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Whodunits and Summer; it’s a Mystery Why They’re So Good Together

Cross posted from Deeds and Words

I don’t know what it is about summer and murder mysteries. Maybe, with bright sunlight and longer days, I just generally feel safer and don’t worry that the killer is tiptoeing up behind me with a cleaver. Maybe it’s the thought of vacations, where my mind can quest after puzzles for hours, instead of having a lunch break end and going back to work. Actually, I’m retired and that’s almost never a problem, but summer mystery reading is a very old habit for me, and maybe that’s where it started. Or maybe they’re just part of the fantasy image of summer afternoons; a porch swing, a floppy hat, a tall glass of iced tea, its sides slick with condensation, and a good mystery. Whatever it is, mysteries are a summer thing for me, and in summer I gravitate towards the so-called “cozies”: books that are short on gore and grit, long on puzzles, focused on relationships, and leaning toward the humorous. Here is a sampler of some of my summer mystery favorites.

The Maisie Dobbs books by Jacqueline Winspear, especially the first three. After that, the series goes in a different direction (it’s still good). In Maisie Dobbs, the first book, we meet Maisie in 1930s England. Maisie was a nurse in World War I; she is striking out on her own as a career woman, but she started “in service” and her father still works for the aristocratic family who paid for Maisie’s education. Maisie Dobbs, Birds of the Feather and Pardonable Lies all explore England in a time a dramatic transition, flashing back to the shock of the first world war and forward to a 1930s present where the roles of women are changing and many people don’t know what to make of it. Maisie is an interesting character in her own right, but all the secondary characters - her father, her mentor, her best friend - are intriguing and well-developed too. And the descriptions are gorgeous.

The Chet and Bernie Mysteries by Spencer Quinn. Chet, our first-person narrator, is Bernie’s dog, and Bernie is a detective. So is Chet, actually, as we see him nabbing the perp in the opening pages of book one, Thereby Hangs a Tail. Chet is a real dog, and a breath of fresh air in the mystery world, (“Who says no to a chew strip?” he wonders.) The stories are real, and Chet gets into serious scrapes, but the books are delightful and will restore your faith in… well, maybe not people, but definitely dogs.

An older series that I’ve really enjoyed is Susan Wittig Albert’s China Bayles books. China runs an herb shop in a small town in Texas. At first, all of the titles had herbs or plants in their titles; I’m noticing later entries in the series don’t always have that. Because of the small town/rural Texas environment of these books, there is a feeling of “Jessica Fletcher Syndrome” sometimes; this town must be depopulating quickly with all the deaths! Still, it’s fun to follow the clues, and the eccentric characters of China’s home town are pure delight.

Louise Penny’s Three Pines series gives us beautiful descriptions of a small town in Quebec, and a cast of exquisitely eccentric characters. Against this backdrop, Chief Inspector Armande Gamache and his team solve mysteries, often uncovering other, darker secrets along the way. The Gamache books are not particularly light, actually; and I stopped reading these after six or seven books because they were just getting darker and darker. Penny’s writing is excellent and her grasp of human nature brilliant; the early books tap-dance between horrifying and hilarious. The character of the poet laureate alone makes Penny’s stories worth reading.

Also on the list for summer are Lee Child’s Jack Reacher books. The Reacher books are not “cozy”; they are filled with gore and murder; they are actually not mysteries, but thrillers. They are complete escapism. For one thing, the life Reacher has chosen to lead is unlikely. He has a bank account that his military pension goes into; he does not have a house, a car, a cell phone or a credit card. He travels the US by bus, train or hitch-hiking, often finding himself in small towns where something awful is happening. Usually, the bucolic small American town Reacher has wandered into is merely a veneer over some elaborate, bizarre, multi-national evil scheme… and Reacher single-handedly destroys the scheme. Often there is a beautiful, unattached law-woman who is at the end of her rope and needs Reacher’s help. There is no reason why any Reacher book should work, but once I start one I can’t put it down. Child, who is British, has a fundamental grasp of American urban (and rural) myths, folklore and tall tales, and weaves them into a fast-paced page-turning party, including a number of fun facts about the world or the US. By any logic, they should not work, but they do.

*None of these series is new, but all of them are still going strong. I hope you enjoy them, or maybe discover a new wonderful mystery series for your own long summer afternoons.

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