In the summer of my 13th year, my friend and I set ourselves the challenge of reading all the Agatha Christie mysteries. Fiercely competitive friends already, we dove into this task with great determination, voraciously gobbling up the stories of Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot. My advantage became clear early on -as a spoiled only child, my mother bought me as stacks of the slim paperback volumes. My friend, however, was forced to rely on the local library, which put a definite crimp in her efforts.
However, if I remember correctly, we both fell short of the goal-after all, it was summer and we were only thirteen.
But that summer of gorging myself on the quintessential English procedural mystery had a long term deleterious effect on my appetite for the genre. I had apparently satiated myself, and for many years had no desire to read mystery novels at all.
A few years ago, at the urging of yet another friend, my appetite for mysteries was whetted once more. A Great Deliverance, by Elizabeth George, was my introduction to a form of mystery writing that has become an ultimate addiction. George, and my other favorite mystery authors, Peter Robinson, Deborah Crombie, and the great master of this form, P.D. James, offer the reader a double scoop of story-telling. Each of their novels, set in contemporary Britain, features a cast of recurring characters whose ongoing storyline is masterfully woven into the plot du jour, and is often as compelling as the mystery itself.
I just closed the cover on Water Like A Stone, Deborah Crombie’s latest offering in her series of 11m novels featuring Detective Superintendent Duncan Kincaid and Sergeant Gemma James, his partner in life as well as in sleuthing. Crombie was at the top of her form in this one, which sets Kincaid and Gemma squarely in the midst of a major family drama involving Duncan’s sister Juliet, her scheming husband, and her troubled children. Juliet discovers the corpse of an infant, buried in an abandoned dairy located in the Shropshire hills, and Duncan’s subsequent investigation sets his and Gemma’s emotions aswirl, coming in the aftermath of Gemma’s recent miscarriage. Add to this the troubles of the Wain family, and their two children, long boat residents who cruise the canals, plus another murder – this time of a retired social worker who tried to assist them, and you have a novel chock full of suspense and intrigue.
Crombie has a knack for creating a group of seemingly disparate characters and tidily drawing their stories together like the strings of a drawstring pouch. Her descriptive technique is marvelous and evocative~the reader feels the mist off the river, sees the longboats rocking gently in the canal, hears the cathedral bells before Christmas Eve service.
“The gunmetal sky had lowered until it met the horizon in a grey sheet, and a fine, freezing mist hung in the air. Traces of glaze had begun to form on the playground climbing equipment and on the branches of the nearby trees. Outside the fenced area, a swath of lawn ran down to the canal side. Mooring rings had been set into the concrete edging, and though every space was filled, the boats were all dark, wrapped and shuttered.”
The reader also senses the malevolent thoughts of the perpetrator, whose identity is held closely guarded until the last possible moment, as we wait with bated breath to learn who will be his next victim.
“He hadn’t imagined the way the blood would smell, or the slick feel of it on his fingers. He hadn’t known that the memory of it would keep him awake, tossing and turning with a strange, jittery discontent that felt like an itch deep in his veins. He’d expected exhilaration, not this half-acknowledged fear that things were spiraling out of his grasp, splintering around him.”
Water Like A Stone is a seaworthy entry in Crombie’s canon of psychological mysteries, and holds its own with the best work of James, George, and Robinson.
Should you wish to embark on your own mystery challenge, you’d do well to take up any of these authors. A word of advice – start with their first novel, so you become well acquainted with the background stories of each set of characters.
Be aware this genre is truly addictive – you’ll find yourself gobbling up the entire stack before you know it.
Copywrite 2007, by Avon Mystery, a division of Harper Collins