Okay. You find yourself standing in front of the Mystery section at the library or book store. You pick up one, read a little, put it back; pick up another one--sound familiar? Happens to me all the time. I like the look of the cover, or the author's name intrigues me, or . . . .
I don’t often recommend books to other readers, partly because I may not know their tastes and partly because of my own less-than-happy experience with books recommended to me.But if I may--here’s a series you might want to explore if you’re a mystery buff: the Maisie Dobbs stories.
Author Jacqueline Winspear has written 11 volumes so far, starring Maisie Dobbs, a single woman in her early 30s. The series is set in the time between the world wars—beginning in 1929 before the stock market crash in October of that year, and continuing through the decade leading up to what we now call World War II.
Winspear is British by birth, now lives in California, and has a formidable team of researchers and people with long memories to give credibility to her London of the 1930s. While you’re reading a Maisie Dobbs mystery, you’re living history in the making.What I treasure most is the author’s expertise in presenting a difficult period in world history without descending into sentimentality; it was a bad time, true: many young men had been lost in the Great War, leaving a large majority of a generation of women without husbands and sweethearts. The overriding message--there's more than one--is this: War affects not only those who were in it; those who survive will never be the same. Those survivors include family members and friends on the home front who never saw action on the battlefield.
-----Another series, totally different in place, tone, and intention, is the Precious Ramotswe series called The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency mysteries. Some people have disregarded them as too quiet, too blah. But if you take the time to read one, you’ll discover the main character, Mma Ramotswe, is a very wise woman, a compassionate woman, which makes her an ideal detective who can solve all kinds of problems. She may not have a degree from any school, but she has learned much in living in her native Botswana.
Alexander McCall Smith, who created the series, has a long list of novels to his credit—The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency is up to Book 15; but there are also other series and stand-alone novels, plus books for children.
-----Probably my favorite author is Josephine Tey (nom de plume for Elizabeth Mackintosh), a Scotswoman who wrote only eight mystery novels, and was better known under another name as a playwright. As Josephine Tey, she wrote the most readable and literary (not always a happy marriage) mystery novels: one deals with murder, another with kidnapping (sort of), a third with a historical mystery that has intrigued Britain for centuries. Although there are a couple of recurring characters, the novels are not a true series.
Tey wrote during a period--1920s into the 1940s--often called the Golden Age of detective fiction. A few of her siblings in crime were Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, John Dickson Carr, Cornell Woolrich, Dorothy L. Sayers, Georges Simenon, Ellery Queen, and Rex Stout (about whom more below).
-----I’ll give you one more—another oldie: Rex Stout, creator of Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin, New York City detectives who never age, though their exploits covered over 40 years of American history. Stout wrote novels, short stories, and novellas; many of the short pieces were published in Saturday Evening Post and The American Magazine. Wolfe is eccentric to the point of being insufferable; therefore, Stout very astutely created Archie Goodwin, man about town and attuned to the ways of personable young ladies, to narrate the stories of Wolfe’s genius. Archie, though astute, is one of us and quite approachable. Many of these books and novella collections are still in print; or at least, they’re in print from time to time. Their appeal seems to be ongoing.
-----There you have it—my recommendations, if you want them. I've culled a handful from my long list of favorite authors to reread, or look for the latest addition to their body of work. The reason they're favorites? The authors draw me into the story and into the lives of the characters. So escape is a big attraction--I know the mystery will be solved and the world will return to a sense of rightness when I've read the last pages. Beyond that, I feel as if I'm visiting with good friends from another time, people I don't see often, but who live on in my memory.
If you stop by my house sometime, and there’s no answer when you ring the bell, check around back—I may be lounging in the hammock with one of my favorite authors. You can join me, just bring your own book.