Post-Summer Mystery Reading

by Harry on September 9, 2008

My mother and I have a tacit agreement. It’s the same one she had with her father and that I, already, have with my elder daughter. I believe my grandfather had the same pact with his mother. It’s simply this – to alert the other to thriller and mystery writers that they may not have read.

The rule is that the writer has to be good enough for the other person to like. This does lead to some mistakes. Unlike my grandfather, who loved Ovid and Pope (in one of his many failed attempts to corrupt me — or at least loosen me up — he gave me a wonderful translation of Catullus’s dirty poems) but would read any old crap when it came to thrillers, my mother is moderately discerning. I am somewhere in between. But, of course, good mystery writers generally improve with age (examples abound, but especially striking is Julian Symons, who apparently wouldn’t allow his first effort to be republished but ended his career with several absolute blinders; the obvious counterexample being Colin Dexter, whose work is solid proof that the best TV is inspired by substandard fiction). So I was embarrassed when my mother told me about Peter Robinson, whose books I’ve been reading for years without telling her. I had a good reason – at first they just didn’t seem good enough for her (I know that she is a bit, though not much, more discerning than I am). I didn’t really notice the point at which he got good enough to mention, so didn’t do it, even though I think he is now in the top rank of mystery writers.

So it was funny when she visited the other week that she immediately asked if I had read Mark Mills’s The Savage Garden (UK). I had just ordered both that and Amagansett (UK title: The Whaleboat House — why do they do that, byt the way?) after amazon told me that he is favoured by people who read Robert Goddard (a page turner if ever there was one whose apparent lack of success in the States is baffling to me).

We’re both convinced that The Savage Garden, despite being published second, was written first. It is just that little bit less self-assured; although it is very good indeed, some of the seams show, if only slightly; whereas Amagansett is a fully mature mystery – not yet in the late-P.D. James league, but as good as Peter Robinson by the time he was good enough to recommend to my mum, and promising better. Both books are terrific, if you like that sort of thing, which we do. But they are also quite different, which bodes especially well for the future.

The Savage Garden is pure Goddard territory. A Cambridge undergraduate goes to Italy in 1958 to work on a thesis about a garden. He puzzles over the mystery at the bottom of the garden, finding clues in Greek mythology, and gradually working it out. But he is also drawn into a wartime (WWII, which like most Brits of my age and older is the only war that I refer to with the definite article) mystery: how did one of the sons of the house really die? No spoilers here: conspiracies abound, nothing is what it seems except for those things that don’t really seem to be what they seem. The plotting is meticulous; the characterization thin (thin characterization is fine with me if the plot is complex enough); the romance rather fortuitous (an attractive and available young woman always seems to turn up in these books, at least until, as in Goddard’s past several novels, the publisher has enough confidence in the brand to allow the author to dispense with her).

Amagansett is better. Set in post-war Long Island, it’s a much more straightforward story about the death of a society girl, who is discovered in the sea by a fishing crew. What seems like a suicide is, of course, not as simple as that, and the local cop (who has moved to the sticks after being fired from his big city job in disgrace) tries to unravel the truth, quietly aided by one of the fisherman who found her who has a particular interest. The plot never falters, but the characterization; he builds a full biography for the fisherman, the cop is utterly plausible (more plausible than Goddard’s Harry Barnett, for example) and even the dead girl comes alive (not in the supernatural sense). So, I’m looking forward to the next one.

One final thing: there’s a small group of books and British authors who set their mysteries in the US, and Americans who set their mysteries in the UK. This is a fraught enterprise – frankly I find Martha Grimes unreadable, for example, because she always gets things not quite right. John Lawton’s Sweet Sunday is actually pretty good, but I think I would have known he was not American even if I hadn’t known he wasn’t (if you see what I mean). But Amagansett is impeccable.



Amanda 09.09.08 at 8:59 pm

Hm. I believe Amagansett is one of those books I bought from the remainder desk years ago and have not looked at since, but whose spine I have committed to memory because it taunts me every time I walk past and think about how many of the books on my shelves I have not actually read.

Some of my family have a similar pact about thrillers , and one for sc-fi which excludes me. The latest doing the rounds is Tony Hillerman’s Arizona based mysteries.


Luke 09.09.08 at 9:56 pm

I’d consider adding Charles Todd to the list of American writers who do the UK (A mother-son pairing whose detective is a survivor of the Somme). Being Anglo-American, I find him rather convincing, but then again, I’m not an Anglo-American who was alive between 1900-1920, and haven’t spent too much time in small English villages nearish London.

Rennie Airth does a similar thing, but rather better, at least on the artistic scale, but offers rather fewer books, to my dismay.


Rohan Maitzen 09.10.08 at 12:40 am

I agree about Peter Robinson getting better over the years. Does Elizabeth George seem to get her details right?

I just read Inger Ash Wolfe’s The Calling, which has been getting a lot of publicity lately (in Canada, anyway)–I didn’t like it much, though. Have you read any Chester Himes? I read my first one this summer, A Rage in Harlem. I’ve never read anything like it before, that’s for sure.

You probably know it, but in case you don’t, the blog Petrona is a good source for mystery recommendations and reviews.


vivian 09.10.08 at 1:00 am

Is the Martha Grimes issue getting some things wrong, or is it the way she’ll let a character slide out of character (or into burlesque) if it allows her to make fun of US Wannabes-who-don’t-get-it-right? I can never decide of those things amuse or annoy me (except for Aunt Agatha who is mostly just annoying) but of course I wouldn’t notice her real mistakes. How do you like Elizabeth George as a contrast? I suppose she does for angst what Goddard does for war…

Also, thanks for these recommendations. Please would you give us occasional pointers to good books in the future too? Or maybe ask your mother for a guest post?


Helen 09.10.08 at 2:07 am

I’m quite a fan of Barbara Vine but fairly bored by Ruth Rendell. The first writes about crime and mystery not so much as a whodunit as whydidththeydunit or whatdidtheydun. Of course, they are the same person. But she seems to even write slightly better as Barbara Vine (with a few clunky bits here and there) than as Ruth Rendell. This intrigues me. Since you can’t write better than you can, she must be deliberately writing badly as RR. Why would you do that?


Katherine 09.10.08 at 10:55 am

Got the same tacit pact with my mother-in-law for feminist fiction. Doesn’t always work, since she’s a bit more 70’s radical separatist than I, but it’s led to some interesting conversations that’s for sure.


Bernd Kochanowski 09.10.08 at 4:32 pm

Being a German, I found the English atmosphere (by the language and the places) that Deborah Crombie evokes in “Water like Stone” really satisfying, but even when I was reading it I assumed that British readers would not be amused.


Harry 09.10.08 at 6:17 pm

Agree completely about BV/RR. What a puzzle that is. Did you ever like the RR books?

I haven’t read Elizabeth George, despite being recommended to several times. I cannot put my finger on what it is about Grimes, to be honest. I read 3, so feel that I gave her a chance. Everything felt not quite right — I wasn’t in the England I knew — and only then did I find out she wasn’t English. I’ll try George. Also, I should say, that I once had nothing to listen to except a Tim Curry narration of a Grimes novel, and found it delightful, and have listened to one other, but this is certainly a case of Tim Curry making just about anything palatable (I think I’d be able to listen to George W Bush’s memoirs on tape if Tim Curry read them).

I’ll try Charles Todd, thanks. And sure, vivian, I’ll do this again (maybe Lawton merits a thread to himself).


vivian 09.11.08 at 3:14 am

(you may well hate E. George, by the way. Her detectives do a lot of inner monologuing about angst-y personal stuff. In early books it’s love affairs and loss or absence of same. They are way better than the tv adaptation though.)


Helen 09.11.08 at 4:07 am

No, never been able to stomach RR, Harry. They’re a bit like Midsomer Murders with all the cute village copper stuff. But some Barbara Vines like A Dark Adapted Eye and Asta’s Book are absolute page-turners. (Really more mystery/thriller than crime).

Perhaps my favourite mystery/thriller ever was Peter Hoeg’s Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow. I recently bought The Quiet Girl, which was a monster of a book – even denser and more full of twists, turns and arcane philosophical ramblings. I loved it, possibly biased because of MSFFS; Husband couldn’t stand it.


mossy 09.11.08 at 7:47 pm

May I jump in? For American murder mysteries, I highly recommend Julia Spencer-Fleming.’s Adirondack series. Despite the improbable-sounding heroine (air force pilot turned Episcopalian priest), they are well-plotted with dialog that sounds like the way people speak. For foreign mysteries — Donna Leon’s Venice, Barbara Nadel’s Istambul and Michael Pearce’s Egypt in the 1920s.


mossy 09.11.08 at 7:51 pm

Oh, forgot the delightful series by Iain Pears. English art historian turned art dealer and his Italian art crime squad girlfriend. Very funny and satisfying.


3Lllama 09.11.08 at 8:59 pm

I was tempted into reading a Peter Robinson (Friend of the Devil) by Ian Rankin’s endorsement on the back cover, but now wish I hadn’t. The detective remains a bit of a blank space to me, despite being told in tedious detail about his private life and musical tastes, one mystery thread is hurredly resoved in a deus ex machina and the other ends in one of those “Ha ha ha, I did it! You’ll never take me alive!” just-in-the-nick-of-time crime thriller endings. I know some people find that sort of thing exciting, but I just feel let down.

I was impressed by Stephen Booth’s new “Dying to Sin”, though, and I’ll be reading the rest of the series from the beginning if they’re all this good.


Steve 09.12.08 at 7:32 am

Don’t know why they do that (change titles for different markets) but it’s even worse for movies – and especially so for “foreign” ones… “La Momie” I can handle but “la mémoire dans la peau” anyone?

And why do the french (amongst others) write the title on a book spine THE OTHER WAY!!!



Harry 09.13.08 at 11:47 am

mossy — I tried reading one of those Pears books on the strength of reading An Instance of the Fingerpost, which I found terrific, but found the art world one disappointing. I’ll give them another try now: maybe I was unfairly comparing them to something else by him rather than to the rest of the competition.

Comments on this entry are closed.