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At this year’s Malice Domestic, the annual convention for writers and readers of classic mysteries, I had dinner one night with a half dozen of its attendees. They included a leading publisher, a judge for the Edgar Awards, the field’s most prominent reviewer, and two prize-winning authors. While waiting for dessert, I asked my tablemates to name their favorite detective-story writers, leaving out Arthur Conan Doyle. As you can imagine, people shouted out Christie, Queen, Carr, Sayers and other giants of the past. Suddenly, one guy said Bruce Alexander.

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There was a moment of quiet, perhaps of surprise, and then people started to talk about how wonderful the Sir John Fielding mysteries are. I can’t remember exactly what was said, but I know that anyone who picks up Blind Justice, the first book in this 11-book series, is likely to pause occasionally while reading and just smile with pleasure. If pressed to explain that smile, he or she would probably murmur some phrase like “terrific evocation of the 18th century,” “such loveable characters,” “a book you just sink into, like a hot bath,” “beautifully worked- out plot.” In fact, you can find precisely such sentiments expressed by dozens of people if you visit Goodreads and type in “Sir John Fielding Mysteries.” You will seldom see so many five-star endorsements. Readers simply adore these books.

Over the past decade many people, weary of brutal modern thrillers, have been rediscovering classic and historical mysteries. For example, The British Library Crime Classics, under the direction of Detection Club president Martin Edwards, has been wildly successful in reissuing Golden-Age whodunits. After all, who doesn’t yearn to put aside, at least for a while, the problems of the modern world and just surrender to great storytelling? This—with seemingly effortless ease–is what Bruce Alexander provides in the Sir John Fielding novels.

About three quarters through the old Ellery Queen mysteries, you used to find a little box labeled “Challenge to the Reader,” announcing that all the clues needed to solve the murder case had been presented. Allow me to issue a different kind of “Challenge to the Reader.” Pick up Blind Justice or any other Sir John Fielding book and read the first two chapters. If you can stop at that point, you either possess an iron will or a heart of stone.

But you almost certainly won’t be able to stop reading and after you finish one Sir John Fielding adventure, you’ll be out searching for the others. This is a series that people like to acquire in its entirety, that they tell their friends about, that they periodically reread just for the pleasure to be found in the company of Sir John and young Jeremy Proctor. If I were to suggest an analogous set of mysteries, I’d pick those featuring Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin. While we enjoy the working out of the puzzle, we really love the characters, their interaction, their tics and crotchets, the portrait of a lost world.

Some books we read out of duty, some because they are in the news. We read a Bruce Alexander book for the best reason of all: We can’t wait to start it and we can hardly bear for it to end.

Michael Dirda is a Pulitzer Prize-winning critic for The Washington Post and the author of several books about books, including On Conan Doyle, which received a 2012 Edgar Award.


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