The Plot Thickens

Sometimes, being in the present day isn’t exactly what you want — and that’s why, last month, I asked readers of this column to recommend mystery series set in the past. Since then I have learned that a lot of you really love mysteries set in early-to-mid-20th century England. And why not? Crime does go down much more nicely with a spot of tea. Here, in order of popularity, are the series most frequently named.

  • Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs series: 17 volumes, set in 1920s-1940s Great Britain. This award-winning series was the top vote-getter, and I remember reading a handful of these books — which have at their center a London psychologist/investigator — years ago and enjoying them greatly. Maybe I’ll pop into this series again.
  • Elizabeth Peters’ Amelia Peabody series, set in the Victorian era but primarily in Egypt, follows a British heiress/scholar/Egyptologist on archaeological adventures. Peters is a pseudonym for Barbara Mertz, who has a Ph.D. in Egyptology and completed 20 books in the series before her death in 2013.
  • Charles Finch’s Charles Lenox series, set in Victorian London. Finch’s hero in this bestselling 16-book series is a Victorian gentleman, armchair explorer and amateur sleuth.
  • Charles Todd’s Ian Rutledge series, set in post-World War I England, and Bess Crawford series, set in World War I-era England and France. Todd’s two popular series (24 and 12 books, respectively) feature a Scotland Yard investigator (and shellshocked WWI veteran) and a battlefield nurse turned sleuth.
  • Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce series, set in small-town England in the 1950s. Bradley’s amateur detective is unusual in two senses: she’s an “aspiring chemist with a passion for poison” and she is, even by the 10th book, only 12 years old.
  • Susan Elia MacNeal’s Maggie Hope series, set in World War II-era England and the U.S. MacNeal’s heroine, over 10 volumes, is an American-born spy and codebreaker.
  • Lindsey Davis’ Marcus Didius Falco series. Finally one not set in England! Davis’ 20-book series takes place in Rome during the first century A.D., following the adventures of a toga-clad investigator for hire.

A few dozen more were named, including some set in more unusual locations: Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher series set in 1920s Australia; Sujata Massey’s Perveen Mistry series set in 1920s India; Ovidia Yu’s Crown Colony series set in 1930s Singapore; and Victoria Thompson’s Gaslight series, set in early 20th-century New York City. There isn’t space here to print the entire list, but if you want it, send me an email before the end of the day April 18, and I’ll send it to you. (Why the deadline? Here’s an early scoop for the readers of this column: I am going on leave from The Seattle Times for several months, to work on a fiction project. So, The Plot Thickens will go on hiatus for a while. I’ve loved writing this column and hearing about your favorite mysteries, and I look forward to resuming it when I return.)

And finally, a sad note for local mystery lovers. Mary Daheim, author of dozens of popular cozy mysteries including the Bed-and-Breakfast series and the Emma Lord series (the latter set in the small town of Alpine, Washington), died March 30 at the age of 84 after a brief illness. Her daughter Katherine Evanson said that Daheim, up until her death, was living in the same Queen Anne house she’d owned for some 50 years, where she raised her three children and wrote all of her books (sometimes late at night, after the kids were in bed).

Hers was a true writer’s life, Evanson said: Daheim studied journalism at the University of Washington (she was the first non-wartime female editor of The Daily, in the 1950s) and worked as a journalist before getting the fiction bug. Her first published novel was a historical romance called “Love’s Pirate,” but she was soon drawn to the mystery genre, which she’d always loved (particularly Agatha Christie and Mary Roberts Rinehart). Evanson said that her mother took her first steps into mystery writing in an unusual forum: She offered, for a grade school auction, to write a mystery party to take place at a Queen Anne bed-and-breakfast. “I actually ended up playing the murder victim!” Evanson remembered. “She was so into it, she had all these props and costumes. That got her going on mysteries.”

Daheim had clearly found her element: Many dozens of books followed, starting in the early ‘90s and continuing through 2020. Her favorite character, Evanson thought, was Judith McMonigle, the host of the bed-and-breakfast inn of her books — based on Daheim’s beloved cousin Judy. (Emma Lord, the newspaper-editor heroine of the Alpine series, was based on Daheim herself.) Of her mother’s legacy, Evanson said simply, that she had a knack for writing real people — funny, flawed, real people. “People felt like (her characters) were their friends, and they are going to miss them.”