Detectives, Fantasy, Science Fiction

Arthur Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes books
      Should need no introduction. As is often the case with the best detectives stories, the characters and the ambience are more interesting than the plots.

Dorothy Sayers, Peter Wimsey books  [1893-1957]
      I don’t generally care for the classic mental-puzzle type of detective fiction, with ridiculously contrived murder methods and an inhumanly brilliant detective examining a large cast of suspects, each with a seemingly perfect alibi. . . . But Sayers’s books generally have more interesting ambiences than Agatha Christie, etc., and Peter Wimsey, besides being more amusing, is a much more three-dimensional character than Hercule Poirot (he even falls in love and gets married to another equally credible character). You might try Murder Must Advertise and see if you want to read more.

Dashiell Hammett  [1894-1961]
      Hammett is most well known for The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man, but try his other three novels if you haven’t read them — they’re just as good.

Raymond Chandler  [1888-1959]
      Hammett and Chandler are usually considered the two greatest hard-boiled detective writers. I slightly prefer Chandler because of his more sympathetic main character, Philip Marlowe.

Rex Stout, Nero Wolfe books  [1886-1975]
      Rex Stout’s mysteries represent a unique synthesis of hard-boiled style with mental-puzzle content. The latter is competently done, but no better than countless other detective stories. What makes these books so appealing is the amusing world of the Nero Wolfe household and the lively narration of Wolfe’s assistant, Archie Goodwin. Archie’s style — somewhat like Philip Marlowe’s but more jaunty and upbeat — is so perfectly realized that you are hardly conscious of it. But it keeps you coming back. I’ve reread the whole series multiple times with just as much pleasure as the first time around, even when I already know who done it.

Georges Simenon, Inspector Maigret books  [1903-1989]
      As Sherlock Holmes gives us late-Victorian London, Simenon gives us early-twentieth-century Paris. Inspector Maigret has a tough but mature and tolerant humanity that I am afraid has rarely been found among actual policemen. One notable feature of Simenon’s books is that you often come to empathize with the guilty characters, or at least to understand them. They are not sentimentalized or exonerated, but Simenon makes you see how through a gradual progression of habits and circumstances they found themselves caught in a situation in which it was difficult, if not impossible, to avoid the crime. And this insight is conveyed despite the fact that Simenon’s narration is strictly objective and never peeks into the characters’ minds. In most other detective stories the “bad guys” are purely and simply bad — possibly interesting for their perverse brilliance or eccentricity, but with no psychological depth — and the minor characters are just cardboard figures necessary to provide red herrings or otherwise fill out the plot. Simenon’s characters seem like real people.

Eric Ambler  [1909-1998]
      Ambler is probably the best writer of espionage-type thrillers. His books are not only suspenseful, they are usually very emotionally gripping. The main character is typically an ordinary person who accidentally gets caught up in some international intrigue. Try A Coffin for Dimitrios, one of his most somber and chilling books; and then, for a change of pace, The Light of Day, which, due to its rascalish narrator, manages to be amusing and suspenseful at the same time.

Mervyn Peake, Titus Groan; Gormenghast  [1946, 1950]
This series is one of the greatest fantasies ever written, yet it has few of the usual features of the genre — no sword fights, no wizards or monsters or magic rings, and in fact no magic whatsoever. What makes it a fantasy is the bizarre ambience of the citadel of Gormenghast, located in a time and place that remain unclear, claustrophobically closed in on itself, and just slightly askew. In some respects it seems like a medieval castle, but it also has touches of Victorian London, with odd yet extremely vivid characters worthy of Dickens.
      Opinions vary on Titus Alone, the third volume of the series, in which the title character leaves Gormenghast and heads off on his own. Most readers are disappointed because it is so different from the first two volumes, but some find the variety of new scenes and encounters just as intriguing as the earlier ones.

Fletcher Pratt, The Well of the Unicorn; The Blue Star  [1948, 1952]
      I’ve read both of these books four times with thorough satisfaction. The plots are as adventurous as could be desired, but the characters and narration are richer and more mature than in most fantasies.

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings  [1955]
      Just because it’s become ridiculously hyped doesn’t mean it isn’t good. I’ve read the Ring trilogy four times and am about due for a fifth. The Hobbit, which is a prelude to the trilogy, is more of a children’s book — good as such, but not essential. If you’ve never read Tolkien, I suggest that you skip it and begin with The Fellowship of the Ring, the first volume of the trilogy.

Jack Vance  [1916-2013]
      I used to read a fair amount of science fiction, but in recent years almost none of it has held my interest. The one exception is Jack Vance. He has a knack for creating bizarre, endlessly variegated yet somehow very credible societies in each new book. His style is ornate yet lucid, and the suave, ironical dialogue of his characters is a delight. The funniest is the vain, ever-complaining and ever-resourceful rascal Cugel (in The Eyes of the Overworld and Cugel’s Saga). The Lyonesse trilogy (Suldren’s Garden, The Green Pearl, Madouc) is another excellent fantasy series. Most of Vance’s other works are science fiction, but they usually have a “fantasy” feel to them — the rocket ships are just there to get us to that next planet, which has evolved a curiously bizarre culture in which . . . . Here is a typical passage. Despite the exotic location and vehicles, the scene he is describing is not unlike an ordinary earthly traffic jam. But notice how amusing he makes it through just the slightest modification of style in the direction of apparent stiltedness and urbane detachment (I have italicized some of the characteristically Vancean phrases):

Around the circus skitters of a dozen sorts rolled on high, spindly wheels, some decorated with arrays of banderoles, others with bouquets of artificial flowers. The drivers in the main were sportive types, sitting high and erect in the approved posture; they tended to be critical of other drivers and easily became outraged by faulty or intemperate techniques. Calling out advice, whirring and veering in and out of the traffic patterns, they waved their arms to indicate the nature of the other’s mistake — which usually evoked responsive comments and significant gestures, while the skitters careened from lane to lane. . . .

Ursula K. Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness  [1969]
      Speaking of strange cultures, this novel involves a society in which everyone is ambisexual: people are normally in a sexually neuter state, but they temporarily take on male or female characteristics during their brief mating periods, so that an individual may be the father of some children and the mother of others. This naturally has all sorts of interesting social and psychological ramifications. In another of her novels, The Dispossessed, Le Guin portrays an anarchist world based in part on the ideas of Kropotkin and Paul Goodman.


Section from Gateway to the Vast Realms (Ken Knabb, 2004).

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