• Thu. May 23rd, 2024

2 Unjustly Forgotten Mystery Novels


Jan 6, 2024


Dear readers,

Mystery novels are like Thanksgiving dinner: formulaic but allowing for huge variations in quality. In both cases, actually, it is the sameness of the components that makes the gulf between good and bad versions so stark.

As we burst into a new year, radiant with readerly ambitions, allow me to slip a handful of comfort reads into your stack — just in case you need a palate cleanser between the volumes of Proust or Kant or Darwin that you’re finally tackling, no seriously, in 2024.


Pacing is a devilish problem with mystery novels. Often a story will proceed in a controlled manner for 180 pages and then explode into an LSAT logic problem for the remaining 10 as the sleuth-protagonist rakes through names and places and times, eliminating and complicating and doubling back before settling on a solution that might electrify the reader if she weren’t cross-eyed with fatigue.

A.A. Milne’s contribution to the genre is notable because he has the pacing equivalent of perfect pitch. From start to finish a reader is borne along with all the precision of a Disney World guest transiting through Spaceship Earth. The pacing ingenuity is especially noticeable because Milne’s other ingredients are so familiar: English country manor, secret passages, amateur detective, the disruption of moral order followed by its tidy restoration. He spices the book with funny comments on the clichés of the mystery novel — which, as early as 1922, were ripe for cheerful mockery!

And yes, it is the same A.A. Milne who gave us Winnie-the-Pooh. A man with range.

Read if you like: W.H. Auden’s 1938 essay “The Guilty Vicarage,” buddy comedies, Wilkie Collins
Available from: Check your library or local bookshop

The name of this murder mystery is “The Beast Must Die” and my command is “You Must Read It.” As fans know, murder mysteries tend to fall into either a whodunit or a howcatchem structure. The first is well-known. In the second, the perpetrator is revealed at the plot’s beginning and suspense arises from finding out if and how they’ll be apprehended. (Anyone who has seen an episode of Columbo will be familiar with the charms of a howcatchem.) This novel is a third entity: a fusion of the two. I will not reveal the formal mechanism by which Blake accomplishes his trick.

The cover on the above edition remains famous among design nerds for its manifest excellence, but the text itself has slightly faded from prominence in the canon of mystery fiction. When I checked its sales rank on an extremely popular books website, it was located 687,883 slots below what I consider to be the worst-by-a-mile Agatha Christie book (“Passenger to Frankfurt”). What an injustice.

Incidentally, “Nicholas Blake” is a pen name of the Oxford-educated Cecil Day-Lewis, whose abundant accomplishments include serving as poet laureate of the United Kingdom and fathering the actor Daniel Day-Lewis.

Read if you like: Frederick Forsyth’s “The Day of the Jackal,” astringent wit, Martin Amis’s “Night Train”
Available from: Check your library or local bookstore — or go prowling on eBay

  • Nod in rich satisfaction at the character descriptions of Dorothy Sayers? Here’s one from 1923: “His long, amiable face looked as if it had generated spontaneously from his top hat, as white maggots breed from Gorgonzola.” Exquisite.

  • Ask yourself whether “The Glass-Sided Ants’ Nest” is the most unwieldy name ever bestowed upon a book of any genre? And then shrug — hey, can’t judge a book by its title! — and enjoy this anthropology-themed detective novel that centers on a fictional New Guinea tribe transplanted to swinging 1960s London?

  • Fire up “The Flanders Panel” if you’re in the mood for a chess-themed potboiler? I wouldn’t say the prose sparkles — possibly it suffered in translation from the Spanish — but the plot is clever enough to keep pages turning at top speed.

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