Q: I’m looking for the perfect detective story or murder mystery – stand-alone or series – that isn’t Agatha Christie. My requirements: atmospheric; no technology; no misogyny. Does such a thing exist?
Christina Kruse, 25, translator, London
A: Screenwriter and author Alex Michaelides writes:
First, let me say I hear you. Part of the reason I reread Christie so frequently is because, in my opinion, she still has the market cornered, 43 years after her death. If you’re looking for a novel operating within those parameters – a mystery, simply and elegantly structured where the twist is based on misdirection and authorial sleight of hand – there are only a handful of other writers I’d recommend.
My first suggestion is the Canadian crime writer Margaret Millar. A contemporary of Christie’s, she was successful in her day; now rather unfairly forgotten. She writes more psychologically complex characters than Christie, but uses the same bag of tricks and has great surprise endings. The Iron Gates and The Listening Walls are two of my favourites.
I also hugely admire Josephine Tey. She wrote six mystery novels featuring Scotland Yard inspector Alan Grant – undoubtedly the greatest of these was The Daughter of Time. In it, Grant sets out to solve the mystery of who killed the princes in the tower. Structuring a historical mystery as a whodunnit is a genius idea, and it’s as gripping and surprising as anything Christie ever wrote. (I’m not alone in this opinion: the Crime Writers’ Association voted The Daughter of Time as the greatest mystery novel of all time in 1990.)
Finally, there is Ruth Rendell – who in many ways, I believe, is Christie’s equal, although with a different emphasis. She once said murder is not interesting; the reason someone commits a murder is what fascinates her. Therefore she focuses more on a whydunnit – most famously in A Judgement in Stone. It was in my mind a lot while I was writing The Silent Patient, particularly its audacious and dazzling first line: “Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write.” The delight in reading the book comes from wanting to know why her illiteracy ended in murder.
If you’re strict about wanting a whodunnit, may I suggest Asta’s Book, which Rendell wrote as Barbara Vine. It involves a woman trying to solve the historic murder of a baby concealed in her grandmother’s diaries. It’s a brilliant, complex and perfectly structured whodunnit; yet, as is the case with all these books, so much more than the sum of its parts.