I’m a big fan of mysteries. And I’m a firm believer that the heart of a good mystery story has to be, well, the mystery. In the best examples, all the clues are there, the characters’ actions are believable -- even inevitable -- and yet, somehow, the solution takes me by surprise. I love that feeling!
If the story’s voice also stands out for some reason -- it’s quirky or darkly atmospheric or witty -- then you’ve really got something special.
So it’s hard to choose a favorite mystery. The genre is full of wonderfully strange detectives and clever plots. But I think, for me, if it’s a combination of surprising plots (that you should have been able to guess, but completely didn’t!), great characters, and pitch perfect writing, I have to go with Sarah Caudwell. (Hers is also a name that I don’t see tossed around as much as some of the giants, so I won’t miss a chance to send up some hurrays in her honor.)
Sarah Caudwell (the pen name of Sarah Cockburn) was a British barrister who published three devilishly ingenious mystery novels in the 1980’s and a fourth in 2000, the year of her death: Thus Was Adonis Murdered, The Shortest Way to Hades, The Sirens Sang of Murder, and The Sibyl in Her Grave.
Although the stories are contemporary, the wry humor and tongue-in-cheek literary sophistication is more reminiscent of Margery Allingham and Agatha Christie than it is in line with some of today’s grittier mystery stories involving things like Forensics and Cell Phones and Dirty Cops. Caudwell’s detective, of unknown gender, is Professor Hilary Tamar, supported along the way by a cast of young barristers, and the details of the plots often center on things like tax and inheritance law. I’m not sure there’s a bigger discrepancy anywhere in literature between how boring a thing sounds and how utterly hilarious and entertaining it actually is.
So if you haven’t read it, here’s the very beginning of The Sibyl in Her Grave:
The two men struggling on the floor of the Clerks’ Room differed widely in appearance: one young, of slender build, dressed in cotton and denim, with honey-coloured hair worn rather long and a pleasing delicacy of feature; the other perhaps in his sixties, tending to plumpness, wearing a pinstriped suit, with the round, pink face of a bad-tempered baby and very little hair at all. They rolled this way and that, as it seemed inextricably entwined, uttering indistinguishable cries and groans, whether of pain or pleasure I could not easily determine. A ladder was also involved in the proceedings.
Thanks for having me over! I look forward to hearing about others’ favorite things.