Crime Fiction Novels- Off the Beaten Track!

I believe every devotee of the mystery treasures a number of special stories that others probably would not know. I have a small number of favorites that I love and can read again and again. They are not well known, readily available, or current. They are a little weird but pleasing to me. I call these stories “off the beaten track” because they usually represent unusual settings or beautifully described settings that matter to the plot (and to me). I caution my reader that they may not agree with my choices or even know them but remember, they are mine!!!!!

My list below is divulged only to confess that I have some strange taste and in the hope readers will send me their choices that are “off the beaten track”.

One of my very favorites is an unusual novel by Claire Taschdjian entitled The Peking Man is Missing.  Ms. Taschdjian married her husband in Beijing just before the Japanese invasion in 1937 and WWII. She was involved with a special group of scientists and philosophers including the renowned Catholic philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and the group who unearthed the fossils of the Peking Man (that eventually disappeared as the fossils were being shipped out of China). The story is redolent of that hectic time in China and the start of the war as well as some real and special characters involved in the archeological project and the Peking Union Medical College. Ms. Taschdjian is still a mystery to me as she wrote only one other novel (Classified Death). I think she was a Canadian and spent most of her time in scientific research. Any information about her would be greatly appreciated. Her novel is very dear to me. (See my recent update about Claire Taschdjian on my website at News, Reader Comments and Responses.)

Another old favorite of mine is by the late and renowned writer Ellis Peters (aka Edith Pargeter) who most people associate with the Brother Cadfael mysteries. She wrote many other books and another set of stories, the George Felse Mysteries. In that series there is a little known but beautiful story set in the Tatra Mountains of Slovakia. The Piper on the Mountain is a delightful tale that brings the detective from England to the gorgeous, unspoiled peaks and valleys of the Tatra mountains in northeast Slovakia. The setting she describes envelopes the reader and is the best part of the reading experience.

The late Robert van Gulik, who is associated primarily with his well loved Judge Dee series, also wrote many other books. Many were intellectual treatises on Chinese life and traditions. This extraordinary man - scholar, diplomat, anthropologist, linguist and author - wrote a final tome entitled The Given Day: An Amsterdam Mystery. Set in Amsterdam, although with many flashbacks to Asia, it is a philosophical and somewhat morose piece featuring a former Dutch colonial official, Mr. Hendricks. It is a strange story with much violence in a gloomy and wet Dutch setting but, for me, a glimpse into Van Gulik’s Dutch personality that had been overwhelmed most of his adult life by his Chinese persona. It is different but fascinating and a great leap from the Judge Dee mysteries.

Recently I ran into the old 1940a and 50s mysteries by Juanita Sheridan (aka Juanita Lorraine Knight). They are set in Hawaii mainly and feature the first main Asian crime solver- Lily Wu. They are time pieces and provide an early and accurate view of Honolulu. The author was a very remarkable lady whose life was as strange and violent as her mysteries.

As an old Soviet specialist and Russian hand, I was mesmerized by a lovely novel by Barry Maitland – The Marx Sisters. It was his debut mystery featuring a duo - Kathy Kolla and David Brock. The setting is an old section of London and the plot revolves around some books and materials written by Karl Marx and in the possession of some old sisters who have a familial connection to the old original Red! The story is engaging, the setting wonderful and the history captivating. This is a little gem of a mystery filled with wonderful characters.

I recently encountered an early writer who fascinated me and I would like to share my findings here.  Achmed Abdullah (1881-1945) was a prolific writer of exotic tales, academic tomes, and mysteries.  He was christened Alexander Nikolayevitch Romanoff, son of Grand Duke Nikolas Roamanoff (cousin of Tsar Nikolas II) and Princess Nourmahal Durani, an Afghani.  The Princess divorced the Grand Duke and took her son to live in Afghanistan.  He was educated in Afghanistan, India, France, and in England he attended Eton and Oxford.  His first publications included a volume of poems and a volume on Bantu dialects! He served with distinction in the British Army in many international posts, all of which provided grist for his stories and tales.  He came to the United States in the 1920's and began a long career of publishing novels and stories, and writing screenplays.  He is believed to have written the novel that became the movie The Thief of Baghdad, and was one of the screenwriters for The Lives of a Bengal Lancer.  He wrote numerous eerie and exotic tales for the pulps and a number of mysteries for the detective magazines.  One of my favorites, The Benefactor's Club, is a novella that appeared in Detective Story Magazine (Vol. 39, #5, April 16, 1921).  It is a wonderfully vivid mystery in which the hero is framed but uses some remarkable ratiocination to solve the crime, absolve himself and get the girl.  Some of his other mystery titles include, "The Honorable Gentleman, and Others," "Fear," and "The Red Stain."

Achmed Abdullah was a very multi-talented writer and unfortunately a lost mystery author.  I hope this bit about him stirs some interest the man and his work.  This guy deserves more attention!

Suggestions or comments from readers welcomed.

George Demko   Updated December 6, 2007

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