In the last year or so, I’ve found myself hopelessly addicted to mysteries—mostly of the Pre-WWII or Victorian Era variety, both of which are normally tame enough for my bed time reading, but clever enough to keep me interested. Here are two of my favorites:
Crocodile on the Sandbank by Elizabeth Peters
A middle-aged spinster—for I was at that time thirty-two years of age, and I scorned to disguise the fact—who has never received a proposal of marriage must be a simpleton if she fails to recognize the sudden acquisition of a fortune as a factor in her new popularity.
When her shockingly rich father dies, Amelia Peabody adroitly dances from the reach of her grasping relatives and suitors by taking the course of any self-respecting self-proclaimed Victorian spinster: touring Egypt with her friends. There, she finds enough adventure to satisfy even her demanding expectations. But traveling as an independent woman comes with dangers, especially in a land so full of ancient secrets as Egypt. Victorian Era Mystery, First published 1975.
So, let’s start with the fact that I supremely enjoyed this book.
I’ve known about the series for a long time and knew I wanted to read it—partly because it’s set in Egypt, partly because I’ve developed an affinity for old mysteries, and partly because so many library patrons love it.
But this book is refreshingly funny.
Piero was not silent when I first encountered him, in the lobby of the hotel, where, in common with others of his kind, he awaited the travel of helpless foreign visitors in need of a translator and guide…. He expressed his chagrin to his compatriot in his native tongue, and included in his tirade several personal comments on my appearance and manner. I let him go on for some time and then interrupted with a comment on his manners…After that, Piero and I got on admirably.
Surprisingly, delightfully humorous. I didn’t expect that.
Although the book purports to be a mystery, the mystery element doesn’t assert itself very strongly until the second half of the book; even then, the reveal is not a surprise, nor is it the most important aspect of the story. The book’s real charms lie in the characters, particularly in how Amelia herself, the anti-Victorian lady, interacts with and perceives others. The mystery element is only slightly stronger than the elements of social satire and romance.
At any rate, I think most mystery readers enjoy this because even if they solve the mystery early on, they’ll read on just to enjoy the banter. If you like the social satire of Jane Austen and Gail Carriger, you’ll enjoy this book.
Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers
Harriet returns to Oxford for a school reunion, but soon after her arrival, she receives a nasty prank letter—apparently, a prankster has been tormenting the students and staff for months. Harriet discreetly sleuths around campus until the pranks turn ugly; only then will she call Lord Peter to help her find the culprit. Pre-WWII Period Mystery, 1935
So, that’s the premise…but that’s not really what this book is about. The brilliant plot illuminates the real story, here: Harriet’s psychological journey. This story is really about Harriet coming to terms with the events of book 6 in this series (wherein she is tried for the murder of her awful former lover), which is, in turn, a necessary step in finally answering the advances of her paramour, the famed sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey. The mystery explores Harriet’s psyche in a dazzling fashion new to Sayers.
Sayers’s other Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries explore the psychology of the criminals (as does this one), but this novel delves deeply into the mind and soul of the protagonist herself. (Peter, the usual protagonist of the Sayers mysteries, is examined from afar. Other books only occasionally probe his psychology with any depth.)
I adore the pitch-perfect tone and voice of all Sayers’s work, this book included. I have always loved Sayers’ dialogue and the way she plays with her readers’ expectations, but Gaudy Night truly perfects the art.
At first, Harriet and her uppity college friends irritated me—they were so judgmental and bitter! But this reaction became an integral part of the story [Highlight to read SPOILER: as part of what motivates the antagonist]. Sayers explores the theme of “women in modern society” throughout the book, and the cloistered atmosphere of the women’s college is a very important element to both the mystery and the exploration of Harriet’s psychology.
Of course I highly recommend this book to anyone. I love it. I love the whole series. But I wouldn’t necessarily recommend that you start with Gaudy Night, if you’re reading the series for the first time. I would recommend starting with book #6, Strong Poison, because of the charming protagonist we find in Lord Peter Wimsey, the stellar mystery and the added bonus of an unattainable love interest. (It introduces the character of Harriet, for the first time.)
I love them all and I think you will, too.