Nothing warms up a cold, dark winter evening quite like a good murder mystery. And nothing makes a cold, dark winter pass more quickly than binge-reading murder mysteries written in series. So stack ‘em up, and start with these suggestions to keep you warm ‘til spring…
I recently reread Edmund Crispin’s The Moving Toyshop after many years, and although I had not forgotten how funny this little gem is, I had forgotten what a fiendishly clever mystery lurks within its pages. First published in 1946 and recently reissued in a lovely new paperback edition (Bloomsbury Reader, $16.00), The Moving Toyshop is the third book to feature Crispin’s eccentric Oxford don and amateur detective Gervase Fen. The mystery begins when an old college friend of Fen named Richard Cadogan arrives in Oxford by train late one night. A poet on holiday for some much needed inspiration and relaxation, Cadogan relies on his somewhat faulty memory to navigate the twisting streets of the old town and is soon lost. Momentarily distracted by the charming window display of a small toyshop, he discovers the front door has been left unlatched, and playing the Good Samaritan, slips inside to warn the shopkeeper of the breach. Instead, he stumbles upon the victim of an obviously recent murder, gets knocked over the head and wakes up a prisoner in a tiny storage room. When he is finally able to free himself and returns to the scene with the police, the body has disappeared. In fact, the whole toyshop is gone, replaced with a grocer that claims to have been on the spot for years. Fortunately for Cadogan, his old pal Fen loves a good mystery. And Gervase Fen is a brilliant detective, as adept at quoting classical Latin as he is at dodging bullets. Part Dorothy Sayers, part P. G. Wodehouse, The Moving Toyshop is full of wit and sparkle with just the right amount of serious danger, and features the most colorful cast of supporting characters to be found in any mystery.
London book editor Samantha “Sam” Clair is not especially brave. She’s not particularly big, or very strong. She doesn’t pack a gun, and does not know any martial arts. But when she finds herself in the vicinity of a dead body (something which happens with alarming frequency), she does have three things going for her. One: Her impossibly glamorous mother is London’s best-connected barrister. Two: Her agoraphobic upstairs neighbor knows everything and everyone in the realms of history and culture. And three: As an editor of nonfiction books, Sam’s wits are as sharp as the proverbial red pencil, and she is very good at finding out things. A Howl of Wolves (Minotaur Books, $26.99) is the fourth book in Judith Flanders’ wonderfully entertaining mystery series featuring amateur sleuth Sam Clair. When Sam and her beau, CID inspector Jake Field, attend the opening night of a rather gruesome West End play, they think they’re there to cheer on several of the actors who happen to live in Sam’s building. But all that changes when one body too many turns up in act three. As the curtain falls, it becomes apparent that the body hanging above the scene is no stage dummy, but the very murdered corpse of the play’s not very well-liked director. Even if Jake would rather that she keep her nose out of the investigation, Sam feels obligated to help find the killer when members of the cast, including her friends, fall under suspicion. And if catching a killer isn’t dangerous enough, she still has her day job at the publishing firm, defending her books and authors from covetous editors and a callous sales manager. In each of the books in this series, Flanders deftly mixes together an endearing cast of regular characters, twisty plots and complex clues and the occasional dash of danger, all liberally seasoned with clever repartee and plenty of humor. Start at the beginning with A Murder of Magpies for full enjoyment.
For fans of Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs and Susan Elia MacNeal’s Maggie Hope, I heartily recommend the Lane Winslow series from B.C. writer Iona Whishaw. American readers are sadly unfamiliar with Canadian mystery writers aside from Louise Penny, an oversight enjoyably corrected with this series. Whishaw’s Lane is a former spy, having worked for British intelligence during WWII. When the war ends, she feels the need to put as much space as possible between herself and the memories of what happened in Europe. She immigrates to Canada and ends up in a house she’s bought sight unseen in a little hamlet in the interior of British Columbia. Life in King’s Cove is not quite as quiet as she had hoped for, however, as murder can happen in even the most bucolic of settings. Lane can’t help but want to investigate crimes committed on her new home turf, although her wartime signing of the Official Secrets Acts prevents her from telling either her neighbors or a handsome police detective why she is unafraid of violent death. A Sorrowful Sanctuary (Touchwood Editions, $14.95) is the fifth book in the series, and Lane has settled in nicely into her new home. The handsome policeman, Inspector Darling, has gone from antagonist to comrade to friend to something more, and the ghosts of Lane’s past seem to have finally been laid to rest. But a peaceful life just does not appear to be in Lane’s future – not when a body is discovered in the lake near her home, and not when Darling is suddenly arrested and hauled off to England to face criminal charges over an incident that happened in France during the war. Certain that the Darling she knows could never had committed the crime he’s accused of, Lane decides she has no option but to return to England to prove his innocence. The war might be over, but its echoes ring loud and clear through both of these cases. Whishaw’s series has all the right elements for compulsive reading – great characters, a memorable locale and intriguing plotlines. Look for A Killer in King’s Cove for an introduction to Lane, Darling, and the good (and a few not so good) people of King’s Cove.
Some mysteries offer exotic locations. The good ones feature memorable, if somehow flawed, detectives. And a very few let animals into the story. Vaseem Khan’s Baby Ganesh Agency series does all three. Khan’s detective is Inspector Ashwin Chopra, formerly of the Mumbai police department. In The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra, book one of the series, Chopra has reluctantly retired following a serious heart attack. The very day of his retirement brings a most unusual gift – a baby elephant left to him by an eccentric uncle – and a remarkable investigative team is born. The series is now in its fourth book, Murder at the Grand Raj Palace (Redhook, $15.99), and Chopra and baby Ganesha have gained a reputation for solving cases that the regular police force finds baffling, earning them a bit of fame as well as a few enemies. Their newest case takes them to a luxurious suite in Mumbai’s most famous hotel, where an American businessman has been found dead in his bed the morning after an art auction at which he had paid an astonishing sum for a single painting. The police initially believe it to be a suicide, but one of Chopra’s old colleagues finds the case inconclusive, and calls in Chopra for his opinion. Chopra is convinced the evidence points to murder, and despite pressure from the hotel, the auction house and the police brass to close the case quickly, he digs deeper and deeper into the dead man’s past. The investigation takes plenty of twists and turns, from the rarified world of modern Indian art to the decades old cover-up of a horrible industrial accident. Side stories involving a royal wedding and the antics of a mischievous Bollywood star add some gentle humor as well as a chance for Chopra’s beloved wife Poppy to do some sleuthing of her own. Each book’s background weaving in bits of India’s tumultuous history India and the color and noise of modern Mumbai is reason enough to fall for this charming series. But of course, there’s also a baby elephant.
The final stack on the table isn’t so much a series of mystery books as it is a serial mystery packed into a single volume. The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton (Sourcebooks, $25.99) is not an easy book to describe, even if it does contain many standard elements of the classic locked room mystery. There’s a crumbling country estate called Blackheath, a house party full of suspicious characters, a family scarred by tragedy, and of course, a murder. The facts are simple: Evelyn Hardcastle, surviving child of the hosting family, will be murdered before the end of the day and a man named Aiden Bishop must identify the murderer before midnight. Everything after those two statements gets a little weird. Aiden will get eight tries to solve a murder that has yet to be committed. If he fails, the whole day, including Evelyn’s murder, will repeat over and over, trapping Aiden at Blackheath forever. (Really – forever.) Did I mention that he will find himself repeatedly transposed into the bodies and memories of various other house guests? And that cohabiting with those other personalities might help him gain insight into solving the case, but cause his own true self to be buried under the weight of his hosts? And did I mention the homicidal footman? Or the sinister figure dressed as a plague doctor? Or that Aiden will have choose who to trust if he is to survive, even as he sorts out of the long-ago death of Evelyn’s brother? If this all sounds a little complicated, don’t be intimidated. Reading The 7 1/2 Deaths is like following Alice down the rabbit hole: just hang on, pay attention, and enjoy the ride. Your reward will be total immersion in a diabolically clever book that will keep you in suspense until the last page – or, if you’re like me – long after the last page has been turned.
Fortunately for us avid mystery readers, there is a vast and varied landscape of series out there just waiting to be discovered. If you read through my list of suggestions before the first robins of spring arrive, just ask your local independent bookseller for more recommendations.
Kristine Kaufman is a retired bookseller and forever bibliophile. She was a co-owner of Snow Goose Books and Frames, which was in Stanwood, WA. She still calls the Pacific Northwest home.