Friday, September 14, 2012

Seeing Gold, Getting Cozy: The Personal History of a Mystery Reader (Part One)

I was talking books with a friend the other day who found it strange that I avoid thrillers and read very selectively in romantic suspense but consider myself a fan of mysteries. I don’t see any contradiction.  I choose my mysteries on the basis of characterization and world building with the actual puzzle a distant third criterion. My choices are shaped by my earliest reading of mysteries, which began if not at my mother’s knee, at least with her bookshelves. I read mysteries from the Golden Age of the Genre and the forerunners of the cozy mysteries that are my most frequent mystery reads today.

I started reading adult mysteries that same fateful summer I started reading romance. As with romance, I began with my mother’s favorite. In this case, that meant Agatha Christie.  While I loved Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot, my favorites were the Tommy and Tuppence stories. Their appeal was less in the mysteries and more in the developing relationship between the careful Tommy and the impulsive Tuppence who begin as “The Young Adventurers,” introduced in The Secret Adversary. They move on to become a married couple with children and finally retirees and grandparents over the course of four more books. Their friends-to-lovers tale has the ultimate HEA, ending with the pair in their seventies, living in a country home with their dog, surrounded by family. All the books resonate with charm and humor and the pair’s love for one another.

Tommy and Tuppence Books:

The Secret Adversary
Partners in Crime, a collection of short stories (1929)
N or M? (1941)
By the Pricking of My Thumbs (1968)
Postern of Fate (1973) 

After Christie, I moved on to Margery Allingham’s Albert Campion books. Like Christie, Allingham wrote books with little gore and lots of characters interacting with one another. I discovered Sayers later, and so I was unconscious of Campion’s similarities to Lord Peter Wimsey.  His class, his mysterious war work, his manservant (the reformed burglar Magersfontein Lugg_ and his extended family fascinating, but I paid particular attention to his romantic entanglements. Poor Albert had his heart cracked several times before he married aircraft engineer Amanda Fitton, whom he first encountered as a plucky seventeen-year-old in Kingdom of Death.

Albert Campion Mysteries

The Black Dudley Murder (1929)  
Mystery Mile (1930)
The Gyrth Chalice Mystery (1931)
Police at the Funeral (1931)
Kingdom of Death (1933)
Death of a Ghost (1934)
Legacy in Blood (1936)  
The Case of the Late Pig (1937)
Who Killed Chloe? (1937)
The Fashion in Shrouds (1938)
The Sabotage Murder Mystery (1941)  
Pearls Before Swine (1945)

I have used American titles and stopped at #12 in which Campion and Amanda are married and have a son. Allingham wrote four more Campion novels before her death, plus four collections of short stories. Another three were completed or written by her husband after her death.  

A few years later I discovered Leslie Ford’s Grace Latham/Colonel Primrose mysteries, books that continue to be favorites. The original books were called Colonel Primrose books, but Grace Latham is the narrator of most of the books, and her life is revealed in considerably greater detail. I’ve always thought of them as Grace Latham mysteries, and they are often referred to in this manner by other readers. Ford, whose real name was Zenith Jones Brown, is not to everyone’s taste. She is very much a product of her time and class, and the novels are not politically correct. Racism and sexism are part of the fabric of these books, just as they were of the actual historical period in which the mysteries are set. 

But Ford’s writing is excellent, and Grace Latham, a widow bringing up her two sons, and her long-time beau Colonel John Primrose, whose bachelorhood is zealously guarded by his aide, Sergeant Buck, are eminently likeable characters. The view of WW II era Washington, D. C. with its entangled social and political threads offers a background I find fascinating.

Grace was happy in her first marriage, but she shows no inclination to marry the Colonel. I like to think that the two were lovers, but given the delicacy with which sexuality was referenced in the books, it’s impossible to know for certain. It is clear that they were in love with one another and spent a great deal of time together.

Grace Latham/Colonel Primrose Mysteries

The Strangled Witness (1934)
Ill Met by Moonlight (1934)
The Simple Way of Poison (1937)
Three Bright Pebbles (1938)
False to Any Man (1939)
Reno Rendezvous (1939)
Old Lover's Ghost (1941)
The Murder of the Fifth Columnist (1941)
Murder in the O. P. M. (1942)
Siren in the Night (1943)
All for the Love of a Lady (1944)
The Philadelphia Murder Story (1945)

 Again, I stopped with the first twelve. Ford wrote four more books in the series between 1948 and 1952.

The next mystery writer who claimed my allegiance was Rae Foley, pseudonym of Elinore Denniston, with her Hiram Potter books. Potter, an urbane, wealthy, intelligent man with a not always convenient conscience falls in love with a psychotic murderer in the first book. She is a shadow in his life through several books, and finally dies in a mental institution. Eventually Potter meets and falls for Janet Grant, and the two marry and live happily in his Grammercy Park. A recurring cast of secondary characters including beauty Opal Reed and her handy boyfriend Sam, playwright Graham Collinge, and Captain Peter O’Toole provide the context I consider essential.

Hiram Potter Mysteries

The Peacock Is a Bird of Prey (1955)
The Last Gamble (1956)
Run for Your Life (1957)
Where Is Mary Bostwick? (1958)
Dangerous to Me (1959)
Curtain Call (1961)
Repent at Leisure (1962)
Back Door to Death (1963)
Fatal Lady (1964)
Call It Accident (1965)
Calculated Risk (1970)

 I’m not sure how I missed Sayers during in my early mystery reading, but I discovered Lord Peter Wimsey only after I was introduced to Sayers through her translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy and her voluminous explanatory notes that saved my grade. Only after reading Sayers’s mysteries did I understand Allingham’s nod to Sayers in creating Albert Campion and the description of Hiram Potter as “America’s Lord Peter Wimsey.” 

Lord Peter is an interesting character before he meets Harriet Vane. He is a wealthy aristocrat with seemingly unlimited funds, interests, and time. I always experience a fellow feeling with Sayers when I remember Sayers saying that she gave Lord Peter all the things she didn’t have. Given the preponderance of wealthy heroes in romance fiction, I suspect many writers can understand the choices Sayers makes. She describes him in Clouds of Witness, the second book in the series:

He was a respectable scholar in five or six languages, a musician of some skill and more understanding, something of an expert in toxicology, a collector of rare editions, an entertaining man-about-town, and a common sensationalist. He had been seen at half-past twelve on a Sunday morning walking in Hyde Park in a top-hat and frock-coat reading the News of the World. His passion for the unexplored led him to hunt up obscure pamphlets in the British Museum, to unravel the emotional history of income-tax collectors, and to find out where his own drains led to.

But however interesting the early Wimsey books are, the books that follow his relationship with Harriet Vane are my favorites. They don’t meet until Strong Poison, the sixth book. Harriet, a mystery writer, is suspected of murdering her lover. Wimsey falls in love with her at first sight and devotes himself to proving her innocence. When he succeeds, he proposes. She refuses bothered by class differences, her gratitude for his saving her from the gallows, and her fears that marriage to him won’t allow her to herself. Over five books, Peter courts her, reiterating his proposal. They work on cases together, and she repeats her refusal. Finally, in Gaudy Night, worth reading for its view of academic women, Harriet accepts his proposal. In Busman’s Honeymoon, they marry and spend their honeymoon solving a case, hence the title.  Their life together continues in several short stories in which they become parents of three sons. My summary fails to do justice to the complex, nuanced relationship that develops between these two characters. Theirs is a great love story.
Lord Peter Wimsey Stories

Whose Body? (1923)
Clouds of Witness (1926)
Unnatural Death (1927)
Lord Peter Views the Body (1928)
The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club (1928)
Strong Poison (1930)
The Five Red Herrings (1931)
Have His Carcase (1932)
Hangman's Holiday (1933)
Murder Must Advertize (1933)
The Nine Tailors (1934)
Gaudy Night (1935)
Busman's Honeymoon (1937)
In the Teeth of the Evidence (1939)
Lord Peter: The Complete Lord Peter Wimsey Stories (1972)
Striding Folly (1972)

Decades after I read my first Agatha Christie, I have more than seventy authors on my list of mystery writers that I read. Some are from mystery’s Golden Age; many, perhaps most, are more are authors of modern cozies. The list changes.  Sometimes I drop an author. One killed off a main character, an unforgivable writing offense for me.  Much more often a recommendation leads to the discovery of a new favorite.  But those new favorites are another subject; they will be the topic of part two. 

Are you a mystery reader? Do you like a little romance mixed with your mystery?


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