While there is nothing wrong with a bit of Shakespeare bandied across the autopsy table, it’s a shame that British mystery writers seem unwilling to break away from the pack and come up with more daring and creative characters.
Of course, there is one reason why they don’t: the Sensitive Inspector sells.
And I don’t mean just money-wise (though I’m sure the dollar signs aren’t unwelcome). The Sensitive Inspector is tough for the female reader to resist. He is attractive to her on so many levels: he is solid and comforting while being pathetically vulnerable; he is handsome but never takes advantage of the ladies; he is bold when he needs to be but is all too aware of his faults; he is masculine but with a firm artsy, literary streak. And, in the best Sensitive Inspector tradition, he is available. It all adds up to a perfect storm of come-hither fantasy attractiveness, a sort of Pornography for the Mystery-Loving Woman’s Soul.
When the authors finally break down and let their Sensitive Inspectors find their true loves, the series nearly always tanks.
Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey chased his beloved Harriet Vane through five books before catching her at the end of Gaudy Night — then proceeded into marriage in the horrendously bad Busman’s Honeymoon (mercifully, the death of that series).
When P.D. James’ Commander Adam Dalgliesh quit mooning over his long-lost wife and child and leapt into commitment with Emma Lavenham, the series lost much of what had made it interesting in the first place.
The same thing happened when Elizabeth George’s Inspector Thomas Lynley married his Lady Helen Clyde, though Ms. George fixed that right quick by killing Helen off so that fans of the series can get back to what they had been doing all along anyway — pining after the sentimental Lynley and wondering if he and his Detective Sergeant, Barbara Havers, are going to end up together after all.
In the world of the Sensitive Inspector, moody, bittersweet courtship is preferable to happy consummation any day of the week. And mystery readers across the world adore it.
But what about those of us who don’t mind a Sensitive Inspector now and again, but have a hankering for a modern British mystery written in the classic style, but with a bit less introspection, a lot more humor, and some real out-of-the-box creativity? If this is you, here are five anti-Sensitive Inspector series that may wash that bitter taste of broodiness out of your mouth.
5 worthy British anti-Sensitive Inspector series
1. Ruth Dudley Edwards’ Robert Amiss series
Looking for a classic, classy mystery series that is as witty, intelligent, and sexy as it is politically incorrect? Look no further than Ms. Edwards’ Robert Amiss mystery books. Robert Amiss is as funny and unexpected an amateur sleuth as you could possibly imagine. He’s an ex-British government employee with a horror of commitment and a penchant for getting himself into extraordinarily sticky situations. I would highly recommend beginning with Ms. Edwards’ Matricide at St. Martha’s: it’s got pyscho feminists, psycho chauvinists, and a hilariously inept and religiously fanatical inspector. Wonderful.
2. Jonathon Gash’s Lovejoy series
If you have even the slightest interest in antiques, these books are for you. Lovejoy (his first name stays mysterious for the entire series) is obsessively in love with antiques and the books are packed with more quirky details than you can shake a Spode teacup at. The funny, and endearing, thing about Lovejoy is that he is an absolute cad. Women fight over him like wildcats and he’s never got the same one twice. You’d think this would be just disgusting to read, but he’s so much fun, he ends up being appealing anyway. The first book of the series is The Judas Pair, but you don’t need to read them in order.
3. Martha Grimes’ Richard Jury/Melrose Plant series
Inspector Richard Jury may be the sappiest Sensitive Inspector of them all, but there are two things that make this series rise above the pack (and Inspector Jury’s persistent efforts to drag it into maudlin emotionalism): 1) Ms. Grimes’ gift at writing witty and humorous dialogue for her recurring group of characters, and 2) Melrose Plant. In my opinion, if Ms. Grimes had bumped Inspector Jury to a more minor role in the stories and focused on these two, they would blow every other modern mystery series completely away. The funny bits have that distinct eccentric British silliness. They’re the only reason I plow on reading the books despite Inspector Jury’s moodiness and byzantine plots that only a trained contortionist could unravel. O.K., that and Melrose Plant.
Melrose Plant is an absolute triumph. He’s wealthy, well-dressed, witty, and intelligent (hey, he can do the Times crossword puzzle in under 15 minutes). At the same time, he’s self-deprecating and endearingly vulnerable. No matter how hard he tries, children and all manner of animals hate him and all the women he likes end up pining for his buddy, Jury. He gets tangled up in some of the most ridiculously Fawlty Towers-type situations in his attempts to assist Jury in his investigations. I adore him.
4. Caroline Graham’s Chief Inspector Barnaby series
Inspector Barnaby is one of the few married inspectors that are actually worth reading. He doesn’t have complicated marital problems and he doesn’t spend precious text fretting incessantly over his daughter. In fact, these books read a lot like an updated, nasty, sarcastic, and edgy Agatha Christie. Try Ms. Graham’s The Killings at Badger’s Drift. I dare you to try to figure out the end (and not to be completely shocked when you get there).
5. Georgette Heyer’s Inspector Hannasyde series
I don’t even read these books for the murder mystery bits — it’s the dialogue that I love. All are take-offs on the traditional English country house mystery and involve large groups of bantering characters without a Sensitive Inspector to be seen. In fact, Inspector Hannasyde could be best described as sullen. He approaches each case as if it were a personal affront, committed specifically to inconvenience him in particular. These were written some time ago, but, believe me, if you’re a fan of British comedy, you’ll find a lot to enjoy here. I’d start with Behold, Here’s Poison.
If you’re thirsty for more murder novels, take a look at the 10 best classic kitsch murder mysteries.