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FIVE BEST

Murder, They Wrote
The most riveting crime novels.

BY P.D. JAMES
Saturday, June 3, 2006 12:01 a.m. EDT

1. "Tragedy at Law" by Cyril Hare (Harcourt, Brace, 1943).

For me there is particular charm in books written before or during World War II, not least because I find myself engrossed in that very different world. In "Tragedy at Law" we travel with a High Court judge, Mr. Justice Barber, as he moves in state from town to town presiding over cases. But someone obviously wishes him dead, and twice he narrowly escapes. The amateur detective is a defending barrister, Francis Pettigrew, once in love with the judge's wife and a man of ability and probity who has never quite achieved success. Author Cyril Hare was himself a judge, and the book provides a fascinating portrayal of the judge in court and of the coterie of people, including barristers, who travel with him. Written with elegance and wit, "Tragedy at Law" is regarded by many lawyers as the best English detective story set in the legal world.

2. "The Franchise Affair" by Josephine Tey (MacMillan, 1949).

"The Franchise Affair" is an unusual detective story in that it contains no murder. It is, however, enthralling from beginning to end. A 15-year-old girl, Betty Kane, who has obviously been assaulted, accuses two eccentric and isolated women, Miss Marion Sharp and her elderly mother, of kidnapping, starving and forcing her to work for them as a servant. Opinion in their small town is outraged, and the two ladies are at risk from the mob as well as the law. The amateur detective, a local solicitor becoming set in his comfortable ways, takes on the challenge of defending the two women. The setting and the people come brilliantly alive and, despite the absence of egregious violence, the tension never slackens.

3. "The Moving Toyshop" by Edmund Crispin (Lippincott, 1946).

Edmund Crispin is one of the few mystery writers able to combine situation comedy and high spirits with detection. "The Moving Toyshop" is set in Oxford--a popular city for mystery writers--and has as its detective an eccentric amateur, Gervase Fen, a professor of English at the university. A murder is discovered in a toyshop, but when the police arrive the shop itself has disappeared. Suspension of disbelief is occasionally needed, but this spirited frolic of a detective story retains its place as one of the most engaging and ingenious mysteries of its age.

4. "Murder Must Advertise" by Dorothy L. Sayers (Harcourt, Brace, 1933).

Dorothy L. Sayers is a writer of the Golden Age still read with pleasure today. One of her most enjoyable novels, and the most credible judged as a mystery, is "Murder Must Advertise," set at Pym's Advertising Agency in London. A copywriter has written to the agency's chief saying that something undesirable is going on in the office, but before he can explain, his body is found at the foot of an iron staircase, his neck broken. Mr. Pym hires a private detective to investigate, and Lord Peter Wimsey, under the pseudonym Mr. Death Bredon, takes a job as copywriter. Before he unravels the mystery, five people will die and Lord Peter will be drawn into a vicious network of blackmail and drug peddling. The novel shows Sayers's virtues of originality, energy and wit. Anyone interested in what it was like to work in an advertising agency in the 1930s has only to read "Murder Must Advertise." Copywriters today may feel that little has changed.

5. "Dissolution" by C.J. Sansom (Viking, 2003).

"Dissolution" has established historian C.J. Sansom as one of the most promising new writers of detective fiction. The book is set in 1537, when England is torn by the Reformation. The terrifying Henry VIII has proclaimed himself Supreme Head of the Church and his power is being enforced by savage new laws and a network of secret informers. A team of commissioners is sent out to investigate the country's monasteries. At one, a commissioner is found dead, his head severed from his body, his murder accompanied by sinister acts of sacrilege. The hero, Matthew Shardlake, a hunchback lawyer, intelligent and incorruptible, is ordered by Thomas Cromwell to uncover the truth. His investigation involves him in treachery and danger, leading him to question everything he believes. The sights, the voices, the very smell of this turbulent age seem to rise from the page.

Ms. James's most recent mystery is "The Lighthouse" (Knopf), published in November.

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