Thursday, July 3

A Good Dose of Comfortable Horrors

Nothing goes so well with a hot fire and buttered crumpets as a wet day without and a good dose of comfortable horrors within.
--Dorothy L. Sayers

I practically grew up in mystery novels. Well, I suppose a more accurate assessment would be I did grow up in mystery novels. As a kid I was usually always right where I wanted to be: in the middle of a good book. I enjoy all sorts of mysteries, but for this first post on favorite authors and genres I intend to devote to an author of the fictional genre I think of as my literary home: the so-called "malice domestic" mysteries.

The name is meant to describe mysteries very similar to those written by Agatha Christie and are "loosely defined as mysteries which contain no explicit sex or excessive gore or violence; and usually (but are not limited to) featuring an amateur detective, a confined setting, and characters who know one another." As one of my favorite heroines once said, "If someone is going to kill me, I want him to take a personal interest." That means no random acts of violence, just "malice domestic"--that is, murder committed among people who know each other or who are connected in some way. Some of my favorite authors of this genre include Aaron Elkins, Sharyn McCrumb, Charlotte MacLeod, Lauren Haney, Joan Hess, and--last but by no means least--the Grandmaster herself, Elizabeth Peters. Since my first love in this genre was Elizabeth Peters, we'll start there. That's not so easy as it might seem. As someone once remarked, "What can you say about Elizabeth Peters that she hasn't already said?"

Although she's written nine stand-alone novels, Elizabeth Peters is best known for her three different series novels, namely those that feature Vicky Bliss (scholar of medieval art), Jacqueline Kirby (writer and librarian), and Amelia Peabody Emerson. By far the most popular series with readers is that featuring Amelia Peabody, intrepid archaeologist and Egyptologist. Being educated as an Egyptologist, EP has the know-how to spin a great historical mystery with the kind of accuracy that only an expert could render. The series begins in 1884 and subsequent novels have followed the Emerson family all the way into the 1920's. That kind of longevity in a series is rare, and it's not just clever plots and witty and daring heroine that sustain it--it's also the skillfully and intimately drawn characters that keep readers coming back for more. My destiny of being hooked as a loyal reader and admirer of this series is kind of a no-brainer. The Egyptology angle, for one, makes it appealing to me. But there's also the factor of time. I started reading this series when I was around thirteen years old, which means for most of my life each year there's been a new Emerson adventure to pick up. Each book in the series is linked with my memories of growing up, so I have a great affection for all of them.

Should you consider picking up an Amelia Peabody mystery, I highly recommend you start at the beginning, with Crocodile on the Sandbank. Later developments in the story mean so much more when you know what's happened before. Trust me.

Just because Amelia is my favorite doesn't mean I don't enjoy Vicky and Jacqueline's adventures just as much. Vicky would probably get by just fine, except she keeps getting mixed up with the mysterious John Smythe, forger of art and antiquities--a problematic friend to have when you work in a museum. EP likes to brag that Vicky is one of the first fictional heroines to turn down riding off into the sunset in the arms of the story's hero in favor of blackmailing her superior into giving her a dream job at a major museum. In this way, EP is one of the most influential authors of this genre in the past four decades or so. When she started writing, publishers were locked into romantic suspense novels that followed a set formula. Initially, they were hardly thrilled with the idea of a mystery featuring a smart female protagonist who didn't fall into the arms of the leading man on the last page. As with Amelia, I recommend starting at the beginning of this series. Beware, like the Amelia mysteries, these books are addicting. And with addiction comes the threat of eventually running out of a way to get your fix. When it comes to this series, addicts have been without a fix since the late nineties. For about ten years now there's been one pressing question on loyal reader's minds: "Will there ever be a new Vicky?" It was finally answered this year: Yes. The new book is The Laughter of Dead Kings and it's coming out on my birthday. Can't beat that! (Hence the countdown above.)

Jacqueline Kirby's adventures are another story. I think they can be read in whatever order you like, but there's also a lot fewer of them. You'd think there's a limited kind of trouble a librarian turned romance writer could get into, but you'd be wrong. My personal favorite in this series is Naked Once More. These books are just hilarious--especially if you're a keen observer of humanity and enjoy applying a cutting sense of humor to life. Die for Love is also a good romp, but Naked's still at the top of my list in this series.

If you decide to pick up one of these books, you're guaranteed to be entertained. If not, I recommend you check your pulse. Seriously.

Currently Reading: Interred with Their Bones by Jennifer Lee Carrell

1 comment:

  1. when u say partner do u mean male or female