Random (but not really)

Monday, October 30, 2017


I love mysteries. Sherlock Holmes and Miss Marple were some of my first detectives and remain my favorites. (I always preferred Trixie Beldon to Nancy Drew, but I read both, along with Encyclopedia Brown.)

Despite my love of detectives and inquiry agents, after coming up with this list I realized I didn’t have any modern private detectives on it. Probably because I skipped over Robert B Parker’s Spenser since everyone knows and loves Spenser.

In addition to Spenser, I left off a couple other prominent series, like Robert Crais’s Elvis Cole, Ian Fleming,  and the aforementioned Agatha Christie and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle since they don’t really need recommendations from me. I also left of several authors that I initially loved by then either grew tired of or the mysteries started to fall flat. And there are several series that I never much cared for, such as V.I. Warshawski, Travis McGee, and The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency.

At the end of each of the two sections, I’ve listed some additional books I love, but thought might be popular enough you might know about them already.

Some of my Favorite Books, the Index



Bangkok 8 (2003) John Burdett (Sonchai Jitpleecheep)

Sonchai is the son of a Thai prostitute, and after getting in trouble as a teen, is now (with his best friend, Pichai) a member of the Bangkok police. When the American marine they are following is bizarrely killed (and Pichai killed in the process) Sonchai is determined to find the killer.

First, Sonchai is a devout Buddhist. But that does not mean what someone who is familiar with devout Christians would think it would be. Being a devout Buddhist for Sonchai is as foreign to the western mind as Krung Thep would be (I presume) to visitors.

To make a good death is to proceed gracefully into a better body and a better life. The consequences of a bad death are hard to look at. You will not make a good death is a power curse; it makes Fuck you sound like a benediction.

This situation. like everything in life, is a useful conundrum to a practicing Buddhist. To scream and yell will generate more negative karma than has already been generated by the boys. On the other hand, too soft an approach on my part will lead them to continue on their downward path. What would my master the abbot do in such circumstances.

I find that I don’t really give a shit, so I slam the door as hard as possible behind me.

The mystery is quite good here, but what fascinates me is the city and the people within.

There are six books in this series—I haven’t read the sixth, because I wanted to re-read the whole series before reading The Bangkok Asset, but don’t have the whole series as ebooks.


The Shape of Water (1994/2002) Andrea Camilleri translated by Stephen Sartarelli (Inspector Salvo Montalbano)

Salvo Montalbano is a police inspector in Vigata in Sicily. He is, to be blunt, an asshole, but he is also a delight.

In the station’s parking lot he pulled up alongside a Ferrari. Who could it belong to? Surely a cretin, whatever the actual name on the registration.

Naturally, the fortyish man who came into his office had a different name from the one cited and written down by Catarella: Francesco Di Noto. Decked out in Armani, top-of-the-line loafers worn without socks, Rolex, shirt open to a golden crucifix suffocating in a forest of unkempt, rampant black hair.

He was surely the idiot tooling around in the Ferrari. But the inspector wanted confirmation.

“My compliments on your beautiful car.”

“Thanks. It’s a 360 Modena. I’ve also got a Porsche Carrera.

Double cretin with fireworks.

I also love the glimpses into Italian politics and life, which are completely foreign to someone from rural America.

They had an unwritten understanding with the National Police. Whoever arrived first at the scene of a crime would shout “Bingo!” and take the case. This prevented meddling, polemics, elbowing, and long faces.

But Fazio was gloomy. “They got here first.”

“So what? What do you care? We’re not paid by the corpse, on a job-by-job basis.”

Montalbano and Valente seemed not even to have heard him, looking as if their minds were elsewhere. But in fact they were paying very close attention, like cats that, keeping their eyes closed as if asleep, are actually counting the stars.

And, there is food.

He stopped in front of the restaurant where he’d gone the last time he was in Mazara. He gobbled up a saute of clams in breadcrumbs, a heaping dish of spaghetti with white clam sauce, a roast turbot with oregano and caramelized lemon, and he topped it all off with a bitter chocolate timbale in orange sauce. When it was all over he stood up, went into the kitchen, and shook the chef’s hand without saying a word, deeply moved.

With this series, some mysteries are better than others, but even with the mysteries that are subpar I re-read, because I love Montalbano and Catarella and Fazio and everything about this series. There are currently 23 books in this series, with another scheduled for publication in January. I’m not sure how many more books there will be, because Andrea Camilleri is quite old, but since the translations are several years behind the publication, English readers should have a book or two even after that sad day.


Jar City (2000/2004) Arnaldur Indridason translated by Bernard Scudder (Inspector Erlendur)

Inspector Erlendur is a detective inspector with the Reykjavik CID. He’s a divorced loner with a terrible relationship with his two grown children, both of whom have issues with drugs. I short, he’s quite often an asshole.

“That’s a nasty nosebleed,” Erlendur said and examined Sigurdur Óli’s nose. “Nothing else though, nothing serious. There are no cuts and your nose isn’t broken.” He pinched it tight and Sigurdur Óli let out a shriek of pain.

“Oh, maybe it is broken, I’m no doctor,” Erlendur said.

But yet, there is something about him the keeps you reading.

Erlendur turned around and walked away, wondering how God, if he existed, could possibly justify allowing someone like Rúnar live to an old age but taking the life of an innocent 4-year-old girl.

These stories are frequently dark, and usually take a good long look at the past—the good and the terrible. Erlendur’s life is a disaster, and his children are a mess, yet in all that, he cares deeply about the victims of crime and wants justice.

There are nine books in this completed series. I actually held off reading the final three for years, because I’m weird like that, but once you get started, you really should finish the series. And read them in order.


A Good Hanging (1992) Ian Rankin (Inspector Rebus)

I’m actually going to recommend you not start with the first book, Knots and Crosses (1987), because even as a re-read I have a difficult time with this book, and if you start there, you might not finish it and read the rest of the series, which is very good once it gets going.

And Rebus is really a fascinating man.

There were birds on the window sill, chirping, wanting some crumbled up crusts of bread, but he had no bread worth the name left in the flat; just fresh rolls, too soft to be thrown out. Ach, he’d never eat six rolls though, would he? One or two would go stale and then he’d give them to the birds. So why not give them some in advance, while the rolls are soft and sweet?

That was from Exodus. A dangerous book, the Bible. It could be made to say anything, its meaning in the mind of the beholder.

As I said, try starting with the second or third or even fourth book and seeing what you think. Then go back and read the earlier books, when you know why you want to read them. Because once the series gets going, it is very good.

Other Police Mysteries:

Full Dark House (2003) Christopher Fowler (Bryant & May)

Death at La Fenice (1992) Donna Leon (Commissario Guido Brunetti)



Banquet of Lies (2013) Michelle Diener (Regency London)

She has written two series, both of which I very much liked. The first, starting with The Emperor’s Conspiracy is set in regency London (early 1800s)  and the books are as much romances as mysteries. But the mysteries are fascinating. The second book, Banquet of Lies (2013), is actually my favorite in the series, as it features a young woman hiding as a cook while trying to determine who she can trust, after seeing her father murdered.

And she gives Giselle and good reason for being able to hide as she does.

“What do you do with the recipes?” The woman looked genuinely interested now.

“I’m compiling a reference work of dishes from the cultures of Europe. But mainly I follow them.”

“Follow them . . .” Confused, the woman looked around the crowded room, as if the people swirling around them could help her. “How?”

Gigi smiled. “The usual way. In the kitchen.”

“You make the dishes?” The woman tapped Gigi on the arm with her fan. “With the servants?” Her voice was a squeak.

“With the chef who has accompanied us for the last ten years.”


A chef was different. A giant step up from a cook.

The second series, starting with In a Treacherous Court (2011) is about Susanna Horenbout and John Parker who were two actual historical characters in the 1500s about which very little is known.

Both series have three books, and both felt like they should have more books, but those are all there are.


the-berkeley-square-affairThe Berkeley Square Affair (2014) Tracy/Teresa Grant (Malcom & Suzanne Rannoch)

This series is set in the early 1800s in various cities in Europe. Malcom is an agent for England, and Suzanne is a spy for France. Suzanne knows about Malcom when they are first wed, but Malcom does not know about Suzanne. This book is where he discovers her past deception.

This series was not written in chronological order, and in fact this book is a re-writing of her first book, and an improvement on it, since I did have a few issues with the first book, and her writing improved as the series went on.

One of the things I like about this series is how it drops the mundane into the espionage and mystery, not only giving you a glimpse at the characters of the characters, but also of the times.

“If I imply you’re nursing her that will be sure to deflect questions. Amazing how squeamish that can make some people—including many of the gentlemen who don’t think twice about looking down one’s bodice when one isn’t feeding a baby.”

It’s damnably difficult for a woman to get out of a bad marriage. Money and family help, but even with a legal separation, she’d be likely to lose custody of her children. I find the thought intolerable in general.

If you click through to the author’s page, I’ve listed the books both in publication order and chronological order, as well as dividing up which books were written using which characters.


The-Anatomists-WifeThe Anatomist’s Wife (2012) Anna Lee Huber (Lady Darby)

These books are set primarily in Scotland in the 1830s.

Lady Darby has been hiding with family in Scotland after the death of her husband and the ensuing scandal.

The first book especially is a reminder that women really had no rights. Lady Darby was almost locked up in an asylum for what her husband forced her to do—forced her because she had no recourse if she complained. I actually appreciate it when books make a point of things like this, since so many people romanticize the past, not realizing how lucky we truly are to live in the future.

Lord Drummond was little danger to me. For him to strike a woman outside of his protection would have been beyond the pale of gentlemanly conduct. My fiancé or brother or even brother-in-law would have been quite within their rights to demand satisfaction for such a slight to their female relative. However, Lady Drummond had no such defense. Being Lord Drummond’s wife, he could do as he wished to her, as Sir Anthony had done to me. Yes, society generally frowned upon physically harming one’s wife, but they also expected that husbands should give their wives moderate correction, so spouses who went too far in their discipline were rarely prosecuted. Perhaps my standing up to Lord Drummond had been a personal triumph, but it had also potentially exposed Lady Drummond to harsher treatment.

There is, as there often is, a romance that goes through the first several books until the main characters get married.

There are currently five books and one short story in this series, and I am eagerly awaiting the next book that is due out in March 2016.


CutToTheQuickCut to the Quick (1993) Kate Ross (Julian Kestrel)

This series is set in the 1820s, primarily in England.

This is a four book series. There should have been more, but unfortunately Kate Ross died of cancer, and so these four books are all we have.

Julian Kestrel is a dandy. Yet behind that façade is a sharp intelligence, a sense of humor, and even a kindness.

The mysteries here are marvelous, and the characters delightful. Take one of my all-time favorite passages, where Julian is talking to the young sister of the gentleman he is visiting.

“If everyone who died with unpunished sins on his conscience came back as a ghost, the living would be crowded out of every home in England.”

“You’re cynical. I thought you would be. Can you sneer?”

“With terrifying effect.”

“Oh, do it, please! I want to see it!”

“I’m afraid you’re much too young to withstand it. I should be accused of stunting your growth–perhaps even sending you into a decline.”

“I wouldn’t go into a decline. I’m robust. My governess says so.”

That is a pre-teen girl—and one who is clearly loved by her family. Yet Julian is kind to her, when most others would not have been.

This series also doesn’t sugar coat what like was life form many at the time.

Mr. Harcourt then questioned her closely about how she fell from grace. She was hard put to answer. She could not remember a moment when she fell. She had been born about as low as a girl could get, and simply went on from there.

I truly love this series, and am sorry there were only four books. This is also a series that Grandmom loved, which makes me love it even more.

Other Historical Mysteries:

What Angels Fear (2005) C.S. Harris (Sebastian St. Cyr)

A Morbid Taste for Bones (1977) Ellis Peters (Brother Cadfael)

Absolution By Murder (1994) Peter Tremayne (Sister Fidelma)

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