When I’m tired I enjoy a good pulpy mystery or a predictable Agatha Christie, but here are a few writers worth checking out for their literary merits as well as their ability to write page-turners.
1. Tarquin Hall
Hall has the impressive ability to portray India in all its complexity, its tragedy, and its squalor, without burdening the reader. Instead of reading like a travelogue or a caricature, the novels plunge you into the contradictions of modern Indian life, immersing you in enjoyable details of food and drink, endearing dialect and nicknames, and detective Vish Puri’s own family life. Hall manages to touch on subjects like the corrupting influence of Western technology and culture without being preachy, and without making the story too heavy. Instead of using uncanny hunches or dazzling armchair detection, Puri gets his man by sheer willpower and determination. He gets his answers any way he can, including bribery and worming his way into people’s confidences, because that’s the way the system works. His second novel, The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing, is probably his best–it’s a hilarious, slightly dark send-up of fake gurus who take advantage of the superstitious. The third novel, The Case of the Deadly Butter Chicken, delicately handles the subject of the partition of Pakistan and India by focusing on the heartbreaking story of the women caught in the middle. I’m looking forward to reading Hall’s nonfiction next–my husband bought me his memoir, Salaam Brick Lane, for Christmas.
2. Georges Simenon
Simenon’s Inspector Maigret is so fatherly, so human, so tired, so doggedly persistent. It’s a pleasure to follow him around, from home to bar to police station, patiently asking every question he can think of until he finds the truth–not just a solution to the crime, but an answer that makes sense to him based on the psychology of the criminals. Simenon touches very delicately on Maigret’s tender relationship with his wife, their happy but routine life at home, and their regret at their childlessness. The Maigret novels and short stories are a great cozy read when you’re in the mood for a slow, thoughtful story with a lot of atmosphere. “Maigret Pursues” is a wonderful short story about the relationship between Maigret and the suspect he is trailing, and “Maigret’s Christmas” is sweet and gentle.
3. Ross Macdonald
I wrote a bit about Macdonald’s writing style here. His stories are dark, but so human. The detective, Lew Archer, is streetwise but not corrupted, flawed but not dissolute, wise-cracking but not overly cynical. His hope for the young people who get tangled up in the Los Angeles underworld, and his understanding of how the villains, even the most purely evil ones, became who they are, makes the darkness bearable.
4. Josephine Tey
I’ve written a little about Tey as well. I enjoy the way her characters’ observations are filtered through their scruples and their conscientiousness; the reader travels along with the protagonist, suspecting the innocent, feeling sympathy for the obnoxious, suffering with the guilty. I really enjoyed the novels A Shilling for Candles and The Franchise Affair . I had high hopes for The Daughter of Time, in which a bed-ridden Inspector tries to solve a historical mystery about British royalty, but my knowledge of English history wasn’t up to it.
5. Julie Hyzy
I first picked up Hyzy’s White House Chef series for throw-away light reading, but I enjoyed them enough to hunt down every single one in the series. They’re not high literature, but they’re a head above the rest of the pulp fiction mysteries you’ll find at the library, and the setting is fascinating. There are a lot of well-researched details about the inner functioning of the White House and the struggles to provide world-class cuisine while catering to the first family’s tastes, the security requirements, and the delicate protocols required for visiting foreign diplomats. It’s also interesting to see the relationship between the White House staff and the first family, whose mutual loyalty and respect sometimes clashes with their political beliefs. The politics and diplomacy are interesting, but so are the kitchen details! Well, to me, anyway. Hail to the Chef is not the first one in the series, but it’s a good one to start with. Her Manor House Mysteries are not as good, but they’re enjoyable.
6. Oh boy, I’m running out! I guess I’ll have to put some fun ones here. I wouldn’t call Ellery Queen high literature either, but he’s a lot of fun. I’d recommend the novel Calamity Town, which happens to be based on my hometown, Claremont, NH! Isaac Asimov’s Black Widowers series of short stories are delightful. Each one presents a little thought puzzle, not cerebral enough to be heavy going, but enough to give you satisfaction or a pleasant bit of surprise at the end.
7. If you’re in the mood for something cold and chilling, look for the short stories of Stanley Ellin or Patrick Quentin in The Penguin Classic Crime Omnibus, which is an outstanding collection. If I remember, every single story in this anthology is strikingly good. Enjoy! Visit the rest of the Seven Quick Takes crowd at This Ain’t the Lyceum.
Simenon photo: Erling Mandelmann / photo©ErlingMandelmann.ch /