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October 1, 2016 BOOKLIST
Find more And Then There Were 2
The 1920s and 1930s were a golden age for crime fiction. Many of the most popular writers were British, and, of those writers, four women were especially popular with readers: Agatha Christie (1890–1976), Dorothy L. Sayers (1893–1957), Ngaio Marsh (1895–1982, a New Zealander whose detective was British), and Margery Allingham (1904–66). Their novels are definitely of the cozy variety, and a generally accepted set of rules governs the way their whodunits were constructed. These included such guidelines as: the criminal must be introduced early in the story; the detective must not have committed the crime; the detective must declare the clues he or she discovers, so no clue is hidden from the reader; and no supernatural forces are allowed. These novels of the golden age, especially those written by British authors, were entertaining mind games that could be played solo—and they still have their fans. But, of these four queens of crime, which ones are still worth reading today? The answers may surprise you.
Allingham should still be read—but not all of her novels deserve your attention. While she sometimes fails to satisfy, Dancers in the Morning (1937) and The Fashion in Shrouds (1938) demonstrate the author’s impressive ability to create a realistic, even electric, atmosphere that fully supports her interestingly composed plots. Cozy, yes, but certainly not suffocatingly so.
You have to be pretty desperate for reading material on the beach or the train to read a Christie mystery these days, even such famous ones as The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926) and And Then There Were None (1939). More than books, they are puzzles and have a greatly contrived feel. The best mystery story associated with Christie comes not from one of her books but from her life story. After her car was found abandoned in early December 1926, the whole country went into search mode, and speculation as to the famous author’s fate ran rampant. Was it murder? Suicide? A bizarre publicity stunt? Christie was eventually located, 11 days later, ensconced in a hotel in the resort town of Harrowgate, but she never explained what prompted her disappearance. Instead of killing time with her mystery novels, read about this strange episode in Jared Cade’s Agatha Christie and the Missing Eleven Days (1999).
The New Zealand–born Marsh was christened Edith, which may explain her decision to use her more exotic middle name (pronounced “nigh-o”) for her authorial efforts. (Not that her colleague Agatha suffered too much, having her name on the cover.) Most modern readers will find the plots of Ngaio’s novels contrived and her writing style tedious. Still, intrepid cozy fans may not be able to resist exploring her oeuvre. If you do prefer her to these other queens of crime, let us know. We’d be shocked, but we’d still love to hear about it.
Are these queens of crime best forgotten? Not at all. All of Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey novels are highly recommended. They remain greatly entertaining to contemporary cozy readers and Lord Peter lives on as one of the great fictional detectives. Start with the first one, Who’s Body? (1923), and you’ll have a hard time resisting the urge to read straight through the whole sequence. Lord Peter grows on you, and you’ll finish the series hoping for the discovery of unpublished Wimseys among Sayers’ papers. As cozy as cozy can be—and just delightful reading.
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