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Find more The Case of the Overlooked Books
At Booklist, our focus is necessarily on new books, but from time to time, we like to look in the rearview mirror, too. As part of our May Is Mystery Month celebration, we decided to search out overlooked crime novels, jewels from the past that either have faded in memory or never did receive the recognition they deserve. In order to solve what we’re calling the Case of the Overlooked Books, we consulted with our team of Booklist crime-fiction reviewers. The titles listed below, suggested by our reviewers, cover almost 100 years of crime writing, stretching from Mary Roberts Rinehart’s The Circular Staircase (1908) through Kent Harrington’s Día de los Muertos (1997), and encompass a wide range of styles, from the lightest of cozies through the darkest of noirs. We’re hoping you will find great ideas here both for personal reading and for recommending to library patrons looking for something off the beaten path.
The Circular Staircase. By Mary Roberts Rinehart. 1908.
While she is not nearly as popular today as Agatha Christie or Dorothy L. Sayers, Rinehart is another Golden Age mystery author worth getting to know. The Circular Staircase, published way back in 1908, features an American protagonist, a self-described “middle-aged spinster,” who sets about solving a murder. As today’s writers of historical cozies rediscover the possibilities of the early twentieth century in their story lines, fans should try at least one of Rinehart’s books. She wasn’t re-creating the era; she actually lived it. —Judy Coon
The Daughter of Time. By Josephine Tey. 1951.
Scotland Yard Inspector Alan Grant, recovering from injuries, occupies his time and mind attempting to solve the age-old mystery of King Richard III’s complicity in the murder of his two young nephews in the Tower of London. This is a wonderfully compelling mix of exciting detective work and sound historical investigation. —Brad Hooper
A fascinating exploration, full of historical details, of the mystery of the disappearance of Richard III’s two nephews made by a British police detective while he is laid up in the hospital. Was Richard III really guilty of the crime? —Sue O’Brien
Death and the Good Life. By Richard Hugo. 1981.
A year before his death, Hugo, a distinguished and much-anthologized poet, published his only mystery novel. His protagonist, Al “Mush Heart” Barnes, is a retired Seattle cop working as a sheriff’s deputy in a small Montana town that is sent into turmoil when an ax murder is committed. Barnes, a fish out of water in the rural West, must adapt to solve the case, but it is Hugo’s lyrical writing and richly poetic imagery that will make crime aficionados wish more poets would take on the genre. —Thomas Gaughan
Día de los Muertos. By Kent Harrington. 1997.
Set appropriately during Mexico’s Día de los Muertos celebration, this unrelenting noir tale of lives gone terminally wrong takes the reader on a metaphorical and literal death march, as rogue DEA agent Vincent Calhoun and a motley crew of lost souls caught in his orbit watch their lives spiral out of control. Harrington hits every note perfectly, from the blood-spurting eruptions of violence, to the dim chance of escape that keeps us hoping, and, above all, to the soul-deadening rot that hangs over the Tijuana landscape like tequila-soaked acid rain. —Bill Ott
Don’t Point That Thing at Me. By Kyril Bonfiglioli. 1972.
This one hasn’t been entirely overlooked—after all, Overlook Press reprinted it and the other Charlie Mortdecai novels in handsome paperbacks—but too many crime-fiction fans remain unaware of it. The plot, such as it is, concerns crooked art dealer Mortdecai’s attempts to deliver a stolen Goya concealed in the headliner of his Rolls Royce Silver Ghost—but you won’t want to read this for the plot. Somehow evoking both P. G. Wodehouse and Hunter S. Thompson, the whole thing is ridiculous and ridiculously funny. Comedic crime fiction is the hardest kind to write, so when you find something this sidesplitting, it’s a reader’s duty to share it. —Keir Graff
Finding Maubee. By A. H. Z. Carr. 1971.
When a tourist dies on the Caribbean island of St. Caro, policeman Xavier Brooke is compelled to track down David Maubee, a beloved local rogue celebrated in song by the island’s steel-drum bands. Maubee is also Brooke’s friend since childhood, and every islander wants the investigation to fail. Carr’s laid-back vision of the near-paradise St. Caro and his characterizations of the charming Maubee and the wise, decent, embattled Brooke will remain in readers’ minds long after they’ve forgotten the novel’s film adaptation, The Mighty Quinn. —Thomas Gaughan
Lush Life. By Dallas Murphy. 1992.
I’m going a different way here: my mystery tastes usually run to the noir side of the scale, but I dearly love this jewel of a comic crime novel about a pool-playing slaggard who lives off his TV-star dog. Artie Deemer is an amiable, jazz-loving loafer who would just as soon do nothing except listen to Monk and play nine-ball, but in this episode, he falls hard for pool champion Crystal Spivey and soon finds himself fending off mob money launderers willing to kill for a missing video. Rooting for Artie is like pulling for any poor sap whose life is invaded by too much reality. —Bill Ott
The Investigation. By Stanislaw Lem. 1959.
My favorite mystery is about a strange, not very criminal crime. In London, corpses are moving about apparently unaided. Lieutenant Gregory of Scotland Yard eventually turns for help to a statistician, Sciss, who accurately predicts when the incidents will end. Why they happen at all no one ever explains, but each in a succession of ever more outlandish theories is more probable than the last. This is my kind of mystery: thoroughly baffling, apparently inconsequential, very dryly humorous. Just thinking of its title makes me grin. —Ray Olson
The Night She Died. By Dorothy Simpson. 1981.
Although Simpson published her Inspector Thanet novels from 1981 to 2000, the books hearken back to the Golden Age of Christie, Marsh, et al. Inspector Thanet and his assistant Sergeant Lineham are well-rounded characters whom readers will enjoy getting to know as human beings. Simpson’s Kent, England, setting in The Night She Died is as vivid and detailed as the plot, and the psychological underpinnings she brings to her hero evokes P. D. James. —Judy Coon
Only the Dead Know Brooklyn. By Thomas Boyle. 1985.
Brooklyn, the first U.S. home of countless immigrants, is also one of the spiritual wellsprings of the crime novel. In this one, Brooklynite Boyle paints a vividly arresting portrait of an ever-changing, teeming stew of immigrant enclaves, separated by the width of a city street, with each enclave usually at odds with its neighbors. The crime is compelling, but it’s Boyle’s ethnogeography that readers will never forget. —Thomas Gaughan
Red Dragon. By Thomas Harris. 1981.
Harris may be best known for The Silence of the Lambs, but in my view, that novel pales in comparison to Red Dragon, in which the author introduces psychotic serial killer Hannibal Lector. FBI profiler Will Graham turns to Lecter, who is in prison after nearly killing Graham, for help in tracking a serial killer who targets and murders entire families. A virtual roller coaster of thrills and chills. —Michele Leber
The Tanglewood Murder. By Lucille Kallen. 1980.
Kallen, the only woman who ever wrote for Sid Caesar’s legendary Your Show of Shows, turned to mysteries several decades after her TV days. Her impeccable comic timing is still present, however, in this second novel in the C. B. Greenfield series, starring an irascible, small-town New York State newspaper editor and his sidekick, Maggie Rome. What’s really delightful is the way Kallen fleshes out her characters and settings. I always wanted more from her. —Connie Fletcher
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