Five Mystery Novels That I Love
As far back as I can remember, I have always loved mystery stories. Beginning with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes adventures through to the exploits of Hercule Poirot and other detectives of the Golden Age, I have always been enthralled by that question at the heart of every good mystery: whodunit. Today, I have selected five titles that I have especially enjoyed over the years. As a writer, some have served as my inspiration, and though these are not necessarily my favorite books by each of these writers, they are titles that I am keen to revisit someday soon.
Three Act Tragedy by Agatha Christie (1935)
When discussing a body of work as extensive as Agatha Christie’s, it can be appropriate to
highlight just one decade of the author’s career that spanned nearly half a century. The 1930s was, without doubt, Christie’s golden era when her skills as a plotter were without equal. This span of time saw Christie produce such bona fide classics as Murder on the Orient Express, Death on the Nile, and, of course, And Then There Were None. Three Act Tragedy (published in the U.S. as
Murder in Three Acts) is an underappreciated book from this period in which Hercule Poirot finds himself in the center of a bizarre mystery when the local vicar is poisoned at a cocktail party thrown by the renowned stage actor, Sir Charles Cartwright. Another poisoning follows and soon Poirot and Cartwright are teaming up to shine the spotlight on a ruthless killer who moves in theatrical circles.
When compared to the titles listed above, Three Act Tragedy lacks the audaciousness which made Christie’s name synonymous with shocking twist endings, but it is far from a journeyman novel. Though Christie does not take full advantage of the theatrical milieu, the characters of the book are an enjoyable bunch. Sir Charles and Mr. Satterthwaite (a figure familiar to readers of Christie’s Mysterious Mr. Quin short stories) serve as Poirot’s assistants in the case and do much of the investigative work while the Belgian sleuth spends much of his time offstage. Much is made of the apparently motiveless nature of the murders, and when Poirot finally reveals the truth, one cannot help but marvel at what Christie has accomplished here. It is a dark and devious solution to one of the Queen of Crime’s most accomplished books of her most fruitful period. The 2010 adaptation starring David Suchet is also one of the best episodes of the beloved Agatha Christie’s Poirot series.
The Crooked Hinge by John Dickson Carr (1938)
John Dickson Carr was, without a doubt, the master of the impossible crime; his most famous works solidifying the subgenre as one of the most popular during the Golden Age period. It is debatable whether The Crooked Hinge features an impossible crime, but it is so chock-full of
tantalizing ingredients that one is not liable miss a locked room problem. The Crooked Hinge centers around two men who both claim to be the same survivor of the sinking of the Titanic. When one of them is brutally murdered before his identity can be verified, Dr. Gideon Fell steps in to sort out the problem; his investigation clouded by the threat of witchcraft and a fearsome automaton which is rumored to move of its own accord…
To me, Carr is at his fiendish best when he blends mystery and horror, and The Crooked Hinge is a prime example. The novel drips with a palpable sense of the macabre and as the mystery twists and turns its way toward its conclusion, one could be forgiven for assuming that an otherworldly presence is responsible for this gruesome killing. Some fans take umbrage with the ultimate solution to the book claiming that it is unfairly clued, and while they have a point, this criticism does not diminish my enjoyment of this book. The Crooked Hinge is the perfect book for any reader who likes a touch of Gothic horror in their mysteries, and I hope to revisit this one this Halloween.
Green for Danger by Christianna Brand (1944)
With World War II ravaging Europe, the mystery genre was fundamentally changed. A new emphasis was placed on the psychology of crime; the elaborate puzzle plots of the ‘20s and ‘30s replaced by characters and situations which appeared more grounded and more relatable to audiences. This is not to say that clever plotting and devious solutions were gone from Golden Age mysteries. Case in point: Green for Danger by Christianna Brand, a mystery set in a
wartime hospital. When a man dies on the operating table, Inspector Cockrill of the Kent police is asked to investigate. It seems like nothing more than a tragic accident until a nurse is stabbed to death after claiming that the botched operation was actually murder.
Brand is a writer whose place in the Golden Age pantheon has been reevaluated and elevated in the past few years. Though I have only read a few of her mystery novels, I have no problem in recommending Green for Danger as a masterpiece of the mystery genre. Brand’s skill as a writer lies in her ability to sum up her characters quickly and then point the finger of suspicion at them all. Even though her cast is small in this novel – limited to the physicians and nurses present in the operating theatre – the identity of the killer is shielded throughout and when it is revealed, it comes as a genuine surprise, as does the motive for the murders. Along with Three Act Tragedy, it is one of the darkest and most devious motives that I have come across so far; made all the more potent by the fact that the truth was dangled so close to the reader and yet we have failed to grasp it. Green for Danger was adapted into the film of the same name in 1946 and features Alistair Sim in the role of Inspector Cockrill.
Shroud for a Nightingale by P.D. James (1971)
It is interesting to note that this is the second novel on this list to be set in a hospitable. Upon reflection, the clinical setting is perfect for a mystery; the hospital, a place where lives are saved, becoming the backdrop for a life lost. Shroud for a Nightingale begins with a nursing demonstration that turns deadly which brings Superintendent Adam Dalgliesh to the scene to
investigate. Like most of James' books, focus is shifted away from the detective work and onto the physical and emotional damage that a violent death can ravage upon a place. That is not to say that the plot here is at all lacking. As Dalgliesh gets closer to the truth, he uncovers a tangled web of deceit proving that the sins of the past have a devastating way of catching up to all of us.
The work of P.D. James are somewhat controversial to readers of Golden Age mysteries, and her rather disparaging remarks about Agatha Christie have done nothing to endear her to many fans. I would be lying, however, if I said that James’ books did not cast something of a hypnotic spell over me. Though her plotting is loose and her style somewhat dense, James’ prose is some of the best that I have ever read. And, like Carr, her emphasis on atmosphere is masterful. The sense of evil and dread which she weaves around the nursing school in Shroud for a Nightingale is palpable; some of the most haunting passages in all of my mystery reading.
Light Thickens by Ngaio Marsh (1982)
Though we like to celebrate the Golden Age of Detection as the period in between the World Wars, it should not be forgotten that many of the distinguished writers of that era continued to write well into the twentieth century. Ngaio Marsh – one of the Queens of Crime alongside Christie, Sayers, and Allingham – published her final novel, Light Thickens, in 1982, and though few will argue that the book is Marsh’s finest hour, it deserves recognition as an excellent
story in its own right. This list comes full-circle with a murder set in the world of the theatre: in this case it is a gruesome act of violence which occurs during a performance of Shakespeare’s cursed play, Macbeth. With its themes of murderous ambition and equally bloody retribution, the so-called “Scottish Play” is ripe for inclusion in works of detective fiction and Marsh, who directed the play several times during her life, brings a keen understanding of the text to this book.
Though Marsh’s detective, Inspector Alleyn of Scotland Yard, is on hand to investigate the backstage death, Light Thickens is more interested in documenting the creative and rehearsal process for the production of Macbeth. As an actor and a fellow appreciator of the play, reading the book is like sitting down with Marsh and letting her explain her concept for the production. It is a fascinating insight into the behind-the-scenes process, and the evocation of the actors and stage crew are note perfect. Light Thickens may not shine brightly as a mystery, but it is rewarding in so many other ways.