11/19/2016

What to Give: Mystery Books ­ WSJ

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ARTS  |  BOOKS  |  BOOKSHELF

What to Give: Mystery Books
Treasures for fans of P.D. James, Simenon, and Ross Macdonald. Tom Nolan picks the best
gifts for mystery lovers.
Nov. 18, 2016 2:37 p.m. ET
The holiday season is a good time to catch up with old friends, but I wasn’t expecting to
encounter the late P.D. James this year in the form of her entertaining posthumous
collection “The Mistletoe Murder and Other Stories” (Knopf, 152 pages, $24). Two
of these four deft tales take place at Christmastime, and two feature Adam Dalgliesh, the
author’s police-detective series character.
In the title story, a self-confessed “bestselling crime novelist” recalls in first-person
voice her long-ago Christmas of 1940, when as a young war widow she visited her
grandmama’s country house and bore witness to the aftermath of the locked-library
murder of another guest. Ms. James “picks the pockets of the mechanics of Golden Age
plotting” in writing this volume’s entries, Val McDermid notes in her canny foreword,
but “there’s nothing cosy about the murders in these stories.” A case in point: The
stabbing death of a woman in London’s Camden Town. “A Very Commonplace Murder,”
in the judgment of a neighboring business tenant, “the usual sordid story of illicit
passion and general stupidity.” But the reader who views the crime through the eyes of a
Peeping Tom is in for an ugly surprise.
Chief Superintendent
Dalgliesh is at the center of
things in “The Boxdale
Inheritance,” which would
bring a timely bequest to a
needy Canon friend of the
policeman. But the cleric
wants to be sure this small
fortune was not acquired as
the result of a long-forgotten
crime, and Dalgliesh agrees to
reexamine a not-guilty verdict
from 60 years before—“a case
[which] seemed to require
clairvoyance rather than
cleverness.” Lastly, “The
Twelve Clues of Christmas”
shows young Sgt. Dalgliesh
driving in his MG Midget for
the holiday to his aunt’s
cottage on the Suffolk Coast,
then altering his itinerary to
investigate the bizarre death
of a local estate owner. He
enters a crime scene “looking
more like an aberration of the
PHOTO: ANGELA SOUTHERN
natural world than a human
habitation.” Of what he
discovers there, he later tells his aunt: “It was pure Agatha Christie.” And a welcome
belated present from P.D. James.

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11/19/2016

What to Give: Mystery Books ­ WSJ

Inspector Maigret, the pipe-smoking Paris detective whose cases were chronicled for
decades by the prolific Georges Simenon, broke into print in 1931. “Maigret’s First
Case” (Penguin, 184 pages, $12), a 1949 work newly translated and reissued this
season, takes place much earlier: In spring 1913, when a skinny, 26-year-old Jules
Maigret is working as secretary to the Chief Inspector of Paris’s Saint-Georges district. A
musician comes to the station late one night to report some suspicious incidents,
including a gunshot, at the home of “the most distinguished name in the entire
neighborhood.”
When Maigret inquires there, the residents allow him to inspect the premises. Nothing
seems amiss, yet the policeman keeps the house under personal surveillance. He sees
the street and its denizens in a discerning light: the cynical café-owner with his ritually
timed rounds of brandy, the blunt-spoken maid with wide eyes and a seductive manner,
the mischievous but menacing garage owner. Self-conscious yet determined, Maigret
perceives the outlines of an intrigue involving a pending marriage, a will with strict
provisions and a missing patriarch. The young man is “happy to be working alone,
snooping around as he pleased.” He yearns to solve this mystery and earn a transfer to
the prestigious Quai des Orfevres. Yet he feels hampered by his socially connected boss.
Indeed, so great is his insecurity that Maigret suspects his superior assigned this case to
him in hopes he would bungle it. More than once he considers quitting his job. “The
profession he had always yearned for did not actually exist,” Maigret thinks: “a cross
between a doctor and a priest, a man capable of understanding another’s destiny at first
glance. . . . able to live the life of every man, to put himself in anyone’s shoes.” What this
sensitive and sweetly vulnerable young legend-to-be cannot know is how close he is to
bringing his own self-imagined destiny into being.
There was a priestly aspect, too, to the late Ross Macdonald’s Southern California
private detective Lew Archer, who once mused: “The problem was to love people, try to
serve them, without wanting anything from them.” Archer’s career and creator are
documented in grand style by “It’s All One Case: The Illustrated Ross Macdonald
Archives” (Fantagraphics, 301 pages, $44.99). Paul Nelson, a Rolling Stone critic,
interviewed Macdonald for 40-some hours in 1976; Kevin Avery has edited those
sessions into an illuminating dialogue. Surrounding the text is a dazzling full-color array
of book jackets, manuscript pages and photographs. The treasure-chest volume is a feast
for the eye and mind.
—Mr. Nolan reviews mysteries for the Journal.

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