Top Ten Tuesday is a meme started on the Broke and the Bookish blog.
They set the topic, we make the lists. Visit their site to see more on this topicThis could be a pretty straightforward list, since a large proportion of the mystery novels published have this as a feature. At points I’ve tried to interpret my brief kind of expansively, if only because I think it will make things a bit more interesting, but at an even more basic level I’ve tried to find books that do something either different than the run of the mill in this genre, or do it better than them. It’s easy to write a detective novel (just come up with the ending and work backward). Writing something that takes the reader somewhere new within this format is something else altogether.
1. P. D. James, Devices and Desires
P. D. James was probably the best known British mystery writer of the 20th Century (not named Agatha Christie). A very large proportion of her books were dramatized by the BBC, in addition to being pretty much instant bestsellers. Her main character, Adam Dalgliesh, is a poetically inclined police commander. He’s interesting because he’s more soulful than your average homicide cop, with a team of crack investigators working with him. Devices and Desires is set on the bleak Norfolk coast and is one of those novels about otherwise respectable people living lives of quiet desperation (or lingering hatred) who finally snap, but do so in secret. As with all of James’s novels (this is the 8th Dalgliesh novel but you don’t have to read them in order) it’s carefully plotted, but more about looking into human souls and finding out what motivates people. Of all the detective series in the world, this gets my vote as the best.
2. Dan Fesperman, Lie in the Dark
This is one of those books that I try to recommend to as many people as possible, since it seems to have flown under a lot of people’s radar. It’s set in Sarajevo during the Bosnian war, an interesting place to set a murder mystery since at that point the value of individual human lives was at a pretty low ebb. Vlado Petric is a homicide investigator living in a partially bombed out house and trying to keep his department functioning in a society that’s falling apart. The central problem of this book is the question of what counts as a murder in the middle of a war and how can people be held accountable to civilized law at times when occupying armies can decide to ignore laws altogether. This is a dark book that stretches the concept of the murder mystery in interesting ways.
3. Craig Johnson, The Cold Dish
Set in the fictional Absaroka County, Wyoming, Johnson’s The Cold Dish is the first in his series centered on Sheriff Walt Longmire. I really love these books (and the television series first done by A&E and then picked up by Netflix). They have a sense of place that suffuses every pore. The county seat adjoins a Western Cheyenne reservation, and Johnson’s books draw a lot of interesting material from the ways that the problems of the reservation and those outside it interact. If you’ve ever wondered what it was like to live in the small town west, or if you’ve ever lived there and want to go back, these are great books to get you there.
4. Kim Stanley Robinson, New York 2140
New York 2140 is a work of speculative sci-fi, set in a point in the medium term future in which the seas have risen to such a point that the lower half of Manhattan has been swamped. Robinson includes several overlapping plotlines, one of which centers on an NYPD inspector, Gen Octaviasdottir, tasked with investigating corruption in a city in which the rising seas have created some question about which rules apply where. This is one of the leading exemplars of a new genre that’s being called “climate fiction,” in which sci-fi engages in the thing that it does best, throwing out ideas about how future changes might interact with the way that people live now. New York 2140 moves at the pace of a thriller, and it has a lot of interesting stuff over and above the law enforcement, but it all fits in to the theme of how the rules of the game will change when the board it’s being played on gets rearranged.
5. Ian Rankin, Knots and Crosses
Getting back to the soulful detective theme, Ian Rankin’s John Rebus is one of those beautifully flawed characters that are a feature of modern detective fiction. He’s a former paratrooper who has problems with alcohol, perhaps not so bad as others one could name (such as the occasionally comatose Jack Taylor from the series of novels by the Irish writer Ken Bruen), but it does complicate matters. He also has serious problems with authority, and negotiating his relationship to his superiors is a big theme of these books. He has remarkably expansive taste in music. Lots of homicide investigators are portrayed as listening to jazz as a shortcut to making them seem deep. Not that many are shown passing out to the dulcet tones of Mogwai. Knots and Crosses is an entertaining mystery with a creepy serial killer at its center and the dank and dirty street of Edinburgh as its backdrop. Another great thing about this book is that, if you like it, there are 20 more in the series.
6. Kate Atkinson, Case Histories
Jackson Brodie, the main character in Case Histories, and in two other novels by Kate Atkinson, is not actually in law enforcement, but he used to be, and his past plays a central role in how he approaches the present (i.e. like a cop). Case Histories illustrates Atkinson’s consummate skill as a storyteller, weaving together three seemingly disparate narratives into a whole that is more than the sum of its parts. This is another book that has a really tremendous sense of place, its setting in Cambridge giving shape and color to the story presented against its background. The television series moved the setting to Scotland, which really changed the demeanor of the stories, although in a way that I thought worked. In any case, I include this in the list both because of the influence that having worked in law enforcement has on the main character and because of the way that this plays out in the question of what responsibilities we have to other people.
7. Charles Stross, Neptune’s Brood
Every so often I feel obliged to make a plea that people should read Stross’s work. I think he’s a fantastic writer, and perhaps I would have been better off recommending his Laundry Files novels, since the fact that the main character is a government security agent makes him a bit closer to actual law enforcement. I chose Neptune’s Brood because the main character is a forensic accountant, i.e. she applies the principles of economics to issues of law and law breaking. In this particular case, Krina Alizond-114 is investigating the disappearance of her clone sister and the status of an astronomically valuable financial instrument. Ok, I am kind of stretching the boundaries, but the story does really center on legal issues (especially as they relate to finance) AND (I cannot stress to too strongly) this story is a lot of fun. Really. Yes, I’ve just said it. It’s a story about a forensic accountant and it’s a lot of fun. Read it and tell me I’m wrong.
8. Phillip K. Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep
I am a huge fan of the movie Blade Runner, especially the director’s cut version where they deleted the cheesy and pointless narration track. The book on which it is based, Phillip K. Dick’s 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, is really cool, but very different than Ridley Scott’s movie version. Dick’s book is set in a totalitarian society in which human beings are controlled by repetitive, round the clock religious broadcasts. The most important thing that the book and the movie have in common is Rick Deckard, former cop and now working as a sort of freelance bounty hunter working to retire (i.e. kill) escaped human-like androids called replicants. As in the movie, Earth is suffering severe environmental degradation, with most of the native flora and fauna extinct. The picture of mankind and its future is grim, but Dick presents a surprisingly hopeful account of the possibility of reclaiming human agency and empathy.
9. Jedediah Berry, The Manual of Detection
I once read a review of this book that contained the following passage:
Even a quick perusal will tell you that The Manual of Detection is genre fiction. But the more deeply you dig into the book, the harder it is to decide which genre.That about sums it up. This is a very strange, but very interesting book. The main character, Charles Unwin, is a sort of a glorified filing clerk working on the papers of a famous detective. You might think that this sets up a kind of pulp detective novel of the type written (very skillfully) by Raymond Chandler. As you get into it you discover that it’s what that kind of novel would have been if it had been recomposed by Franz Kafka. This is the kind of novel that is worth rereading, especially since it’s unlikely that you’ll really get it the first time. That doesn’t sound like a very positive comment, but it is. This one that will keep you guessing to the last page and beyond.
10. Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose
This is about the least weird of Eco’s book, and it achieved a remarkable degree of popularity in the 1980s when it was first translated into English because it comes off (and can reasonably be read) as a detective novel set in the Middle Ages. This impression is strengthened by the fact that it was made into a movie in 1986 starring Sean Connery and Christian Slater. The main character, William of Baskerville, is travelling as a religious representative of the Emperor Louis IV which, since the dictates of the Catholic Church were effectively international law at this point, sees him acting in the capacity of law enforcement (ok, it’s a stretch). William has come for a meeting to debate church doctrine at an isolated monastery. When a series of suspicious deaths begin to occur in the lead up to the conference, William must apply his detective skills to try to keep the whole thing from turning into a disaster. The great thing about this book is that it can be read at a lot of levels and rewards repeated reading. There’s always something new that you didn’t see the last time around. There are a lot of things that you can take away from The Name of the Rose, but not the least is that it’s good not to live in the middle ages.