A killer list of murder mysteries
Written by: Lakshmi Chaudhry, Editor/Founder Splainer Media
I have always loved murder mysteries—first falling in love with the usual fare of Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirots as a child. And my criteria for a murder mystery is very simple: Someone has been killed and it’s all about figuring out who and why. Over the decades, I’ve discovered that I love all kinds of whodunitsthat span a variety of genres, styles and settings. These days, I rely on them all the more to save my sanity from the endless drudge of the news cycle. The books offer the perfect escape from a world where murders seem far too common—and justice is rare. So here’s an oddball list of series—not individual books—that I have loved. Because a good murder mystery always has many sequels:)
The Indian crime stories
It’s rare to find a good series set in India—which can do the setting justice without reducing the culture to stereotypes. Some of my favourites are set in the past—and offer a window into how we lived, loved and, ahem, murdered in a bygone India.
Persis Wadia: That’s the heroine of Vaseem Khan’s series—set in a newly independent India. It’s darker, more insightful and honest about both its times and politics than some others of its kind. Persis is the first woman police detective, assigned to the least prestigious thana in Mumbai. Unlike Sujata Massey’s heroic lawyer Perveen Mistry, this Parsee inspector is prickly, sharp-edged and human. I just liked her more than Perveen who always felt a little under-written. What’s surprising: Khan is the author of the Baby Ganesh mysteries—which are very sweet & cuddly and therefore nothing like Persis or the cases she’s tasked to solve:)
Wyndham & Bannerjee: The crime-solving duo in Abir Mukherjee’s bestselling series set in colonial India are an odd couple—both because of their race and their personalities.The cases are convoluted, intriguing—and made more complicated by racism. What I liked best about this series is Mukherjee’s willingness to put the ugly face of burra sahib bigotry front and centre. Even his hero Wyndham isn’t immune from it. Also: Bannerjee is far from a sidekick—and gets his own story arc tied to the freedom struggle.
More on colonial India: MJ Carter’s first book ‘Strangler’s Vine’ is an interesting 21st century take on the subject of the worst imperialist stereotypes: the Thugee cult. It’s essentially a suspense novel starring a bromance between two Englishmen sent in the wild days of East India Company. It’s a fast-paced read that is critical of the empire—but the natives are still more backdrop than real people.
Meanwhile, in 1939 Singapore: Detective Inspector Betancourt of the Marine Police is also navigating the power politicking of the local elite and the hierarchies of colonial bureaucracy. That he is biracial makes everything that much harder. ‘Waking the Tiger’ is Mark Wightman’s debut novel—and I personally can’t wait for the next one.
In a world far, far away…
As I said, I have a passion for whodunits irrespective of setting or ‘official’ genre. I voraciously read through the books below even if they’re officially sci-fi/fantasy.
Agent Fatma: She is the cane-wielding Investigator for the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities in 1912 Cairo—an alternative world populated by djinns, angels and ghouls. But, hey, there are still murders to be solved—albeit the most astonishing kind. P Djèlí Clark’s ‘Master of Djinn’ combines the best of whodunit genre and sets it in a ‘steampunk fantasy world.
Mahit Dzmare: is sent as the ambassador of her tiny station to the heart of the fabulous empire that rules vast parts of the universe. She arrives only to find that her predecessor has been killed. Solving that mystery involves great political intrigue and peril. Author Arkady Martine’s ‘A Memory Called Empire’ is brilliant in exploring the nuanced meanings of cultural power and appropriation—in the midst of a fast-paced suspense and, yeah, complicated romance between Dzmare and her translator. To be fair: The sequel to this first book—‘A Desolation Called Peace’—is more political thriller than murder mystery.
Peter Grant: He is the somewhat bumbling constable who possesses an unfortunate talent—the ability to see the dead. And that leads him into all sorts of trouble while solving cases—be it with river goddesses or wizards. The Rivers of London series by Ben Aaronovitch is a jaunty romp with the humour of a Hitchhiker’s Guide—or more accurately, Dr Who—since Aaronovitch was a scriptwriter for the series. This is a fantasy murder fic with a distinctly British sense of humour.
The kindness of humanity…
When you work in the news biz, you’re left with little appetite for gloom and depression. It’s one reason why I can’t read Scandi noir any more. While a goofy Inspector Singh romp by Tarquin Hall is fun, I often look for something with characters that have a bit more depth.
Matthew Venn: He is the hero of Ann Cleeves’ latest series set in Devon. Unlike the unhappy DI Jimmy Perez—who helms Cleeves’ more famous Shetland series—Venn is driven by less personal angst and loss. He has a lovely husband and a good life—if a difficult childhood. The cases are just as intriguing and Cleeves’ ability to capture lives in a small community is every bit as impeccable. But it helps not to have a hero drowning in misery most of the time (sorry: Henning Mankell).
Porfiry Rostnikov: Set in the 1980s Soviet Union, Stuart Kaminsky’s series centres on a good-natured but wily inspector who knows both how to solve crimes—and navigate the far more dangerous minefield of Soviet-era office politics. Kaminsky’s love for his characters and the challenging lives they lead—where you queue for an hour for a loaf of bread—shines through. It’s also interesting to see how you can solve crimes in a country where nothing is quite what it seems. Also: Think of this as Martin Cruz Smith (Gorky Park) without the self-loathing angst.
Bonus recommendations: For a similarly devious but less life-threatening setting, check out Michael Dibdin’s Italian inspector Aurelio Zen—who is a charming anti-hero. For a warmer alternative to Cleeves, try Louise Penny’s Armand Gamache series set in Quebec has a similar tone and feel—but without the gloomy landscapes of rural England.