My Desert Island Mystery Bookshelf

Kate Flora here, on a rainy day, thinking about weeding my bookshelves, which are double-shelved and groaning. I got distracted, thinking about all the books I can never let go of, and that led me to the question, for my fellow Maine Crime Writers: what are among your all-time favorite mysteries? Mine fall into three categories. First are the funny mysteries, those books that lightened my mood and sometimes made me laugh out loud. Chief among them is one by the English writer, Edmund Crispin. The book is called, The Glimpses of the Moon, and involves a pig’s head, something mysterious in a sack, and a pole that carries high-tension wires that gives off such an odd hiss it is known, locally, as The Pisser.

My second category is first novels in long-running series. My first nominee, in that category, is a book called China Trade, by S.J. Rozan. Shira published this book at the same time that my first Thea Kozak mystery came out, so I’ve always felt a real kinship with her. Her protagonists are a pair of PIs, Lydia Chin and Bill Smith, and she uses the ingenious device of alternating which of them will be the main protagonist and which will be the sidekick. China Trade features Lydia Chin, and I liked Lydia so much that I never wanted to the book to end. A close second, and a book I’ve reread several times in Robert B. Parker’s first Parker msytery, The Godwulf Manuscript. Wonderful to first meet Spenser, and Hawk,  and Susan Silverman (before I got really sick of her), and to watch Parker avoid the yuck factor despite having Spenser sleep with both a mother and her adult daughter over the course of the book. Parker made so many of us want to write mysteries and was a vibrant part of the community. I miss him.

Finally, there are psychological mysteries, and in this category, my nominees are both English, P.D. James, with An Unsuitable Job for a Woman, and Minette Walters, with The Ice House.

 Kaitlyn Dunnett: This is a tougher question than it seems. There are so many subgenres within mystery and each appeals to a different mood. When I want more of a challenge, I tend to read historical mysteries. If the setting is deep in the past, I can tolerate a much higher level of violence and/or despair in the lives of the characters. For contemporary settings, I prefer something much lighter. Without wishing to offend any of my fellow Maine Crime Writers, I hear enough about true crimes and behind-the-scenes police stories in real life. When I sit down to read in the limited time I have for that pleasure, I want to escape from all that.

So, what books do I hang onto and reread and cherish and buy as ebooks and audiobooks as well as in print format? First up are Elizabeth Peters’s Amelia Peabody books, starting with Crocodile on the Sandbank. Historical and funny. What more could I ask for? I’m currently working my way through this series for maybe the third time on Recorded Books audiocassettes (and I’ve read the books in print format more than once, too), listening for twenty-minutes or so at a time when I drive to the post office and run errands. The wonderful and talented Barbara Rosenblatt is the reader, which adds another layer to the pleasure. I’m also fond of other books by Elizabeth Peters, including a sprinkling of those classified as “gothic” and written under her Barbara Michaels pseudonym. Ammie, Come Home is a classic.

Among writers of humorous contemporary mysteries, no one can surpass the late, great Charlotte MacLeod, who lived in nearby Durham, Maine. So far, her books are not available as ebooks, which means I have to risk eyestrain to reread my battered old paperback copies. Barbara Mertz (aka Elizabeth Peters/Barbara Michaels) made the suggestion at Malice Domestic that we start a campaign to get these favorites (and others) back into print so that a new generation of readers can have the pleasure of discovering them. I sincerely hope this happens. As for my favoirte, I’m not sure I can pick just one novel, but my favorite title is The Convivial Codfish.

“So Many Books, So Little Time” is the slogan on a sweatshirt I own. So true! I don’t dare go look at the shelves full of books as I write this. My list would grow way too long. So, fast answer, as in first titles that pop into my head: Charlaine Harris’s Dead Until Dark; Margaret Maron’s Three Day Town (which won this year’s Agatha for best novel); our own Julia Spencer-Fleming’s In the Bleak Midwinter; the late Kate Ross’s Julian Kestrel Regency-era series, starting with Cut to the Quick (now reissued by a small press); Steve Hockensmith’s Holmes on the Range; and Lindsay Davis’s Silver Pigs. Julia Spencer-Fleming and Kate Ross write as “dark” as I like to go, and since both write books that fit into the Malice Domestic definition of a “traditional mystery” and have been honored with Agatha awards, that’s not all that dark!  What can I say? I read mysteries for pleasure!

Paul Doiron: I get the “favorite mysteries” question a lot at readings (I suspect we all do), and by now I should probably have better answers. It’s usually easier for me to recommend authors whom I’d admire than specific books. For instance, any mystery fan who’s read my novels can probably deduce that the late Tony Hillerman was a big influence, and yet I can’t name a single one of his books that stayed with me as a narrative in the same way that Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn did as characters. I feel the same way about James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux and Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins, too. My favorite contemporary crime novelist is Dame P.D. James (surprised, anyone?), but it’s for the consistency of her excellence, rather than one book that marked me for life.

When it comes to desert island books, my picks would probably lean toward the classics, starting with the singular Arthur Conan Doyle (who is so much in vogue again these days). Is it a cheat to pick The Complete Sherlock Holmes? If you put a gun to my head and made me choose, I’d probably be torn between The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and The Hound of the Baskervilles—but fortunately we’re not pointing guns at each other, right, gang?

I feel the same way about the great Raymond Chandler whose sentences I prefer to Fitzgerald’s. Thank heavens the Library of America has seen fit to collect his first novels into one volume, although that edition excludes The Long Goodbye, which I consider his masterpiece, so I’d probably have to bring both volumes.

One book that I have mentioned before here, but which often gets excluded from the lists of classic mysteries due to its fantastical elements is The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which I will assert to my dying day is one of the best constructed mystery novels of all time. Like Bram Stoker’s Dracula (which is also in many ways a mystery, albeit a supernatural one, and considerably sloppier as it goes), the book uses diary entries and letters to slowly reveal information, carefully building suspense. Stevenson’s book is an early work of existentialism, and even when I am dead tired, I enjoy works that challenge me to think about my life’s choices in new ways.

I’d include in the though-provoking category such disparate works as Truman Capote’s “true crime novel” In Cold Blood and Norman Mailer’s sweeping counterargument The Executioner’s Song. And while I don’t tend to read John LeCarre much anymore, I think his Smiley saga—especially The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy—is a masterwork that taught me not to be afraid of complexity in my own fiction. Readers will follow you through a labyrinth if they have faith that you’ll show them a lighted doorway at the end.

And did I mention Dashell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon? Can’t leave that one off the list.

Barb Ross: So many books, so little time, indeed, Kaitlynn. Books from series: P. D. James Original Sin, Ruth Rendell Simisola, Elizabeth George Playing for the Ashes, Dennis Lehane A Drink Before the War, Alexander McCall Smith No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency, Kate Atkinson, Case Histories, Louise Penny A Trick of the Light, and the late, great Ross Thomas Chinamen’s Chance, Out on the Rim and VooDoo, Ltd. Oh and Sharyn McCrumb The Rosewood Casket. (I know she doesn’t like to be called a mystery writer, but tough.)

Non-series: Barbara Vine Anna’s Book, Scott Turow Presumed Innocent (an almost perfect book imho–okay, maybe it’s not a standalone anymore) Minette Walters The Sculptress.

So, a lot of Brits, almost all living writers though some in their 80s and 90s, lots of stuff published in the 90s, lots of professional sleuths, lots of mysteries positioned as “literary,” and a lot of non-traditional structures. Don’t know what any of that means except clearly I am going to drown on my way to the desert island, since this is only the mysteries I’ll be carrying along with me.

Sarah Graves: So many of the greats have already been mentioned above that I’ll just bring up a few: James Ellroy’s American Tabloid, The Cold Six Thousand, and Blood’s a Rover are all big and strange, written out of a sensibility quite foreign to my own and expressed in a style that is unique to the author.

Likewise Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice, Josh Bazell’s Beat the Reaper, and Jonathan Carroll’s The Land of Laughs vibrate with a kind of weird energy that makes it exciting to be a writer and a reader. Rose Macaulay’s The Towers of Trebizond must absolutely go into the desert-island book bag…but I’ll leave it to you to figure out what its mystery is.

Susan Hill of “The Woman in Black” fame writes the delicious Simon Serrailler crime series, starting with The Various Haunts of Men. Andrew Pyper, who wrote Lost Girls, has had his not-due-in-print-until-2013 The Demonologist optioned for film already.

And finally, I must slip two not-really-mysteries into my desert island go-bag: Let the Right One In and the book that comes after it, Handling the Undead, by John Ajvide Lindqvist, translated by Ebba Segerbert. The first is the smartest of vampire stories, the second a poignantly thoughtful zombie novel; I hope a third by Lindqvist comes soon so I can bring it along to our island-with-the-wonderful-library, too.


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6 Responses to My Desert Island Mystery Bookshelf

  1. Joan Emerson says:

    Oh, I can’t help it . . . there’s no way to choose just one or two . . . or even a few . . . there are simply far too many favorites. If I loved it enough to buy it, then I’d probably want to take it along to read again. Of course, the best thing about re-reading a treasured book is that each time one tends to discover some little nuance that might have previously slipped by.

    I am hard-pressed to pick “favorites,” as each author brings something unique and wonderful to his or her writing. However, I do suppose, as witnessed by the fact that they are the only ones I own in print, on audio CD, and on my e-reader, I’d have to claim Julia Spencer-Fleming’s Clare Fergusson series of books as being at the top of my favorites list.

    As for weeding out the bookshelves . . . you mean actually getting rid of a book? Tossing out a treasure? Oh, perish the thought!

  2. Vitaly says:

    As far as wonderful work by John Ajvide Lindquist goes, you should check out “Harbour” which is available in US and “Little Star” which will see it’s US release in October ’12.
    JAL’s books are amazing.

  3. John Clark says:

    If I’m stuck here for eternity, then the following come to the Island. Lawrence Block’s Matt Scudder series. I remember reading Eight Million ways to Die in early sobriety and thinking “holy crap he’s one of us.” Ditto for James Lee Burke’s David Robichaud. I want him and Scudder to have my back in the next world. If you haven’t read Burke’s Tin Roof Blowdown, you’ve missed the absolute best fictional look at how Katrina affected human beings. My nostalgia picks are John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee books. I still want my own Miss Agnes. When I light the campfire, I want Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn there to tell me more about Listening Woman, et, al. Finally I want everything that William Kent Krueger has written. I love the way he has allowed his characters to grow, love and be completely real and I’d bet Henry Meloux would be right at home with Jim and Joe.

  4. Sarah Graves says:

    Vitaly, thanks — putting Harbour in the go-bag, too.

  5. sandra gardner says:

    hmmmm– too many — but what comes to top of mind:
    under historical: the alienist, angel of darkness
    the interpretation of murder
    mysteries set in turn-of-last century NYC and London
    all of Agatha Christie’s Marple & Poirot
    Stephanie Barron’s the White Garden and Flaw in the Blood
    Thea Kozak mysteries, Karin Slaughter’s series with Dr. Linton, etc. Kate Atkinson’s Case Histories characters, Barbara Vine– guess she’s mostly historical–
    Peculiar Crimes Unit (historical and contemporary)
    Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series — guess these are not either historical or contemporary?
    Tarquin Hall’s Vish Puri, Indian P.I. series
    Maggie O’Farrell’s The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox
    Michael Palmer’s books
    and I just read The Mystery of Edwin Drood
    I’m sure there’s many, many more
    Sandy Gardner

  6. sandra gardner says:

    ps how could I forget Stephanie Plum?

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