As Sayers became more disenchanted with what detective fiction had to offer, her fellow crime queen, Agatha Christie, was perfecting and reinventing the genre. By the late 1930s Christie was such a bona fide celebrity her publishers devised an annual marketing campaign, called “A Christie for Christmas,” to accompany the release of each new Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple adventure. But her non-series books also arrived with much fanfare, like the propulsive 1938 mystery MURDER IS EASY, (HarperAudio; 6 hours, 57 minutes), which begins on a London-bound train with a happenstance conversation between Luke Fitzwilliam, returning to England from overseas police work, and Lavinia Pinkerton, who confides that she’s traveling to Scotland Yard to report a serial killer stalking Lavinia’s English village; what’s more, she predicts who the next victim will be. When her prophecy comes true, Luke goes to the village to suss out the culprit. While “Murder Is Easy” is good but not superior Christie — there is, perhaps, one devious twist too many — good Christie still makes for excellent listening, thanks to the voice work of Gemma Whelan, who articulates each character with distinction and carries the narrative forward with gentle aplomb.
Raymond Chandler operated on a track entirely parallel to that of his British-born counterparts. An outsider in the Midwest of his birth and the England of his schooling, the failed oil executive eventually found his voice in writing. Specifically, in pulps like “Black Mask,” where he honed and refined his detective character Philip Marlowe in stories that boiled hard and talked tough. In 1939, THE BIG SLEEP (Audible Studios; 6 hours, 16 minutes) arrived to wide acclaim, as well it should have. Chandler’s evocative prose suffuses this detective story of family secrets, craven lies and mysterious deaths with the romance of the Los Angeles cityscapes he’d fallen in love with — and has by now transmitted to 80 years’ worth of readers.
All of which is why I found myself let down by Ray Porter’s narration. Was that a regional twang I detected, jarring with my innate sense of how Marlowe ought to sound? Never mind that Porter seems to be trying too hard, leaning too far in to the street-smart demeanor when that was always the facade that Chandler hung his work on, barely masking the glorious sentimentality at the heart of his crime fiction.
Chandler and his compatriots Dashiell Hammett and James M. Cain embody that American school of hard-boiled fiction that became one of this country’s best-known literary exports. But there was a third stream, not quite cozy, not quite noir, dominated by women, almost entirely rooted around suspense of the psychological variety.
Patricia Highsmith, from the first, had an unerring sense of what drove ordinary people to the most extreme lengths, the result of which was often murder. STRANGERS ON A TRAIN (Blackstone Audio; 9 hours, 41 minutes), her 1950 debut novel, goes far beyond the ingenious, familiar, oft-copied concept — two brand-new acquaintances resolving to do one’s wife in, except one means it and the other doesn’t — to lay bare the roots of miserable marriages, of class differences, of obsessive desires. It’s a strange, nasty fever dream of a book that still has the power to shock 70 years later.