Last Bus to Woodstock by Colin Dexter

last busBook – Two girls are waiting for a bus but, impatient, they decide to hitch a lift instead. Later that night one of them is found murdered outside a pub. Enter Detective Inspector Morse, unhappily middle-aged, cranky, romantic, and (as his supervisor will say in a later novel), entirely too clever for his own good. No one is telling the whole truth, and Morse runs himself in circles second- and third- and fourth-guessing everyone’s motives in an attempt to find out what really happened that night on the way to Woodstock.

Last Bus to Woodstock shows its age in a lot of ways, not least the extremely dated attitudes toward sex and rape that nearly all the characters express, but it’s still a good, solid mystery with an engaging detective. I particularly liked the way Morse keeps getting things wrong: he makes lots of wild guesses and assumptions and follows lots of trails that lead only to dead ends before finally (of course) hitting upon the solution.

Written from the mid seventies through the late nineties, Colin Dexter’s popular Inspector Morse series was also made into a TV show that continues to be popular on PBS’s Masterpiece Mystery, and has spawned two spinoff shows of its own.

Hannibal (2013)

HannibalSeason1_DVD_CoverArt_small1TV Show – Before he was a serial killer, Hannibal Lecter was a psychiatrist.

Actually, that’s not quite right. He’s already a serial killer, it’s just that nobody knows it yet. Not even FBI profiler Will Graham, who’s being treated by Dr. Lecter for the depression and instability he suffers as a result of his work with deranged minds. Graham is obsessed by the hunt for the Chesapeake Ripper, a serial killer who’s been taunting him for some time but continues to escape his grasp.

While it’s based on characters from the books by Thomas Harris, Hannibal is set before any of those books take place. It’s a gruesome show, definitely not for everyone – even I, a veteran Criminal Minds fan, have to look away from some of the murder scenes. But there’s a grim kind of humor to the show, too, courtesy of producer and writer Brian Fuller, creator of such whimsical series as Pushing Daisies and Dead Like Me. If you enjoy serious psychological drama (and cannibal puns) you should love Hannibal.

Season two of Hannibal premieres tonight on NBC at 9pm.

Breaking Bad (2008)

breaking badTV SeriesBreaking Bad features brilliant but timid high school chemistry teacher Walter White, who is diagnosed with lung cancer. A father of a special needs son and husband of a pregnant stay-at-home wife, he worries about how he can possibly pay for his treatments and care for his family in case of his death. He decides to produce meth to subsidize his income. He enlists the aid of a former student and naively embarks on his new moonlighting career. What ensues is chaos, tragedy and hilarity as Walt and his hapless associate encounter ruthless kingpins, territory squabbles and bumbling employees. To complicate matters, Walt’s brother-in-law is a DEA Officer who is (unknowingly) hot on his trail. Juggling matters with his wife (annoyed at his frequent unexplained absences), teaching responsibilities, drug operations and cancer treatments keep Walter busy and viewers entertained. I’m just finishing Season 2 and all other non-essential activities in my household are on hold until we finish the series. Breaking Bad, which was first aired in 2008, ended in 2013 and won over fifty awards.

The Bletchley Circle (2012)

bletchleyTV Show – The Bletchley Circle is a new British crime drama, premiering on ITV in 2012 and on PBS in America in 2013. The main character, Susan, was a codebreaker at Bletchley Park during World War II, and although nine years later she’s now a housewife, she’s also been following the news reports on the murders of several young women in the area. She enlists the help of three of her old friends from Bletchley to help her decipher the pattern she’s sure is buried in the crimes to stop a killer the police can’t seem to catch up with.

I wasn’t expecting to love this show as much as I did. I tore through all three episodes in a day and a half. The show was a little more graphic than I expected – not gory, but they don’t shy away from describing the horrible things the killer does to his victims. It’s a delight, though, to watch a serious crime drama so completely focused on women that most of the men have only a few minutes of screen time. For any fan of British crime drama, this is a must-see.

The City & The City by China Miéville

Book – Tyador Bocity & cityrlú is a detective in Beszel, charged with investigating the murder of an unidentified woman found in one of their slums. His case would be much simpler if he did not believe she was murdered in Ul Quoma, the neighboring city and other half of Beszel, a city which intertwines with his own but whose borders are strictly policed by a shadowy force known as Breach. To unwind the mystery, he must travel across and between these borders, but carefully, because the murderers appear to be extremely powerful – and Breach is always watching.

Miéville’s books always revolve around cities, from the fantastical cities of Bas-Lag to a mystical London, but Beszel and Ul Quoma are perhaps the strangest yet, although there is almost fantastical about them, strictly speaking. This book also features two of the greatest chase scenes I’ve ever read, enabled by the cities’ particularly peculiar geography.

The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett

thin manBook – Dashiell Hammett is considered the father of the hard-boiled detective genre, and if his “gritty and realistic” characters seem slightly less so to modern eyes, at least they’re still great fun to read about. Hammett himself worked as a Pinkerton detective before the First World War, so he comes by his colorful characters honestly. And it’s not hard to see a little bit of Hammett in the hard-drinking, hard-partying Nick Charles of Hammett’s last novel, The Thin Man.

When Nick and Nora Charles head to New York City for the holidays, they’re expecting to spend their time at glamorous parties and social events. But much like in Dorothy Sayers’ Busman’s Honeymoon, the detective is never allowed to rest. Nick’s past insists on catching up with him when a young woman he has paternal feelings towards asks him to investigate her father’s disappearance. So much for holiday fun: Nick spends the rest of the novel trying both to avoid doing any real work and to avoid disappointing his young friend. Of course things get nasty, but when Nick tries to protect his wife, Nora only complains that he never wants her to have any excitement. Nick and Nora’s relationship is such a delight that after the rousing success of the film version starring Myrna Loy and William Powell, the studio went on to make five more.

Elementary (2012)

elementaryTV – It’s New York City in 2012, and Sherlock Holmes (Johnny Lee Miller) has just been released from rehab where he finally managed to kick his cocaine addiction. His father, however, thinks he needs some additional looking after. Enter Joan Watson (Lucy Liu), former surgeon, current sober companion. Her plan is simple: she’ll live with him, escort him to NA meetings, and try to keep him on the straight and narrow. But Holmes is convinced that he needs an assistant.

It’s been a while since I loved a new TV show as much as I love Elementary. It really isn’t fair to compare this to the other currently-running modern Sherlock Holmes adaptation, BBC’s Sherlock; the two shows are doing completely different things. While Sherlock is adapting Doyle’s stories directly, Elementary is using the framework of a familiar set of characters to talk about the importance of friendship and loyalty, and it does so beautifully.