Welcome to my Spotlight series! Every month in 2020 I am focusing on a different genre that I enjoy reading- not because I’m an expert, but because I want to celebrate a worthwhile category of books! I’m hoping this will be a space where everyone feels free to share their experiences with a genre of the month, whether you’ve read one book from the category or a hundred (or more!). I’ll share here what Mystery means to me, filling the post with titles and recommendations from my own experience, and then I’ll look forward to chatting with you in the comments about icons and recommendations I’ve missed (because that’s inevitable- I haven’t read everything)!
What is Mystery?
The mystery genre is full of books in which a question is presented at the beginning of the story that will be answered by the end, usually with clues (and red herrings) strewn along the way that allow the reader to guess at the answer. One “type” that appears often is the murder mystery. These often follow a detective (official or not) looking into a suspicious death. But murder is not a requirement of the genre; detectives can investigate any question to which an answer is initially unknown. Another “type” is the closed room mystery, in which a crime or other grievance has been committed in an enclosed space that defies entrance or exit- the culprit is stuck inside, hiding among innocents, and everyone is suspect.
Mystery has plenty of crossover with thriller genre- I’ll be focusing on that one more next month, but I want to draw a distinction in the meantime. Though a book can be both mystery and thriller, I also think a line can be drawn between the two genres, and that comes down to a difference in tone and level of suspense. A subjective matter, to be sure. For me the difference is usually determined by the degree of danger which the detective faces- if their life isn’t directly on the line, or is only in danger only because they happen to be present in a sticky situation, those are often mysteries. If the stakes are reasonably low and/or or distanced from the protagonist(s), that’s a mystery. If it’s a puzzle without edge-of-your-seat life-or-death-urgency, that’s a mystery to me.
Mystery can overlap with pretty much any genre, and it will mean a difference only in the setting or the way that the puzzle is being presented, though no other genre *requires* a puzzle the way Mystery does. Other frequent crossovers include gothic and horror stories.
My History with Mystery
I was one of many US children introduced to Gertrude Chandler Warner’s Boxcar Children mysteries during early forays into “chapter books.” I don’t own very many but I did read every volume available at both my school and public libraries, some more than once, throughout elementary school. I am also far from unique in moving on from those to Carolyn Keene’s Nancy Drew series. Mystery is a great genre for young readers generally, because it provides a hook to keep kids engaged from start to finish, can teach a moral, and uses simple tropes that can be repeated and recognized over and over in endless slightly altered configurations. Quite a lot of stories for young readers are mysteries. I read a lot of them and I remember few.
After binging on mysteries in my young reading years, I took a bit of a break from the genre. I became interested in more varied and wild stories, especially fantasy and the supernatural. Because mystery can fit into any genre, I did encounter it again in the process of seeking more fantastical reading; In my tweens / early teens I briefly loved Elizabeth Chandler’s Dark Secrets series and Meg Cabot’s 1-800-Where-R-You series. I also remember reading Caroline B. Cooney’s The Face on the Milk Carton around this time (though faces had never appeared on any of my milk cartons and I remember being young enough that I had to ask someone what that was all about).
In high school I fell into a murder mystery phase, and also a cringey reading-whoever-took-up-the-most-shelf-space-at-the-library phase, which meant (among others) Joanne Fluke, Janet Evanovich (I read a Stephanie Plum per day for a little while there, firmly team Ranger), and James Patterson. By college I was better at finding standalones to fit my taste and preferred a real challenge in guessing the whodunnits, and more suspense.
Mystery Classics and Staples
Does more need to be said than the name Agatha Christie? She’s dubbed “the queen of mystery” for a reason! I’ve actually only read a handful of her books so far, but one doesn’t need to read many to see her skill with the genre. My favorites to date have been (to no one’s surprise) And Then There Were None and Murder on the Orient Express. The former is a closed room mystery which takes place on an island, where ten people are gathered and die one by one while they wait to leave and try desperately to determine which among them is the killer. The latter, another closed room mystery, takes place on a train, where one passenger winds up dead and the evidence seems contradictory.
Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier is a gothic mystery classic in which a young wife feels judged against her husband’s former (now dead) wife, though no one will tell her what happend to the last Mrs. de Winter.
For more modern representation, Karin Slaughter is not to be overlooked. I started with The Good Daughter, in which a woman who survived a terrible attack as a child is later privy to the aftermath of another horrible crime, one that demands she take another look at the past tragedy that changed her family irrevocably. This title in itself isn’t necessarily the staple, but Karin Slaughter is enough of a mystery icon that all of her titles are on the map.
I must also mention Liane Moriarty, whose popular mystery Big Little Lies is a big little adaptation these days; this one follows a group of women whose children attend an Australian school where the parent drama turns deadly.
Robert Galbraith is another big name in mystery, probably due to the fact that J. K. Rowling hides behind the name, but for whichever reason, you’ll probably hear about the Cormoran Strike series if you’re digging into this genre! These are UK-based puzzles led by a one-legged private investigator and his intrepid secretary/partner.
There’s also Thomas Harris’s infamous Hannibal Lecter series for the horror fans- these are a bit grislier, but if you’re not interested in the whole series skip straight to The Silence of the Lambs– it can be read on its own, and is not to be missed! In this story, the FBI’s new behavioral science unit is hunting an evasive serial killer- with the help of an eclectic madman they’ve already caught.
And of course mystery is a popular genre outside of the English language as well. I’ve not yet read The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson (translated from the Swedish by Reg Keeland), a major contender, but I have enjoyed Sarah Blaedel’s The Forgotten Girls (translated from the Danish by Signe Rød Golly), Katrine Engberg’s The Tenant (translated from the Danish by Tara Chace) and Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead (translated from the Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones), a recent nominee for several literary prizes. It’s good fun to see how mysteries are done in other countries, I highly recommend looking around the world for additional titles!
Further Mystery Recommendations
If you’re new to the genre and not sure where to start, let me offer a few suggestions based on other categories you may already be interested in. These recommendations are based off of my own reading, rather than an exhaustive list of everything that’s out there; if anyone has further suggestions please drop them in the comments below!
If you like police procedurals: Susie Steiner’s Missing, Presumed, Adam Sternbergh’s The Blinds (to be clear, the sheriff of The Blinds is a fellow inmate in an experimental town full of criminals so this is a police procedural with a twist)
Special shoutout to my favorite mystery twist to date, found in Sarah Pinborough’s Behind Her Eyes, which I can’t talk about without giving it away. This one’s polarizing but… I loved it! If anyone is looking for a wild card recommendation, this is it.
Mysteries on my TBR:
Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Complete Sherlock Holmes is a mystery must that I’ve been sleeping on for far too long! I’m embarrassed not to have read any of these stories yet. I also have Anthony Horowitz high on my mystery to-read list, starting with The Word is Murder. Stuart Turton’s The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle is waiting patiently on my shelf, along with Jo Baker’s The Body Lies, and Silvia Moreno Garcia’s Mexican Gothic is on its way to my mailbox. (I’m hazy on whether this is actually a mystery or just gothic, so please excuse me if I’m wrong but I’m getting mystery vibes.) I’ve also got Kate Weinberg’s The Truants on my list, as well as Danielle Trussoni’s The Ancestor, and Claire Fuller’s Bitter Orange, for a few examples. And I want to do a deep dive into Agatha Christie’s work at some point! Which mysteries are on your TBR?
Why Read Mystery?
To exercise your brain! To brush with the morbid and macabre! To learn about real problems with crime from around the world! Mystery can also help readers build a sense of empathy and understand motivations because they often focus closely on character. These are perfect books to escape into, and you can choose to work on the puzzle for yourself while reading or simply follow along as the characters figure things out. Either way, it’s a great blend of fun format with thoughtful (and often very serious) content.
We’ve reached the part where I encourage you to drop a comment below sharing anything you love (or don’t) about this genre. Tell me about your own experiences, good and bad! If you have recommendations, if you’re looking for recommendations, if you have questions or hangups that stop you from reaching for mystery books, mention them below! I’m not trying to pressure anyone into reading what they don’t want to, but I’d love to discuss anything and everything about the genre. That’s the point of this post! A genre can mean something different to everyone, so to take a wider view, I’d love to see what it means to you.
Thank you, in advance, for participating! 🙂
The Literary Elephant