More Fun Books

by Harry on June 7, 2006

vance maverick complains: “Could you guys recommend something other than “SF/F” for once?”, and would like some “straight fiction“.

Well, I only read straight fiction recommended to me by Adam Swift and Chris Bertram; my own diet is otherwise restricted to detective novels. Oliver Kamm, however, makes the familiar, and I think absolutely correct, argument that some of these should count as straight fiction. He singles out P. D. James:

they are skilfully constructed stories in which the denouement is always surprising but retrospectively plausible. Unlike the paradoxes of G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown stories, where there are infuriating cases of the detective’s revealing that all along he had had more information than the reader, these mysteries are never extravagantly contrived.

Secondly, without being didactic, Baroness James’s novels convey a coherent philosophy of life more powerfully than many overtly political or theological books. Aesthetic judgements are independent of political or religious ones, and of course one can enjoy a book by a writer of different views from one’s own. But Baroness James, for me, is a slightly different case: her Conservative politics and orthodox Anglican faith are far from my own beliefs, but I find nonetheless that they illuminate the personal and social relationships she writes about.

If murders did not occur in her books, she’d be seen as a great writer of “straight” fiction. He goes on:

[These strengths] exemplify her achievement in rescuing English detective fiction from the sub-literate form in which it was cast by the most popular of all crime writers, Agatha Christie

I’ve been surprised recently to discover several mystery lovers who have never read P.D. James, so it is apparently not redundant to recommend her. But I’d also like to recommend 2 other mystery writers with a lower profile.

James only really “made it” in the eighties, after the success in the US of Innocent Blood; her first novel fully displaying the virtues Kamm describes, A Taste for Death, was published considerably later (1987 if I remember right); that’s where I’d recommend readers to start. But by that time, the detective story had already been rescued from Christie, by the late Julian Symons. Symons’ earliest couple of novels are weak, but by the early 1960s he was writing witty and dark sketches of contemporary life, some of which (The Killing of Francie Lake, for example) anticipate rather eerily the social changes that were to dominate the sixties, seventies, and eighties. His masterpieces (including The Belting Inheritance; Sweet Adelaide; The Blackheath Poisonings; The Players and the Game; and the brilliant The Name of Annabel Lee), it is true, were published in the 70’s onwards, but several predate James’s greatest achievements.

A third author I’d recommend unreservedly is Robert Barnard, who is much less well known in the US than he should be. With the exception of his few Perry Trethowan books, these are impeccably written and usually very witty mysteries, much lighter than James’s but equally gripping. My favourites describe claustrophobic and spiteful worlds with a lovely sense of irony: schools, politics, the english village, and the monastry (anyone who has ever been a teacher must read School for Murder). Like Symons he has largely eschewed the detective series, which is probably has kept his profile lower than it could have been, but there is one recurring character — the english way of death.

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06.07.06 at 11:48 am



Anderson 06.07.06 at 9:56 am

If you haven’t read Raymond Chandler, do so. The greatest stylist in the mystery field, bar none.


chris y 06.07.06 at 9:59 am


harry b 06.07.06 at 10:12 am

I’ll do Reginald Hill later (I’m perhaps a greater fan of his than of James, but I don’t think he’s as good, and the sudden improvement in the early 90’s in the quality of the work has always seemed to me to be explicable partly by her raising the bar).

My dad has my collected Raymond Chandlers. Yes, fantastic, for an english public school boy (he went to the same school as John Wyndham, IIRC).


Chris Bertram 06.07.06 at 10:12 am

I don’t know what Vance is grousing about btw, since I recommended Zadie Smith fairly recently. On the boundaries between genre fiction and straight fiction, everyone should read Ken Worpole’s “Dockers and Detectives”: .


antirealist 06.07.06 at 10:22 am

I don’t believe Wyndham went to the same school as Chandler. But PG Wodehouse, CS Forester, Graham Swift and Michael Ondaatje did.


Jasper Milvain 06.07.06 at 10:28 am

I don’t know about John Wyndham going to the same school as Chandler, but I know PG Wodehouse did, and Wiki says CS Forester, too. Wodehouse and Chandler share a liking for literary allusions in unlikely places, so it’s possible there’s some shared-English-teacher-inspiration business going on.


harry b 06.07.06 at 10:31 am

wiki says Blundells and Bedales for Wyndham (who deserves a post of his own) but I’d swear Dulwich is mentioned in the bio notes of several of my old Wyndham paperbacks. I’ll check later.


Jasper Milvain 06.07.06 at 10:31 am

Gah! Beaten to it. But Chandler was a Chicago-born English public schoolboy of Irish Quaker family, which may make him a rarer creature.


rachel 06.07.06 at 10:35 am

Ruth Rendell is usually less ambitious than James, but she’s a great writer when she wants to be (as well as being just as good at the genre side of things). Check out Simisola — I seem to remember a blurb likening it to Middlemarch, and in some weird way that was actually true.


Yentz Mahogany 06.07.06 at 10:46 am

I’m afraid my straight-fiction tastes are not very obscure, so they may not be what’s being asked for. I go with mainstream favorites like ‘A Prayer for Owen Meaney’ (Irving), short stories by Flannery O’Connor, Milan Kundera’s ‘Unbearable Lightness of Being’, Hemingway’s ‘For whom the Bell Tolls’, ‘Absolute Friends’ by John le Carre, etc.

Also, though I’m breaking the rules, I’m currently reading Mervyn Peake’s “Gormenghast” series, which is technically fantasy but is uniquely literary.


SamChevre 06.07.06 at 11:11 am

In the mystery/historical fiction genre, my wife has converted me to a fan of Ellis Peters’ “Brother Cadfael” series.


Vance Maverick 06.07.06 at 11:11 am

Thanks for the recommendation. Brief and soon-regretted spasms of ill-tempered complaint get results!

Chris is quite right to remind me about Zadie Smith. And looking back over the Literature category, I see he and others have indeed recommended other non-SF (John Clare, to name one). Onward to James!

PS. I used to love Chandler too, but these days favor Hammett.


fyreflye 06.07.06 at 11:22 am

I don’t read much literary fiction, but I will say that Ian McEwan’s last two novels, Atonement and Saturday kept me turning the pages with both admiration for the quality of the writing and pleasure in the stories. I can say that about very few of the books on the NY Times’ recent American fiction list.


matt d 06.07.06 at 11:36 am

Since the very first CT post mentions Maturin, this is probably preaching to the choir, but everyone should read Patrick O’Brian. And there are 20 books in the Aubrey/Maturin series, so you’re in for a lot of fun if you haven’t read them already.
Also, Alan Furst has a new book just out, which is pretty good so far (I’m 40 pages in.) The rest of his books are fantastic.

So they’re ‘historical’ and ‘espionage’, respectively, but can anyone explain the difference between ‘genre fiction’ and ‘literature’ in terms other than ‘stuff I admit to reading’ and ‘stuff I brag about reading’?


burritoboy 06.07.06 at 11:47 am

Two relatively recent books that I like a lot are Gary Shteyngart’s The Russian Debutante’s Handbook and Dean Bakopoulos’ Please Don’t Come Back from the Moon. Please Don’t Come Back from the Moon is especially interesting in showing what suburban Detroit felt like in the wake of the waves of layoffs starting in the early 1990s.


Chris W. 06.07.06 at 11:59 am

bq. Baroness James’s novels convey a coherent philosophy of life more powerfully than many overtly political or theological books.

This is why I am so fond of mystery novels. The same is true for Ian Rankin, Frances Fyfield (whose books are much closer to the “general fiction” end of the novelistic spectrum than to “genre fiction”), the early Val McDermit (at least), Iain Pears, Deborah Crombie; for non-English ones, Fred Vargas.


Backword Dave 06.07.06 at 12:27 pm

Matt D, indeed.

I’ve never read PD James, but I’m an admirer of Reginald Hill; for the first time I’m reading them in sequence (the whole lot were pressed on me by the friend I converted from Ian Rankin). I think he hit a high in the 90s but the last few have started to slip in quality.

FWIW, I thought “Atonement” wasn’t badly written, while “Saturday” was hardly readable.

“If murders did not occur in her books …” Hold on, surely there are murders in straight fiction too. Although now you mention it, it’s hard to think of examples, not counting Shakespeare and Dostoevsky.


roger 06.07.06 at 12:36 pm

And here’s a vote for Leonardo Sciascia’s crime fiction — short, bitter, amazing little bombs, dropped into the void: One way or Another — which is about the church as the mafia and the mafia as the Christian Democratic party – Equal Danger — and To each his own, my favorite, which begins with a feint and ends with … well, the ending is simply astonishing, blowing up the reader’s assumptions about the whole meaning of crime and its investigation. Sciascia is like Hammett in that he is that rare crime writer — one who actually doesn’t believe in methodological individualism. Crimes, in his universe, are certainly not accidents and aberrations, but the way the system keeps going. Somehow, living in Sicily from the 40s to the 80s made that a very realistic view. The blurb speak makes Sciascia the master of the Metaphysical crime story — the crime whose solution will end in other crimes, the Borges of mystery. But that is way too apolitical. He wrote mysteries with Jonathan Swift’s heart — full of a raging, mad indignation. And NYRB press recently republished all of them! Is that cool or what?

And for political polemic, the short book he wrote about the Moro affair is perhaps the most scathing political critique of the power structure in a modern Western ‘democracy’ ever. Pity there is no American Sciascia.


bob mcmanus 06.07.06 at 12:51 pm

PD James is either at the top of the genre, or “above” the genre, in writing skill and profundity. James Burke writes very well, but has never impressed me as being particularly deep or interesting. Stuart Kaminsky in his Russian and Chicago series is interesting, and the Hollywood series can provide some quick easy fun. Sue Grafton continues to impress with her classicism. Lee Child is solid with the Jack Reacher books, and I prefer him to Burke. There are many other good genre writers, Harlan Coben and Carol O’Connell for two. And Dick Francis never disappointed me, at least for the first fifty books.


Sharon 06.07.06 at 1:26 pm

I read one PD James a while back and it bored me to tears. (And the TV adaptation the other Christmas was… the… slowest… zzzzzzz…) But, you know, I am a fan of Christopher Brookmyre. Who needs a moral philosophy when you can have gags about the consequences of using a mobile phone as a sex toy? Or surrealist bank robbers accompanied by One Step Beyond?

To be more serious, living British female authors of crime novels (or psychological thrillers) who I’d rather read: Louise Welch, Denise Mina, Stella Duffy, Val McDermid (sometimes), Sarah Dunant and (for lighter fun) Lindsay Davis. Plus a few dead ones who were always better than Agatha Christie: Gladys Mitchell, Josephine Tey, Marjorie Allingham, and the queen of them all, Dorothy Sayers.


Bruce Baugh 06.07.06 at 1:26 pm

I second the nod for Stuart Kaminsky, particularly for his Hollywood books, which routinely do make me laugh out loud.

A tip of the hat here to Michael Connelly, who writes a series about a Los Angeles homicide detective. His first few books are a little gimmicky, but he got his footing a long time back and has been very solid since. Since 2001, he’s also given as much attention as anyone I can think of to what the national security state apparatus does to local law enforcement.


David C. Fox 06.07.06 at 1:51 pm

Martin Cruz Smith has written many good books that happen to be mysteries, several featuring Arkady Renko, a detective in the decaying Soviet empire. The first “Gorky Park” is really excellent, as well as the last two “Havana Bay” and “Wolves Eat Dogs”.


rcriii 06.07.06 at 2:21 pm

I’d recommend Peter Dickinson’s The Yellow Room Conspiracy. I seem to remember liking it so much that I read one of his other books and did not think it so good. The book opens with an elderly couple in the garden each accusing the other of a decades-old murder.


micah 06.07.06 at 2:22 pm

Yes, but what is Adam recommending these days?


belle le triste 06.07.06 at 2:56 pm

chesterton is of course a far far FAR better writer and thinker than the readable but often quite pedestrian james: as kamm notes, albeit in typically point-missing style, chesterton doesn’t play by the “rules” of detective fiction, and this is because he is NOT IN FACT WRITING DETECTIVE FICTION duh

(anyway the rules hadn’t really really been invented, at least when the father brown series began — conan doyle notoriously ignores them also)

(kamm’s conjoining of james with poe — because they “transcend genre”, or however he puts it — manages to combine not getting poe with not getting james with pitch-perfect middlebrow pretentiousness)

however a nice (but non-fiction) book by james is THE MAUL AND THE PEAR TREE, which tells the story of the (real-life) Ratcliffe Highway Murders of 1811, and their bungled investigation anbd aftermath


Tracy W 06.07.06 at 3:28 pm

“If murders did not occur in her books …” Hold on, surely there are murders in straight fiction too. Although now you mention it, it’s hard to think of examples, not counting Shakespeare and Dostoevsky.

I am firmly convinced that both Rochester in Jane Eyre and Heathclife in Wuthering Heights are murderers.

Annie Prolux has a murder in her novel with the word “Postcard” in the title too.


Anderson 06.07.06 at 4:06 pm

Seconding Alan Furst, though from the 3 that I’ve read (“Dark Star,” “Night Soldiers,” “Blood of Victory”), it seems as if they could get a bit same-ish after a while. Still, very good.

Hammett over Chandler? Guess it depends what you’re reading for. Hammett’s plots are perhaps better, or at least, less tortured. Chandler has plots because he has to. But Philip Marlowe being Philip Marlowe is enough to keep anyone reading.


Henry 06.07.06 at 7:13 pm

I’m not at all keen on P.D. James – found the politics of her Dalgleish books to be a bit cloying, and the plotting stodgy and ponderous But de gustibus etc. Reginald Hill I like, but find hit-and-miss – Dalziel’s a wonderful character, but the mysteries are somewhat contrived. I’m very fond of Michael Dibdin when he’s on form – the first couple of Inspector Zen novels, plus Cosi fan Tutte are excellent. Heartily second the votes for Dorothy Sayer. For more recent noir, hard to beat James Crumley’s _The Last Good Kiss_ and _The Wrong Case_.


anon 06.07.06 at 7:18 pm

Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe novels. I read these again and again to listen to Archie’s descriptions.


harry b 06.07.06 at 7:52 pm

If we’re going back into the past, I’d also recommend Josephine Tey — great pplots, and great snese of the era. Interestingly, she is Barnard’s hero/heroine. I like her better than Sayers when I’m in the right mood, but obviously Sayers better when I’m in the other mood.


sbk 06.07.06 at 8:18 pm

Re: whoever mentioned Dean Bakopoulos — Harry, you’re the one in Madison, right? If so, Mr. Bakopoulos is a local author for you, although I may be misspelling his name — in fact I think he used to work at Canterbury (bookstore), if you’ve been there long enough for that name to mean anything to you. I don’t know if location is sufficient reason to pick it up, but you know. You could run into him on the street! (Although like me, he has probably moved by now.)


bob mcmanus 06.07.06 at 9:23 pm

“hard to beat James Crumley’s The Last Good Kiss”

Perfection, IMO not approached by his later work.


John Quiggin 06.08.06 at 12:53 am

Eric Ambler’s thrillers are far better than anything else in the genre which, according to Wikipedia, he invented. The Mask of Dimitrios is probably the best, though fellow-academics may enjoy Send no more Roses


dale 06.08.06 at 3:58 am

within the genre:

The earlier Elmore Leonard (Stick, Swag, Freaky Deaky et al)

Leonardo Sciascia – Thanks to an earlier poster for the reminder. All worth reading.

Anthony Bourdain – Infamous chef and cookbook author is also an exceptional writer. Particularly recommended are Bone in the Throat, Bobby Gold (also released as The Bobby Gold Stories).

James Lee Burke is now a caricature of himself, and the things he writes are case-studies in repetitive and formulaic writing, but there are gems from earlier times. Lay Down My Sword and Shield, To the Bright and Shining Sun, The Lost Get Back Boogie.

outside the genre:

Haruki Murakami – try Norwegian Wood, Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World et al.

Iain Banks – The Bridge

Gail Tsukiyama – The Samurai’s Garden

Yukio Mishima – short stories (there was a collection, I think called Forbidden Flowers or something)

Shusako Endo – I loved ‘When I Whistle’. Low-key.

Yasunari Kawabata – The Dancing Girl of Izu (really, really beautiful), Snow Country.



Nabakov 06.08.06 at 4:04 am

Or if you like a bit of Wodehouse and sleaze with your crime fiction.


dale 06.08.06 at 4:08 am

and I second the vote for Michael Dibdin (29).


chris y 06.08.06 at 5:09 am

And for something completely different…

Christopher Brookmyre. Not loved by all, but for the life of me I can’t understand why. The only relentlessly hilarious hard boiled thriller writer currently working.


Steve 06.08.06 at 10:00 am

I’ll also offer a nod to Peter Dickinson, although I prefer his Pibble series (particularly Sleep and His Brother) to his other mysteries.


harry b 06.08.06 at 10:33 am

I’d also recommend Dickinson (I was not trying to be comprehensive at all!), though I prefer his non-Pibble books. I wish he’d take time off from writing brilliant children’s books and supply adults with another couple of masterpieces.


Gray Lensman 06.08.06 at 3:47 pm

I second the reading of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series. Twenty novels but they always feel like one book when you finish. I’ve read them three times and always find something new.

P.G. Wodehouse is always in order.

the Sherlock Holmes Canon
Raymond Chandler


Danny Yee 06.09.06 at 6:28 am

I’m not sure I’d describe any of these as “straight”, but how about some political fiction?
Three strong recommendations: Juan Goytisolo’s The Marx Family Saga, Peter Weiss’ The Aesthetics of Resistance or Irmtraud Morgner’s The Life and Adventures of Trobadora Beatrice as Chronicled by Her Minstrel Laura.


Matt Weiner 06.10.06 at 5:14 pm

Dittoes to Sciascia and Dickinson, but:

AFAICT (don’t read Italian) translations of Sciascia are uneven. Sicilian Uncles (not mysteries) seemed very well-written in translation, A Man’s Blessing not so; but To Each His Own which is I think a retranslation of A Man’s Blessing was much better. So, watch out.

Some Dickinsons are better than others, but for me it doesn’t divide Pibble/non-Pibble; my favorite is probably The Last House Party.

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