We're calling it now: The mystery and suspense genre is on the cusp of a golden age. From psychological thrillers to procedurals to cozies, these books reached new heights and brought new perspectives to the forefront in 2021.
John Galligan's trademark dark humor and clear-sighted social commentary are in fine form as he follows Sheriff Heidi Kick, one of the most complex yet lovable heroes in current crime fiction, on her latest investigation.
Calcutta, 1923: Then, as now, the state of Muslim-Hindu relations evoked an image of a short-fused powder keg, awaiting only the striking of a convenient match. The murder of a prominent Hindu theologian provides said spark, setting the stage for Abir Mukherjee's fifth novel, The Shadows of Men. Police Captain Sam Wyndham and Sergeant Surendranath Banerjee are tasked with unraveling the circumstances of the homicide before holy war breaks out in the streets and alleyways of West Bengal's most populous city, Calcutta. Things take a complicated turn almost immediately, as Banerjee finds himself framed for the aforementioned murder and thus removed from the state of play, at least in any official capacity. But he and Wyndham have never been what you'd call sticklers for the rules, and this time will prove to be no exception. Their investigation, at times in tandem but more often in parallel, will carry them to Bombay, which is unfamiliar turf to both of them. There they will discover that there is more afoot than just age-old cultural and religious enmity, and that certain third parties may harbor a keen—albeit covert—interest in fanning the flames of mutual intolerance. The narrative is first-person throughout, switching from Wyndham's perspective to Banerjee's in alternating chapters, an unusual and clever approach that keeps readers dead center in the melee, while at the same time poised on the edges of their seats.
All Her Little Secrets
Wanda M. Morris' debut novel, All Her Little Secrets, is a multilayered, atmospheric thriller with subplot atop subplot. In a 200-odd-word review, I can barely scratch the surface. The main characters are Atlanta corporate attorney Ellice Littlejohn, a Black woman who is the lead counsel for a thriving transport company; her brother Sam, a ne'er-do-well who skates very close to the edge of legality, and sometimes over the edge; her auntie Vera, once a ball of fire, now laid low by advancing episodes of dementia; and CEO Nate Ashe, a Southern gentleman who might be looking out for Ellice's interests but who also might be a corrupt businessman attuned to the optics of displaying a minority woman in a position of power. Then there is a murder, and another, and it becomes next to impossible for Ellice to determine who is in her corner. Examinations of racism, sexism, ageism and classism (and probably other -isms I have forgotten about) abound, making All Her Little Secrets a very timely read, in addition to being one heck of a debut.
Psycho by the Sea
A handful of pages into Lynne Truss' hilarious new installment in her Constable Twitten series, Psycho by the Sea, I found myself imagining it as a BBC TV series with an eccentric "Fawlty Towers" sort of vibe, perhaps with a screenplay penned by Graham Greene. The characters are delightfully overblown, the storyline whimsical (well, if a cop killer who boils his victims' severed heads fits your notion of whimsy).The novel is set in 1957 in the English seaside town of Brighton, which is not the sort of place that jumps to mind as crime central. Still, a number of locals make a good living pushing the boundaries of the law, including Mrs. Groynes, the lady who makes the tea at the Brighton police station. Privy as she is to the daily departmental goings-on, she ensures that the constables will be conveniently far from wherever her crimes are set to take place. When the severed-head-boiling killer escapes from the psychiatric detention facility he has called home for several years, perhaps aided in that getaway by a staff psychotherapist, all manner of ghoulish things begin to take place in the otherwise somnolent resort. While Psycho by the Sea is not the most suspenseful story on offer this month, it is easily the funniest, the quirkiest and the most entertaining read of the bunch.
When John le Carré passed away in December 2020, he left a gift behind for his readers: Silverview, one last novel from the master of espionage. The story goes that le Carré began work on the book nearly a decade ago, but it was held for publication as the author "tinkered" with it (a sly nod to his 1974 book Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy?). The tinkering paid off. Silverview is one of his best works, an intricate cat-and-mouse tale in which just who is the feline and who is the rodent is up in the air until the final pages. When bookshop owner Julian Lawndsley meets Edward Avon, he is virtually bowled over by the larger-than-life demeanor of the elderly white-haired gentleman. Together they hatch a plan to expand Julian's bookstore. Meanwhile, British intelligence has launched an investigation into a long-ago incident in Edward's life, one that suggests he may still be in the spy game. If this is true, it's anybody's guess who his employer might be, for it is certainly not the home team. Not that the home team could even remotely be considered the good guys, mind you. But I suppose treason is treason, irrespective of the morality of the players. Perhaps even more world-weary in tone than the le Carré books that preceded it, Silverview will make readers look askance at the sort of things their countries do on the world stage.
The Shadows of Men Calcutta, 1923: Then, as now, the state of Muslim-Hindu relations evoked an image of a short-fused powder keg, awaiting only the striking of a convenient match. The murder of a prominent Hindu theologian provides said spark, setting the stage for Abir Mukherjee's fifth novel, The Shadows of Men. Police Captain Sam […]
Is your book club ready to try something different after another round of literary fiction? Tired of reading the same titles as every other book club in town? Branch out with one of these mystery and suspense picks for your next book club meeting. The books on our list were screened with these criteria in mind:
• Issues, characters and/or moral dilemmas worthy of group discussion • Suspense paired with great writing • Books that stand alone and don't require knowledge of earlier entries in a series • Recently (or soon-to-be) available in paperback
Book clubs will find plenty of fodder for discussion in Ephron's psychological thriller about two American couples whose Italian vacation dissolves into a swirl of acrimony and infidelity. Told in alternating viewpoints by the participants, Ephron's finely paced tale exposes some raw truths about betrayal and jealousy. A reading group guide is available online.
Creator of the FX television series "Fargo" and "Legion," Hawley won the 2017 Edgar Award for Best Novel for this riveting mystery about a plane crash off the coast of Martha's Vineyard that claims the lives of nine well-to-do passengers. Only two aboard survive: struggling painter Scott Burroughs and the 4-year-old son of a wealthy media titan. A reading group guide is included in the paperback edition.
Not your typical thriller, Winters' book tackles a deadly serious topic: America's legacy of slavery and the ways in which it still affects our culture. Described by the author as "an alternate history that wasn't alternate enough," this fast-paced novel depicts a present-day U.S.A. where slavery is legal in four states in the South. Victor, a black bounty hunter who tracks down escaped slaves, is on the trail of an escapee known as Jackdaw, and his pursuit will take many dramatic twists and turns.
Not a Soundby Heather Gudenkauf
Amelia Winn, the protagonist of this compelling novel, has two characteristics that distinguish her from run-of-the-mill mystery characters: She's a nurse, and she's deaf. Struck by a hit-and-run driver, Amelia loses her hearing—and her marriage—as a result of the crash. Two years later, as she attempts to rebuild her life, she finds the body of a fellow nurse in the river near her remote cabin. Gudenkauf, who is hearing-impaired, blends a straightforward and illuminating portrait of Amelia's disability into this riveting tale.
Optioned for film by Reese Witherspoon, Walker's novel has an intriguing concept: Jenny Kramer, the teenage victim of a brutal rape, is given a controversial drug that erases all her memories of the assault. The reaction of Jenny's parents to the crime, the treatment by her psychiatrist and the secrets that surface in her Connecticut hometown all offer rich areas for discussion by reading groups.
Though this is the fifth book in the Detective Alex Morrow series, newcomers should have no problem diving into this watery mystery by the masterful Scottish crime writer. Already under police surveillance for possible money laundering, Roxanna Fuentecilla disappears from her Glasgow home and turns up dead in the waters of Loch Lomond. Morrow's investigation will take her to the scenic seaside town of Helensburgh, which may harbor dark secrets beneath its quaint exterior. Mina's sharp writing and finely drawn characters have won her numerous awards and an international following.
Though we don't have the space to enumerate all the qualities that make Penny's Armand Gamache mysteries worth reading, two stand at the top of our list: the powerful writing and rich setting in the charming Quèbec village of Three Pines. In this outing, which earned a spot on several 2016 best books of the year lists (including our own), Gamache investigates the murder of a sadistic professor at the police academy. Discussions questions are included in the paperback edition.
Ware follows her hit debut, In a Dark, Dark Wood, with the gripping story of travel journalist Lo Blackstock, who thinks she's lucky to snag a press pass for a luxury cruise from London to Norway. The idyllic cruise takes a frightening turn on the first night when Lo hears a scream from the next cabin and then a loud splash. There's no sign of a crime, however, and ship security assures Lo that the cabin wasn't occupied. Book club topic number one: Are Lo's concerns overlooked because she's a woman with a history of anxiety and panic attacks? More questions are available in an online reading group guide.
Behind Closed Doorsby B.A. Paris
A handsome and successful English lawyer, Jack Angel shows admirable concern for domestic violence victims by representing battered women. But his personal life tells a different story: Jack's treatment of his wife, Grace, is cruel and deeply disturbing. After a whirlwind courtship and marriage, Grace has become virtually a prisoner in their home, not allowed any unsupervised contact with the outside world. As Grace prepares for the arrival of her sister, Minnie, who has Down syndrome, she's faced with a terrifying choice.
Hart, a talented writer who won back-to-back Edgar Awards for Down River and The Lost Child, covers thought-provoking territory in his latest thriller, his first in five years. Two powerful stories are interwoven here, both involving police officers: Det. Elizabeth Bank is under investigation after fatally shooting two black teens who were raping a white girl. Meanwhile, former policeman Adrian Wall is released from prison after serving 13 years for a murder he didn't commit. As you might expect from the book's title, the nature of redemption is one of the topics that should generate group discussion.
Is your book club ready to try something different after another round of literary fiction? Branch out with one of these mystery and suspense picks for your next book club meeting.
Lexie Elliott’s new book, How to Kill Your Best Friend, is perhaps the ideal escapist thriller: a possible murder, a friend group practically bursting at the seams with drama and some very twisted secrets, all against the backdrop of a luxury resort on a gorgeous, isolated island in Southeast Asia. We asked Elliott to share more suspenseful novels with stunning settings.
Writers: We’re a strange breed, and none more so than crime writers. Give us a beautiful villa overlooking a secluded beach and we immediately wonder what might be buried under the palm tree or weighted down at the bottom of the ocean. A sun-dappled European city has us looking past the landmarks and museums for what might be lurking in the narrow alleys. The contrast between the light and shade of human nature is never so stark as when played out in the most seductive of settings, the kind of places where people come to relax and forget their cares. Two of my novels (my debut, The French Girl, and my most recent novel, How To Kill Your Best Friend) feature exactly that delicious contrast, and with that in mind, I bring you some suggestions for thrillers where the gorgeous settings almost steal the scene.
The Talented Mr. Ripleyby Patricia Highsmith
Mongibello, San Remo, Rome, Venice, Greece: The locations in this novel read like a travel agent’s advertisement (though the first is admittedly fictional—Highsmith took inspiration for it from Positano, Italy). Readers will be captivated as the young, wealthy American trust fund socialites of the 1950s frolic through the radiant Italian Riviera, unaware of the twisted obsession growing in the heart of Tom Ripley. I discovered this novel in my teens and it awoke in me a longing (never quite lost) to travel to these beguiling destinations, where surely I would dress most fabulously to drink cocktails in the warm summer evenings at the bars of the most fashionable hotels and restaurants. . . . Highsmith unerringly captures the details of both the time and place, and it’s her depiction of the juxtaposition of the glorious sun-drenched locations with the darkness of the conniving, murder and betrayal carried out by our extraordinarily creepy antihero Tom that truly sets this novel apart. (Oh, and the 1999 movie, with Matt Damon as Tom and Jude Law as Dickie Greenleaf, is excellent too.)
The weather. The landscape. The opulent villas. The togas. Harris’ tautly accurate prose transports the reader to the heart of ancient Italy in the heat of late summer, with a tale of sleazy urban corruption, 79 A.D.-style, with a rigorously intelligent hydraulic engineer to guide us through it—all while trying to keep hold of both his integrity and his life. I defy any reader to finish this novel without a burning desire to immediately visit the ruins of Pompeii (though preferably without Vesuvius erupting at the time).
The Chaletby Catherine Cooper
Glamourous locales aren’t always warm: A luxury ski chalet in the snow-covered Alps also ticks the box (Champagne in front of the log fire, anyone?). Cooper’s descriptions of the beautiful, glacial landscape place the reader squarely inside a dual-timeline tale of twisted revenge spanning two decades.
Murder on the Orient Expressby Agatha Christie
The queen of crime and the original luxury train experience: It's a match made in exotically located thriller heaven that spans both hot and cold climes. The opening chapters are set in bustling Istanbul, before the action steams along to snow-covered Yugoslavia. With Poirot aboard, and the train itself providing the “locked room” setting, you know you are in for a treat.
Grieving the sudden death of her husband, group therapist Mariana Andros drops everything when her niece's best friend is brutally murdered on the grounds of a quiet Cambridge college. As more young women are slaughtered, Mariana realizes that their deaths are not frenzied acts of madness but rather a coldly calculated and purposeful series of sacrifices, with a charismatic murderer at the center.
In The Maidens (9.5 hours), Alex Michaelides draws heavily upon Greek mythology to create an absorbing thriller with more twists than the Minotaur's labyrinth. The audiobook is narrated primarily by actor Louise Brealey, who has given life to complex female characters in the audio editions of The Girl on the Train and The Silent Patient, Michaelides' first novel. Here, she does an excellent job of conveying Mariana's confusion, courage and determination to solve the mystery at any cost. Actor Kobna Holdbrook-Smith's nuanced performance as the killer reminds us that monsters are made, not born, and that within even the most heinous murderer is a shattered, lonely child.
Actors Louise Brealey and Kobna Holdbrook-Smith narrate as an investigator and a killer in The Maidens, a thriller with more twists than the Minotaur’s labyrinth.
Early in The Turnout, the beautifully dark suspense novel from bestselling author Megan Abbott (Dare Me), readers will sense that all is not right in the Durant School of Dance, a prestigious yet moldering ballet studio.
It’s “Nutcracker” season, and the holiday staple brings in the bulk of the annual revenue for the school, which is run by the Durant sisters, Dara and Marie, and Dara’s husband, Charlie. Emotions are running high in the days leading up to the announcement of who will play Clara—the most coveted role but also the one that makes the dancer the target of cruel jealousy from both students and parents.
Marie, who had been living with Dara and Charlie ever since the sudden death of the sisters’ parents, has recently set up camp in the attic above the studio. A fire from her space heater leaves part of the studio in ruins, and a possibly shady contractor comes on board to help with renovations. The future of the studio is in jeopardy, forcing the sisters to revisit their traumatic childhood as they decide whether the Durant School is worth saving.
The Turnout submerses readers in the obsessive, toxic world of competitive ballet. Abbott perfectly describes the unique smells and atmosphere of a dance studio: a mix of sweat, vomit and hormones. She unsettlingly juxtaposes a sport that requires astonishing levels of discipline with the sugary sweet story of “The Nutcracker.” “Consider the exquisite torture of all those little girls never allowed to eat dancing as costumed Sugar Plums, as fat Bonbons gushing cherry slicks. Tutus like ribbon candy, boys spinning great hoops of peppermint, and everywhere black slathers of licorice and marzipan glistening like snow.”
Abbott layers dread and darkness as readers learn about the harrowing family home that shaped Dara and Marie and pulled Charlie into their lives. Virtually no one is who they seem, and Abbott keeps the twists coming until the final pages. The Turnout is the kind of gripping, unnerving page turner we have come to expect from an author who does noir better than almost anyone.
Early in The Turnout, the beautifully dark suspense novel from bestselling author Megan Abbott, readers will sense that all is not right in the Durant School of Dance.
Sign up to receive reading recommendations in your favorite genres!
In Rivals, Tommy Greenwald’s second novel set in the fictional town of Walthorne (after 2018’s Game Changer), having fun is immaterial when it comes to a high-pressure middle school basketball season between the Walthorne North Cougars and the Walthorne South Panthers. Everyone wants to win, and they’ll do whatever it takes to make it happen.