The best books for unexpected detectives

Janice Law Author Of Fires of London
By Janice Law

Who am I?

I am a long-time writer and reader of mystery novels and short stories, but I have also written contemporary novels, scholarly work in history and culture, and history books. I am particularly interested in the psychology of crime and of detectives, and in each of the books I’ve recommended, the characters are drawn with unusual subtlety and depth or are interestingly eccentric. In addition, Vargas’s novels usually include interesting and little-known historical information, while Tallis’s Lieberman Papers series gives a lively picture of Vienna in its golden age of culture without neglecting the disquieting anti-Semitism and political unrest under the surface.

I wrote...

Fires of London

By Janice Law,

Book cover of Fires of London

What is my book about?

The blackout nights of the Phony War in 1939-40 and the Battle of Britain offer exciting possibilities for gay, promiscuous bon vivant and Air Raid Preparedness warden, Francis Bacon. But after an encounter in Hyde Park with a brutal older man, he is haunted by his "own personal copper," a homicide inspector willing to turn a blind eye to the illicit roulette game Francis runs with his old nanny and his ultra respectable lover of the moment. In return, Francis must leave his paints and easel to be bait for a serial killer in the first of the award-winning Francis Bacon series.

The books I picked & why

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The Marshal's Own Case

By Magdalen Nabb,

Book cover of The Marshal's Own Case

Why this book?

Nabb’s Marshal Guarnaccia, unflamboyant and patient, is an unspectacular thinker but a brilliant listener with a real, if unsentimental sympathy for the people he deals with on both sides of the law. Without fancy vices or personal charisma, Guarnaccia’s fundamental decency is nowhere on better display than in The Marshal’s Own Case, set among the desperate young transgender prostitutes of the Florentine sex trade, a culture quite different from the Marshal’s own secure family life.

Have Mercy on Us All

By Fred Vargas,

Book cover of Have Mercy on Us All

Why this book?

The chief attraction of Fred Vargas’s novels is her cast of characters, led by Chief Inspector Adamsberg, a most unconventional leader of any criminal investigation outfit. Small and disheveled, good with animals and children, dreamy and often seemingly idle, Adamsberg is not only extremely bright but has confidently surrounded himself with remarkable colleagues. Hard-drinking Adrien Danglard, a single father of five with a huge store of ready information, and Violette Retancourt, a woman of prodigious strength and courage, are among his entertaining subordinates, along with Snowball, the division’s cat that proves equally remarkable in one memorable outing. 

Blanche on the Lam: A Blanche White Mystery

By Barbara Neely,

Book cover of Blanche on the Lam: A Blanche White Mystery

Why this book?

I did not discover the Blanche White series until recently, but Blanche debuted the same year as my Anna Peters and both were among the very early working-class women sleuths. A Black cook-housekeeper in the South, the intelligent, skeptical, and responsible Blanche has an inside look at the doings of a wealthy and troubled household. But with some legal troubles of her own, she cannot ring up some convenient police professional when she suspects a dangerous fraud. Blanche makes do with her own network of domestics, chauffeurs, and gardeners in the Black community, a resource that proves surprisingly useful.

The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency

By Alexander McCall Smith,

Book cover of The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency

Why this book?

This is the first of the long and very successful series, featuring Precious Ramotswe, founder of the agency and a super cast of supporting characters, including Grace Makutsi, her vain but faithful assistant,  and Mr. JLB Matekoni, genius mechanic and later Precious’s husband. The little stock company of characters is one of the charms of the series, but it is the character of Mma Ramotswe that is unusual. Detectives are all out to solve their cases and catch the perpetrator, Precious, too. But her ultimate aim is always restoration of civility with forgiveness, restitution, a change in attitudes. Her tact and her ethical sense, never saccharine and never fond of easy solutions, make her a distinctive presence in crime fiction.

Mortal Mischief

By Frank Tallis,

Book cover of Mortal Mischief

Why this book?

Two reasons for this selection: the setting cosmopolitan pre- WW1 Vienna with its glittering art world, cutting edge science, and murky politics, and the unusual sleuth, Dr. Max Liebermann, a young disciple of Sigmund Freud, who is called upon by his friend, Oskar Rheinhardt for particularly sticky cases. There are plenty of them, thanks to author Tallis’s background as a clinical psychologist. He embeds gruesome crimes in complex plots and constructs solutions of real ingenuity, in parallel with young Dr. Liebermann’s developing expertise and his negotiation of the tricky balance between modernity, science, and progressive developments and his more traditional, and beloved, Jewish family.

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