All too often, people assert that so-called “genre” fiction (a class that includes mystery fiction) is separate from “literary” fiction.
I think not.
Why should literary fiction and mystery fiction be mutually exclusive categories? Who makes such distinctions?
If literary fiction is driven by plot, complex characters, serious tone, and elegant narration, then the subsequent authors rightly deserve their place in this canon. (It has been suggested that slow pace is a characteristic of literary fiction, but I think that’s been discounted over time). That being said, let the games begin!
My Top Five List of Literary Mystery Novels.
1. Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers
“Placetne, Magistra? Placet.”
With these final words Lord Peter Wimsey and mystery novelist, Harriet Vane, commit to one of the greatest love unions in modern literature. It’s as though Shakespeare wrote his sonnet on the meeting of true minds just for them.
But, wait! you cry. You started at the end, and the fun of Sayers is getting there.
Gaudy Night is the story of Harriet Vane, called back to her alma mater, Oxford, to investigate a series of poison-pen letters and ends up embroiled in a dangerous game of cat-and-mouse. She’s ably assisted in her endeavors by Lord Peter Death Bredon Wimsey; criminologist, detective, cricketer, gourmand, and wit.
On its face, Gaudy Night is a mystery novel… a detective story.
But it’s so much more. It’s a study of gender roles, academia, moral principles and the subversion thereof, passion, intellect, and loyalty. It’s a suspense novel, a thriller and a romance. Sayers gives us scrumptious descriptions (who could forget that exquisite chess set and its shattering destruction, or the effigy hanging in the quad), and crafts a plot that drives the work without overshadowing the brilliant narrative. Sayers’s work is both dramatic and understated; erotic and elegant; lyrical and intellectual, and it deserves its rightful place among the masterpieces of literature.
2. The Murders in the Rue Morgue by Edgar Allan Poe
Poe used the term ratiocination in describing his work, which means the application of thought or reasoning that is exact, valid and rational. It’s the same technique used by Conan Doyle and later, Christie. (But where ARE Conan Doyle and Christie?, you yell at the screen. Patience, mystery heathens.)
Murders in the Rue Morgue involves the double murder of Madame L’Espanaye and her daughter in the Rue Morgue, a fictional street in Paris. The mother’s throat had been sliced open and her daughter had been strangled and stuffed up the chimney. It’s a locked door mystery, and the inestimable C. Auguste Dupin arrives to solve the crime.
This is THE detective story. The alpha and omega. It provides so much still in use today: the virtuoso detective, the misguided police, and the careful and thought-provoking analysis of the crime. The staying power of this invention, the sheer magnitude of works derived from it, the obsession it’s created for a certain type of plotline; all these speak to Poe’s reputation as a master storyteller. The term “detective” didn’t exist before Poe, thus making him the Father of the Modern Detective Novel. Or perhaps the Father of the Modern Literary Mystery Novel?
3. The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey
What? Josephine Tey is at No. 3!!! Are you crazed? Someone stop her, she’s abusing what she seeks to exalt.
Just wait, I can explain.
First, the “Daughter of Time” comes from the work of Sir Francis Bacon: “Truth is the daughter of time, not of authority.”
What Bacon (delicious name) is telling us is that if authority and antiquity deprive us of free thought, we are unable to develop our own understanding of events. Tey interprets this to mean that if we accept and adopt artificial historical constructs without objective evidence we become slaves to mythology, or “Tonypandy” (a term Tey coined).
Thus starts Inspector Alan Grant’s study of King Richard III while he is hospitalized for a broken leg. A friend suggests he research an historical mystery and brings him photographs of famous faces. Grant chooses a portrait of King Richard III, a portrait that shows him as patient and wise, like a judge, not a cold-blooded killer of little princes as history suggests. Grant begins his exploration by looking at historical writing itself and its purpose and role in Tudor life. He starts with children’s history and moves on to more “recent” (and bone-chillingly boring tomes) such as Thomas More’s History of King Richard III. Grant concludes that Richard III was innocent, a victim of mythology and Tudor beliefs. The book continues to raise debate to this day, and what better measure of success can be said of a Literary Mystery Novel?
4. A Study in Scarlet by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Finally, you say. She’s getting something right (although this should’ve been No. 1, 2, 3…etc.).
I know it’s not politically correct, but I believe Sherlock became less interesting after he stopped using cocaine. If you look at Doyle’s work after Sherlock gave up his “hobby” you see an appreciable decline in investigative skills.
But I’m starting at the end, again. (You know my methods, Watson.)
221B Baker Street. Who hasn’t imagined being in that infamous study, nervously confronting the irascible genius as he saws violently at a violin? If you haven’t, you have no soul. Or an uninspired one, which is worse. A Study in Scarlet introduced us to Sherlock Holmes and his sidekick, Dr. John Watson.
And our world has never been the same.
What is it about this work that has enthralled nations?
Elementary. It’s Sherlock Holmes, of course; part mad-scientist, part botanist, geologist, astronomer, and philosopher. He’s egocentric, arrogant, and completely unforgettable. The incredible chemistry between Holmes and Watson (brilliantly portrayed in the new BBC series) is the perfect backdrop for solving crimes and A Study in Scarlet introduces us to techniques that have become as familiar as a deerstalker cap. The magnifying glass, scientific measurements, observations of the scene of the crime: word writen in blood, small feet, cigar, long fingernails… clues. The very word gives me a thrill. Doyle is the ultimate clue master and puppeteer extraordinaire. He handles his creation with artful, almost gleeful grace.
He’s alive, right now. If you go to 221B Baker Street he’ll be there waiting. That’s the genius… the mastery… the gift. Sherlock has broken the mortal bonds of genre fiction. He beckons others to follow his lead.
5. The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith
If you’re rolling your eyes right now, it’s either because: a) you’ve just realized your favorite is not listed and you’ve already dropped down to leave scathing comments on my excremental taste; or b) you’ve never read this series.
If it’s the former, take pity, my mom might read this (and I was close to including Agatha Christie, very, very close). If it’s the latter…
Let’s take a little trip. I want you to close your eyes (figuratively—keep reading) and imagine a warm night in Africa (pretty far from Baker Street, yes?). You can feel the dry, hot breeze sweeping off the desert and smell the wildflowers growing off the porch. You open your eyes, and an arm extends to offer you a cup of bush tea. The voice gently inquires why you need the services of The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency.
Meet Mma Precious Ramotswe, a detective like no other. (Mma is a Botswana title of respect; more significant than Mrs.) Precious is a portly (size 22), beautiful African woman who solves crimes with a subtle, deceptively simple persistence. She’s a complex and deeply textured character whose backstory emerges slowly in the expert hands of McCall Smith, and in creating Precious, he has crafted one of the most memorable characters since Sherlock Holmes. And the secondary characters? Unparalleled. Mma Grace Makutsi. Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni. Mr. Polopetsi. Phuti Radiphuti. Each is a little masterpiece. The joy of these stories is seeing these finely crafted people come together
These books are moving, elegant, and expertly crafted, everything I look for in my literary fiction. McCall Smith is opening up worlds previously unknown to readers, which, in my world, makes the list.
There, I’m done. I’ve imposed my opinions on you long enough.
Now, it’s your turn.
Where did I go So. Very. Wrong?
Stephanie McCarthy is a mystery reader and writer living in Peoria, Illinois. Her new novel, Murder Actually, is being released January 31, 2013, and will be available via Attica Books.