Sayers published over a dozen mystery novels and short story collections featuring Wimsey. In the mystery genre, these edge toward the literary, exploring Wimsey's complex development toward a whole being while unravelling knotty problems and on occasion agonising over the consequences of catching a killer. Wimsey's personality is a big draw in these books, as is his complicated romance with Harriet Vane, a mystery author.
Criticism of Sayers sometimes claims that she committed the crime of falling in love with her detective, and that the later books suffer because of this. Certainly she cheerfully quotes everything under the sun and expects her readers to get the references, and there is an excessive amount of singing in French in the 'marriage volume', Busman's Honeymoon, but on the whole these are all intriguing mystery novels with strong characters.
Who is the detective?: Lord Peter Wimsey, the second child of an English Duke, combines strong intellect and athletic ability with a vaguely foolish appearance which he uses to his advantage. Service as both a line officer and an intelligence operative during World War I left him shell-shocked and traumatised by the death of men under his command. With his former sergeant and now impeccable valet (and supportive friend), Mervyn Bunter, he balances fragile nerves with an interest in solving mysteries.
“Experience has taught me," said Peter (...) "that no situation finds Bunter unprepared. That he should have procured The Times this morning by the simple expedient of asking the milkman to request the postmistress to telephone to Broxford and have it handed to the 'bus-conductor to be dropped at the post-office and brought up by the little girl who delivers the telegrams is a trifling example of his resourceful energy.” –-Busman's Honeymoon
Highlight: Murder Must Advertise sees Wimsey under cover in an advertising agency.
Ngaio (pronounced Nye-oh) Marsh, a native of New Zealand, was a painter, and also deeply involved in theatre, and all three of these elements appear repeatedly in her 32 detective novels. They're also notable for deaths which make you wince and shudder, as the victims perish variously from drinking acid, a shot of insect spray, falling in boiling mud, and grotesquely being stabbed in the eye with a skewer.
Marsh is by far my favourite classic crime writer. Alleyn is a highly sympathetic detective, his eventual marriage to Agatha Troy is a beautifully drawn romance, the crimes are knotty and original, and the victims and suspects vividly drawn. Marsh had a gift for portraying the awkwardness and secret shame of family business people don't want to share, the petty feuds of life, and also the grand passions. The books involving the theatre are interesting both on a mystery level and as a glimpse behind the curtain - particularly if you also have an interest in Shakespeare.
Who is the detective?: Roderick Alleyn, a detective at Scotland Yard. Known variously as the gentleman detective and "Handsome Alleyn" by the press, he is a reserved, charming, and almost ascetic man. While he is the second son of a baronet, he chose to work his way up through the police force from constable, and is extremely well-regarded by his colleagues both for his ability and his unswerving courtesy.
Where it starts: The first novel is A Man Lay Dead, revolving around a detective game played at a country house. This first book focuses more on a gossip reporter, Nigel Bathgate, and the second novel, Enter a Murderer, is stronger.
Highlights: These books are frequent re-reads for me, but the two which stand out most both involve 'little New Zealanders' who go to England and get caught up in murder.
First, A Surfeit of Lampreys (US title: Death of a Peer): The Lampreys are spendthrift aristocrats, always going from boom to bust, staying out of debtor's prison through a combination of luck and charm. They are very funny, and very sweet, and you want to hit them at times for their madness and lack of sense. They do not handle murder well.
Next, Opening Night (US title Night at the Vulcan), where a young would-be actress down to her last few pennies in London and becomes tangled with the murder backstage during the opening night of a new play. Also highly recommended is Artists in Crime, since this is the introduction of Troy.
As she turned into Carpet Street the girl wondered at her own obstinacy. To what a pass it had brought her, she thought. She lifted first one foot and then the other, determined not to drag them. They felt now as if their texture had changed: their bones, it seemed, were covered by sponge and burning wires. –Opening Night
Allingham's early mysteries run more to high adventure than intricate puzzles, with plenty of disguises, master criminals and gun fights. These later mature into more sleuth-like affairs, along with the notable The Tiger in the Smoke, which is more a character study of a killer than it is a traditional detective novel.
Who is the detective?: Campion is an outright parody of Lord Peter Wimsey – another son of a Duke hiding a sharp brain behind a vacuous expression. Campion, however, turns fatuity up to 11 – at least for the early books – though this is toned down in later books to mere deceptive blankness. Where Wimsey had the impeccable Bunter, Campion has Magersfontein Lugg, an enormous, lugubrious former cat burglar, grown too large for his profession. Campion and Lugg form a rudely affectionate odd couple double act.
Eight of the Campion books were adapted as a TV series in the late 80's, starring Peter Davison as Campion, and there is a certain madcap skin-of-his-teeth air to Campion's early adventures which would fit well as an incarnation of the Doctor.
Where it starts: The first book is The Crime at Black Dudley (where Campion is not the focus of the story, but part of it) – a moderately silly adventure/thriller. If your tastes don't run to international master criminals, try Police at the Funeral.
Highlight: Sweet Danger, although more an adventure novel than a mystery, introduces Amanda Fitton, who goes on to be an aircraft engineer and figure an important part of Campion's life.
Tey's eight mysteries run the gamut from thoughtful police procedurals to hilarious and picture-perfect-painful schoolgirl portraits (evidently drawn from her time as a phys ed teacher).
Who is the detective?: Alan Grant, a Scotland Yard inspector with an interest in theatre and fishing. Grant's is a quiet intelligence – he's not a creature full of idiosyncrasies, flashy patter or wise homilies – and solves his mysteries through methodical police work and dogged logic.
Where it starts: The Man in the Queue, where a stabbing is unseen by a crowd of hundreds.
Highlights: The Daughter of Time is by far Tey's most famous work, and more than likely one of the most off-putting for the casual browser. A police detective, confined to a hospital bed, starts researching Richard III and the murder of the two princes in the tower to give himself something to do. The book starts with a paragraph entirely devoted to the study of the ceiling in his hospital room, and a writer would be hard-put to begin a book less propitiously and yet The Daughter of Time is compelling and brilliant. It is a study not merely of Richard III, but of the way history is formed, accepted, and becomes true.
“The truth of anything at all doesn't lie in someone's account of it. It lies in all the small facts of the time. An advertisement in a paper, the sale of a house, the price of a ring.” – The Daughter of Time
Heyer is, of course, famous for her Regency romances, but also produced twelve mystery novels set contemporary to the time of writing, for a period putting out one Regency and one mystery each year. The Regencies sold approximately ten times as many copies as the mysteries, but the mysteries retain many of Heyer's strengths – characterisation, conversation, convincing romances – if also some of Heyer's issues – it's so rare to encounter interesting, intelligent non-aristocrats in Heyer's books, and her Jewish characters are painful stereotypes.
Who are the detectives?: Along with several stand-alone mysteries, Heyer's primary series features Superintendent Hannasyde and Sergeant Hemingway of Scotland Yard make an amiable pair. Hannasyde the steady-headed senior, and Hemingway the young up-and-comer, are vehicles of investigation – we get to know them a little over the series of books, but the primary focus is definitely on the murder suspects of each title.
Where it starts: Footsteps in the Dark is the first of Heyer's mysteries (and is almost a gothic, with ghostly monks being a large plot point of the story), while Death in the Stocks is the first to feature Hannasyde and Hemingway.
Highlights: My stand-out favourite of this series is A Blunt Instrument which (as Heyer sometimes did with her Regencies) takes a handful of stock stereotypes of the genre and promptly stands them on their heads. It has some large weaknesses, but they are entirely made up for by Neville, who is hilarious. It also has, hands down, one of the best proposals of any book I've ever read. Another favourite is Behold, Here's Poison, which features the acid-tongued Randall.
“In this case," said Randall unpleasantly, "it affords me purer gratification to dwell upon the thought of my dear Aunt Gertrude duped and betrayed."
"Your aunt doesn't suffer through it!"
"What a pity!" said Randall.” – Behold, Here's Poison
If, by now, you've had it up to your ears with English country mysteries, take a hop across the Atlantic to New York and the near-noir of Rex Stout.
Who are the detectives?: Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin are two halves of a working whole. Wolfe: corpulent, lazy, a laser-sharp brain wallowing in self-indulgence. Goodwin: young, snappy, man-about-town who admires Wolfe just as much as he sasses him. Wolfe cannot function without Archie, and Archie acknowledges the sheer fun – along with frustration – he gets out of working for Wolfe. Particularly tweaking the nose of the police and then dancing rings around them. And, most entertaining spectacle of all, Wolfe obliged to leave his comfortable brownstone and venture out in one of those dangerous and perilous conveyances, the automobile.
These are books full of snappy patter, twists, and personality. Wolfe is a monster of ego, spendthrift gourmand, orchid obsessive, unbelievably selfish, sexist eight times out of ten, and yet remarkably admirable. He is not only intelligent, he has his moral code and he sticks to it rigidly. Archie is the charmer, a ladies' man (with a dose of his own sexism), whose conversation sparks and zings, quick to react and on-the-go.
Stout's work is a good example of stories where the characters have faults – such as Wolfe's hatred of women – but the text does not support his prejudices. The occasional foolish female might stumble into view, but she's outnumbered by strong-minded, independent, more appealing fellows. Characters such as PI Dol Bonner and the inimitable Lily Rowan both earn Wolfe's grudging respect through the course of the novels.
Where they start: The first Wolfe book is Fer-de-Lance, though since Stout effectively 'froze his characters in time', there are few books you could not pick up and have a typical Wolfe experience.
"You're a practical woman, Maria Maffei. Moreover, possibly, a woman of honor. You are right, there is something in me that can help you; it is genius; but you have not furnished the stimulant to arouse it…" ---Fer-de-lance
Highlight: Some Buried Caesar is the introduction of Lily Rowan and full of all the potential absurdity born of Wolfe not only pried out of his house, but most uncomfortably escaping from potentially-murderous bulls.
Usually I end up glad not to live there, but they're a fascinating place to visit.
Please look out for Andrea K. Höst and her books around the web - she can be found at her blog and on twitter and goodreads.