also distinctive in that the songs following his characters through the 1968 riots were included as a limited edition CD soundtrack.
Ellis Peters made her home in Shrewbury in England, as does her protagonist Brother Cadfael, the 12th century herbalist monk who is the driving presence in more than 20 novels. The Chronicles of Brother Cadfael are noted for their depiction of history and religion in the High Middle Ages, as well as the culture and politics in this turbulent time in British history. Historica events often inspire the mystery at hand, such as the siege and capture of Shrewsbury by King Stephen in 1138, which sets the scene for One Corpse Too Many (1979).
Edgar Allan Poe is credited with the invention of the detective story upon publication of The Murders in the Rue Morgue (1841). His amateur investigator, C. Auguste Dupin, is the archetypal genius-eccentric and served as the model for Sherlock Holmes. This essential short story also framed genre conventions such as the sidekick narrator and the inept constabulary. Poe employed Dupin only in short story form and he returned in The Mystery of Marie Roget (1842) and The Purloined Letter (1844).
Dorothy Sayers gave readers an Oxford-educated aristocratic detective in the form of Lord Peter Wimsey, who debuted in Whose Body? (1923). Though somewhat unnerved by shellshock suffered in the trenches of WWI, Wimsey leads a charmed life and his many expert skills – he is a master cricket player and classical musician, as well as an antiquities enthusiast – often influence his investigations. Like her protagonist, Sayers was multi-faceted: her writings include poetry, plays, and religious essays as well as her own translation of The Divine Comedy.
Rex Stout decided after five novels that he would never be a great novelist. So, he turned to detective fiction. With Nero Wolfe, he created arguably the most successful eccentric master crime solver since Sherlock Holmes. A corpulent genius who refuses to leave his lavish accommodations, Wolfe relies on private detective Archie Goodwin to do the dirty work and serve as narrator of these tales, starting with Fer-de-Lance (1935).
Margaret Truman wrote a successful memoir as well as a biography of her father, President Harry S. Truman, before starting on her Capital Crimes series. In more than 20 installments, Truman utilized her intimate knowledge of Washington, D.C. – its geographical as well as political terrain – to craft sensational plots, as in Murder in the White House (1980). A favorite of readers, she produced a new installment in the series nearly every year until her death.