I don’t know about you, but after I’ve read a few serious or “heavy” novels, I often look for a little murder to cheer me up and clear my mind. What, don’t you?
Of course, I’m talking about murder mysteries. For me, a good murder mystery is a great palate cleanser — the language and pace usually being relatively quick. Also, they’re not typically bogged down by big story arcs, though many that I often read are part of a character-driven series by an author. That usually gives enough continuity to make these books feel like visits with old friends.
Old friends certainly feels like it applies for The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie. I got the audio version of this book because I’m a big Poirot fan (as you know) and I learned that this was Poirot’s first appearance. I later found out that it is also Christie’s first novel. I like history and precedent, so I was curious to see (well, hear) how it all started. As you might imagine, Styles is the prototypical Poirot: isolated manor, suspicious death, and a houseful of suspects — each with their own motive. Lt. Hastings and Inspector Japp are also on hand right out of the box. One of the big bonuses of this audio series is that David Suchet (who plays Poirot on Masterpiece Mystery) narrates, which sometimes makes you feel that Poirot himself is recollecting the story for you (even though Hastings is the narrator). In Styles, this early Poirot seems a little more manic than the cool detective we grow accustomed to over time, but the book is a capable mystery that gets a bit of a bump because of its status as Christie’s and Poirot’s debuts. Four stars
The Return of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Of course, there probably wouldn’t be a Poirot if it wasn’t for Sherlock Holmes. And these days, It seems that we’re in a veritable Sherlockian Revival, what with two popular incarnations of Holmes and Watson on television. (The BBC show Sherlock is probably my favorite thing on TV currently, and the CBS procedural Elementary surprised me with its considerable charms.) So it was with interest that I listened to the audiobook of this Baker(‘s Street) Dozen of short stories read by Derek Jacoby. It’s interesting to compare the language and style of Doyle to Christie, who wrote only a few decades apart. I have to say that I found the stories a little dry (and of course, Doyle’s Holmes is really kind of a prick). Maybe the problem was listening to all 13 back-to-back-to-back as the tone and style got a little repetitive. My suggestion would be to parse this out and read a story here or there so that they have a chance to feel fresher. Three stars.
Line of Vision by David Ellis was the 2002 Edgar Award winner for Best First Novel by an American Author. The book is an interesting twist of the “whodunnit” because early on, we learn that Marty Kalish, a prominent attorney, most likely killed the husband of a woman he was having an affair with. The story is first-person narrated by Marty and so becomes sort of a “whydunnit” and “howdunnit” as he seeks to out maneuver the police investigation into the husband’s death. Ellis does a good job of keeping the reader off-center, never really sure that you’re getting exactly the whole story. Different premise and well-executed. I liked it. Four stars.
A Cold Day For Murder by Dana Stabenow was also an Edgar Award Winner — way back in 1993. Like The Mysterious Affair at Styles, this book introduces a new series detective, Kate Shugak, a former investigator for the Anchorage, Alaska DA who is called in to investigate the disappearance of two men in one of the nearly endless acres of National Parks in northern Alaska. The mystery in many ways takes second place to the description of life in the northern reaches — and the uneasy social and economic balance between the Inuits, the Live-Free-or-Die type Alaskan homesteaders, and State and Federal officials. As an Inuit, Kate’s loyalties are pulled in several competing directions as she follows the clues. I liked this book well enough, but Kate never quite grabbed me as a character, nor the plot as a mystery. One bonus, e-book versions of this book are available for free. Three stars.
Sticking with the cold, cold north, Arctic Chill is the seventh Inspector Erlandur mystery by Arnaldur Indriðason. I’ve always liked this series — it’s always done a good job of combining the grim bleakness of what we’ve come to expect from Scandinavian writing with interesting mysteries. In this story, a young Thai immigrant boy is murdered on his way home from school and Erlandur and his team must unravel the truth from both the private immigrant community and nationalistic Icelanders. I’m not sure why, but for some reason this book didn’t click with me and it felt like we were turning the crank a little with Erlandur and his team — the mystery was somewhat tepid and there was little suspense in the story. Two stars.
If The Dead Rise Not by Philip Kerr is another late installment (#6) in a long series: in this case, the Bernie Gunther detective series. Kerr has done a good job of aging Gunther — a detective detective in pre-War Germany throughout each succeeding book. Every installment has moved ahead in time and we now find Bernie fleeing South America for pre-Castro Havana in the 1950s. As usual, Kerr combines the “modern” story with one set in Germany and here mid-1930s Bernie must deal with the trouble caused by an idealistic American woman journalist that wants the US to boycott the Berlin Olympic games. I liked the way that these two stories dovetailed and Kerr gave us more development of Bernie and not just another crank-turn. Four stars.
And finally, we come to the most light-hearted of the bunch — A Fistful of Collars by Spencer Quinn. This is the fifth (already?) Chet and Bernie Mystery. In it, our canine and human detective team is called into babysit a temperamental actor during the shooting of a Western in their town. Of course, things go sideways, including mysterious disappearances, underworld murders, and even the presence of a cat. The story was fun and as always it’s mostly because of getting to see things from Chet’s perspective. It’s not the best of the series — probably somewhere in the middle, though it probably has the best title. Still, if you’re a fan of Chet, and I mean, who’s not, you’ll probably enjoy this installment. Three stars.
How about you guys? Any good murder mysteries out there that I should know about?