Masterful Mysteries

Detective Picture

I like mysteries. They are definitely one of my favorite genres. (The other is historical fiction, so I get especially pleased when I find a book that combines the two, like Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael series or Ruth Downie’s Medicus.) Presently my two favorite mystery series center around two very different sleuths. No hard boiled police officers or jaded private investigators here. No Philip Marlowe’s or Sam Spade’s in sight. Instead, we have Flavia de Luce and Dr. Nick Polchak.

Eleven year old Flavia de Luce is the central character in Canadian author Alan Bradley’s Buckshaw Chronicles. Set somewhere in 1950’s England, Flavia lives in a rundown mansion along with her eccentric father and two caustic siblings, Ophelia and Daphne. Flavia is far from a typical pre-teen. She’s a prodigy at chemistry with a passion for poison and a flare for sticking her nose in where it doesn’t belong. When she isn’t plotting revenge on her older sisters she’s aiding the reluctant Inspector Hewitt in solving a murder. The plot lines are intricate and intriguing, the characters fascinating, and the chemistry completely accurate. (At least as far as I can tell!)

Given the age of the protagonist, one might think that this series was aimed at the young adults market. That’s not really the case, even though it tends to get lumped into this genre. The plotting, style and vocabulary are all adult in scope and scale. Younger readers might find it a bit too much at times. Having said that, there is nothing that would make anyone shy away from the novels. There is minimal violence, no sex, and virtually no cursing. I’d have no problem recommending the series to anyone. Start with the first book “The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie”, winner of a number of awards including the Agatha Award and the Arthur Ellis Award for best first novel, and go on through to the just released fifth book, “Speaking From Among the Bones”.

I’m sure that Dr. Nick Polchak was a child prodigy as well. Now he’s the main character in Tim Down’s Bug Man series. Starting with 2003’s “Shoofly Pie”, Christie Award winning American author Tim Downs introduces us to this brilliant but socially inept scientist and sleuth. Nick is a forensic entomologist. He studies the life cycles, appearances and actions of insects that live in and on decomposing flesh, especially human flesh. As such he’s called upon to help determine the time and sometimes the cause of death. It seems to be something he cannot do without irritating everyone around him and getting himself pulled into the investigation right up to his eyeballs.

Speaking of eyes and eyeballs, Nick’s are quite unique. He is so near sighted that he wears glasses so thick that his eyes look like huge brown blobs floating in water. Other characters find the whole thing disconcerting, something Nick uses to his advantage. Nick is also virtually free from the social graces and etiquette so necessary to day to day life. He can be rude, cynically and sarcastic but most of the time he’s just clueless. The result is hilarious.

The novels are well written and fast paced. You’ll also learn more about the life cycle of maggots and blow flies than you ever wanted to know. The characters are real ant thought provoking. You wind up caring about them. Nick is not a Christian. But in each novel he encounters at least one character whose strong faith challenges him and points him a little closer to God. As with Bradley’s novels there are no sex scenes and no cursing. The violence is not graphic or gratuitous and is kept at the minimum needed for a murder mystery.

In the fifth book of the series, “The Ends of the Earth”, Downs gave readers a chance to get involved in the direction of the story. Nick has two women in his life. Strangely enough, they both are in love with him and he is struggling to decide between them. Downs presented two different cliff-hanger endings on his website and asked readers to vote on which one they liked best and thus which woman Nick would propose to. (Warning! Read the books first!) It was kind of cool. The latest book “Nick of Time” carries on in the direction selected by the readers.

Try one or both of these mystery series. I don’t believe that you’ll be disappointed.

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