Ten favourite detective authors

To return to "that" list of 10 "greatest" detective novels. David Montgomery’s criteria: "A novel featuring a detective (or perhaps a pair of detectives) as the protagonist, who spends the bulk of the story investigating a crime. Could be an amateur detective or pro, could be private or police." He also excludes authors on the grounds of "a body of work", preferring to give one great work. However, at least three authors on his list don’t meet this criterion — Michael Connelly, Robert Crais and Dashiell Hammett. I’ve read every book those three authors wrote, and I don’t think there is an obvious standout in any one of them (though they all wrote some books that are better than others).

So, here’s "ten favourite detective authors" that I would nominate as my own major influences the genre, that meet DM’s criteria:

Agatha Christie  (Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple novel)

Dorothy L Sayers (Gaudy Night?)

Ngaio Marsh  (pick one of Inspector Alleyn series)

P D James (Unsuitable Job for a Woman is my favourite)

Patricia Highsmith (The Talented Mr Ripley)

Sue Grafton (Kinsey Millhone series, some are better than others)

Ruth Rendell (Inspector Wexford series)

Sarah Paretsky (V I Warhsawski series– they get better each time)

Donna Leon (Inspector Brunetti series — some are sublime)

Val McDermid  (series and standalones — "Killing the Shadows"?)

It is impossible to single out one standout book by these authors, as they all wrote or write many books that I think are excellent. Reading one book by each author would provide a wonderful summary of the cream of detective fiction.

Here are some books whose authors I love or have loved reading, but that didn’t make the final ten, some for "strict DM criteria" reasons:

Karin Slaughter, Mary Higgins Clark, Emma Lathen, Karin Fossum, Lisa Marklund, Denise Hamilton,Tess Gerritsen, Elizabeth George, Denise Mina, Marcia Muller, Elizabeth Ferrars, Catherine Aird, Minette Walters, Sarah Dunant, Julia Wallis Martin, Mo Hayder, Alafair Burke, Sharyn McCrumb, Margaret Maron, Margery Allingham, Elaine Viets. (Added later: Patricia Cornwell, Deborah Crombie — early not later in both cases. Linda Barnes.)(Added later again: Hazel Holt, Frances Fyfield.) (And how could I have forgotten Josephine Tey? Also Martha Grimes)

Here are some authors who are highly rated by others, but whose books I haven’t enjoyed all that much:

Laurie King, Laura Lippman, Faye Kellerman, Amanda Cross, Lindsey Davis, Linda Fairstein, Carol O’Connell. Early Janet Evanovitch is very funny, later is not so good. (Added later: Jan Burke, Kathy Reichs) (Added later again: P J Tracy, Lillian Jackson Braun)

And finally, here are some books nominated in the comments and emails, not (yet) read my me. On the reading list now! (sigh)

Dominique Manotti, Kerstin Ekman, Pieke Bierman, Fred Kargas, Alex Barclay, Gillian Slovo, Craig Rice, Dana Stabenow, Leigh Brackett, Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo (man and woman team), Gail Bowen, Phoebe Atwood Taylor, Margaret Murphy. (Added later: Sarah Caudwell) (Added later again: Rhys Bowen, S J Rozan) (Added eve later: Ann Cleeves)

Thank you so much, everyone, for your contributions — it was lovely to read them all in your comments and emails. Please feel free to refine and opine in the comments.

25 thoughts on “Ten favourite detective authors

  1. I read almost every James except for “Unsuitable Job”. Guess what’s going on my list? I just read my first Rendell and LOVED IT. I’m coming late to detective fiction–via Mankell.

  2. I liked the early Dalgleish books too, Kelly — not so much the later ones. I liked “unsuiatable job” because of the protagonist, Cordelia Grey. At the time I thought there were big hints she was going to get it together with Adam D, who features in it tangentially, but it never came to anything in subsequent books. In fact Cordelia kind of fades out and a rather irritating professional policewoman comes into them. She does not make out with Adam D either, it is as if PDJ is a bit like Dorothy L and can’t bear to let her detective find happiness in the arms of a woman. (Though Peter W did manage to break free of his creator in the end and find such compensation).
    I’ve also remembered that Sarah W suggested Irene Kelly’s Bloodlines for the list, which I forgot to mention in the post. I was not too keen on Kelly’s first novel in the series but Sarah assures me that Bloodlines is excellent so I have bought it and put it in one of the TBR piles.
    And Dave Lull has suggested Sarah Cauldwell – I don’t think I have read her but am not sure. I will put his posting he has sent me about her on Librarian’s Place tomorrow or at the weekend.

  3. Do the authors have to be women? I’m amazed that most of my favourites are not on _any_ of the lists … True, they have a body of work (series), but they also have individual standouts:
    Peter Robinson (Det. Insp. Alan Banks) … Aftermath and In a Dry Season are both excellent.
    Reginald Hill (Det. Sup. Dalziel and Chief Inspector Pascoe) … On Beulah Height is very good. Dialogues of the Dead is in a class by itself, in my opinion.
    Martha Grimes (Chief Insp. — later Superintendent — Richard Jury) … The Blue Last or The Winds of Change.
    Deborah Crombie (Sargeant Gemma James and Superintendent Duncan Kincaid). … My two favs are Kissed a Sad Goodbye and A Finer End.
    I do like Linda Fairstein, though not the others you listed as also not liking.
    I would think it would have to be Gaudy Night as the prime example of the genius of Dorothy Sayers. 🙂

  4. Hello M, thanks for coming over. Yes, this is just women — see the David Montgomery post linked to in this one for the history and rationale.
    I enjoy Crombie too, though like George, she writes about a “non-Britain”. I also think her last two or three have been weak compared with her early ones.
    I think I once read one of Grimes — I know she’s highly though of.
    I’ve enjoyed some of Reginald Hill’s — again, the earlier ones are better, in the later ones nothing ever seems to happen. Peter Robinson — I’ve read the two first in his series and was not particularly inclined to read more, but was recently advised to try the later ones.

  5. What a wonderful list! I see extra additions to my To Be Read pile, which is in mortal danger of crashing to the floor with all the titles in it!

  6. I love it that I have a criteria now! 🙂
    Excellent list.
    I think Denise Hamilton would qualify, though. Eve Diamond is a detective (in function, if not in name) in the books.

  7. Well, David, if you are going to allow Denise Hamilton’s Eve Diamond, who is a journalist, then you’d have to allow my current favourite, Lisa Marklund, whose heroine Annika Bergstrom is also a journalist. So that’s 12 and I would be even more stuck than I was to create the list I did.
    Thanks, everyone else for the comments — so nice to get them! Yes, Norm alias Uriah, P J Tracy is (are) a mother and daughter team. Not my cup of tea, but I should go back in and add them at some point, as the books are very popular.

  8. The first PJ Tracy book was excellent, but I haven’t cared for the others nearly as much. So I’m not sure you’re missing anything. You’re right, though, they’re definitely popular. Especially in the UK, from what I’m told.
    I have another female detective author to add to your list. Not as one of the greatest, but as someone whose books I enjoyed a great deal: Lilian Jackson Braun.
    I know people will probably hoot and holler at me for suggesting her, but I sure did like reading those books many years ago.

  9. Maxine:
    Based on what little I’ve read of their work, I’d have to include Amanda Cross and Faye Kellerman on a list of my favorite crime writers. I have no quarrel with anyone who omits them, but one could easily assume you simply have less of a taste for stories with noirish tendencies or for acid-tongued academic mysteries. And there’s nothing wrong with that, of course. It’s just a caution against the perils of making “best of” lists in a field as wide open, with such flexible boundaries between sub-genres, as crime fiction – and a suggestion that acknowledging one’s own biases and preferences beforehand is a good way to start.
    And sure, a journalist can be a detective, just as a lawyer, a pathologist or an insurance investigator can.
    Detectives Beyond Borders
    “Because Murder is More Fun Away from Home”

  10. Ahh — I too like Amanda Cross, particularly _Death in a Tenured Position_, insofar as it was really about the English Dept. at Columbia U. back in the 1970s. A. Cross, you see, was really a professor there: Carolyn Heilbrun. And once, when I was her student and told her I really loved her novels, she told me whose writing had most inspired her. It was ….Dorothy Sayers! No one, she said, wrote better detective novels with literary, academic settings.
    I read ’em all and must agree with Prof. H. (now dead, sadly, having taken her own life a couple of years ago with a very purposeful wish to control her own destiny as old age and illness began to assert themselves). So I am very, very happy, Maxine, that you included _Gaudy Night_, since that’s my fave. And what a portrait of women at Oxford in the ’30s!

  11. I think you will really like Sarah Caudwell; I also particularly recommend Fred Vargas.
    GAUDY NIGHT def. my Sayers favorite too, and AN UNSUITABLE JOB FOR A WOMAN for PDJ (who as you know I am not greatly enthusiastic about–but that book is great).

  12. I can’t believe that no one has mentioned SJ Rozan. Her body of work includes the Lydia Chin/Bill Smith PI series with Concourse, Reflecting the Sky, and Winter & Night as standouts. And her standalone, Absent Friends, while not a detective novel, is stunning.

  13. Susan, that’s an interesting pairing of Dorothy Sayers and Amanda Cross. You raved about the Sayers as a portrait of women at Oxford in the 1930s.
    I wonder if Amanda Cross’ novels and stories are similar portraits. In one story, a secretary, a cleaning woman, and a female maintenance worker exact fearsome revenge on a “feminist” professor who theorizes about the oppression of women, then absolutely brutalizes women of a lower professional class than herself. It’s not too difficult to imagine that is aimed at academics of a certain kind.
    Detectives Beyond Borders
    “Because Murder is More Fun Away From Home”

  14. OMG this is an amazing stumble onto your blog. I have been asking bloggers to help me out with my lacking knowledge of the crime genre. And now I have a list to refer to.
    Thank you,

  15. Thanks for the call out, Maxine, but the reason I have not named names by this point is that I can’t. I don’t know these authors, and I can’t recommend alternatives.

  16. David: I’ve read the first two P J Tracy books, quite liked the first, did not like the second, stretched believability just too far. I don’t particularly like excessive gore in books, and if the gore factor outweighs the plot, writing style and characteristation (all of which I do like) then I dump the series — as can be seen from this niche list alone, there are far too many books waiting to be read than any individual ever could read!

  17. Thanks for the link to Sarah Caudwell — her stuff sounds wonderful.
    But she’s dead — wah! I’ll probably get hooked on her novels and then there won’t be more to look forward to. Sigh…..

  18. Maxine, you’re going to have to add Ann Cleeves to your reading list now, as she won this years Gold Dagger. Any of her novels will do. I must say she is one of the few recipients of that award that I have been able to endorse unreservedly.

  19. I think I have updated the post with everyone’s suggestions — thank you all again. You don’t have to stop;-)

  20. I’d now add Helene Tursten (Det Inspector Huss), as well as some newer authors: Mari Jungstedt for one.

  21. Pingback: SinC25 : Sisters in Crime book bloggers’ challenge | Petrona

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