What Makes a Mystery Memorable
What are your favorite mystery series and why?
I posed that question on Facebook and a Sisters in Crime list to confirm my own observations and help me prepare a session on writing a mystery series. Eighteen mystery lovers responded, most women and most naming two or three favorite writers or series. Few of them said why.
One who did was author Eleanor Cawood Jones. She wrote, “I look for in-depth characters and amazing settings. Carolyn Hart’s Henrie O, Blaize Clements’ catsitter mysteries, Mary Daheim’s Alpine, Susan Wittig Albert’s China Bayles series. The lead characters in each of those have a past and a story to tell. Maybe even a dark story.”
Author Grace Topping also stressed the importance of character, saying, “My favorites are Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs series and Anne Perry’s William Monk series. I particularly like these two series because of the depth of the characters and the wisdom that each of the authors imparts.”
Beth Schmelzer reads for various qualities. She likes the humor in books by Marcia Talley and Elaine Viets, the fast-paced plots and fascinating dialogue in both of Hank Ryan’s series, the relationships and frightening plots in Julie Spenser-Flemings’ books, and “the twists of a dog narrating” in Spenser Quinn’s Chet and Bernie series. Beth also named a series I want to explore: “Arianna Franklin’s unique protagonist who solves crimes in Great Britain with the knowledge of forensics in the time of the Crusades when women weren’t allowed to be doctors, nor did they receive respect.”
One of the most frequently mentioned characters, of course, was Sherlock Holmes. Author KB Inglee spoke for many: “I discovered Sherlock Holmes when I was in High School, and can’t get enough. I watch every remake and take off I can find.”
Another writer, Nancy Eady, said, “Sherlock Holmes runs neck and neck with P.D. James’ Adam Dalgliesh novels. P.D. James has a lot more substance and depth in her novels but Sherlock simply rocks!” Nancy’s all-time favorite, however, is Nero Wolfe.
Writer Carrie Koepke reported that her teenage daughter loves Sherlock, but Carrie said, “I get lost in Ruth Rendell—the way she tackles the mental side of her stories is fascinating.”
Among the other series mentioned were Louise Penny’s Armand Gamache, Donna Leon’s Guido Brunetti, Elizabeth Peters’ Jacquelyn Kirby, Margaret Maron’s Bootlegger’s Daughter, Dick Frances’ horse racing, Dorothy Gilliam’s Mrs. Pollifax, Lillian Jackson Braun’s The Cat Who, Anne George’s Southern Sisters, Ann B. Ross’ Miss Julia, and Laura Joh Rowland’s samurai-era Japan.
Other authors included Marjorie Allingham, Dorothy Sayers, Sarah Caudwell, Dennis Lehane, Janet Evanovich, Dorothy Cannell, Dianna Mott Davidson, and Deborah Crombie. Oddly enough, no one brought up Agatha Christie.
This short list undoubtedly includes and excludes authors that would appear on a scientifically balanced survey—and on my own list. High on it are Elizabeth Peters’ Amelia Peabody, J. A. Vance’s Joanna Brady, Tony Hillerman’s Navajo series, Carolyn Hart’s Death on Demand, Joan Hess’s Maggody and Claire Malloy, William Kent Krueger’s Cork O’Connor, and Sara Paretsky’s V. I. Warshawski. These present great characters, fascinating settings, and good writing.
You’re welcome to chime in with your own favorites and reasons for liking them.
I’ll talk about five reasons readers like mystery series in my presentation September 23, but the most important one is compelling characters, ones we want to visit again much as we do good friends.
While she may not beat Sherlock Holmes in my heart or mind, I am truly in love with Edith Maxwell’s Quaker midwife Rose Carroll (book 1 is Delivering the Truth).
Thanks for mentioning it, KB.
My favorite of all time is Dick Francis.