I probably should just give up on mysteries—apart from early Tony Hillerman, the only non-British mysteries I can get through are on the fringes of the genre, like Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem and The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon. This year I abandoned, in boredom or disgust, Amanda Cross, Jacqueline Winspear, Sharyn McCrumb (what was I expecting from someone who spells her name Sharyn?), and Stieg Larsson (_Dragon Tattoo_ might have been better if translated by someone who actually spoke English) . So I went back to the old reliable to the old reliables, PD James and Dorothy Sayers, who, like Lethem and Chabon, are actual writers who care about what they write.
James specializes in interesting victims, usually hard-driving career women, so widely hated that it is hard to find a character who didn’t have a motive for killing them. She creates compelling puzzles not just of evidence but of human desires and actions. She does suffer from the British obsession with class, and periodically succumbs to a longing for a time when everyone knew their place and went to church and nobody had heard of the Beatles or A Clockwork Orange and we could all drink our tea and argue over trends in 17th-century decorative arts. And the idea that her Commander Dalgleish is a poet seems rather far-fetched, but then who was the last actual English person to write poetry that anyone cared about? Probably someone who died in the Great War.
Speaking of which, Dorothy Sayers’ characters live in the giddy world of those who managed _not_ to get killed in the Great War, a world where a woman of the right sort could go to college and travel around without a chaperone, and a man of the right sort could drive his Daimler with no regard to traffic laws, and both of them could lift an eyebrow at the foibles of those less brilliant and cool than themselves, which was of course everybody. And Lord Peter and Harriet _are_ brilliant and cool, a grownup version of every nerd’s fantasy in which people think you’re cool because you’re smart and can quote stuff.. Sayers is so witty, in fact, that you can ride the surf of her prose for quite a while with only a vague feeling of unease at the lack of underlying human warmth. You do occasionally get bowled over by a big wave of bigotry, a snide comment about “Jewboys” (in 1937, no less), a putdown of anyone who harshes her mellow by mentioning the Depression or failing to address an aristocrat with exactly the right grovelling formula. It isn’t enough to spoil the fun most of the time (_Have His Carcass_, _Murder Must Advertise_, etc.); the exception is the disastrous _Busman’s Honeymoon_, where Lord Peter and Harriet get married (a very risky move in a series based on sexual tension). There is an astonishing flood of fascist claptrap, along with some of the worst sex scenes e-ver. At least I think they’re sex scenes, there’s a lot of French and some descriptions that are so vague and coy that I fear Ms. Sayers slept through health class once too often. Anyway, read the other ones.
PG Wodehouse uses a lot of the same props and scenery as Sayers, but writes farces instead of mysteries. His stories might be described as a kinder, gentler “Upper-Class Twit of the Year Contest” where the aristocrats are greedy and stupid and yet somehow lovable, scheming to scrounge ten quid for a blowout at Baraboo’s. The romance plots are stylized into absurdity, and so is the language, which is the real star. If you’ve been reading Wodehouse, you may find yourself imitating his most characteristic tropes, as in the famous “could see that, if not actually disgruntled, he was far from being gruntled.”
Wodehouse uses the same tricks in pretty much every book, so the magic fades a bit after two or three, but on the bright side, after a decade or two you will have forgotten enough to enjoy them again.
Also surprisingly funny are the “entertainments” of Graham Greene, which range from thriller (_This Gun for Hire_) to spy farce (_Our Man in Havana_) to a combination of the two (_The Confidential Agent_). These are definitely not intended as ‘serious’ literature, but are well-written, engaging and humane, which means I read them with a lot more pleasure than _Moby Dick_.