Crime: The I’s Have It.

As I set out to read my way through my alphabet of crime, I was a little worried about the letter ‘I,’ but it turned out to be quite a little Anglo-French treasure trove. Here are three great authors in our mystery “I’s,” each with their own distinct voice.

Find Graham Ison's Light Fantastic in the Seattle Public Library catalog.Graham Ison is one of the many British authors represented in our collection through those nice little Severn House hardcover editions, and we have several titles in each of his two mystery series. His contemporary police procedurals feature stolid – okay, stodgy – veteran Detective Chief Inspector Harry Brock and his mouthy working class partner Detective Sergeant Dave Poole, who banter and grouse their way through the sordid array of casework, somewhat in the vein of Reginald Hill’s Dalziel and Pascoe or Bill James’ Harpur and Iles series. A good early title, Light Fantastic finds the duo drawn into the posh lives of the rich and fabulous, but it isn’t long before they’re back on the seamy side again.

Find Graham Ison's Hardcastle's Armistice in the Seattle Public Library catalog.Ison’s other series are historical mysteries set on the British home front during the Great War, where crime rages on despite the epic struggles overseas, and featuring the investigations of Detective Inspector Ernest Hardcastle, a man as respected for his dogged determination as he is avoided for his (very entertaining) mean temper. Hardcastle is a man who doesn’t suffer fools, and of which there is an inexhaustible supply. (Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse comes to mind, as does John Mortimer’s Rumpole). Hardcastle’s Armistice, in which the murder of a prostitute turns out to have unexpected political ties, is a fine early entry in this non-chronological series.

Find Claude Izner's Murder on the Eiffel Tower in the Seattle Public Library's catalogJust down the shelf is Claude Izner (a pseudonym for a pair of sister bookstore owners from Paris – sounds heavenly, no?) whose series featuring Victor Legris – also a Parisian bookseller – is drenched with the sights, sounds and personalities of the City of Light, circa 1890. Legris’ first case involves a Murder on the Eiffel Tower, seemingly achieved via a most unorthodox weapon – a bee sting. Historical mystery fans get all the intriguing period detail they came for, and what a great time and place to visit. I can just imagine all the historical personages waiting in the wings as we approach the fin de siècle. A good choice for fans of Boris Akunin’s Erast Fandorin series.

The France burned into the pages of Jean-Claude Izzo’s books could not be further from Izner’s belle époque. Izzo is one of the best noir writers, and (like the more celebrated Stieg Larsson) died far too young, leaving a small but indelibly affecting body of work – ruthless kick-in-the-teeth dFind Jean-Claude Izzo's Total Chaos in the Seattle Public Library catalog.epictions of a world gone mad. (Readers of this column will know I have a soft spot for this kind of hard writing). Izzo’s Marseilles trilogy begins with the aptly named Total Chaos, in which loose cannon Fabio Montale, who in his youth used to run with a bad crowd and now runs with a worse (he’s a cop), hunts for justice in the seething, squalid, racially charged ghettos of Marseilles. No justice to be found, he’ll settle for revenge. Fabio eventually gives up the police force as too corrupt, but cannot stop wrestling with the evil that surrounds him and ravages those he loves; his further descent into the underbelly of Europe continues in Chourmo and Solea. It doesn’t end well, but then you knew it wouldn’t, didn’t you?

Crime: William Faulker, detective?

This week, I’m loitering in the F’s in my alphabet of crime, because I’ve got an axe to grind.

Recently, Atlantic Monthly added its voice to the endless, senseless eyebrow maneuvers (highbrow/lowbrow) that persist in the foothills of the culture wars, in a piece by Maura Kelly called A Slow-Books Manifesto. The gist of the piece is to get more people spending more time reading, which is great, but the author goes wrong when she presumes to know what kind of reading is good for you. As the piece dictates: “Read books. As often as you can. Mostly classics.”

I’m going to step around that particular pile of doo-doo, rather than stepping right in it here on Shelf Talk: there’s a vast comment thread that follows the article, if you feel like discussing it with the nation. But for anyone who may have taken it too much to heart and decided that the mystery section was a bad neighborhood to be hanging out in, I thought I’d step over to the same range in the literary fiction aisle and point out a good mystery by any other name is still a good mystery.

Find Knight's Gambit by William Faulker in the Seattle Public Library's catalogNo less a literary lion than William Faulkner tried his hand at mystery stories, and the result — the six tales of detection comprising Knight’s Gambit — gave us some of crime literature’s most haunting stories. The stories feature Yoknapatawpha county attorney Gavin Stevens as he puzzles through human mysteries both solveable and ineffable. There is tremendous pathos here, as in the story “Monk,” in which a befuddled, gawpish man-child seems to have confessed to a crime he did not commit, or the unforgettable “Tomorrow,” as good as anything Faulkner ever wrote, in which Gavin’s investigation into a hung jury reveals the harrowing life story of one of its members. You may recognize Gavin from Faulkner’s Intruder in the Dust, itself a fine murder mystery and legal thriller, and a good entryway into Faulkner’s oeuvre for the uninitiated.

Standing here by Nobel-Prize winning mystery writer William Faulkner in the Literatchah aisle, I have only to cast my eyes to right and left to see other top-drawer crime novels, from Carlo Emilio Gadda’s That Awful Mess on the Via Merulana, fit to stand comparison to James Joyce, to Umberto Eco’s lush historical whodunnit The Name of the Rose, to Dostoyevsky’s fevered suspense novel Crime and Punishment, and his compatriot Anton Chekhov’s Night in the Cemetery and other tales of crime and suspense. There’s Wilkie Collins’ uber-puzzler The Moonstone, and there’s Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s fate-drenched Chronicle of a Death Foretold. The stacks cry out with bloody murder all around me.

So how about our own manifesto, crime fans? “Read mysteries. As often as you can. Wherever you may find them.”


Crime: Four Felonious Frasers.

In publishing it has always been called the “mid-list” – that amorphous body of works that don’t get the attention of heavily promoted bestsellers. It is the vast majority of what gets published, and in the mystery section of any good bookstore or library, it is the source of untold riches. Working my way through my alphabet of crime, I stop in the F’s to call out four mid-list writers who share the same last name, more or less.

Brought to Book by Anthea FraserFor readers who prefer their homicide on the tidy side, prolific mid-lister Anthea Fraser writes contemporary English village mysteries that will appeal to fans of Midsomer Murders, and vice-versa.  Her latest series features Rona Parrish, a freelance writer and investigative journalist with a knack for stumbling over murders. In series opener Brought to Book, Rona sets out to capture a bestselling author’s life, only to find herself increasingly puzzled by his mysterious death by drowning, and the curious change of heart that may or may not have led him to the water’s edge.

Your Royal Hostage by Antonia Fraser.Lady Antonia Fraser is well-known for her biographies of history’s most notorious royals and rogues, but she is less well known on our shores for her contemporary series featuring TV journalist Jemima Shore. Your Royal Hostage is a fine example of Fraser’s relish for intriguing plots with a satiric bite, as a British princess is kidnapped by animal rights activists.

Sara Fraser is a bit of a trick entry, since “her” real name is Ron Clews, but never The Reluctant Constable by Sara Frasermind: Fraser’s early 19th century Thomas Potts series is first rate. Making his debut in The Reluctant Constable, the gawkish Potts unexpectedly and undeservedly is appointed the law in a lawless and hopelessly corrupt Worchester village, only to surprise everyone including himself by having a way with forensic investigation that is ahead of it’s time. An immensely appealing hero, great period detail and Jane Austen era CSI gee whizzery  (fingerprints!)  keep these Regency era mysteries constistently compelling.

The Novice's Tale by Margaret FrazerMargaret Frazer’s series featuring Dame Frevisse takes us back to 15th Century England, beginning with The Novice’s Tale, in which the nun Frevisse is tasked with puzzling out the unpleasant death by poisoning of the thoroughly unpleasant Lady Ermentrude within walls of the priory of St. Frideswide. Set during the Wars of the Roses, Frazer’s Frevisse books (and her spinoff series featuring Joliffe the Player) give us a fascinating glimpse into the late Middle Ages (some 300 years after the exploits of Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael mysteries).

Crime: Mad Dogs and Estleman

Advancing through my Alphabet of Crime, I pause at the E’s to share a couple of the best hardboiled mystery writers around: Loren Estleman and James Ellroy.

The use of the term “hard-boiled” to describe fiction – borrowed from an early 20th-century expression for experienced tough guys – may date from February 17, 1929 when the New York Times described the nameless hero of Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest as “a detective as ruthless, as hard-boiled as the criminals he pursues.” From that day to this, hard-boiled crime fiction has been staking its claim to the mean streets, depicting crime in all its sordid, squalid anti-grandeur.

A prolific writer with over 70 mysteries, westerns and historical novels to his name, Loren Estleman is probably best known for his American Detective, by Loren D. Estlemanseries featuring sardonic gumshoe Amos Walker beating the mean streets — or boulevards of broken dreams — of Detroit. Walker has seen it all and disapproves of most of it, according to a personal code of honor that some may call old-fashioned, but not to his face. Estleman’s series has sharp dialogue, swift action, and that great old Raymond Chandleresque world-weariness as bracing, smoky and smooth as a shot of whiskey. There are over twenty of these; try American Detective, 19th in the series, in which Walker races the police to find a murdered heiress’s supposed killer. Or if you’re commitment phobic, take Walker for a test drive in the newly published Amos Walker: the complete story collection. (I suspect some of these stories will wind up in Thrilling Tales some day soon).

From whiskey to battery acid; if Loren Estleman works in the foggy grays of classic hardboiled detective fiction, than James Ellroy paints it pitch black. Often referred to as “the mad dog” of American The Black Dahlia, by James Ellroy.crime fiction, Ellroy pulls no punches in his exceedingly dark prose, an acknowledged product of his own difficult childhood. When he was ten, Ellroy’s own mother was strangled and dumped by an unknown killer; while plenty of hardboiled novels show a detective exorcising their personal demons, things get a bit more intense when it is the author’s own demons coming out on the page. Not for the faint of heart, Ellroy is nevertheless a truly great crime writer who uses his prose like a hammer (and maybe a few other implements) to give his fictional murders the same horrifying and disturbing impact that they have in in real life, fulfilling the original naturalistic intent of hardboiled fiction to show that homicide was not a matter of butlers, drawing rooms and tidy denouments. Try The Black Dahlia, first of a quartet of Los Angeles books (the others are The Big Nowhere, L.A. Confidential, and White Jazz), inspired by the ghastly 1947 unsolved murder that shocked the nation – and obsessed young Ellroy.

Crime: The Sherlock Holmes you don’t know.

Arriving at the D’s in my Alphabet of Crime, I want to pay homage to Arthur Conan Doyle, or more specifically to his greatest creation. Sherlock Holmes is especially hot right now, but as arguably the most beloved series character in the history of fiction, he never really goes out of style. Of course you can find all of Holmes’ adventures in our library catalog, together with scads of books about him, films and TV shows starring him, collections of latter day Holmes stories and novels and series based on his exploits. With so much wonderful Sherlockiana out there, there are bound to be some fogbound alleyways in the Holmes canon that you haven’t yet explored. Here are a few of my favorites.

Rupert Everett as Sherlock Holmes, poring over the Psychopathia Sexualis.Speaking of fogbound alleyways, could there be a foggier London than the backdrop of Simon Cellan-Jones’ Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Silk Stocking? The atmosphere is perfectly eerie, but the star attraction Rupert Everett in the title role, matching wits with a villain whose ghastly crimes are more Silence of the Lambs than Hound of the Baskervilles. Before he’s through, Holmes has devoured to R. von Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis, adding to his spooky sixth sense the bona fides of a proto-profiler. Towering and tortured, Everett plays the pallorous, pertiacious Holmes to an irresistible twist, Oscar Wilde’s brooding shadow.

Of all the many latter-day novels featuring Sherlock Holmes, my favorite is Mitch Cullin’s standalone, A Slight Trick of the Mind. It is 1947, Dr.  Watson is long gone, and the nonagenarian beekeeper Holmes grapples with his own mortality, the death of Edwardian moral certitudes in the ashes of Hiroshima, and the alarming dimunition of his mental faculties. What emerges is perhaps the most intimate portrayal ever of the mythic Holmes as a man and a mortal. A rare treat for Holmes fans, and anyone who loves an intriguing story expertly told. (Readers seeking more traditional Holmes pastiches should check out Steve Hockensmith’s delightful series starter Holmes on the Range, and David Pirie’s grim and gritty The Patient’s Eyes, first of a series featuring author Arthur Conan Doyle and Dr. Joseph Bell, the inspiration for Holmes.)

The canny Vasiliĭ Livanov sizes up the quarry as Sherlock Holmes.So who’s you’re favorite Holmes? Benedict Cumberbatch? Robert Downey Jr.? Jeremy Brett? Basil Rathbone? Make room for Vasiliĭ Livanov, who portrayed Sherlock in several Russian films and TV episodes in the 1970s and 80s, including Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson, and The Hound of the Baskervilles. Viewed by many as the definitive portrayal, Livanov’s earnest, softer-edged Holmes — a vast intellect couched in the unprepossessing body of a kindly professor — is less arch and manic than that of Jeremy Brett, casting the stories in a refreshingly reassuring light. Such was the popularity of his Holmes in the former Soviet Union that Livanov was awarded an OBE (Order of the British Empire) for his a valuable addition to the canon, and for bringing Sherlock Holmes to millions of avid viewers behind the Iron Curtain.

So how about you: what are your favorite Sherlock Holmes pastiches and portrayals?