Books: Blood, Blonds and Badinage

A sampler of chillers displays the mystery's range

Like the blues, slapstick comedy and the .400 hitter, the murder mystery enjoyed its golden age in the 1920s. That was the epoch of Agatha Christie and Ronald Knox, of G.K. Chesterton and S.S. Van Dine. The mystery craze gripped every age, sex and temperament; it spread so wide that it was parodized by P.G. Wodehouse. Back then it seemed possible to believe, as Playwright Anthony Shaffer later joshed in Sleuth, that mysteries were "the normal recreation of noble minds."

The present state of mystery writing does not foretoken a renaissance. By the customary criteria applied to genre fiction--the number of...

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