I’d like to welcome back my wonderful friend H., who blogs at The Thousand Book Project. If you’re looking for a good mystery to read on the beach this summer, here are some ideas. I can personally vouch for the Thomas Pitt books. Thanks for classing up the joint, H.! – mekkalekkah
What is it about a detective that absolutely charms me? Having been exposed to the charms of Lennie Briscoe on Law & Order at a fairly young age, I’ve always had an affinity for police procedurals. As I’ve grown older, this affinity has intertwined with another of my great loves: history. Well written, minutely detailed whodunits in a historical setting absolutely fascinate me. How do you solve a crime without DNA evidence, without pictures, fingerprints, or in some cases, even flashlights? If you’re smart enough, you manage. Below are some of my favorite inspectors, investigators, detectives, and all around brilliant gents who manage to catch the bad guy, regardless of the year.
M. Didius Falco (Didius Falco mysteries, Lindsey Davis)
Didius Falco (or Marcus, to his friends and family) is a private informer in ancient Rome during the reign of the emperor Vespasian. A strict republican, he takes the cases for Vespasian to earn enough money to move to a higher social class – once he does, he can marry his patrician ladyfriend, Helena Justina. Working for the emperor sends him not just around Rome, but to the farthest reaches of the empire and everywhere in between – Egypt, England, Gaul and Germania. Not only is it interesting because I never really learned a lot about ancient Rome, but it’s incredibly detailed and it’s very obvious that a lot of time was spent researching to make everything believable, even down to the anklets on the girls serving wine in the shops. Falco is also a great character, a wisecracking, sarcastic, curly-headed ladykiller with a heart of gold and a sensitive streak (he likes to write (terrible) poetry in his spare time). Helena is also great, she’s intelligent and stubborn and a fairly modern woman but it doesn’t feel anachronistic at all. I fully admit I have a huge crush on Didius Falco and his smart mouth.
Thomas Pitt (Thomas Pitt series, Anne Perry)
Thomas Pitt is the working class son of a gamekeeper and now Bow Street Runner in Victorian England. He has a reputation for honesty, a keen ability to read people, and a dogged determination to solve a case, and a reputation for being completely unkempt and wild haired. He works a very posh area of London that brings him into the houses and lives of the wealthy. Since the police at that time are seen as a distasteful necessity, like a rat catcher or a sewer cleaner, oftentimes doors are literally and figuratively closed to him when he has to investigate. Luckily his nosy wife Charlotte has a socialite sister, equally nosy and looking for something to occupy herself, who manage to charm their way in and discover clues Thomas would never be able to find. I call these Cracklike Victorian Detective Novels because once I started reading them I just blew right through the entire series, which is at least twenty books by this point. The plots are often ridiculous (gay suicide pacts! Secret witchcraft societies! Irish bombers! Oh, and honest to God, Thomas solves a crime with Oscar Wilde’s assistance – twice) but they’re so fast paced and dramatic that you don’t seem to mind. I’ve actually gotten very wrapped up in them, staying up late to finish and gasping when the killer is revealed. Thomas and Charlotte are also excellent because they feel like a very modern couple while still fitting perfectly into their time period. Thomas is probably the most heroic of the detectives here, but he’s not perfect so it doesn’t require any suspension of disbelief. Also, there was a tv movie made for the first book in the series and it is absolutely awful and even more ridiculous than the books.
Mary Russell (Russell/Holmes series, Laurie R. King)
Obviously I’m a huge Sherlock Holmes fan but I actually read this series before getting into any of Doyle’s stories. Mary Russell is an English-American Jewish girl, a brilliant scholar studying chemistry and theology at Oxford University in the 1920s. Oh, and she’s also the partner of semi-retired Sherlock Holmes. Together they travel the globe and solve crimes under Mycroft’s guidance. Some people do not like these books: they feel too Mary Sue-ish, they don’t like the way Doyle’s characters are portrayed, they feel Doyle’s books are sacred and shouldn’t be touched, or they don’t like Russell and Holmes’ relationship. I can see where people would have these issues but I feel that they’re extremely well written, and very true to the voice and spirit of the original Holmes stories. I’m usually extremely wary of books that are retellings of other stories from another character’s POV but Russell is a wry, intelligent storyteller who is every bit an intellectual match with Holmes. Also (spoiler alert!) Russell and Holmes do marry later in the series, which I realize is very much against the common perception of Holmes, but it’s almost an aside and never ever is the focus of the books save for the one where they actually do get married. I will concede that King’s version of Watson gets a very short shrift but her Holmes is pitch perfect. As a fan of Holmes, you could do a lot worse and I think it’s almost a disservice to write off these books just because they don’t “fit” the idealized image of Sherlock Holmes 100%. Also someone, I don’t know if it’s King herself or a fan or what, poses as Mary Russell on twitter and often makes snarky comments about the books and insists that SHE, not King, is the rightful author.
Matthew Corbett (Speaks the Nightbird, The Queen of Bedlam, Mister Slaughter, Robert McCammon)
Matthew lives in colonial New York in the early 18th century. Starting as a curious minded legal clerk, he heads to the Carolinas with his boss to deal with a witchcraft trial. His skill at winnowing out the truth of a matter brings him to the attention of a secret network of spies on both sides of the Atlantic, and he’s hired as a new agent and trained to be a true detective. The books become more involved and more swashbuckling as Matthew deals with Indians, corrupt police, idiotic royal representatives, and the various perils of New York nearly 100 years before American Independence. I really like these books because again, unfortunately colonial America is not a period I know much about, so the detail is fascinating to me, and Matthew is a very quiet and very relatable, human character, nowhere near as noble as Thomas Pitt is made out to be. The cases all have a very modern feel, with serial killers and sociopaths and psychological aspects, but it’s still 1702 so it’s not really put into so many words. They’re also all very thick books but they hardly ever drag so you really get involved and wrapped up in the story.