MY TOP TEN CRIME NOVELS WITH AMATEUR SLEUTHS
The notion of ordinary people caught up in extraordinary events is one that has a wide and enduring appeal. I’ve certainly fallen foul of it in my own novels, turning a number of innocent souls into amateur detectives over the years: a fisherman on Long Island, a young art history student in Italy, a propaganda officer on the war-torn island of Malta, and, most recently, a disgraced Air Force pilot in 1930s Paris. Listed below are my favorite crime and mystery novels featuring amateur sleuths.
The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco (1980)
Umberto Eco took the literary world by storm with his debut novel, an erudite and labyrinthine tale of a fourteenth-century Franciscan friar, William of Baskerville, who finds himself investigating a series of suspicious deaths at a Benedictine monastery in northern Italy. Sadly, the movie adaptation (with Sean Connery and a young Christian Slater) was a deep disappointment.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson (2005)
I doubt this one needs much introduction: the first installment of Stieg Larsson’s hugely successful Millennium Trilogy. The title refers to Lisbeth Salander, the deliciously complex young computer hacker who teams up with Mikael Blomkvist, a financial journalist, to unravel a disturbing mystery of dark family secrets and, ultimately, serial murder on a grand scale.
Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell (2006)
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo starts off as a missing-persons investigation (albeit a search for someone who disappeared decades ago), and Ree, the 16-year-old heroine of Daniel Woodrell’s stunning novel, is also searching for someone who has vanished: her father, Jessup, who has skipped bail, leaving the family home as surety. Set in the Ozark Mountains of Missouri (painted by Woodrell as a blasted, backwoods world of financial and moral deprivation, of inbred clans and crystal meth labs), the story’s grim landscape is illuminated by the quiet nobility of young Ree’s solitary pilgrimage in the face of terrible dangers (and one terrible truth).
The Murder at the Vicarage by Agatha Christie (1930)
A star is born: the first outing for Miss Jane Marple, the undisputed queen of amateur sleuths. Life in the little village of St. Mary Mead is shattered when the ghastly Colonel Protheroe is found shot dead in the vicar’s study. Fortunately for all, the astute and irrepressible Miss M. lives next door to the vicarage….
The Mask of Dimitrios by Eric Ambler (1939)
Former English academic-turned-crime-novelist Charles Latimer finds himself in Istanbul when the body of a notorious underworld figure, Dimitrios Makropoulos, is fished out of the Bosphorus. Latimer’s interest in the shady Dimitrios is piqued to the point that he sets off from Turkey on a journey across interwar Europe to fill in the gaps in the story…only to discover far more than he had bargained for. Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, and John le Carré all acknowledged their debt to the masterful Ambler, and you only have to read this novel to see why.
The Red Right Hand by Joel Townsley Rogers (1945)
This has to be one of the most bizarre and brilliant crime novels I’ve ever read. Many years ago, I was hired to adapt the screenplay (for a movie that never got made), but I can still feel the sinister, almost hallucinatory, pull of the story. It is basically one hellish night in the life of Dr. Henry N. Riddle, Jr., a brain surgeon from New York who finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time: on a lonely road in rural Connecticut as dusk is falling, and just after a grotesque little hitchhiker has turned on the young couple giving him a lift. Or so it would seem. As the game of smoke and mirrors unfolds, we begin to wonder if it isn’t a case of Riddle by name, riddle by nature. Maybe our narrator isn’t as reliable as he first appeared…
Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers (1935)
Something from the cozier end of the crime spectrum. Sayers wrote a number of novels featuring Lord Peter Wimsey, her dilettante gentleman detective, and although the ineffably urbane Wimsey doesn’t figure particularly large in Gaudy Night, he makes a telling appearance toward the end of the book. It is Harriet Vane, a mystery writer and the object of Wimsey’s affections, who carries the bulk of the story. Following a reunion (a gaudy) at her old Oxford University college, Harriet is urged to stay around and get to the bottom of some sinister goings-on.
Revelation by C.J. Sansom (2008)
C.J. Sansom’s impeccably researched crime series set during the reign of Henry VIII has spawned a lot of imitators, but none of the rival Tudor sleuths is quite as compelling or sympathetic as Sansom’s hunchbacked lawyer-cum-detective, Matthew Shardlake. Revelation, my favorite, is the fourth in the series, and it finds Shardlake on the trail of a serial killer who draws his inspiration from the Book of Revelation.
The Flanders Panel by Arturo Pérez-Reverte (1990)
The amateur sleuths in this devilishly clever Madrid-based mystery are an art restorer, Julia, and a chess master, Muñoz. Julia is restoring a 15th-century Flemish painting of a nobleman and a knight playing chess when she uncovers an inscription: Who killed the Knight? It seems that the clues to a 500-year-old murder are encoded in the imagery of the painting—more specifically, the position of the chess pieces on the board. As Julia and Muñoz edge closer to the truth, others around them begin to die in mysterious circumstances, as if some ancient curse has been released.
The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith (1955)
Yes, I know this one is a bit of a stretch. Tom Ripley isn’t so much an amateur detective as an amateur looking to avoid detection, but the skill sets required are the same. A tantalizing view from the other side of the moral fence.
Mark Mills is the author of Where Dead Men Meet, releasing in May 2017 in the U.S. from Blackstone Publishing.