When I became a member of the online group DorothyL back in 1994, my reading of mysteries really accelerated. In addition to the wonderful Golden Age mysteries I’d read and loved for a long time, and the new crop of female writers who followed upon the success of Sue Grafton and Sara Paretsky in the 1980s, there appeared to be so many other fine contemporary writers, male and female, of whom I’d never heard. I’m still a DorothyLer, and I’ve accepted the fact that I’ll never be able to keep up with all the great mysteries out there.
But I’ve been thinking lately that the last 25 years (1990-2015) might be considered by some as another “Golden Age.” And so I’m writing this post to discuss the authors who have made the strongest impression on me. A very subjective list (aren’t they all?) but made a bit easier by the fact that I’ve submitted to DorothyL every year a list of my Top Ten mysteries for the year, and I’ve kept my lists archived on my computer. Some authors’ names appear again and again on my Top Ten lists.
So here are my nominees for the contemporary Golden Age. I’ve grouped them to make it a bit more manageable.
The Class of ’36:
Robert Barnard, Reginald Hill and Peter Lovesey are three British authors who were all born in 1936. They all had academic backgrounds and, for a time, they travelled together in the UK calling themselves “The Class of ’36.” Sadly, Reginald Hill died in 2012 and Robert Barnard in 2013; Peter Lovesey is still publishing wonderful mysteries. The books of all three men have consistently made my Top Ten lists over the years.
Please see my tribute to Robert Barnard published in 2014, on this blog.
Reginald Hill was best known for his series of books featuring the beer-swilling, blasphemous Superintendent Andy Dalziel (pronounced “Dee-Ell”) and the more refined Sargent Peter Pascoe. If I had started with the first one, A Clubbable Woman (1970), I might not have continued; but Hill just kept getting better and better, and the one I read first was On Beulah Height (1998) because it was garnering so many rave reviews and award nominations. It was fabulous! Then I went back and started the series from its beginning. So many good ones – I’ll just list a few: Bones and Silence (1990), Recalled to Life (1992), Pictures of Perfection (1994), a personal favorite. A few of the later books were perhaps a little too scholarly for some readers, and even the earlier ones sent me to my Chambers Dictionary with a long list of words to look up, but the last three were just superb: Death Comes for the Fat Man (2007), The Price of Butcher’s Meat (2008), and Midnight Fugue (2009). I put off reading Midnight Fugue for a year or so when I realized it was to be the last one, but when I finally read it, I thought, “What a way to go out!”
Peter Lovesey had written a series of successful Victorian mysteries and some excellent standalones – including the terrific Gold Dagger winner, The False Inspector Dew (1982) – before he began his Peter Diamond books. But it’s the latter series, beginning with The Last Detective (1991), that has elevated Lovesey to the my Top Ten list over and over. Lovesey has placed his prickly police detective in the city of Bath and given him a great variety of complex mysteries to solve: Bloodhounds (1996) is both a parody of mystery readers’ groups and a locked room mystery; Diamond Dust (2002) combines poignant tragedy with an amazingly twisty plot. And the high quality of the books continues – the last two I read (The Tooth Tattoo (2013) and The Stone Wife (2014)) were as clever and intriguing as the earlier ones.
Two women, one British, one American, moved to Italy in the 1970s and remained there, each writing a wonderful detective series. Donna Leon, an American author who resides in Venice, created the better known (at least in the US) of the two series. Her detective, Commissario Guido Brunetti, first appeared in Death at La Fenice (1992) and has been featured in a new mystery every year since then, a total of 25 books. Among my favorites are Acqua Alta (1996) – which brings back two characters from La Fenice, Flavia Petrelli and Brett Lynch; Flavia has recently reappeared in Falling in Love (2015) too – as well as A Noble Radiance (1998), Uniform Justice (2003), and Blood from a Stone (2005). Brunetti is a family man, so in addition to the mystery element, most of Leon’s readers, myself included, look forward to the warm and witty scenes of Brunetti with his professor-wife Paola and his two teen-age offspring, Raffi and Chiara. Many of Leon’s books have been adapted for German TV as the “Commissario Brunetti Mysteries”; the series is visually beautiful and well-acted, and is available with English subtitles.
The British writer, Magdalen Nabb, set her books in Florence, and her detective is Marshal Salvatore Guarnaccia of the Carabinieri, who makes his first appearance in Death of an Englishman (1981). The Marshal is an endearing character, often underestimated by his superiors, who becomes involved in the lives of the people he meets through his investigations. My all-time favorite of the series is The Marshal and The Madwoman (1988 ) for its detailed retelling of recent Florence history and its colorful portraits of even the minor characters. Other favorites include The Marshal at the Villa Torrini (1994), The Marshal Makes His Report (1991), and the last four in the series : Property of Blood (2001), Some Bitter Taste (2002), The Innocent (2005), and Villa Nuova (2008). Magdalen Nabb died in 2007, so there will be no more of the Marshal, but Soho has released all of her Florentine mysteries in beautiful new editions.
Both Leon and Nabb do a masterful job of putting the reader into the Italian cities they depict. One can feel the heat of August in Florence as the Marshal makes his way through the streets of the “Madwoman’s” neighborhood, and can follow Brunetti through the alleys and over the bridges of Venice as he wends his way home from the police station. (The Leon books have lately included maps of Venice.) And their central characters become incredibly real as each series progresses. Occasionally I’ve been asked to compare Brunetti and Guarnaccia, and what I say is: If I were having a dinner party, I’d invite Brunetti and Paola – they are witty and urbane and would keep the conversation lively. But if I were upset about something, I’d want a hug from the Marshal. (Unless it was August.)
The New Yorkers
Three writers, who have used New York City (or a facsimile thereof) as the backdrop for witty and well-plotted crime novels, have repeatedly made my Top Ten lists: Lawrence Block, Ed McBain, and Donald Westlake. (I’m using the term ‘crime novels’ here because Westlake’s books aren’t mysteries; they’re comic heist stories.)
Lawrence Block has written an incredibly large number of books, including four crime series. The books that I love are those about Bernie Rhodenbarr, bookseller and burglar. They are often funny and full of social commentary, yet hold up as well-plotted mysteries. As it happened, I started with the 6th book, The Burglar Who Traded Ted Williams (1994), and I can’t recall why, as I’m not much of a baseball fan. But I liked it enough to read the next, The Burglar Who Thought He was Bogart (1995), and being a classic movie buff, I loved that one! So of course I had to start the series from the beginning, and found many more that I delighted in: The Burglar Who Liked to Quite Kipling (1979) (Block at his funniest), The Burglar Who Painted Like Mondrian (1983) (a great twisty plot), The Burglar in the Library (1997) (a witty send-up of Agatha Christie). There have only been two more since 2000, but it’s always fun to be back with Bernie, and I hope for more.
Ed McBain is a hero of mine. Imagine sustaining a series for nearly 50 years (1958-2005) and still keeping it fresh – that’s what McBain did with his 87th Precinct novels. The last few books he wrote were as good or better than the earlier ones. Romance (1995) was the first one I read, and I found it funny and romantic (of course) and a delight to read. I was determined to read all the others that had preceded it, which was no small task: many of the books were out of print, so I had to obtain them from used book sources, (before Amazon really got going in that market and made it easy). Consequently, I read the books in the order I could find them, which was pretty random. But it didn’t matter too much – character development wasn’t the reason to read McBain. Not that the characters don’t change a little over time (though they don’t age much); it took a little effort to keep track of Kling’s love interests. But the dialogue was so good and the stories so entertaining that I persisted till I’d read them all, while still keeping up with the new ones as McBain published them. The grand total: 57 books. Favorites include: Like Love (1962), Tricks (1987), Widows (1991), Ax (1964), Fuzz (1968), Calypso (1979) and Fat Ollie’s Book (2003). (I wouldn’t advise starting with this last one – read a few books with Fat Ollie as a minor character first.)
While several of the authors above write mysteries that could be categorized as ‘clever’ or ‘witty’, Donald Westlake’s Dortmunder books are best described as ingenious and hilarious. These are caper novels, not mysteries; each cleverly planned heist, whether of artwork, jewels, or simply money, goes awry with disastrously humorous results, and part of the fun is to see John Dortmunder plot his way out of the problems that arise. Drowned Hopes (1990) is Westlake’s tour de force, as the Dortmunder crew attempts an underwater robbery (again and again), but other favorites of mine are Get Real (2009), Bad News (2001), Good Behavior (1986), Jimmy the Kid (1974), and What’s the Worst that Could Happen? (1996).
The works of all three of these New York writers have been filmed – poorly. None of the film adaptations comes close to the book. The Hot Rock (1972), based on the first Dortmunder novel, is actually pretty good though Robert Redford is miscast as Dortmunder. Bank Shot, with George C. Scott as Dortmunder (renamed Ballentine), manages to be outright boring, and the less said about the other Dortmunder films the better. Bernie Rhodenbarr was given a sex change to Bernice as played by Whoopi Goldberg in the awful Burglar (1987); I think that ended Bernie’s film career. McBain’s 87th Precinct has fared better: a few of the earlier books were made into movies I’ve not seen (1958-60); a TV series (1961-62) was shown on American TV with Robert Lansing miscast but otherwise doing well as Steve Carella, and Norman Fell and Ron Harper well-cast as Meyer Meyer and Bert Kling respectively, and featuring guest stars like Leonard Nimoy and Dennis Hopper at the beginning of their careers; Fuzz (1972), with a screenplay by McBain, was played mostly for comedy with Burt Reynolds as Carella and Yul Brynner as “The Deaf Man”; and then there were a few made-for-TV movies (1995-1997), two with Dale Midkiff, who actually looked the most like my idea of Carella.
And Two More Brits
I’m just going to give these last two a brief mention, as I plan to review some of their books in posts this fall: Colin Dexter, who created the wonderful Inspector Morse books (1975-1999), and Ruth Rendell, better known for her “psychological” mysteries, but writing the Golden Age-like Inspector Wexford series for nearly fifty years (1964-2013). Among my favorite Morse novels are Last Seen Wearing (1976), The Wench is Dead (1989), in which Morse solves a case from his hospital bed just as Alan Grant did in Tey’s Daughter of Time, and the twisty The Way Through the Woods (1992). The Wexford books that I most enjoyed are Best Man to Die (1969), A Sleeping Life (1978), and The Monster in the Box (2009).
Many of the British writers’ characters have been dramatized by British television and shown on American TV as well; the casting in most cases has been impeccable. John Thaw was so good as Inspector Morse that Colin Dexter admits that the actor influenced the way he wrote about the character. Warren Clarke and Colin Buchanan were perfection as Dalziel and Pascoe, and George Baker aptly filled the role of Wexford in 50 episodes of that series. All three series went on for so long that the authors couldn’t keep up with the demand for TV scripts, so many of the episodes were written by others; not surprisingly, these seldom lived up to the quality of those based on the books.
So that’s my list! I might have included Margaret Maron, whose Deborah Knott series (1992-2015) has recently concluded after 20 books, but somehow, despite the excellence of some of those books, I don’t feel the same affection for them as I do for the ones above. Which authors would you include in your Golden Age list?
All of these books are available online, many as e-books as well as paperbacks, and a few others have been recently reprinted. Here are links to their pages on Amazon: