Mysteries for Younger Readers

My good lady wife, aka Books On Spain brought my attention to this paragraph in the Guardian.

A young reader had requested help from The Book Doctor – the question was

“I detest Enid Blyton and like Agatha Christie. What should I read next?”

To which The Book Doctor replied : “The Hound of the Baskervilles, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, would be a worthy successor to Agatha Christie. Sherlock Holmes, the great detective created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, appears in many stories including, perhaps most famously, The Hound of the Baskervilles: the story would be a worthy successor to Agatha Christie. For a more contemporary sleuth, the eponymous heroine of Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh is well worth following.”

I was rather disappointed that there wasn’t a comment section on the post, otherwise this article would have been posted there together with a link to the blog! But anyway, on with my minor rant.

This person seems to sum up my reading tastes at that age – which I’m going to suppose is around 12-13, or at least has that sort of reading age. I’d read a fair few Christies by then and indeed, dipped into The Hound of the Baskervilles.

One day, I must go back and finish the book. One of the things that still annoys me when reading a book with a given detective, be it Poirot, Marple, Gideon Fell or whoever, is when either it takes an age for the sleuth to turn up or they appear briefly to top and tail the book and are not there for the majority of the book. (Cases in point would be The Clocks, At Bertram’s Hotel and The Blind Barber). If I’m reading a “Hercule Poirot” novel, then I expect him to show up in the first 100 pages and basically stay there. The book can still be excellent, but there’s always a sense of disappointment for me when it happens.

Without spoiling the novel, the same thing happens in The Hound of the Baskervilles. This was supposed to be my introduction to Holmes and then he chose to clear off for ages and leave Watson to bumble around for most of the book. That made me put it down and it hasn’t been picked up again.

I do know what happens in the book, having seen at least two adaptations of it, and I do agree that it’s the closest to Christie that Holmes comes – most of the mystery seemed to be whether or not the Hound is real or supernatural (have a guess, given this isn’t In Search of the Classic Ghost Story) as there aren’t many suspects. However most of the Holmes canon isn’t the same sort of mysteries. I’ve never felt the encouragement to play along with the sleuth that Christie gives and, given most of the books are short stories, they don’t sit around long enough to have a good ponder.

So what would I recommend to the younger reader? Not an easy question, as most of my favourites are out of print, but here goes. I’m going to assume that the reader hasn’t read all of Dame Agatha’s work.

The Miss Marple books

With the exception of At Bertram’s Hotel, these are all very accessible mysteries. I’ve given the list of my favourites here, but the writing style is clear and easy to follow – you might want to leave The Body in the Library and The Murder at the Vicarage until later though, as the prose is a bit denser, if I recall correctly. Start with A Murder Is Announced.

Some Poirot Books

The books that I remember reading and loving when I was young were Lord Edgware Dies, Peril at End House and The ABC Murders. Also The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Death On The Nile, Evil Under The Sun and Hercule Poirot’s Christmas. Be warned, some of the others are much weaker and/or harder to get into.

Sir Henry Merrivale

OK, you know that old book shop tucked down a back alleyway in town? Go there and hunt out books by Carter Dickson. They’ll probably be, in the UK at least, green Penguin books and won’t cost more than a couple of quid. If you can find The Judas Window, She Died A Lady, He Wouldn’t Kill Patience or The Reader Is Warned, you’ll have some excellent accessible murderer mysteries up there with the best of Agatha Christie, if not better. Merrivale is very good company although Carter Dickson’s writing style varies a bit – some of the earlier ones, whilst still being excellent, are a bit harder to get into. Stay away from And So To Murder – Merrivale’s hardly in it. While you’re at it, John Dickson Carr (aka Carter Dickson) wrote Till Death Us Do Part, The Case of the Constant Suicides and He Who Whispers, all of which are great introductions to the great Gideon Fell. If you can’t find a bookshop, persuade your parents to get on – it’s much more likely that they’ll buy you a good book than a DVD or CD.

Edward D Hoch

These are short stories, but each one is a fair play detective story with multiple suspects and often (indeed always in the Sam Hawthorne books – see here and here for more info) a locked room or impossible crime to figure out. Of course, you won’t find these in a bookshop over here, but they can be ordered from Amazon or the publishers Crippen & Landru direct.

I’ve run dry now , so over to you, dear reader. From what I can see, Harriet The Spy is not a detective book at all, but mostly a teenage angst book, but freely admit that I haven’t read it. What got you hooked on detective fiction and how would you indoctrinate… er, encourage a teenage into the ways of the great detective story. Remember, nothing too fiddly – that’s why I’ve not recommended any Ellery Queen, as the language isn’t exactly easy to read at times and the mysteries really need a pad and paper to keep track of what’s going on. So, I’m looking for simple, well-written mysteries, hopefully part of a series to keep the youngster reading. Off you go.


  1. Bravo! I agree completely about HOUND, and the short stories would make a lot more sense anyway. Dorothy l. Sayers, Margery Allingham, Ngaio Marsh and Nicholas Blake would be the other 30s-40s authors that I would recommend for having plots that are not too tricksy and a prose style that is very accessible. I would certainly also add the best of the harboiled authors to the list, like Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and Ross Macdonald, particularly the latter who I always loved for his great affinity for young people and their problems.


    • Hmm… not so sure about some of these. Marsh I agree with, although I’ve yet to read one of her books that sparkles like the best of Christie, but Blake I think is too wordy and eloquent for most young readers. I’d indoctrinate them first with something easier and then introduce Blake into the equation. As for Sayers, I tried her at a young age, got about 1/3 of the way through one of them (can’t remember which) and gave up. Haven’t been back since, although I do intend to…


  2. I take your point, and I did omit writers like Michael Innes because I thought it required too much pre-knowledge to really enoy while Chesterton is probably a bit too dense, but Allingham should be a slam dunk I would have thought. Sayers is probably the best wordsmith of the lot and UNNATURAL DEATH or MURDER MUST ADVERTISE are cetainly ones that should be very accessible I would have hoped. I would also recommend Philip Macdonald if it weren;t sohard to find any of his books. I should add that I was 12-13 when I started reading all these authors so I’m just basing this on my own experience. Do you not rate the hardboiled school in terms of their puzzles?


  3. To be absolutely honest, I haven’t read a thing from the traditional hard-boiled school. I am well aware this is an oversight I need to correct – any advice for starters? Possibly starting with K, L or M?


    • Well, as long as you’re aking … L could be for three of Chandler’s best novels: LADY IN THE LAKE, THE LITTLE SISTER or even his grand opus, THE LONG-GOODBYE although it really would be foolish not to start with THE BIG SLEEP – If you don’t like that one you probably won’t like the rest! I would also recommend Jonathan Latimer’s books which have a good strong dose of humour, especially LADY IN THE MORGUE (2 L’s for the pirce of 1 there). M really has to be for Hammett’s THE MALTESE FALCON above all else though THE GLASS KEY is absolutely wonderful. Ross Macdonald is also a great writer, especially his works from the 60s and 70s – from an alphabetical standpoint though there is little I would really recommend until SLEEPING BEAUTY or THE UNDERGROUND MAN (or maybe save him for THE ZEBRA-STRIPED HEARSE, which is also excellent). I wouldn’t particularly recommend James L. Cain however in terms of plotting. On the other hand, if you want to branh out into psychlogical suspense for the letter K, the I can think of little finer that A KISS BEFORE DYING by Ira Levin. Have you read it? It has a one-in-a-million twist at around the halfway mark that really should take your breath away (it certainly did mine). Not too dissimilar is Stanley Ellin’s THE KEY TO NICHOLAS STREET though if you haven’t read him I would go with MIRROR, MIRROR first which I included in my top 26 list. Ed McBain also wrote a lot of great police procedurals using the letter K – if you haven’t read him you might really like KILLER’S WEDGE though i would also recommend KING’S RANSOM as well as KILLER’S CHOICE and KILLER’S PAYOFF, all from the 87th Precinct series. I believe THE LAST GOOD KISS by James Crumley to be a major work but many people absolutely loathe it so I hesitate to even mention it. I hope, if you ready any of these, that you will share some of my enthusiasm. All the best,


  4. Right, I’m putting that info in my phone so that when I’m next in the old bookshop near me, I can have a hunt around.

    I do have a copy of Red Harvest by Dashiel Hammett – it’s set in Butte. Montana (or at least a town based on Butte) so we got it after visiting. Never got round to reading it yet? Is it worth it?


  5. RED HARVEST is definitely a great Prohobition-era gangster story. The lead character, the ‘Continental Op’, basically sets up one gang against another and picks up the pieces in the middle (it’s the same story as FISTFUL OF DOLLARS, and more explicitly in the Bruice Willis remake LAST MAN STANDING if you’re familiar with either of those) but the style is the thing. The opening lines about the town of ‘Personville’ getting pronounced ‘Poisonville’ is just fabulous and was incredibly influential. And the Coen brothers got the phrase ‘Blood Simple’ from this book too – it’s a great read although functions best as a primer for the classic that is THE GLASS KEY which is a real must. Hammett’s next novel featuring the Continental Op, THE DAIN CURSE, is an attempt to combine a more traditional mystery with the harboiled style and struggles a bit to be honest. Happy reading.


  6. After reading all the Christies when I was younger, I remember reading the Holmes mysteries but not enjoying them nearly as much as Dame Agatha. Like you, I also couldn’t get into Sayers.

    I quite liked the mysteries by Josephine Tey. I think I read them as an older teen so can’t really remember how suitable they are for younger readers; back then, they were quite difficult to get hold of as they hadn’t been reprinted recently. And I also found a few detective stories by Georgette Heyer (who is more famous for her historical romances I believe) – they were quite formulaic and lots of stock characters (almost worth studying for containing all those detective fiction cliches), but easy reads with some humour.


    • I’m going to look at Tey at some point – I wasn’t that impressed with The Daughter of Time in some aspects, but I’d like to see what she does with a straight detective story. Wasn’t aware of Georgette Heyer’s entries into the canon. I’ll check those out when I have time. Thanks.


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