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Matters Criminous

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Matters Criminous: Literate Mystery Series

"Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?"

"To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time."

"The dog did nothing in the night-time."

"That was the curious incident," remarked Sherlock Holmes.

--"Silver Blaze",
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Some Literate Mystery Series

I will now simply list, with a few comments (and links), what I think some of the great mystery series. It is a virtual certainty here that I am inadvertently leaving out much fine work, and I want to more than ever emphasize that the list below is nothing like exhaustive--"some of" is what I said and it's what I mean. But what is on the list, I think very good to excellent, suited to a literate readership. Perhaps in time I may add to this list, but life is only so long and I am, as I write this, six dozen and more books behind--they sit on my shelves, leering nastily at me--in my speculative-fiction readings.

Mystery fiction can be subdivided in many ways. Dilys Winn, author of the deeply entertaining and informative guide Murder Ink, remarks:

I recognize five basic mystery categories: the Cozy, the Paranoid, the Romantic, the Vicious, the Analytical. (This leaves me no place for Rex Stout, but never mind: he really deserves a category unto himself.)

My little list is far too short to justify such subdivision, but I did decide on one split. Pithy denomination was troublesome, but I have settled on Real and Ideal for the terms. The "Real" is fiction that a sane reader can--if occasionally with a little extra will in the famed "willing suspension of disbelief"--conceive as a plausible portrayal of the real world; the "Ideal" is fiction that we do not even attempt to perceive as a portrayal of our real world, but accept as a portrayal some fantastic world that we are willing, for the occasion, to accept as an interesting counterfit of our own. That might seem at first as simply a way of dividing the hard-boiled from the cozy, but it's not that simple: some not-so-hard-boiled work (notably Maigret) is clearly by intent "Real", while some thoroughly hard-boiled work is so hard boiled as to pass into the "Ideal" ("ideal" here not signifying optimum but as expressing ideation). Within those two crude categories, the series appear in no special order.

(I have left out a few series that I myself enjoy on the ground that my personal enjoyment of them does not cloud my understanding that they are not terribly good literature. One example is the "Brother Cadfael" medieval mysteries, which present a grotesquely sugar-coated version of life in general and the early middle ages in particular. Indeed, "historical" mysteries is now a thriving subgenre, with real persons from William Shakespare to Groucho Marx, Samuel Johnson to Jane Austen, roped in as detectives; most are pretty punk, though the best give decent and painless history lessons.

Another series I like is that epic piece of Americana, The Shadow--anyone who knows The Shadow only from the dopey radio series ought to at least cast a glance at some of the original stories (click the preceding link): ok, they had wooden writing, stilted dialogue, and cartoon-level characterization--but my, oh my, did they have plots, wheels within wheels within wheels. Above all, they had The Shadow himself, a creation that achieved mythic proportions beyond his authors' intent or, truly, creative ability: he took on, as it were, a life of his own, his symbolic stature transcending his origins.)

The listing headings below are of the form character: author, where character is a click-on link to a separate page here about that character, listing all of the books featuring that character (with click-on searches for used copies). Where a part of a character's name, or his title, are not part of how he is customarily referred to, I have put that part in parentheses. The linked-to pages here each provide links about both the author and the character, as well as the full works listings.

Those series-character pages are not, so far, critical evaluations of the works--life is only so long--but rather are complete guides to obtaining the works in the series, which is often less simple than one might think. I try to list the best available editions, or, if there are no especially meritorious editions, at least all of the works, with links to used-book searches for each.

Each page is linked at the series-character heading for it on this page.

In time to come, I may somewhat expand the discussions on those pages beyond what appears here, but no promises.

"Real" Works

Inspector (Jules) Maigret: Georges Simenon

Chief value: psychological analysis.

Maigret Logo

Simenon is a novelist of the psychological whose especial strength is exposing the bizarre and the fantastic in simple, ordinary lives. Maigret's "method" of investigation (a joke, as he always remarks that he has no method) is to hang about, apparently aimlessly, to look, see, hear, sniff, taste, get deeper and deeper into the feel of the lives of those involved in a case, till he practically lives those lives with them: then he knows, by intuitive perception of the hidden tensions, who must have done what how--and why. These tales tend to be depressing, but they enrich our understanding of our fellow humans. (They also have a marvellous atmospheric quality of the Paris of their times, which range from the 1930s on into the 70s, as the Wolfe tales have of New York City and the Holmes tales of London.)

(Commander) Adam Dalgliesh: P. D. James

Chief attraction: moral outlook.

Marsden as Dalgliesh

James's novels are thoroughly realistic and correspondingly gritty. Dalgliesh (Commander is a police rank), is a consummate professional, cool and detached, yet with a private side (he is, in fact, a published poet). James pulls off the difficult trick of presenting noir realism in combination with an almost fierce moral posture, a clear line between right and wrong, good and evil. For, as she often notes, it is the distinguishing characteristic of the mystery tale that justice be served, and it is in that that such tales diverge from life: but we turn to them just because we want a vision of a world, however otherwise askew, in which when murder is done, justice can be seen and often--even if not always--also done.

Philip Marlowe: Raymond Chandler

Chief attraction: hard-boiled, cynical romanticism.

Bogart as Marlowe

If Marlowe seems stereotypical, it is because he was what an attorney might call the "case of first impression": he is the original of his type, the mold from which so many copies have been cast, the tough, worldly, cynical, boozy, living-on-the-edge lone-wolf shamus with a stubborn streak of chivalric idealism under it all, the lonely honest man in a vile, crooked world, the knight in rusty, dented armor.

In everything that can be called art there is a quality of redemption. It may be pure tragedy, if it is a high tragedy, and it may be pity and irony, and it may be the raucous laughter of the strong man. Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. He is the hero, he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world. (Raymond Chandler, "The Simple Art Of Murder")

The Continental Op: Dashiell Hammett

Chief attraction: professionalism with an attitude.

Shadow on detective-agency door

The "Continental Op"--an "operative" of the Continental detective agency (a thin fictive cover for the Pinkertons)--recounts his tales in the first person, but never tells us his name. He is unheroic: middle-aged, short, overweight. But he is a professional: he is good at what he does, and does it, as he says, because he is good at it, because he enjoys doing something difficult that he is good at. His assignments usually take him through the sleazy, corrupt underside of society; there is drama, but not melodrama: he is, after all, a professional, and the stereotypical blazing guns and flying fists of bad imitations of this classic are not his chief stock in trade. The Op is a man who cooly does his job, but he is not amoral. Especially in the masterpiece Red Tide, he imposes his own concepts of right on his environment, sometimes out of all proportion to what his nominal assignment requires. The Op was the first of what came to be called the "hard-boiled" detectives. (Note: Hammett had worked for the Pinkertons for several years, and so knew his material first-hand.)

(Hammett also created some other now-famous characters: Sam Spade, in The Maltese Falcon, and Nick and Nora Charles in The Thin Man, but neither ran to a series: there were a few early, weak short stories with Spade, collected into a follow-up book when the Bogart movie hit it big, and, despite the flood of highly entertaining "Thin Man" movies, there was only the original book--in which Charles is not the titular thin man.)

"Ideal" Works

Sherlock Holmes: Conan Doyle

Chief value: atmosphere.

Classic Sherlock Holmes

The defining element of these ever-delightful tales is, as Vincent Starett once put it, a world in which "it is always eighteen ninety-five." We visit and re-visit because the atmosphere is warm and cozy (which is very different from the stark and grim reality of Victorian times). Holmes and Watson are boyish wish fulfillment: no "real" jobs, cozy evenings by the fire, adventure forever beckoning. The tales are a triumph of style over content: despite Holmes' cleverly displayed intellectual powers, the actual crimes detected range from the somewhat unlikely to the utterly preposterous. It is a tribute to Doyle's style that we do not even notice the impracticalities and absurdities: we simply wallow in the atmosphere. And there is always the pleasure of what has come to be known as Sherlockismus--those immortal, almost Chestertonian exchanges of which that at the head of this page is the archetype.

Nero Wolfe: Rex Stout

Chief value: mannered wit.

Nero Wolfe

It is easy to create an eccentric genius: it is nearly impossible to do what Rex Stout did, make such a creation humanly credible. As with Doyle (and Wolfe is essentially Sherlock Holmes's older brother Mycroft transplanted to modern America), Stout forever deals in unlikely or absurd crimes, but so charmingly that we scarcely notice the implausibilities, for we are reading to see Nero Wolfe and the intimate supporting cast--notably Archie Goodwin, his chief aide and the first-person narrator of the tales--in action. Archie is the paragon of manly American virtues--smart, handsome, personable, witty, brave, and so on--just as John Watson was the paragon of British manly virtues. Archie is therefore also a smartass, but an intelligent and witty one. And Wolfe? Well, he's eccentric--in too many ways to list here--and he's a genius; and he's both things in ways we can believe. Moreover, the Wolfean household is a model of carefully civilized life: one can learn a lot about the decencies of human behavior from Wolfe and Archie:

You must know that a man can have only one invulnerable loyalty, loyalty to his own concept of the obligations of manhood. All other loyalties are merely deputies of that one.

(Professor) Gervase Fen: Edmund Crispin

Chief value: humor.

Stylized Gervase Fen

Gervase Fen, the Professor of English Language and Literature at Oxford University, is the star of a too-short roster of novels and shorts, each more wildly comic than the last. The humor is not of the gross "banana-peel" variety, and the tales have their sober moments; but "Crispin" (the pen name of composer Robert Bruce Montgomery) was, right from the first paragraph of the first book, a demonstrable master of that delicious English dry wit that can culminate in madcap antics pursued with apparent utmost sobriety. The concluding (and doubtless best) Fen novel, The Glimpses of the Moon, written after a quarter-century hiatus, has all the flavor of a Marx Brothers film, despite its gruesome chief prop. The crimes, and their solutions, are--as with so many of the best of this genre--silly and more or less irrelevant to the main business, which is the bizarre situations and zany dialogues.

Father Brown: G. K. Chesterton

Chief value: moral insight.

Father Brown

Chesterton was a deeply devout Catholic who used his great writerly powers to advance that and other causes; but, being great, he did not bash readers over the head with oratory, but rather wrapped his advocacy in delicious and rich tales of seemingly myriad sorts. Father Brown is comically unheroic: short, dumpy, mild-mannered, the very picture of a hopelessly unworldly absent-minded cleric. But, as Chesterton points out, those who would save souls in the world--and to whom the darkest deeds imaginable are freely confessed on a daily basis--are rarely as unworldly as they look. The Father Brown tales are classic Chesterton: apparently impossible and paradoxical criminal mysteries--yet each with an almost childishly simple explanation when once matters are seen from the correct angle, the angle that Father Brown almost immediately perceives owing to his steadfastly moral understanding of human activity. (Sidebar: we never learn Father Brown's given name.)

(Chief Superintendent) Roderick Alleyn: Ngaio Marsh

Chief value: fleshed-out characters.

Roderick Alleyn

Marsh's books about Roderick Alleyn have almost all this characteristic: the crime does not occur--and hence Alleyn and the police do not appear--till perhaps half-way or more into the book. By this remarkable device (Simon Templar once complained that we never really know anything about the victim in a mystery novel save that he is dead in Chapter One), Marsh manages to regularly combine two stories in one novel: the story of the persons who, unknown to them, are about to be entangled in the ultimate crime, murder; and the story of Alleyn and his familiar and faithful crew of police officers who calmly and methodically untangle the complex tapestry; most mystery writers give us only that second tale. The early Alleyn books are pleasantly readable, if undistinguished (these are marked by the presence of a silly Watson-type, the young journalist Nigel Bathgate); but before long, Marsh began taking her character seriously, and her work matured notably. These are not deep, sober, grittily realistic character portrayals: but they do leave us feeling that we have met real, human people, in the round, so to speak. Alleyn is a paragon--more human in the later books, but still a paragon: handsome, intellectual, witty, humane, and above all gentlemanly: indeed, his shtick is that he is an aristocrat, once in training for the diplomatic corps, who one day just up and decided to become a policeman, beginning by walking a beat (it is to Marsh's great credit that she never, over a long series, gave in to the temptation to elaborate that tantalizing decision).

Lord Peter Wimsey: Dorothy L. Sayers

Chief value: genteel escapism.

Lord Peter Wimsey

Lord Peter is the archetype of the fictive amateur sleuth (Holmes was not a policeman, but neither was he an amateur--he charged fees): a wealthy (and well-connected) aristocrat from one of the first families of England--dapper, urbane, a polymath--who has decided that his contribution to society (noblesse oblige) will be solving crimes. That is a horrid formula (and the very first Wimsey novel not very good), but Sayers' powerful intelligence informs the tales (mostly novels) throughout, making them entertaining and raising the characters to a surprisingly high level of plausibility. We never really and fully believe in any of them, but they are delightful company all. In the later books, Peter is forever romancing the love of his life, Harriet Vane (curiously, a female writer of mystery fiction), who forever politely and friendlily rebuffs him, an ongoing saga-within-a-saga that some readers find delightful and others highly irritating. But the books rightly rank high in the field.

Mr. (Albert) Campion: Margery Allingham

Chief value: literate style.

Davison as Campion

"Mr. Campion"--an alias but what he is always known as to us--is another aristo detective, this time, though, in mufti, hence his endless string of aliases, for his family has bounced him for his wayward and unaristocratic ways, so he is not wealthy nor able to draw on his family's connections, though on occasion they draw on him. Mr. Campion is often described in the tales as "everybody's uncle", and affects large horn-rimmed glasses that make him look older than he is (unlike many mystery-series protagonists, Campion ages and matures as the years go on, but retains the glasses) and a blank look easily mistaken for vapidity. Campion is another character who started off as a bad Christie imitation (the first book is just this side of awful); one would have been hard pressed to realize from the first few--though they are still entertaining reading--that the character would grow to the point that the famous book reviewer "Torquemada" would say that to Albert Campion has fallen the honour of being the first detective to feature in a story which is also by any standard a distinguished novel. Even Campion's crude and grossly overweight manservant (Lugg, a former burglar) evolves from an artificiality left over from the early books into a real and sympathetic character.

Solar Pons: August Derleth

Chief value: delightful Holmesiania

Solar Pons

There are, by last count, 6,345,827,434 attempts to emulate or create a pastiche of Sherlock Holmes--that being the estimated population of the world, and has any one ever lived who did not long to write a Sherlock Holmes story? Yet there has been but one real success in that crowd: Solar Pons. Derleth succeeds where so many failed perhaps most of all because he deliberately makes a close copy of Holmes, not an imitation. Pons is not Holmes, he is just very like Holmes. Pons is aware of Holmes: roughly speaking, what Holmes was to Victorian England, Pons is to between-the-wars England; where Holmes reigned from the Second Anglo-Afghan War (whence Watson was just returned) to the dawn of World War I, so Pons stepped in where Holmes bowed out, and reigned from the terminus of World War I (whence Dr. Parker was just returned) to the dawn of World War II.

Pons is, as one reviewer put it, "Sherlock Holmes with a twinkle in his eye." A few of the stories are overtly comedic, but most--including the single novel--are real detective stories handled much as Holmes would have handled matters, though with the occasional nod and bow towards Crowborough. (A fellow named Basil Copper has written several books' worth more Pons stories; I have enjoyed them, but the old firm is the old firm, and that's that.) I am an early member of the Praed Street Irregulars, within which my style, awarded by founder Luther Norris himself, is "The Proper Comma".

Just as there is Sherlockismo, so there is what one might call Ponsismo:

"My name is Athos Humphreys," said our client. "I have a small shop for antiques, old books, and stamps in Hampstead. Other than that I doubt your need to know."

"Save that you are a member of the Masonic order, a bachelor or widower accustomed to living alone, without an assistant at your shop, and with insufficient business to demand your unremitting attendance there," said Pons. "Pray continue, Mr. Humphreys."

Simon Templar, alias The Saint: Leslie Charteris

Chief attraction: wish fulfillment with a shot of wry.

The Saint's Mark

This one may seem out of keeping with the rest here, but truly it is not. Sure, The Saint is purest cartoon wish-fulfillment: super-handsome, super-suave, super-tough, and all the rest of the cartoon "supers" you could want. It is impossible to even begin to take him seriously. But that's the point: Charteris didn't take him seriously. The stories are much leavened with large doses of Charteris's delightfully comic descriptive passages, which apply almost Dante-esque exaggeration to everything from the mental processes of a policeman to the discomfiting of "the ungodly". Mind, the tales themselves are not tongue-in-cheek: it is just the language that smiles and chuckles along. The character is also interesting in that there was a clear and definite maturing process: the original version really was a boy's vision of the ultimate ripping-yarns hero, but that cartoon shed some of its excesses--and some satellite characters--as the years went on, and the later Simon Templar, while still a romantic device, has his sense and sensibilities in their right adult places. The whole Saint Saga is, as a friend of ours puts such things, "a good yuk." (By the way, Leslie Charteris was quite a colorful character in himself--check out the link.)

Precious Ramotswe: Alexander McCall Smith

Chief value: humane reality.

Benedict as Ramotswe

This curious new (first book, 1998) series is set in Botswana, which is not the Africa of stereotypes, and relates the doings of Precious Ramotswe, a middle-aged single woman of "traditional" build who, for no terribly good reason, spends her modest inheritance opening "The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency"--No. 1 because it is the first detective agency in Botswana run by a woman.

Mma Ramotswe ("Mma" is the polite form of address for women) has, in each book, several cases, which she solves by a combination of solid common sense and some clever investigation. But, as with all good mystery books, the merit does not lie in puzzles and their answers, but in the human circumstances and the author's telling. As to that last, Smith writes fine prose: clean, flowing, lucid. (He has written over half a hundred books ranging from learned legal treatises--one of which is The Criminal Law of Botswana--to children's books to short stories.)

The human circumstances are warm and optimistic, though not without the occasional grim intrusion. Owing to that warm optimism, some lit-twit applied the sobriquet "The Miss Marple of Africa" to these, and a more horrid error would be hard to make: these tales are not brain-dead "cozies", they are a procession of real people (not Christie-esque caricatures) who happen to be mainly decent people living in a mainly decent time and place. (The education the reader receives on the mores and morals of Botswana--which, it seems, is remarkably different from most or all of the other sub-Saharan African nations--is itself worth the reading of these books, but it is only icing on a cake perfectly delicious in itself.)

Yellowthread Street: William Marshall

Chief value: the extremely bizarre.

Yellowthread Street Logo

These tales remind me of something Ursula Le Guin once said in praise of the work of John Bellairs: . . . takes us into pure nightmare before we know it--and out the other side."

Yellowthread Street is a fictional street, and correspondingly named police station, in Hong Kong. The tales are, give or take, what is usually called "police procedural", but with a twist: they are a weird, curious tapestry of nightmare horrors and roll-on-the-floor-laughing humor. Does that seem an impossible combination? Yes, it does--but Marshall pulls it off, not once or twice, or here or there, but throughout the entire series.

The series is an ensemble production, with Chief Inspector Harry Feiffer, Detective Inspector Christopher O'Yee (that's right, O'Yee), and Detectives Auden and Spencer, plus several other recurring characters. The books are each quite distinct and distinctive, yet there is a definite pattern: a bizarre, inexplicable, and usually horrifying series of crimes--almost always with no comprehensible purpose--commences, while a sub-plot or two with Auden and Spencer (who are almost a vaudeville duo) provides hysterically funny counterpoint. But, as part of Marshall's expert handling of his characters, however sappy Auden and Spencer can be--typically in a truly surreal manner--they are never less than human, and when push comes to shove in the main plot line, they get shot at, bleed, and do heroic (if sometimes foolish) things.

Another common element is that we see, in parallel with the police efforts to understand what in Heaven's name is going on, the criminal going about his affairs, invariably identified only by the nickname hung on him: the Faraway Man, the Hatchet Man, the Technician. Sometimes the criminal is someone who has been visible to the police throughout the story--the sort of "least likely suspect" thing--but sometimes is a completely alienated force. We never know till the end if the crimes and the criminal are the product of madness or of deep criminal cunning; if the latter, the crimes are bizarre because they are covering up some greater yet crime in the making.

These stories are really hard to characterize. Reviewers uniformly either love or hate them; there are no lukewarm opinions.

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(essential one-time reading)
Introductory Material:
    Literate Mystery Series:
 a brief list of the series discussed here

(the heart of the site)
The Series (alphabetical by character last name):
    Roderick Alleyn
 (Ngaio Marsh)
    Father Brown
 (G. K. Chesterton)
    Mr. Campion
 (Margery Allingham)
    Adam Dalgliesh
 (P. D. James)
    Gervase Fen
 (Edmund Crispin)
    Sherlock Holmes
 (Conan Doyle)
    Inspector Maigret
 (Georges Simenon)
    Philip Marlowe
 (Raymond Chandler)
    The Continental Op
 (Dashiell Hammett)
    Solar Pons
 (August Derleth)
    The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency (Precious Ramotswe)
 (Alexander McCall Smith)
    The Saint (Simon Templar)
 (Leslie Charteris)
    Lord Peter Wimsey
 (Dorothy Sayers)
    Nero Wolfe
 (Rex Stout)
    Yellowthread Street
 (William Marshall)

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