Life's Little Mysteries

Although I always thought of myself as a science fiction fan, my reading probably involved nearly as many mystery writers as it did SF. And over the years the mix has changed to one in which mysteries dominate. What follows is a listing of some of my favorite mystery writers of past and present. It surprised me to discover that when I began there were few mystery resources on the web and that even now most of the names I list here don't have legions of devoted fans creating web pages for them.

Arthur Conan Doyle: How can any discussion of the mystery start anywhere but with Sherlock Holmes? Although others were arguably first, Conan Doyle's influence was the most lasting. And while a lot of his short stories are pretty weak and his writing less than inspired, he could surprise. To my mind The Hound Of The Baskervilles, his only novel-length Sherlock Holmes story, was his best work. (Conan Doyle wrote three other novel-length Holmes stories, but Hound is the only one that involves Holmes from start to finish.) Conan Doyle himself was ambivalent about Holmes, believing that the stories obscured his more scholarly or literary work. Having read much of his output, I have to say that the man was deluded. Holmes was the best thing he ever did, which surely should have been enough for one literary lifetime.
Rex Stout: I think the relationship between immovable object Nero Wolfe and irresistible force Archie Goodwin is the most interesting in detective fiction. The interplay of eccentric intellectual Wolfe and man of action Goodwin was always my favorite part of the stories. The mysteries were entirely inconsequential to me, in some cases detracting from what mattered. Although Stout wrote about other characters, they all pale in comparison to Wolfe. (Or even without the comparison; his other stories range from boring to downright unreadable!) Robert Goldsborough took over the series after Stout's death, doing a much better job of maintaining his style than John Gardner has with James Bond.
Donald Hamilton: Hamilton created a spy named Matt Helm in the early 1960s, right around the time that James Bond was becoming big. I discovered the books in college, at the urging of a friend. And I was hooked. Where Ian Fleming was flamboyant, Hamilton is straightforward. Where Fleming's plots are and seem outrageous, Hamilton's seem believable even when objective consideration says they aren't. Hamilton was still writing Helm books up until recently; every now and then I would see a new Matt Helm book in a bookstore or an airport kiosk. They're awfully hard to find and haven't stayed in print. But they're well worth the effort.
John D. MacDonald: John D. MacDonald was a prolific writer within many genres. His greatest contribution to mysteries was the colorful Travis McGee, Salvage Expert, someone who could help when no one can help. (Colorful in more than one sense: each McGee book has a color in the name: Nightmare In Pink, The Girl In The Plain Brown Wrapper, The Green Ripper and so on.) I went through the McGee books during summer weekends in 1984 (or was it 85?), zipping through them one after another while lying on a raft in my condo's pool. I finished the last right around the end of the summer. And then something awful happened: MacDonald died. If I had known that there wouldn't be any more, I would have rationed them more carefully.
Stuart Kaminsky: Kaminsky writes three series. One is about Toby Peters, a down at the heels private dick working Hollywood during World War II. The second involves Inspector Porfiry Rostnikov, Investigator for the Moscow Police. The Rostnikov stories are full of details of Russian life and the complexities of Soviet and now post-Soviet politics. Solving a crime is hard enough; when the criminals may be part of the government, it's impossible. Kaminsky's third series is about an old, tired Chicago cop named Abe Lieberman. Like Rostnikov, Lieberman is just trying to get by, do his job, keep his family together and the rest of the world at bay.
A.E. Maxwell: A.E. Maxwell is a penname for Ann and Evan Maxwell, a husband and wife writing team. Which may explain what's so good about this series about Fiddler, a wealthy former smuggler and concert violinist who goes looking for trouble and Fiora, his financial wizard ex-wife, who can't stay away from him and can't bear to get too close: their heat and their intelligence. The Maxwells have created a complex set of characters and an equally complex set of relationships and then create situations that are worthy of their abilities.
Sue Grafton: Sue Grafton is not only a great mystery writer; she's a terrific writer. Her Kinsey Millhone novels are easy to identify: A Is For Alibi, B Is For Burglar and so on. What's special about them is the language: I'm usually hooked within the first paragraph or so. There's something about the tempo of her writing that grabs my attention and holds on. Even when the story itself doesn't work all that well (a problem with a couple of recent books), the writing and the characterizations work very well indeed.
David Handler: Handler writes about Stewart Hoag, a writer himself. Hoag has a classic writer's problem: a brilliant first novel and a world class case of writer's block. So he's taken to ghostwriting celebrity autobiographies, where he keeps discovering more than he should. There's a lot of Hollywood and literary backstage flavor and more than a little roman a clef to the tales of people who have it all and a little more besides.
Marcia Muller: Where Sue Grafton writes about a fictional Santa Barbara, Marcia Muller places her detective in a very real San Francisco. Sharon McCone works (worked) for the remnants of a very left wing legal aid law firm, which has become steadily more button down and corporate as the series progresses. These are not simple mysteries with simple solutions. There's a fascinating cast of characters, with settings and stories to match. No one's motives are simple or pure. Kind of like real life.
Parnell Hall: Hall writes about a detective named Stanley Hastings who has a unique attribute, at least in fiction: he's an idiot. Not Forest Gump, mind you, just not real bright. Hastings does simple investigations for an ambulance chaser of a lawyer and barely squeaks by. Every now and then he finds himself with a real case, at which point he demonstrates just how ill equipped he is at his job. For us, it's a chance to watch someone with a justifiably low self-image try to solve a puzzle that's clearly beyond him.
Karen Kijewski: Karen Kijewski writes about Kat Colorado, an improbably named Sacramento-based detective who gets far more involved in the lives of her clients than is safe or wise. Which is part of the appeal of her stories. They focus as much on why things happen and how everyone copes, including Kat herself. Like most of my favorite mystery characters, there's nothing even remotely dispassionate about Kijewski's creation. She's involved, she cares and she hurts.
Robert Crais: PI Elvis Cole is a smartass, with a quick wit, a frequently inappropriate sense of humor and a fondness for cartoon characters. In many ways, Cole is a throwback to Philip Marlowe, a detective who could only exist in fiction: the man of honor in a world sadly lacking in that trait, a man for whom each case becomes a quest to find or create some spark of truth or beauty. Cole is a romantic; he's also tough as nails, clever, self-deprecating and just pragmatic enough to survive. His partner, Joe Pike, is an enigma: a modern samurai, part mirror to Cole's own beliefs and doubts, part robot warrior to keep Cole from being engulfed in the flames his investigations inevitably ignite.
Carl Hiaasen: Carl Hiaasen's world consists almost entirely of conmen and their victims, with only small differences between the two. Since his world is that of Southern Florida real estate, there is a whole lot of money changing hands, and the great motivator is unbridled greed. This is a world of laughably stupid, violent, bizarre people. Into this cesspool Hiaasen throws one or two honest and intelligent people, who try to figure out how they got into this mess and how to get out, while all the time treading... er... water and trying to avoid getting a taste. Hiaasen's books are dark comedy at its darkest, with bystanders getting cut down left and right and the bad guys getting away with a lot more than murder. They're technically series fiction, with regular appearances by secondary characters like Al Garcia, a Cuban cop who's smarter, more resourceful and more honest than most everyone around him. Although with this crowd that's not saying a whole lot.
Dick Francis: Including Dick Francis here may seem odd. All the other entries on this page concern writers of series. With only two exceptions, Francis' books don't involve repeating characters. And only one of those exceptions involved a second sequel. But anyone who has read Francis knows that he writes about a continuing character. True, his name and occupation change each time. But they're all the same person with the same unique voice, roughly the same age and the same obsession with horse racing. (And a recurring interest, not acted on, for much younger women. Which is all I'll say about that!) Fortunately, the protagonist is an engaging character. And Francis writes well, creating some interesting secondary characters and a solid framework for his mysteries. (Although if Twice Shy, his one book involving computers, is any indication, his research isn't nearly as good as I once thought.) In the end, if I find Francis' books less uplifting than the others I read regularly, I'm rarely disappointed. And I don't feel entirely guilty afterward.
Barry Eisler: As you may have noticed, the books that work best for me are those with the most interesting characters. They don't have to be believable. (No fan of Rex Stout or Carl Hiaasen would accuse them of creating believable characters. Colorful, yes. Entertaining, certainly. But believable? Hardly.) I don't read mysteries or thrillers to find out what happens next; I read for the way the people who inhabit the story respond to what happens next. Which is why I have to tell you about the first novel by Barry Eisler, a friend and former colleague/fellow sufferer at a Silicon Valley startup that couldn't shoot straight. The book, which has nothing whatsoever to do with that startup (although that story would make a wonderful entry in the fantasy category), is called Rain Fall. It's a thriller about a Japanese-American assassin whose well ordered and anonymous world goes completely flooey (it's a technical term) when he becomes a bit too involved with the daughter of his most recent victim. The story is taut and exciting, the plotting careful but never mechanical. But what sets Rain Fall apart (and makes me wonder how Mr. Eisler's next book can come close to this one) are the characters he creates and the atmosphere that surrounds them. I've spent a bit of time in Tokyo, enough to recognize the city in Rain Fall as the one I've explored. And to believe that a story like this might well have been playing out around me, if only I'd had the eyes to see it.

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 Comments to: Hank Shiffman, Mountain View, California