Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly feature/meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish. This week’s topic is Top Ten Books to Read if You Love/Hate This Super-Popular Book/Author.
Agatha Christie is often called the Queen of British mystery. At the very least, she’s one of the grandes dames of classic British mystery – Golden Age mystery, if you will. She’s also the most popular mystery author ever, if you go by total worldwide sales of her books. But what do you do if you’ve (gasp!) actually managed to read all or almost all of Christie’s 80-book oevre? Turn to one of these marvelous series, of course!
In alphabetical order by author
- Cait Morgan mysteries (Cathy Ace) Cait Morgan is a criminologist – a victim profiler – with an eidetic memory. Ace crafts her mysteries with all the care and precision of Christie herself, and sets them in the present day and all over the world: Canada, Mexico, a cruise ship. There are five in the series so far.
- Inspector Sloan mysteries (Catherine Aird) Sloan and his hapless sidekick, Constable Crosby, investigate crimes in the fictional county of Calleshire. These are technically police procedurals, but the village and market-town settings lend the books a classic British mystery feel, and Aird’s dry, understated wit and penchant for irony are immensely appealing. Start at the beginning with The Religious Body (in which a nun is found dead in her convent.) And don’t miss Aird’s standalone, A Most Contagious Game, in which a four-hundred-year-old murder and a contemporary one collide.
- Campion mysteries (Margery Allingham) A contemporary of Christie’s, Allingham’s mysteries feature the enigmatic and many-aliased Albert Campion. Like Wimsey (the detective to whom he’s most often compared), Campion adopts a harmless, frivolous demeanor that hides flashes of brilliance and dedication to justice, but unlike Wimsey, we never learn much about Campion’s family background. Allingham’s books are filled with eccentric characters and strange, sometimes bizarre crimes. I’ve loved some books in the series and tolerated others.
- Aunt Dimity mysteries (Nancy Atherton) If what you love best about Christie is the villages, this series, written by an American but set in a not-quite-idyllic English village, is for you. American Lori Sheppard is a delightful heroine, ghostly Aunt Dimity gives sage advice, and there’s hardly a murder in the bunch – these are the epitome of light and cozy.
- Mrs. Pollifax mysteries (Dorothy Gilman) On the other hand, if Miss Marple is your favorite, you should give Gilman’s Mrs. Pollifax a try. She’s a cushiony, cheerful American widow who waltzes into CIA headquarters to volunteer as a spy. She has Miss Marple’s ability to see beyond surface appearances, but her zest for life and her practical resourcefulness are entirely her own.
- Mary Russell & Sherlock Holmes mysteries (Laurie R. King) I may be cheating a little with this one, because of course the obvious comparison is to the Holmes stories rather than Christie. But the books are so well-written and the characters so compelling that you simply have to read them. And despite their American author and half-American heroine, they are very, very British in flavor.
- Inspector Alleyn mysteries (Ngaio Marsh) Marsh was a contemporary of Christie’s. Roderick “Rory” Alleyn fits the “gentleman detective” mold in terms of background – he’s the son of a baronet – but his job as a Detective Inspector at Scotland Yard places him more in the police-procedural camp. The books are well-plotted, the characters sensitively drawn, and theater fans will enjoy the four or five novels set in that milieu. Don’t be thrown by the first book, which plays with the foriegn-secret-society trope popular at the time of its writing; this is a terrific mystery series and Marsh is one of the three or four grande dames of British mystery I mentioned earlier.
- George & Dominic Felse mysteries (Ellis Peters) Peters is best known for her superb historical mysteries featuring Brother Cadfael. Most readers are unaware that she also wrote a very good series of contemporary mysteries starring Inspector George Felse and his son Dominic – not always together, and not always as the main character(s). Each of the Felse novels can be read on its own, but they are all good, and most of them are wonderful. (She really hit her stride around book four with A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs.) Peters was a wonderful writer; her voice is distinctive and her instinct for just the right word is uncanny. Also try Peters’s standalone mysteries, particularly Never Pick Up Hitchhikers (which is actually quite funny), Death Mask, and The House of Green Turf.
- Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries (Dorothy Sayers) The epitome of classic British mystery, Lord Peter never fails to delight. Sayers developed the character over the course of the series; as he matures, falls in love, and courts mystery writer (and accused murderer) Harriet Vane, he strips away many of his masks and protective mannerisms until we can see the real Peter only hinted at in the early books. Even in those early books, though, he’s a wonderful character; it’s clear that a keen intelligence and a sharply observant eye hide behind his silly-ass-about-town facade. Harriet is another wonderful character and the two make an excellent pairing for the four books in which Harriet appears. (and four more in the series’ continuation by Jill Paton Walsh.)
- Inspector Grant mysteries (Josephine Tey) My favorite of these has always been The Daughter of Time, which finds Grant hospitalized and tackling, out of boredom, the question of whether Richard III really did murder the young princes in the Tower. Read Tey’s standalones as well: The Franchise Affair (technically a Grant but he’s a minor character), Miss Pym Disposes, and Brat Farrar. She wrote only 8 or 9 books, but they’re all well worth reading.
- Duncan Kincaid and Gemma James mysteries (Deborah Crombie) Crombie’s police procedurals are sensitively written, displaying a deep understanding of human nature both good and bad. The slow evolution of Duncan and Gemma’s relationship from superior officer and trusted subordinate to something much more personal is handled perfectly; if you don’t come to like both of these characters enormously, I’ll be very much surprised. The series is on the “honorable mention” list only because it’s not really Christie-like except for its tightly-plotted puzzles. This is easily one of the best contemporary British mystery series I’ve ever read.
- Daisy Dalrymple mysteries (Carola Dunn) A plucky and impoverished daughter of the aristocracy becomes a freelance journalist and finds herself mixed up in murder after murder – much to the dismay of her Scotland-Yard-inspector suitor/fiance/husband. Set between the two World Wars, the series is light – not unlike some of Christie’s lighter fare in tone – but doesn’t ignore the serious issues faced by Britons in the interwar period.
- Charles Lenox mysteries (Charles Finch) Finch’s Victorian gentleman detective reminds me more of Ngaio Marsh’s sensitive, compassionate, and reserved Inspector Alleyn than any of Christie’s detectives, but Finch’s plotting is easily the equal of Christie’s, and his writing is more nuanced.
- Josephine Tey mysteries (Nicola Upson) Above, I talked about the mysteries written by Tey herself, but Nicola Upson is working on a very well-written series in which Tey stars as the main character and amateur detective.
- Maisie Dobbs mysteries (Jacqueline Winspear) Well-written but much more psychological than Christie, these mysteries set in post-WWI Britain deal with class issues and the effects of the war on the soldiers and civilians who survived it.