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Best british police procedural mystery

For at least the last 15 years, my very favorite British police procedurals have been those of an author who started out writing historical fiction, as well as romance novels under a pen-name.

She is Cynthia Harrod-Eagles and her one mystery series features a kind and empathetic Detective Inspector named Bill Slider.

The books take place in an area of London called Shepherd’s Bush, where Harrod-Eagles was born. The author has said that she wrote the first book, Orchestrated Death, as a way to relax between other writing projects, and that Slider sprang fully formed into her mind. She knew immediately what he looked like, where he lived, and his likes and dislikes. (All writers should be so lucky!) In addition to DI Slider, the books are populated by complex and interesting characters, including Slider’s ‘bagman’, DS Jim Atherton, as well as the other police officers working under Slider.

Reading a book can be like falling in love. Sometimes it’s a slow burn; maybe you feel you’re not quite sure about the book/person, but over time they grow on you and you slowly realize how brilliant and beautiful they are and can’t believe you didn’t recognize this immediately.

Other times it is love at first sight. One look / one paragraph and that’s it. You are lost, forever. Life is divided into ‘before I met this person / read this book’ and after.

That’s how it was with me and Orchestrated Death. And happily, unlike many love-at-first-sight stories, my attachment and respect for these books have only deepened.

Orchestrated Death Cynthia Harrod-Eagles
My well-loved copy of the first Bill Slider mystery, bought second-hand in Vancouver.

I mention this series every chance I get and it’s always the first one I recommend when people are looking for new mysteries to read. My mother was just as big a fan (and the person who introduced me to the books) and in the summer and fall of 2017 while she was dying I read the two most recent books in the series out loud to her, sitting beside her hospice bed. It was a time I’ll always treasure.

Let me count the ways…

I was lying in bed last night, unable to sleep, and the idea for this post came to mind. I thought about how much I love these books and why, and then decided to share with you, other mystery fans. So here goes:

1. The characters

I’m reading another mystery at the moment (that shall remain nameless), and I can’t keep track of who the characters are. The author has done an amazing job with pacing and plot, but none of the suspects or secondary characters in the book are memorable at all.

Harrod-Eagles doesn’t have this problem and it’s one of the reasons I am besotted with the Bill Slider series. Slider and Atherton are memorable, of course, being the main characters and primary sleuths. Most authors can achieve this. What makes Harrod-Eagles stand head and shoulders above other writers, in my opinion, is the way that every character, from the lowliest constable in the squad room to the suspects are all interesting and fully formed.

The team that Slider works with evolve as the series progresses. We follow Atherton through his tom-cat days to something that resembles settling down. We’re with him when he sustains an injury on the job, and then in the next book, has to deal with the psychological aftermath of that event. We learn to love watching WPC Swilley spar with the others on the team and deal with their constant leering and adoration. (She’s a police officer built like a supermodel.) There is an incredibly slow burn in her relationship with Slider which, much to our surprise and theirs, evolves from boss and employee to something more like father and daughter. It is beautiful to behold; a satisfying reward offered to those like me who have read the books for years.

Suspects and other characters who may only appear for one or two scenes are treated with just as much respect. They are whole and complex, and leap off the page as though they’re in your living room with you. Reading Blood Sinister I felt claustrophobic each time a scene took place in recently deceased journalist Phoebe Agnew’s cluttered and messy apartment. When Harrod-Eagles describes a lawyer or a doctor or an administrative assistant working for an orchestra, they are not just people in clothes; they are real, living, breathing individuals and I can clearly imagine bumping into them on the street.

2. The humour

Harrod-Eagles clearly has an amazing sense of humour. (BTW, I’m Canadian and that’s how we spell humour.) Her chapter titles are usually puns and when I’ve finished each chapter it’s fun to look back at the title and see what the pun referred to.

My mum always knew when I was reading a Slider book (and vice versa) because our snorts of laughter could be heard from our respective favorite reading chairs. Slider’s superior officer, Porson, and his malapropisms are a very special highlight each time that character comes onto the page.

Other than the sardonic and slightly sarcastic humour in Robert B. Parker’s Spenser novels, I can’t think of a mystery series where I laugh so much. Now, don’t get me wrong, the Slider books are not comedies. But they are very much in the vein of other British books and TV shows, where the wit is subtle yet very clever. It catches me off guard sometimes, which only makes it sweeter.

3. The love story

I’m not going to say much about this one because to do so would be to spoil it. It is by turns beautiful, heartbreaking, funny (there’s that humour again) and satisfying. You’ll just have to trust me on this.

4. Everything else

I could go on and on. The use of language, which is such a delight. The complex and satisfying plots. The way that all the characters evolve and change, not just the central ones. The constables move on to other jobs, or are transferred. Superior officers come and go, until we are gifted with Porson. We even become attached to Atherton’s cats!

I think the best way to sum up one thing that stays with me when I read these books is that Harrod-Eagles is clearly enjoying what she’s doing. She is a very talented and skilled writer. She’s been at it for quite a while as is now a master at her craft. And writing obviously delights her. Her joy and pleasure come through the words on the page like sunlight sparkling through a leafy canopy. Anytime someone is doing something with that much joy, it is a pleasure to experience.

5. Comfort

This is kind of a weird inclusion on this list, but it’s possibly the most important one.

For all the reasons I list above, and perhaps some I can’t articulate, the DI Slider books comfort me like no others. I’m most drawn to those books, and TV shows and movies, where connection is made, where friends are like family with one another. Sure there can be discord and arguments, but the players are always brought around to be empathetic and good. I prefer art that is about kindness, connection, and love. (For example, the TV shows Parks and Recreation, Playing House, Rosehaven, and Grace and Frankie.)

I always finish a Bill Slider book wanting more. And wishing he and his friends lived next door to me.

So if you’re craving a little comfort with your murder, these might just be the books for you. ;-)

What’s next?

The next Bill Slider book, number 21 in the series, is called Headlong, and is being released in ebook (in my region) on February 1, 2019. That’s another reason I was thinking of these books when I couldn’t sleep last night; I was thinking that if it were already February I could have been reading instead of staring at the ceiling, wishing I was asleep.

What’s one of your all-time favourite mystery series? I’d love to hear your recommendations!

Leave a comment below. ;-)