I once heard the executive of one of the major soft-drink companies say that his products were strictly recreational. They had no food value. They were good only for the pleasure of drinking them. On this ground alone we keep and consume a supply of them in our home. Some tell us that the diet drinks we prefer are poison; on the other hand, the amount of sugar in a "regular" soda is by no stretch "good for you." They are fun, though.
Detective fiction is to literature what soda pop is to nutrition. Just as we don't drink soda to be nourished, neither do we read detective fiction for enlightenment. We do both for the fun of it. There is no reason why either should be a guilty pleasure for a sensible person at rest from work. We have no defense but common sense against the nonsense that pleasure has to have more justification than itself, if it is innocent of harm done to self or others.
There are now crossover writers who don't know whether they are writing detective fiction or literary novels. I read them, and respect them, but they are not as much fun as the stories that focus on puzzle, action, and resolution, in which character development is accidental if present at all.
I have been entertained by murder all of my reading life, beginning at age nine or so. On a recent visit to my brother's house he invited me again to help myself to his large collection of paperbacks featuring Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin, so I picked up a couple that I couldn't remember or wouldn't mind revisiting.
Of course, murder as entertainment must be imaginary; there is nothing entertaining in the malice that motivates first-degree murder or in the undisciplined anger that prompts murder in the second degree. But in the Manhattan of Nero Wolfe, or the village where Miss Marple lives her endless life of respectable leisure and good works, or the Los Angeles where Perry Mason's client is never guilty, or the Boston where Spenser and Hawk's combined body count must be approaching four figures, or the English race courses where Dick Francis's unattached young bachelors get colorfully beaten up on the way to catching the bad guys, no real person dies and no real blood flows.
It is a delight to discover one of these worlds, as I have just discovered M. C. Beaton and her Scottish highland constable, Hamish Macbeth.
Once in a while the killer gets away with it, but none of those is among my favorites. In real life the killer sometimes gets away with it, but why should he in a work of imagination? Part of the appeal is that the complexity and confusion of murder will be reduced to simple moral terms in which guilt will be revealed and punishment determined. The stories tell us that the good guys are destined to win, as well they should.
My consumption of these works has slowed greatly, but my appreciation has not lessened. So here are the favorites that come to mind, and probably forgetting some obvious ones.
- Brat Farrar and The Daughter of Time, by Josephine Tey.
- The Miss Marple novels of Agatha Christie, including my personal favorite of any on this list: What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw! (It was also published as Murder, She Said, and in Britain as 4:50 from Paddington.)
- The entire Nero Wolfe series, by Rex Stout—including the A & E movies with Timothy Hutton as Archie Goodwin.
- Any novel with Mr. and Mrs. North, written by Richard and Frances Lockridge.
- The Spenser novels of Robert B. Parker.
- The Lord Peter novels of Dorothy Sayers.