Top Ten Mysteries

Hello there! Welcome to my new mystery blog.

I’m going to kick things off in spectacularly unoriginal fashion by posting a top-ten. I was going to do a background thing, about how I came to be obsessed with mysteries, but hopefully this list will give you an idea of where my mystery loyalties lie, without having to hear about my disappointingly wholesome childhood.

No serious spoilers this time, although I’ve given away some plot details of Death on the Nile… But do click the link at the top for more info on my spoiler policy.

The criteria for this is very wide. Simply put, I like puzzle-plots. Of course these tend to be exemplified in the Golden Age Mysteries of the early twentieth century (Christie, Berkeley, Carr etc.), but I don’t enjoy those to the exclusion of other settings. I don’t mind a bit more realism, or a whole lot less. I’m not averse to sex, violence or gore. I can (and do!) cuss with the best of ’em. I don’t mind if the mystery is in a book, on TV, in a computer game, or waved from the hilltops in semaphore. If someonedunnit and you can work out who before the end then it’s eligible for this list…

So here we go! In order from absolute-favouritest to tenth-most-absolute-favouritest:

1. Hamlet, Revenge! (Michael Innes, 1937)

The Lord Chancellor of England is shot during a production of Hamlet

The finest detective story ever written, hands down. Funny, intelligent and exciting, with an astoundingly large list of characters, each one masterfully drawn. Has the best escape plan in fiction – so good that Innes reused it as a murder method in a later (and far weirder) book. Surely the finest book with an exclamation mark in the title?

Innes’ technique is extraordinary. In the first part he presents a lot of characters as suspicious, but not in the ham-fisted way that many authors do. Plenty of sentences that could be clues, but that could equally be just a straightforward description of what’s happening. Never anything so clumsy as a standard red-herring, and you might even think you were imagining things. But a rereading shows that it’s all intentional, every bit of it, and it never interrupts the pace for a second. It’s longer than your average detective story, but considering the huge number of characters (my edition suggests there are at least fifty) it’s incredible that it’s so short and not at all confusing.

One flaw is that, like a lot of mysteries from those days, it presupposes a pretty hefty familiarity with Shakespeare. If you don’t know anything at all about Hamlet then some of the first part might be a bit too baffling. Also, Innes’ characters tend to have ‘ability to quote obscure literature’ as their superpower, which you have to be in the mood for. But it’s usually relevant and plausible, unlike certain modern offenders.

2. The Name of the Rose (Umberto Eco, 1983)

A series of deaths at a Benedictine Monastery seem to be linked to the Book of Revelation

A deserved best-seller, and probably the best novel that’s also a detective story. Not as clever a mystery as Hamlet, Revenge!, but then it’s trying to do so many more things: the breadth of topics covered, as always with Eco, is astonishing. It’s perhaps a bit slow to get going, and the early Sherlock Holmes references are a bit clumsy in English, but by the end the monks die with a frequency that makes Midsomer Murders look subdued! Has the best motive I’ve ever come across, not because of the cleverness (although it is cleverly clued) but because Eco manages to make something so thoroughly medieval almost understandable.

So brilliant that it’s possible to read it without noticing any of the stuff about semiotics at all.

3. Death on the Nile (Agatha Christie, adapted by Kevin Elyot, 2004)

A wealthy heiress is murdered on a Nile river cruise

Better than the book, and miles better than the overlong Anthony Shaffer version with its interminable cutaways. David Suchet is always good as Poirot, but here they manage to get the balance right with his characterisation. In early episodes (as in the books) he is little more than a collection of quirks and foibles, but later attempts to flesh these out, especially his religious views, have been quite embarrassing. Here it’s perfect. Poirot is infuriating and brilliant, but also human and vulnerable. This Jacqueline de Bellefort is also more vulnerable and sympathetic than usual. She’s grimly resolved rather than desperate, and has none of the wide-eyed craziness that Mia Farrow gave her in the film. The episode even has the decency to keep the understated explanation scene from the book, instead of cramming all the characters into the lounge to be very slowly accused one at a time.

The usual flaw remains, unfortunately: the murder of Salome Otterbourne towards the end is so over the top that it almost ruins the whole thing. But Frances de la Tour plays her far better than Angela Lansbury did in the Shaffer film, a hideous performance Lansbury later channelled whenever Mrs Fletcher had to pretend to be drunk! *EDIT* I’m informed that Lansbury was nominated for a BAFTA for it! Just goes to show what I know. Maybe camping it up was in vogue that year?

4. Jonathan Creek: Jack in the Box (David Renwick, 1997)

A fading comedian apparently kills himself inside a sealed nuclear bunker

The best episode of Jonathan Creek, and I’d hazard the best hour-long self-contained mystery in television history. There’s a reason why most mysteries run for longer – it’s so difficult to do the set-up, investigation, red-herrings and surprise solution in such a short period of time. But this gets it all spot on, and weaves its way quickly and efficiently through a complicated plot to a really surprising finish. In fact it probably couldn’t run for any longer or you’d twig the ending – as Creek himself points out, there isn’t quite enough scope in the problem to leave you to think about it for too long. This probably wouldn’t work at all in print, when there would be ample time to pause and mull it over.

This episode has engendered so much good will in me that I’ve continued to watch Jonathan Creek despite the fact that it’s now become truly awful. I just can’t risk missing it in case Renwick pulls it off for a second time.

5. The Simpsons: Who Shot Mr Burns? (Bill Oakley/Josh Weinstein, 1995)

A selfish plutocrat finally receives his comeuppance

Not the absolute best episode of the Simpsons, but surely in the top 5? A pitch perfect parody of mysteries that’s chock full of clues expertly hidden in the guise of jokes (often the best hiding place, as several other entries in this list demonstrate). Demonstrates perfectly the notion that mystery parodies can only be successful if they abide by the rules at the same time as mocking them. The principle clue might seem a bit too well hidden, and you only really have enough information to be absolutely sure whodunnit halfway through part two, but you have to remember that this was originally screened with a four month gap between the two parts and there was a prize draw for anyone who successfully guessed the culprit.

6. Death of Jezebel (Christianna Brand, 1948)

An arrogant actress is murdered during a historical pageant in impossible circumstances

A wonderful mystery, famously (well not actually, but in niche mystery terms!) left out of the “Top 100 impossible crimes” list because the French translator didn’t understand the ending and so decided to write his own! Has my favourite clue of all time, so audacious that Brand is able to repeat it in half a dozen places, fully confident that she could bring it out twice as many times and you still wouldn’t spot it. All of Christianna Brand’s books have a pile-up of false solutions at the end but this one pulls it off the best: each one trumping the last until you think there can’t possibly be anything else left. And of course there is…

It’s perhaps not as effortless as Green for Danger, where the scaffolding which holds up the plot is less obvious. And it’s not as audacious or funny as Tour de Force, which I defy anyone to solve. But I think it’s the best overall effort from a sadly underrated mystery writer.

7. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (J.K.Rowling, 2000)

A young wizard tries to discover who has endangered his life by entering him into a dangerous magical tournament

Yup, seventh best mystery ever. Really.

This is the last good Harry Potter book, before the bloat set in and things devolved into a typical fantasy ‘collect the plot-tokens because I say so’ trudge. But what a stonker! It must be the best Christie-style mystery Christie never wrote. Impeccably clued – on almost every page – yet the solution is a real surprise. Rowling is a real expert at doling out suspicion amongst her characters and the multiplicity of plot threads means that she never gets bogged down in investigation and questioning like other mystery authors so often do. In fact it’s one of the few really fair mysteries I’ve encountered which I wasn’t even close to solving. The only weakness is that the villain’s plan is far more complicated than it needs to be, and people who haven’t read the previous books will be at a disadvantage. But I’d be surprised if there were any of those, and the fantasy setting makes a little extravagance in plotting completely acceptable.

8. The Mirror of the Magistrate (from The Secret of Father Brown, G.K.Chesterton, 1927)

A Catholic priest investigates the death of Mr Justice Gwynne

My favourite of the Father Brown stories. Witty and clever and with a great surprise finish. Basically perfect, and (for those who find Father Brown a bit tiresome) it’s not as heavy on the moral condescension as some of the others.

Not much more to say. If you haven’t read the Father Brown stories yet you should probably make it a priority. There’s hardly a bad one in the whole lot, but for me this is the pinnacle.

9. Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case (Agatha Christie, 1972… kinda)

An ageing detective returns to the scene of his first triumph

A sorely underrated Christie, in my opinion. Feels very old-fashioned for 1972, but of course it was written in the 40s to be published after Christie’s death. You have to overlook the unconvincing stuff with X, and the ‘clues’ with Othello and Clutie John at the end are a bit tacked on, but Hastings is sympathetic and believable for once and the ultimate solution is wonderful (and goes to show that even the lamest of mystery clichés can be reinvigorated if applied with care).

For anyone who thought that Christie couldn’t write characters, this is the place to send them. The behaviour of Hastings’ daughter Judith (and indeed most of the characters) is subtle, insightful and convincing.

10. Black Aura (John Sladek, 1974)

Strange happenings dog a gathering of spiritualists in 70s London

After wracking my brains for my favourite John Dickson Carr novel, I realised it’s this one! Not written by Carr, but clearly inspired by him, Black Aura (Like Jack in the Box) shows what can wonderful things can happen when the Carr formula is adopted by people who can actually write. The first impossible crime is a let-down, but the awesomeness of the second one (and the murder weapon!) more than makes up of it. One of the things involved in the solution is maybe underclued, but then there’s a clue for how it’s actually used that so beautifully and imaginatively descriptive that all is forgiven.

….

So that’s it. If you haven’t read/seen any of these then what are you waiting for? If you leave it too long they’re bound to get spoiled in one of my posts. Unfortunately Death of Jezebel is pretty tough to find, but there are occasionally some second hand copies available.

It’s not as controversial a list as I was expecting when I sat down to think about it. Harry Potter is probably the only real surprise, but I’m prepared to fight anyone who disagrees that it’s a fantastic fair-play mystery! I guess The Simpsons might seem too lightweight, but I always admire efficiency in construction and there’s hardly a wasted line in it. And some people really do seem to like the original film of Death on the Nile for some reason.

Comments welcome, but be prepared for some of that cussing I mentioned earlier if you’re down on Ms Rowling’s mystery credentials! Next time I’ll look at some of the things which almost made the list…

6 thoughts on “Top Ten Mysteries

  1. Interesting…you manage here to pick out both my favorite Brown: “Mirror of Magistrate” (impeccable couple of lines, including the one about the wig, plus the description of what the poet might be doing in a garden for so long–this is definitely the Brown for writers) and the hugely disappointing “Name of the Rose,” which I found lacking in everything, characters, thought, view of history, resolution, everything except for elaborateness of the puzzle. Like you, I thought Harry Potter was good up to Book 5, with both 3 and 4 being perfect puzzle mysteries, and the solution to 2 was also pretty good.
    I think “Curtain” was good. So was “Mr. Burns”. I very much look forward to tackling “Hamlet” and “Black Aura” one day.

    • Hi PK! I’m glad we’re mostly in agreement. Shame about Name of the Rose, but I know quite a lot of people who haven’t enjoyed it. Even I gave up in disgust the first time I read it, when I got to the huge descriptive passage about the door (in my defence, I was 13).

      Odd what you say about lacking in ‘resolution’: I find the end, after they escape the library, to be one of the very few moments in a book which makes me genuinely sad. Which shows how skewed my priorities are, I guess!

  2. Fascinating list Rich and a great way to kick off – not having a John Dickson Carr in you top 10 is of course almost an unpardonable sin, but you’ve got the wonderful JOANTHAN CREEK instead, so that’s fair! I’m afraid I’m showing my age when I admit that having seen the DEATH ON THE NILE in 1978 when it came out at the cinema I have remained a sturdy fan of it (though, yes, clearly it is too long and the repeated flashbacks do become ghoulish) and prefer it to the TV version. And I have the Sladek on my shelf just waiting to be opened – thanks for the prompt!

  3. So funny, Rich, though not in a ‘ha-ha’ sort of way. I’m currently working on my 100 Favorite Mysteries and/or Thrillers List (to be posted shortly) and not one of your picks made my list. It just goes to show you that Emerson was perfectly right: no two people read the same book. (Or watch the same movie or show.)

    I can’t wait to see what you make of my list.

    I did read HAMLET,REVENGE! but for the life of me I can’t remember anything about it.

    I haven’t seen the DEATH ON THE NILE version you speak of on your list. But I’m making it a point to try and line it up online.

    The movie is very flawed yes, but I loved the scenery and the costumes and David Niven as Colonel Race. Bette Davis at her acerbic and nasty best was fun too.

    Another Christianna Brand book is on my own list, TOUR DE FORCE which I loved. But I haven’t read DEATH OF JEZEBEL.

    I did read the Harry Potter book but I don’t classify the Potter books as mysteries though they are, in fact, simply thrilling, especially the last few books. (I disagree with your assessment on them by the way.) Don’t remember the Goblet of Fire book much. That’s the problem with folks my age, books don’t linger long in the brain.

    That’s why I’m always surprised when I manage to actually remember a book’s plot or characters.

    Time for me to reread CURTAIN. Haven’t read it in years. So thanks for the reminder. 🙂

    • Hi Yvette. Thanks for dropping by. I’m on a bit of a mystery computer game kick at the moment but I’ve got some more Christie and Christianna Brand posts lined up!

      It’s a shame that Death of Jezebel is so hard to track down. I also enjoyed Tour De Force a lot, but I think the solution is just a bit too unfair to make it onto this list. It’s a wonderful surprise, but it’s pretty hard to swallow in retrospect.

      I think you’ll enjoy the Suchet version of Death on the Nile. It treats the source material a lot more reverently than the earlier film did, and the result is something with genuine heart.

  4. Rich, I know you said you’re busy at the moment, but I just want to let you know that I only recently saw “Who Shot Mr. Burns?” for the first time, and quite enjoyed it. (I’m not a great fan of The Simpsons, to be honest–yes, I know, I’m weird! 🙂 )

    I loved the sundial clue (which is why I was a bit annoyed at its negation in the ending) and the (very funny) “candy from a baby” clue. (I don’t find Homer or the Simpson family themselves all that funny, but Mr. Burns is a hoot.)

    While I agree with most of what you wrote, I was wondering about the “efficiency of construction” bit, because the musical number halfway through Part II (Tito Puente, if I’m remembering correctly?) somewhat annoyed me. Unless it had a clue that I’m missing?

    Karl

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