Six underrated detective novels
A loyal reader, and my sister, have both discovered Agatha Christie recently. This is a great moment in anyone’s reading life. I will never forget finding Death on the Nile in the school library. So I thought I’d do a list of underrated classic detective fiction. This is an attempt to list some of the best work at the margin. If you’re just starting you’ll get to classics like The 4.50 from Paddington or Strong Poison without any problems. This list is to get you started with some breadth. There’s not much more fun to be had than reading Christie. (Like Dylan Thomas, I want to die in the bath eating sweets and reading Christie.) But she belongs to a huge genre of excellent books. Detective fiction lit up the imagination of many twentieth century writers, including Graham Greene and Dorothy Glover. Of course, much that is classic but slightly marginal has been left off this list, like Murder Must Advertise and The Moving Toyshop or anthologies like Victorian Villainies or The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes or Maigret. But this is, hopefully, a shove in the right direction.
Spotted Hemlock (US link), Gladys Mitchell
Every now and then my wife and I remember when we both read Spotted Hemlock, one after the other, and it’s like reminiscing about a really good holiday. It’s such a well-written, clever mystery, not at all contrived, with the wonderful Mrs Bradley investigating.
The Blotting Book (US link), E.F. Benson
Concise, high-class, high-tension Edwardian mystery, full of the smooth charm you expect from a classic mystery but with exceptionally good prose. Every time I read this book I finish it in one sitting. The whole thing is clear, vivid, high-quality and compelling. The ending takes the morals seriously. A top-drawer page turner.
Crime on Her Mind (bookfinder link), anthology
We think of Miss Marple as the exception to the usual rule that the detectives in this genre are men. This is a book of stories where all the detectives are women. It’s an excellent collection, and a short book, which means every story is worth the effort. The story about the dentist is ingenious.
Hamlet! Revenge! (US link), Michael Innes
Everything Innes wrote is recommended, but this is my favourite. His first book Death at the President’s Lodging is a classic puzzle. This is more of a novel about a murder. This is the book where the pen name Edmund Crispin came from. Julian Symons (whose books are unreadable bilge) said Innes thought of detective fiction as “an over-civilized joke with a frivolity which makes it a literary conversation piece with detection taking place on the side.” Presumably, he thought that was a clever criticism. It’s exactly what I like about Innes.
Thirteen Detectives (bookfinder link), G.K. Chesterton
There is only one Father Brown story in here, the rest have Chesterton’s trademark combination of revelatory plots, zany humour, and not-quite-hectoring pulpit tone. The openings often startle. I’m not a Chestertonian by any means (I couldn’t finish The Man Who was Thursday) but this is a great collection of lesser-known stories from the Sherlock Holmes period. Quite unique.
Towards Zero (US link), Agatha Christie
Classic detective fiction is thought to have cardboard characters. Not so in Towards Zero, which is one of Christie’s best combinations of compelling plots and sharply drawn people. More than many of the well-known Christie classics, this one winds up the suspense marvellously. I’m surprised it isn’t more well known and adapted. If it featured Poirot, it likely would be.
The Poisoned Chocolates Case (US link), Anthony Berkeley
The ultimate keeps-you-guessing mystery. I started off scoffing that it was too easy to solve. I ended up raging in fascinated despair. Some people think And Then There Were None is the best of this sort of mystery. They are wrong. This is a witty, entertaining book that slightly teases the Golden Age Mystery genre. A good choice if you enjoy being challenged to guess the answer.
You might also enjoy
Conan Doyle, or, The Whole Art of Storytelling, by Michael Dirda (US link). Dirda is a real enthusiast. I had to resist spending hundreds of pounds on Amazon buying up everything he mentions. Wonderful work.
The Golden Age of Murder, by Martin Edwards (US link). You’ll get a few good hours of skimming out of this book that you can't get anywhere else. I'd be in favour of someone re-writing it as a succinct set of potted biographies. It’s the tale of the Detective Club. Plenty of good information but you can happily abandon it half way .
My next salon, on 1st March, is Samuel Johnson: Reading for Wisdom where we will discuss Rasselas (US link), pessimism and pragmatism, and the good life. The attendee list has some interesting Johnson enthusiasts on already — join them.
My tours of the City of London are on Tuesday 22nd Feb, Sunday 27th Feb, and Saturday 5th March. If you are interested, but can’t make those dates, let me know.