Thursday, June 9, 2016


If you've followed this blog for a while, you've no doubt gleaned that I'm a list maker.

(Please don't walk away . . . this isn't about lists. Well, not exactly.)

For me, a list is a kind of doodle. Nothing as elaborate--or meaningful--or entertaining--as the ones created by the Google-folk. (Be sure to check out today's on Phoebe Snetsinger.)

A list gives me a place to make some kind of order out of thoughts, or images, or events, or projects, or . . . .

Yes, order. 

Today's blog comes to you courtesy of my very own personal Topic Generator, a person who knows me well and (scary thought) knows how I think. The topic today is: Why I Like to Read British Mystery Writers.

That sounds like a theme topic for freshman comp--but I'll try not to let it go off on that tangent. What follows is the development of a list I made a couple of months ago, when I was doodling in my journal.

(Ahem) Ready?

British Mystery Writers. They've been in the game since the 19th Century. Wilkie Collins's The Moonstone, published in 1868, is considered the first detective novel in the English language. (See footnote.)

Since that time, the British Isles have contributed scores of mysteries from the pens and typewriters and laptops of writers; here's a list (no special order) of some of my often-reread authors:

Ann Cleeves - currently writing the Vera Stanhope series and the Jimmy Perez series (both main characters are detective inspectors); earlier works featured Inspector Ramsay; and another series of stories were set in bird-watching areas, starring George Palmer-Jones and his wife, Molly, as amateur sleuths.

Agatha Christie - I love Miss Marple--only 12 novels and several short stories about her, but they're exquisite examples of Victorian England carried over into the 20th Century; and several of Christie's stand-alone mysteries have been great--The Pale Horse is the latest one I read; the stand-alones feature mostly amateur sleuths.

Josephine Tey - wrote only 8 detective novels; her main body of work was for the theatre. Her mysteries weren't in series format, though a few featured the same policeman, Inspector Alan Grant. I read her books for the writing style--after many multiple readings, I know the stories well. She is one of the first writers I recognized had a literary style.

Dick Francis - famous for his mysteries set in the horse world--horse owners, trainers, jockeys, accountants, painters--you name it. The sleuth is always involved somehow with horses and is an amateur, not a licensed detective. The current series under his name are written by his son.

Ruth Rendell - wrote psychological suspense, under a pseudonym, that scared me to death. I prefer her Inspector Wexford novels.

R. D. Wingfield - wrote only 6 novels featuring Inspector Jack Frost, Britain's most irreverent detective ever. I practically know them by heart and am still entertained by Wingfield's voice and Frost's bad-boy attitude.

W. J. Burley - lived and wrote about Cornwall, a part of England I'd love to visit. His detective, Charles Wycliffe, worked his way up from Inspector to Chief Superintendent. The stories grow out of the setting--I can't imagine any of them taking place elsewhere.

Colin Dexter - creator of Inspector Morse, working and detecting in Oxford. The current TV series, Endeavour, chronicles the young Morse before he got to his later status. If you like convoluted mysteries, Dexter can entertain you.

Ellis Peters - creator of Brother Cadfael--he also became a TV personality--a 13th Century monk who had been to the Crusades and returned to England to live and work as an herbalist in a monastery. As might be expected, the good Brother's involvement in crime solving agitates some of his superiors.

Jacqueline Winspear (born in England, living in the U.S.) - whose brainchild, Maisie Dobbs, has lived, loved, and solved mysteries in England and Germany during the tumultuous period of World War I through the beginnings of World War II.

Why do I read these authors?

As you can tell by the brief descriptions, I lean toward police procedurals, where the brains behind the solution to the mystery belong to professionals. I especially like the cops who are flawed characters; their humanity often helps them solve the crime. Yet, there's a great deal of attraction created by the amateurs: George Palmer-Jones (no relation), Miss Jane Marple, various sleuths in Josephine Tey's books, Dick Francis's heroes, Brother Cadfael, Maisie Dobbs. After all, if I were to solve a crime, I'd be an amateur. Vicarious crime solving may not be profitable but it is satisfying.

Another thing I enjoy is reading about other countries, and other times. Ann Cleeves brings the contemporary Shetland Islands to life on the page. W. J. Burley's Cornwall is real to me. 13th Century monastery life described by Ellis Peters and the early-to-middle years of the 20th Century in Jacqueline Winspear's novels now seem readily available to the reader.

Another important factor is the writing. No two of the writers in the above list have similar writing styles. They've all developed a way of telling stories that beckons the reader to join in--listen to the tale--help solve the puzzle, maybe. 

Topping my list of reasons why I read British mysteries: I love the way they end. Not happily, in many cases. Sometimes not even a little bit cheerful. But satisfying, yes, indeed. The mystery is solved, the criminal(s) captured, and justice is served (or will be). In life, we often don't know the ending of an event; and in some cases, there seems to be no ending at all. Mystery novels may have an open-endedness, but there is a sense of a goal attained. As I say, satisfying.

Footnote: You may be wondering why I haven't mentioned Edgar Allen Poe, who is considered the inventor of the detective fiction genre. He was born and lived in the early 19th Century (1809-1849) in America. Mostly he wrote poems, short stories, and some novels; his Murders in the Rue Morgue was published in 1841.

I do read American mystery writers--I'll even tell you about them one day. But not today. Today belongs to the Brits.

(Thank you, D, for your suggestions.)



  1. Is Jacqueline Winspear related to Violet Winspear of romance fame?

    I WANT to like British mysteries, as I almost always love the voices that tell the stories, but I think I'm too impatient for them.

  2. No relation to Violet that I could find. You might like the TV adaptations of Brit mysteries. I like some of those better than the novels they came from.

  3. No relation to Violet that I could find. You might like the TV adaptations of Brit mysteries. I like some of those better than the novels they came from.