Why I love detective novels

I am a fan of the novel. I like fiction. I’m a language graduate who tells people that she studied Russian because of the literature so you’ll understand that there is no book too long, too dense or too complicated for me. I will also dabble in the much-maligned genre that is chick lit, much to my husband’s disgust. What can I say, sometimes a gal just needs to read about a city lawyer who has mistakenly taken a job as a housekeeper in the country and tries desperately not to fall in love with the gardener?

But there is one genre that I turn to time and time again – the detective novel. I love a good murder mystery, but it has to be good. I cannot stand a badly written thriller – the detective needs to be authoritative and wise, the writing has to be flawless and the story has to be engaging. If the author nails those requirements then you can be pretty sure that I will read everything they have written. I only got into detective fiction about five years ago, but here are my top three favourite detective series:

1. Donna Leon

Venice + enthralling stories + descriptions of Italian food + Italian legal system + beautiful language = buy one of Leon’s books, read it and fall in love. You won’t be able to find them in the library or in second-hand book shops as Donna Leon fans tend to keep their copies closely guarded. These are the only books Tom and I fight over who gets to read the new one first.

2. Kate Atkinson

The series of novels that Atkinson has written based around the detective Jackson Broadie are some of my favourite books ever. They are beautifully written novels with excellent characterisation, twists and turns that make you want to keep on reading but also never reach the end. Oh, and there are some murders as well.

I will always remember reading the passage in Case Histories about the Fens in Cambridgeshire whilst sitting on a train going through the Fens to Cambridge to see Tom when he was at university. Her descriptions of the area are chilling, but more than that you are completely drawn into the feelings of the characters. A tip: don’t read these books if you have a young daughter. I tried to warn my Dad, but he just did not listen…

3. P.D. James

I only discovered Adam Dalgleish last year and have already devoured most of James’ novels based on the quiet, intelligent Commander. Although there are a few things that annoy me about this series (such as the fact that all of the characters only drink excellent, strong coffee and everyone offers up their alibis without prompting), you cannot deny that they are superbly written. My Dad has a theory that AD is based on Austen’s Mr Knightley and even asked James about this at a local literary festival.The plots are always clever and if they weren’t so darned heavy (I have inherited the collection in hardback and most of them are quiet long), I would take one to work with me every day for a bit of escapism during my lunch break.

I think these three novelists sum-up why I like the detective genre: the plots have to be engaging and well-thought out (unlike chick lit), the descriptions are often necessary rather than superfluous in order to give the reader sufficient clues and female authors are as well respected as their male counterparts – even if the protagonists in the three examples I’ve given are all men.

So, any suggestions for another detective series to discover? I’m open to recommendations!

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14 thoughts on “Why I love detective novels

  1. I love Kate Akinson and have read every PD James novel going so I’m excited you’ve mentioned Leon who I’ve never heard of. Murder mystery and Italian food- JACKPOT!

    Thanks Esme,

  2. First… The Undomestic Goddess is excellent chick lit, can’t beat that for lovely escapist nonsense.

    Second, I love Kate Atkinson and PD James, but I have never read Donna Leon. I’m going round my Mum’s house tonight now to pinch one of hers. I’m sure she’s got one because she inherited my Grandpa’s detective novel collection, which was somewhat… extensive. I’m excited now, LOVE discovering new authors.

    Have you ever read Elizabeth George? I love her detective stories, every single one of them has kept me up until 2… 3… 4 am, reading furiously, unable to rest until I get to the end. You know that moment when you realise that even if you don’t actually sleep at all, you cannot physically finish the book that night, so you contemplate calling in sick? That.

    K x

  3. Just wrote an epic comment (am at work) involving my love for Elizabeth George, too much coffee, and how I wrote my husband an email this very morning saying I would be packing her novel ‘what came before he shot her’ into our suitcases for next week’s holiday to spain, only for it all to go awry because I couldn’t remember my non florence finds wordpress password. Sigh. I also mentioned that I will be reading you every day Esme. Hooray for you xx

    • Oh Gem, just a wee warning, What Came Before He Shot Her is brilliant, but one of the most depressing books I have ever read, because obviously you know the outcome at the beginning (not a spoiler because the clue’s in the title, ya’ll).

      Also, a quick Amazon search reveals that a new Elizabeth George came out in January and I missed it. I am OUTRAGED, and have bought it for my upcoming holiday. Only approx 16 hours after promising G I wouldn’t buy anymore books this month. Ooopsie.

      K x

  4. I LOVE detective fiction. I’m not fussy though, I’ll read pretty much any old crap. Dick Francis, Quintin Jardine, Sue Grafton, Sara Paretsky, Patricia Cornwell. Ooh Christopher Brookmyre is great! Also Denise Mina. Ian Rankin, obviously. Alexander McCall Smith for something different but lovely. I read all the Sherlock Holmes stories, they’re fab. I even once read an entire series of mysteries set in a rural American herb shop. If it’s got any sort of mystery in it I will eat it up with a spoon.

  5. I’m going to check these ladies out as I haven’t read any of them! Love the rebus books and have recently started reading Jo nesbo. For some reason I tend to read male crime writing, not sure why and must be rectified immediately. As if I need more things to add to my reading list!

  6. Not everyone’s cup of tea but I love the oldies, esp Dorothy L Sayers. And have you read any Boris Akunin? They are brilliant! And The Moonstone? Also fab and apparently the first detective novel published, I think? x

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