Old School mysteries rock

Of late I have found myself hungry for the delights of old school mystery writing.  Cracking the pages of some of these classic works, I feel I’ve discovered something perhaps many of you already knew: they really ROCK.

In the last month or so, I’ve read Agatha Christie (Murder in Mesopotamia and The Murder of Roger Ackroyd) and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes (Hound of the Baskervilles), and I’ve got more of both, plus a Dorothy Sayers novel, waiting on the nightstand.

Here are a few reasons I think these books have stood the test of time and remained engaging (even refreshing) after so long:

Crime and murder doesn’t equal depravity and gore. 

Now, don’t get me wrong, I like a good blood-soaked, psychological thriller as much as the next girl, but damn is there something lovely about reading a mystery that manages to convey dread and suspense without showing every lurid detail and making every villian into a sociopathic monster who would rape his own mother.  These books rely on good writing, the creation of atmosphere and mood, and deft and clever characterization to do their work — and they are the richer for it.

Who dunnit?  *bites nails in suspense*

“Who dunnit” is a good question when it comes to old school mysteries.  Christie and Doyle knew how to keep us guessing until the very last page – bringing each character under the light of suspicion in turn.  In a lot of contemporary crime novels we learn the villian’s identity relatively early and the plot revolves around a sort of dance (classic ‘battle of wills’) between the evil antagonist and the heroic protagonist.  In old school mystery writing, there’s a lot more grey area — everyone has something to hide, which makes it much harder to pin down the bad guy (or gal).

My dear Watson

Too right, Holmes — these classic authors of mystery really knew how to create memorable characters.  Holmes is an obnoxious bore of a know-it-all and Watson his long-sufferingly loyal compassionate everyman.  They are the perfect team, their partnership as endearing as it is enduring.  The same can be said for Hercule Poirot, Agatha Christie’s fussy, delightful, always enigmatic but never-wrong inspector.  As readers we can count on these characters to take us through the darkness and into the light, and to always throw in a few good surprises along the way.

In short, old school mysteries are wonderful comfort food of the kind I suspect I will forever-after be hungry for.

So, to help me feed my new addiction, I beg not only your thoughts on the delights of old school mysteries, but also the generous sharing of your favorite, not-to-be-missed titles.

Happy reading (and detecting!) 🙂

9 thoughts on “Old School mysteries rock

  1. Lora

    Have you read the series that begins with The Beekeeper’s Apprentice? They were written using the Sherlock Holmes and Watson characters, with a girl added to the mix. It’s been a while since I read them, but I think one of them has a different account of the Hound of the Baskervilles. I really liked them, once I got over the creepiness factor of the May-December romance.

  2. Kristin

    I love Agatha Christie. My favorite character of hers is Poirot. When I was a kid a read a book of hers where Poirot had to complete twelve tasks similar to those of Hercules. I don’t remember what it is called, but I want to read it again and can’t find it. Although not a book, Gosford Park, is a fabulous mystery movie that I love watching. The characters are so rich and it keeps you guessing all the way through.

  3. EF Kelley

    Alas, I don’t read too many mysteries, but I have always enjoyed them. One of my planned worlds is a noir-ish fantasy set in a battered port city with the MC as a hard-bitten watch inspector who is hiding the secret shame that he’s a wererat. TONS of fun there. 🙂 (And if you got through that sentence, I commend your stamina.)

    You know, your mention of ‘all characters under suspicion’ reminds me of a Deep Space Nine conversation between Doctor Bashir and Garak.

    It went something like:

    Bashir: The trouble with Cardassian enigma tales is that they all end the same way: all the suspects are always guilty.
    Garak: Yes! But the challenge is determining exactly who is guilty of what.

    Such fun. 🙂

  4. John P. Murphy

    Oh man. I love these books. I have shelves full of them. The book Kristin’s referring to above is The Labours of Hercules. It’s good, but not Christie’s best. (I blogged about the first half of the book last year, but abandoned the effort when I realized that nobody was reading it) If you want to read her short mysteries, you might try The Thirteen Problems, which has Miss Marple rather than Poirot.
    For that matter, I got into Viable Paradise with a short mystery in the Golden Age style, and am shopping a few around right now. 🙂

    So what else… The Nero Wolfe mysteries by Rex Stout are a lot of fun. The odd-couple-ish rapport between Wolfe and Goodwin adds a lot to the mysteries. A&E did a phenomenally good series based on these books a few years back with Maury Chaykin and Timothy Hutton, and actually managed to improve on them a bit.

    Margery Allingham’s Campion mysteries have a light-hearted style, but are more of the adventure mode than Fair Play mystery. I enjoy them, but they’re not going to keep you guessing the way the others are.

    Let me know if you want more (or specific) recommendations, I can offer plenty 🙂

    1. mirandasuri

      Wow, John, you are a mystery fan! Thanks for the awesome recommendations! Are you on Goodreads? If so, seems like I’d better start following you 🙂

      1. John P. Murphy

        I am, sort of — I signed up wanting to follow other people, but never bothered to put in my own ratings. Maybe I’ll do that today, it looks like it’ll be a slow morning.

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