200 authors I would recommend (Part 1)

8f881f43035e3361e41fd1063c8f087cAt more than one point in my life, I spent my working days standing behind the counter of a murder mystery bookstore essentially recommending books to people — because I had read so damn many of them. I’ve been an omnivorous and reasonably indiscriminate reader now for decades, helped by a natural talent for speed-reading and a very good memory, and as a result there are very, very few mystery writers whose work has never crossed my path or about whom I don’t have some kind of opinion. I like all kinds of books, and all kinds of mysteries; when it comes right down to it, if it looks like a mystery I’ll usually give it an hour. I frequently get asked to recommend a good mystery and I’m happy to do so; sometimes I’ll recommend an average one, if I think it will appeal to a specific reader for a specific reason.

074bc0a398a016801d420210That being said, there’s a certain category of books that finds a place on my shelves and stays there, rather than getting cleared out in a once-a-decade fit of temper. I have met many people who are baffled that I can read a murder mystery more than once; but for me, there’s a certain kind of novel that I believe only reveals its secrets upon a second or third reading. Those are written by the authors whom I will track down everything they ever wrote and keep it, as best I can. And those are the authors whom I’ll recommend.

I decided to do a list of my own, Part 1 of which is below. I’ll try to annotate it for you, to give you a hint of my favourite books or even where to start. This can’t be a comprehensive list; in fact, its secret is that I went through the excellent website that lists mysteries and their authors, Stop, You’re Killing Me!, and skimmed through its 4,600 authors looking for names that struck a chord. I can’t say it’s every author I would ever recommend, and no doubt I will be horribly embarrassed to realize that I have missed one or two essential names. There are one or two names whom others find essential that I cannot recommend because they bore me or annoy me; I have not received much enjoyment from Ruth Rendell, for instance. But for Rendell’s work, I could even recommend one or two titles I’ve enjoyed (From Doon with Death, her first, was a breath of fresh air). The names here are authors for whom, by and large, I’m fairly confident that you will pick up a book of theirs at random and find something to enjoy.

c10779This is a personal list; these are the authors that I like, not the ones I think you should read because they are significant. They appear to be skewed in a few directions by my personal experience; you’ll find a lot of gay mysteries, a lot of Canadian mysteries, and a bunch of my personal friends. Your mileage may vary. As always, your comments and polite disagreements are very welcome.  I’ve done the list of 200 names already and will post them in bunches as I find time.

You’ll find that if you click on the author’s name, it will take you to a list of his/her/their works.

  1. Abbot, Anthony
    The Thatcher Colt mysteries date back to the 1930s and were the source material for a couple of interesting old films. You may find these difficult to acquire but keep your eyes open, they’re worth it. Classic American detection with good writing and interesting plots. I liked About the Murder of the Nightclub Lady; About the Murder of the Clergyman’s Mistress is tough to find but very enjoyable.
  2. Aird, Catherine
    Modern British detective novels in the classic whodunit style, these mysteries have a gentle sense of humour, a knowing approach to human nature, and clever plots. The Complete Steel has a wonderful ending; The Religious Body is a gently clever puzzle mystery.
  3. Aldyne, Nathan
    he four novels in the Valentine and Clarisse series (Vermilion, Cobalt, Slate, and Canary) about a handsome gay bartender and his zany best girlfriend who solve mysteries in and around the gay community are uneven and occasionally silly, but they have an enormous amount of joie de vivre and will let the average reader know what the gay community was like in the halcyon period immediately before HIV.
  4. Ames, Delano
    The Dagobert and Jane novels from, essentially, the 1950s are pretty much screwball farce wrapped around clever mystery plots. Very good fun. I started with a good one, Corpse Diplomatique, which gave me the taste for them.
  5. Anderson, James
    I recommend the three Inspector Wilkins mysteries, which are lovely send-ups of the classic Golden Age mystery, starting with The Affair of the Bloodstained Egg Cosy; the novelizations of three of the episodes of Murder, She Wrote are actually readable.
  6. Aspler, Tony
    I’ve never met my fellow Canadian Mr. Aspler, but his three 90s mysteries about a Toronto wine journalist are amusing, very readable, and informative. Start with Blood Is Thicker Than Beaujolais.
  7. Bailey, H. C.
    The volumes about Dr. Reginald Fortune, mostly collections of short stories from the 1930s, are justly famous and worth your attention. Pretty much any volume with his name in the title is a good introduction. Bailey had an expert hand with the puzzle short story; the characterizations are sometimes flat but there are stories that will stay with you for a long time.
  8. Barnard, Robert
    An expert on Agatha Christie and a writer in the classic mode, his books from 1974 to 2011 are a wonderful mix. Some are hilarious and farcical — Corpse in a Gilded Cage and Death on the High C’s will leave you with tears of laughter. And some are intelligent and literary and very serious, like Out of the Blackout. He wrote mysteries in three series with Mozart as a detective, and a minor British aristocrat, and a young black Scotland Yard detective; his range was huge and his intelligence shines through every book. Most unusually, he wrote about series detectives with an equal facility to his one-off non-series novels; the stand-alone novels may be his best work.
  9. Beeding, Francis
    Beeding wrote thrillers that might seem antique and slow-moving to the modern reader, but he was a careful constructor and technician and you will find yourself turning pages late into the night — the best recommendation of all.
  10. Bell, Josephine
    Classic British mysteries, frequently with a medical background; the earliest ones are the best. Death at the Medical Board and Murder on the Merry-go-Round might be easiest to find, and they are a good introduction.

Nathan Aldyne

From time to time I post about a particular writer, more or less as something crosses my path. Last weekend I was at a street fair in my city’s “gaybourhood” and came across some used books for sale from the gay community centre’s library. I noticed three by an author whom I’d enjoyed in the past and picked them up.  For a buck a paperback, why not?

There were only four books in the Valentine and Clarisse series of mysteries. They are, probably in the wrong chronological order, Vermilion, Slate, Canary and Cobalt, and all four were published in the early 1980s. They are “gay mysteries”; Valentine is a handsome young gay man and Clarisse is his best girlfriend, and together they solve mysteries concerning gay people against a background of gay establishments, trophes, etc.  Their principal virtue is that they are funny. Well, okay, they’re not fall down laughing tears streaming from the eyes wet yourself funny, but they are lighthearted and zany, if I can use that fine old word. They remind me of  the Thin Man movies (not the book, particularly) about Nick and Nora Charles, originated by Dashiell Hammett, and the subsequent “lighthearted mystery comedy about zany married couple” sub-genre of mysteries exemplified by relatively little-known writers like Kelley Roos (Jeff and Haila Troy), Frances Crane (the Abbotts) and the Lockridges (Mr. and Mrs. North) and a bunch of movies and radio programs.

As mysteries per se, the books are — meh. The back cover of a paperback edition of one of the volumes features a review by “Newgate Callendar” from the New York Times.  I’m not sure why the publishers felt they should include all of this review, since it was moderately unfavourable. Nevertheless I agree with “Callendar” that one or two of the actions in the books are motivated by nothing more than a desire to keep things moving in an amusing way and not based on logic or sense.  Indeed, it is hard to imagine any logical motive for some of the things that happen, and some of the motivations that characters evince are — hard to understand and hard to believe.  But they are generally funny. The protagonists are charming, the backgrounds are authentic, the characterizations are amusing, the plots are witty, if illogical.

The thing about these mysteries that interested me in the 30-year interval since their publication is that they are, however inadvertently, a portrait of American gay society immediately before AIDS.  In what I believe is the last of the four, it is mentioned that a social event is being held as a charity fund-raiser for an AIDS charity.  As far as I know, that’s the only mention of AIDS, which actually killed both the gay men who were writing as “Nathan Aldyne” (and probably why the series stopped, although one died in ’87 and the other in the late 90s). I lived through that period as an actively gay man, and it is sometimes difficult to explain to people of a younger generation that, yes, it was possible to have sex as often and as randomly as we did. That bars and steambaths and the like were cornucopias of sexuality, freely available and generously given.  (At one point in one novel, a young man has sex with someone whom he finds relatively unattractive because he feels it is expected of him, as kind of an “end to the evening” thing.) Gay men looked and acted in the ways that are shown in these novels, and were motivated by the things by which they are shown to be motivated. It’s not an enormously important social document, but to me it was an interesting one.

The first editions are ferociously expensive; even the 1980s paperbacks are pricey.  But a gay press republished the books in trade editions more recently, and you will find these relatively easy to acquire, and inexpensively so. If you are interested in the social fabric of gay society immediately before it was ruined by AIDS, these will be a worthwhile read.