Did you know that A.A. Milne, author of Winnie-the-Pooh wrote a detective novel? Have you heard about Wilkie Collins, a celebrity novelist of the Victorian era?
This article will give you an overview of some famous and less famous detective fiction authors, whether you are a keen fan of the genre or not. Let’s dive right in!
The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins
The Moonstone was hailed by T. S. Eliot as the first and best English detective novel. Although critics today dispute this, The Moonstone, despite its formidable length, is a very entertaining and readable Victorian novel. The story is told by multiple narrators, out of whom my favourite one was definitely Gabriel Betteredge – an old and amusing servant who plays Dr Watson and treats his dog-eared copy of Robinson Crusoe like the Bible.
The Moonstone tells the story of the theft of a precious jewel and the following investigation. The case is taken up by Sergeant Cuff, and he is helped by Gabriel Betteredge. But there are more detective figures throughout the story, and each one of them contributes to solving the mystery.
The Moonstone is much more than detective fiction novel; the mystery is interlaced with a family saga and romance. An attentive reader will pick up on many motives pertinent to the era, such the problem of orientalism, mesmerism, or class. The representation of Indians might make the modern reader wince, but the novel also offers a tentative critique of contemporary attitudes towards foreigners in England.
All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed reading The Moonstone, and especially its multiple narrators and takes on one story. The only drawback was the novel’s tendency to ramble at time, which is negligible in view of The Moonstone’s other qualities. Most importantly, the ending can still surprise!
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle
No-one needs an introduction to Sherlock Holmes. He is a fictional figure who outlived his age and creator with his countless representations in film, theatre, fan-fiction, and computer games.
But perhaps because of this ubiquity of Sherlock Holmes in our culture (Sherlock, anyone?) not many people have actually read the original stories. It might be worth going back to Doyle’s quaint prose, in which the protagonists address each other as “Watson” and “Holmes”. The stories resemble mini-puzzles that invite the reader’s full participation in solving mysteries, and the inventive endings can still take your breath away. Admittedly, some disguises may appear absurd to the modern reader, and some plot lines verge on the implausible. But the warm friendship between the two main characters makes you forget these minor quibbles.
I first came across the Sherlock Holmes stories when I was a teenage reader keen on devouring detective fiction. I have recently re-read The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, which led to the pleasant discovery that Arthur C. Doyle still can charm and surprise me. The Red-Headed League or The Adventure of the Speckled Band are wonderfully quirky cases, whose endings I could have never guessed.
But there is more to The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes than pure reason and mystery solving. As the title indicates, this collection is about adventure; Holmes and Watson will put themselves in danger to solve the cases, which makes the stories exciting to read.
A mature eye will also spot many socio-historical issues at play. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes documents life London in the Victorian era with all its crime and poverty. It also addresses the issue of the position of women in society at the time, who are often abused in the Sherlock Holmes stories by their male relatives or husbands. The notable exception is Irene Adler – the woman – who certainly can take care of herself.
The Red House Mystery by A. A. Milne
A. A. Milne is known as the creator of Winnie-the-Pooh. But he is also a playwright, poet, and an amateur detective fiction writer. The Red House Mystery is a brilliant book, written in the spirit of the best detective fiction tradition. It features a secret passage, baffling murder, a surprising brother coming from Australia, and a very random detective figure with his faithful Watson. The action takes place in a quiet, English country house.
The Red House Mystery is so well-written and gripping that I read it in two sittings. A. A. Milne has an attentive ear for dialogue –I could virtually hear the characters.
The story itself is inventive, although I felt that Milne could have introduced more suspects. It wasn’t difficult to guess who did it halfway through the novel, mainly because Milne passed up the chance of having a large cast of suspects. That said, the main twist of the novel was not the identity of the killer but rather how the killing was done.
I took an enormous liking to the detective figure and his sidekick – Antony and Bill. Antony comes across the crime scene by accident and, on a whim, decides to become an amateur detective. Bill, an old friend staying at the house at that moment, becomes his Watson. Indeed, they make self-conscious references to detective fiction in general and to Sherlock Holmes in particular.
I liked Antony because he was very human and humble. Although blessed with an incredible memory and observation skills, he still makes mistakes during the deducting process. This makes him more realistic and relatable than classic detectives like Holmes or Poirot.
On the whole, The Red House Mystery is a pleasant evening read. Go for it if you’re looking for a less known, good detective novel.
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie
The Queen of Crime couldn’t be missing from this list. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is one of her most famous novels, and with good reason. The dedication in the book reads as follows: To Punkie who likes an orthodox detective story, murder, inquest, and suspicion falling on everyone in turn!, which is a fairly good summary of the book. But Christie is also playing with us here – The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is by no means and orthodox detective fiction novel!
On the surface of it, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is a classic whodunit with a large cast of suspects who had countless motives to have killed Roger Ackroyd. The main mystery is interlaced with little side secrets, which need unpicking to get to the bottom of the murder case. The final twist can still surprise; the final pages sent a chill down my spine because of Christie’s profound and disturbing insights into human nature.
But The Murder of Roger Ackroyd has also a comic side to it. I particularly enjoyed hilarious exchanges between the narrator, Dr Sheppard, and his nosey sister, Caroline, – the source and final destination of all village gossip. Caroline takes an active part in Poirot’s investigation, either supplying him with information or speculating about the crime. Despite her intimate knowledge of village gossip and female intuition, she fails to solve the mystery.
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd enjoys considerable fame, and with good reason. It’s definitely one of my favourite books by Agatha Christie and it will haunt you long after you’ve finished reading. The only quibble is the character of Poirot, whom I both like and dislike. Although I am full of admiration for his detective skills, his character is slightly too exaggerated, too foreign. But it’s just a minor shortcoming which shouldn’t dissuade you from reading this excellent classic.
The Body in the Library by Agatha Christie
The Body in the Library is another classic by Christie with Miss Marple. The plot revolves around the body of a strangled young woman found in the library of Colonel Bantry and his wife, Dolly. Dolly invites her old friend, Mrs Marple to investigate the crime, partly for the thrill of a murder case and partly because she is afraid that suspicion will be cast on Colonel Bantry if the case never gets solved. The body of is found to belong to Ruby Keene, a young dancer who used to work at a nearby hotel.
If in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd suspicion falls on everyone in turn, in The Body in the Library the opposite is true – it seems that virtually no-one could have committed the murder. The novel features a clever plot twist, which no-one apart from Miss Marple could have guessed.
What I found annoying about the book was that Miss Marple was always lurking on the margin of the story, never really getting fully involved until the end. As a result, the investigation was carried out mainly by traditional detective forces, which sometimes grows a bit tedious.
Still, the novel has some brilliant solutions in terms of alibi. It will certainly appeal to Miss Marple’s fans.
Strong Poison by Dorothy Sayers
Sayers is nowadays less popular than Agatha Christie. However, in her time, she was as famous as Christie, if not more. When Agatha Christie disappeared for a few days, Sayers was called to the ‘crime scene’ and asked what she thought had happened. Although Sayers was pretty useless in the case, this anecdote does speak volumes about her status as a detective fiction writer.
Strong Poison has an unusual opening –with a judge summing up an arsenic poisoning case. Harriet Vane the defendant accused of murdering her ex-lover. I felt that this beginning was an excellent way of plunging the reader into the midst of action.
The book has other unorthodox and interesting aspects. Lord Peter Wimsey, the detective figure, is emotionally involved in the investigation, as he decides to act as Harriet’s appointed defender with a view to marrying her after the trial. This emotional involvement is rather unusual for detective fiction and lends a sence urgency to the investigation, as Lord Peter Wimsey has just one month to collect fresh evidence in favour of the defendant before the new trial.
Sayers in this book decidedly departs from Christie’s paradigmatic setting – a country house with suspect living under one roof. The action takes place in London with detectives frequently on the move in the city. Lord Peter Wimsey is also less of a celebrity than other well-known detectives, as the investigation is more of a team effort. Large portions of the narrations are devoted to Wimsey’s female sidekicks, who make the most important discoveries. It is also less about the power of deduction than it about procuring relevant documents and reading about similar cases.
On the whole, I enjoyed Strong Poison, although I sometimes found the dialogue a bit clunky and artificial. It also took me some time to get used to Peter Wimsey and his peculiar way of being.