Among My Faves: Mystery Series

Once I find a mystery series I like, I read every installment that’s published. The characters in the series become my friends, whom I want to check in on, whose life adventures I want to follow.

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I’ve profiled a number of these series already on this blog. In the medieval mystery sub-category, my favorite is Ellis Peters’s classic Brother Cadfael Series, centered on a monastery in 12th-century Shrewsbury, England. In 21 books published between 1977 and 1994, Peters developed the brilliant and compassionate character Cadfael, with excellent historic authenticity.

Among authors of contemporary mystery series, Alexander McCall Smith stands in a category of prolificacy all his own. I’ve reviewed his No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency Series, set in Botswana (1998-present) and his Isabel Dalhousie Series, set in Edinburgh (2004-present).  Both series feature female detectives who investigate primarily non-violent crimes. These novels are definitely not thrillers!

Other mystery series that I’ve reviewed in the past are listed at the end of this post. Here are some new reviews:

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The Marco Didius Falco Mystery Series and the sequel Flavia Albia Mystery Series by Lindsey Davis (1989-present). 

Falco is a private investigator of thoroughly modern sensibilities who lives in the first-century Roman Empire. By the time he retires after 20 books, his adopted daughter, Flavia Albia, is ready to move into detective work. Many of the novels in these two series take place up and down the seven hills of Rome, but the remarkable mobility of Roman citizens allows the author to set a number of the tales in far-flung provinces of the empire.

Early on, the plebian Falco acquires a patrician girlfriend, Helena Justina, the daughter of a Roman senator. Falco also has an old Army buddy, Lucius Petronius Longus, and a large extended family who figure prominently. The books are best read in sequence, so that you can keep track of the interpersonal relationships that evolve over several decades. Start with Silver Pigs (also published as The Silver Pigs).

The stories are complex, fast-paced, satirical, and outrageously funny. I love how the characters curse, as in this bit from The Third Nero (2017): “Perella exploded with exasperation. ‘Venus and her golden girdle! I can’t leave them alone for a moment without the idle barmpots getting in a twist.’” And I love how Davis portrays the Roman bureaucracy that Falco has to wade through as he takes on assignments from various emperors. People wonder how the Roman Empire can be managed so successfully. As any scribe would tell you, this is how. Emperors may come and go, bringing more or less chaos, but the bureaucrats keep the wheels turning.”

If you know a little Latin and a little Roman history, you’ll catch a few more of the jokes, but you definitely don’t need a degree in classics to appreciate this series. If you’re familiar with I, Claudius (the 1934 novel by Robert Graves adapted into a 1976 BBC television series), you’ll recognize Davis’s flagrantly anachronistic technique of transposing modern British social constructs to the ancient world.

I grab every one of these books the minute they hit the library shelves.

The Rev. Clare Fergusson and Russ Van Alstyne Series by Julia Spencer-Fleming (2002-2013, possibly ongoing)

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For several years now, fans of Julia Spencer-Fleming have been waiting breathlessly for the next installment in this contemporary mystery series, set in upstate New York.

The character Clare Fergusson served as a combat helicopter pilot in the Army but finds her true vocation as an Episcopal priest. Russ Van Alstyne is the police chief in the small town in which Clare arrives to minister to a faltering congregation. Clare is in bad shape emotionally from her military service; Russ, who is also a veteran, has his own demons. The electricity between these two is crackling from their very first meeting. And did I mention that Russ is married?

I confess that the crimes that occur in the Clare/Russ Series are not the main attraction for me. There are violent scenes that I have to glide past, particularly when they involve fresh human blood on snow banks. I’ve read this series primarily for the interactions of Clare and Russ and for the Episcopal humor. I laughed out loud when Russ came to discuss a case privately with Clare late one spring evening and was shocked to find the church filled with worshipers attending an Easter Vigil service. The non-believer Russ has to learn a lot about Christian customs and has to accept that Clare is going to intervene in his murder cases when she feels a moral obligation to do so. Clare, who is a Southerner, has to get used to both the snowbound winters and hidebound mindsets of rural New York State.

Spencer-Fleming uses dialogue extensively in building her characters, and the dialogue in the Clare/Russ Series is snappy and authentic. The setting is depicted generously and with elegant detail, helping readers feel the biting cold winds of a blizzard, the treacherous slippage of tires on ice-slicked roads. Indeed, the first novel in the series is In the Bleak Midwinter, taking its title from a Christmas carol. Subsequent books are also titled with lines from various hymns, all beloved by Episcopalians.

Be sure to read the eight novels in the series in order, and maybe send Spencer-Fleming a Facebook message, encouraging her to get going on the ninth installment.

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My reviews of medieval mystery series:

My reviews of other historical mysteries set in Britain:

My reviews of contemporary mystery series:

My reviews of standalone mystery novels are too numerous to list, but you can click on “Mysteries” in the right-hand column to scroll through them all.

An Irish Cozy Mystery

Holding     Graham Norton     (2017)

A village in the west of Ireland, a human skeleton unearthed at a building site, gossip about old love triangles, and a bumbling local police sergeant:  all the ingredients for a classic cozy mystery novel. Holding is indeed that, but it goes beyond the genre.

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In Holding, Graham Norton has produced some noteworthy character studies of mature people who are at turning points in their lives. He has readers sympathizing with the middle-aged police sergeant, PJ Collins, who is overweight, underutilized, and desperately lonely. Norton also pulls us into the plight of middle-aged Brid Riordan, who loves her kids but often gets drunk to forget how unhappy her marriage is. Another character is Evelyn Ross, who’s stuck in the past, lamenting a failed romance from twenty-odd years ago. There’s also PJ’s elderly housekeeper, Lizzie Meany, whose background is revealed in a heartbreaking and surprisingly violent segment of the novel.

The mystery plot is not that tricky for readers who read a lot of cozies—I guessed the identity of the bones early on and had a good idea who buried them by the midpoint of the book. Still, the climax of the book, with the solution of the mystery, was suitably tense for me. It’s the unraveling of the story, with the appropriate red herrings, that gives the author scope for more interactions of his characters. PJ, for example, compromises his professionalism in his dealings with two of the murder suspects, and Brid makes some major changes in her family situation.

Holding has such a classic-1930s-mystery vibe to it that modern elements like DNA testing and mobile phones seemed slightly odd at first, but Norton skillfully integrates twenty-first-century technology into a rural Ireland that in some ways has not changed for a century—the pubs on the main street, the church fete, the outlying farms and hedgerows. He does allow, of course, for occasional lapses in phone reception that will advance his plot!  

Although I had never heard of him before, Irish-born Graham Norton is a well-known television personality and cultural commentator in Britain. This status might have gained him some book sales in the European market, but it clearly didn’t influence my decision to pick up Holding at my local library and stick with it to the end. (I have a “50-page test.”  I assess each title that I start reading at the 50-page mark to decide if I want to invest more time it in. I abandon many, many books even before page 50. Holding easily passed this test.)

The epilogue of Holding contains suggestions that more adventures of Sergeant PJ Collins may be forthcoming. I hope Norton takes time from his television career to produce another PJ mystery. I’ll be on the lookout!

Two Mysteries in One

 Magpie Murders     Anthony Horowitz     (2017)

Anthony Horowitz was the screenwriter for one of my favorite British television series, Foyle’s War, so I was pleased to see his name as the author of a book—and a double mystery at that.

This is the way it works:  Magpie Murders is a mystery novel that bestselling fictional author Alan Conway submits to his fictional publisher in contemporary England. It’s supposed to be the ninth book in the series of cozy mysteries set in a quiet English village in the 1950s, with German-Greek Atticus Pünd as the brilliant detective. If you think that this sounds a lot like Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, you’re right. Horowitz inserts an amazingly accurate simulation of a mystery from the golden age of British detective fiction into this novel. (For my blog post on golden-age British mysteries, click HERE.)

Surrounding the text of the Atticus Pünd mystery is another mystery. Susan Ryeland is Alan Conway’s editor. She speaks in first-person narrative, describing her love of the detective genre:  “Whodunits are all about truth: nothing more, nothing less. In a world full of uncertainties, is it not inherently satisfying to come to the last page with every i dotted and every t crossed? The stories mimic our experience in the world. We are surrounded by tensions and ambiguities, which we spend half our life trying to resolve, and we’ll probably be on our own deathbed when we reach that moment when everything makes sense. Just about every whodunit provides that pleasure.” (183-184)

Susan Ryeland sits down to read Alan Conway’s manuscript starring Atticus Pünd, only to find that it’s missing the last chapter or chapters, the essential resolution of the knotty plot that has all the requisite red herrings and suspicious characters. Reading along with Susan, I shared her chagrin at this situation, wanting to know how Pünd resolves the case. Ryeland’s search for the missing ending of the Pünd mystery leads her to another mystery, in the present day, involving Conway himself. Taking on the role of amateur sleuth, she uncovers the modern-day prototypes for the characters in the Pünd mystery. She also discovers innumerable wordplays and hidden references in the Pünd mystery. Never fear:  Horowitz does eventually provide satisfying conclusions for both the Pünd mystery and the Conway mystery.

I found the 1950s Pünd mystery a better story than the present-day Conway mystery, but keep in mind that I’m a stalwart fan of golden-age English cozies. The two mysteries are intertwined pleasingly, and the Conway mystery has a surprisingly violent end, but both are ultimately rewarding to the reader, going beyond just clever. Within the Conway mystery, Horowitz also provides reflections on the nature of publishing and the relations between editors and authors.

I’ll leave you with another quote from Horowitz, speaking through Susan Ryeland: “Why is it that we have such a need for murder mystery and what is it that attracts us—the crime or the solution? Do we have some primal need of bloodshed because our own lives are so safe, so comfortable?” (70)