Five books

Robin Steven's five mystery books that shaped her writing

Miss Pym Disposes by Josephine Tey

I have such a vivid memory of the moment I found this book. I was in the Strand Bookstore in New York, and I reached up on one of the shelves and took down Miss Pym Disposes. I’d never heard of it, and I bought it purely on the strength of its cover (my edition has a particularly snooty Miss Pym, looking irresistibly like a minor character in a Poirot adaptation).

I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that Murder Most Unladylike wouldn’t exist if I hadn’t read this book. The school setting, the mix of jolliness and nastiness, the gym-hall murder and the nasty twist – it’s all there. The ending of Miss Pym Disposes has bothered me since I first read it. It’s one of the very few books that I’ve never stopped thinking about, and probably never will.

 

 

The London Eye Mystery by Siobhan Dowd

Children’s crime is having a real moment right now, and I’m delighted to be part of that – but it’s important to remember that Siobhan Dowd got in there before the rest of us, and did it better than any of us.

First published in 2007, The London Eye Mystery is a brilliantly tricky locked-room (locked pod?) mystery that’s also a beautifully observed look at the life of a family, and the character of the 12-year-old narrator, Ted. Crime novels shouldn’t ever just be about the crime, and reading this book (I only discovered it last year) reminded me of that powerfully.

 

 

Five on a Secret Trail by Enid Blyton

The Famous Five series was my introduction to crime, and I loved what fun they made puzzle-solving seem. There’s such a jolly atmosphere to the books, and friendship (and food) is at their heart. My father first gave me these books when I was quite little, and I remember racing through them, completely in love – but even at the time I wished that the Five had something a bit more challenging to solve than smugglings.

This book, in which all of the characters spend almost the entire story unable to work out that someone might have misspelled ‘water’ as ‘wader’, sticks in my mind as the moment when I realised that I wanted to read about detectives dealing with really serious crimes. I wanted … murder.

 

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie

I’m not actually sure if this was the first ever Christie I read, but it was the one that stands out because it blew my mind. I don’t want to spoil it for you if you haven’t read it, so I won’t go into specifics – but basically, Christie takes a pretty standard murder mystery and adds a twist that breaks all the rules I thought the genre had. It made me realise that murder mysteries were a lot more interesting and full of possibility than I’d imagined – this book was probably the one that made me realise how much I wanted to be a mystery writer.

 

The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher by Kate Summerscale

This is a true crime story that reads like a novel, and the murder it’s about fascinated me so much that I based both my MA dissertation and Arsenic for Tea on it. The Road House Murder was the first British crime to really become headline news (when it happened, in 1860, newspapers were just starting to take off as a medium, and the case is one of the reasons why our national press exists in the way it does), and the elements of it (locked house, only the family inside, upper-class suspects) became many of the elements of country house murder mysteries as we know them now.

 

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