Murder Mysteries: A Recommendations List
What's the difference between a mystery and a thriller? I'm so glad you asked.
In today's fiction, mysteries and thrillers are often conflated, but I consider them rather distinct subgenres of 'crime' fiction - with some obvious overlap. A novel can, for example, be both a mystery and a thriller, but I tend to think that the best mysteries are mysteries that don't try and also be a thriller - and vice versa (the exception is, in my view, the Cormoran Strike series by J.K. Rowling "Robert Galbraith"). So we're accepting the following working definition for the purpose of this recommendation list: a mystery novel is a book that presents a puzzle that the central characters have to work backwards to solve, whether it's a murder or a theft. A thriller is a novel where the main stakes are laid out fairly early on in the book, and there's a 'race against time' element to stop the villain rather than discovering who they are.
My personal preference is for murder mysteries, as I like unpicking all of the clues and locks along with the main character; but I also like a good pulpy thriller as long as it doesn't take itself too seriously (which means I have a passionate hatred for the modern-day trend of 'psychological thrillers', as they take themselves too seriously and there are now so many of them that it's impossible to be properly surprised by any of the plots, tropes or characters). A handy illustrative shorthand: Criminal Minds is a thriller; Law & Order is a murder mystery (incidentally - both excellent shows).
This list is a recommendation list of mysteries - there are no thrillers on here, as again, I am a mystery snob. I think good, well-crafted mysteries are much cleverer and much more enjoyable than a high-stakes race, and I think there's nothing more satisfying than correctly guessing who the murderer is before the detective's big reveal at the end. So if you, like me, also like a good murder story and despair at the paltry pickings in modern bookstores as everyone seems to be writing bloody psychological thrillers Jesus Christ enough already, this list is for you!
1. The Murder of Rocker Ackroyd, by Agatha Christie: We start with a classic and the, in my humble* opinion, the best murder mystery there is. I'm not going to tell you anything else because you really need to read this book completely unspoiled. Agatha Christie has been hailed as 'the Queen of Crime' since the 1920s, and that is absolutely a correct opinion - no one before or since has written clever little murder puzzles like she has. If you like murder mysteries, there is absolutely no excuse not to go read the entirety of her Hercule Poirot series right now. I actually really struggled to pick one standout to recommend as the one to start with, but ultimately, Roger Ackroyd is just so perfect that it's what I have to recommend you start with.
Some other Christie favorites that you get though, as a bonus: Murder on the Orient Express; Death on the Nile; Lord Edgware Dies; The ABC Murders; Murder in Three Acts; Dumb Witness; And Then There Were None. That's a lot of bonus recs. Why are you still reading this list instead of reading these mystery masterpieces? GO AWAY. YOU HAVE BOOKS TO BUY.
2. The "Dublin Murder Squad" series, by Tana French: I've talked about these books before, in my Best Series to Binge During Quarantine post, so I won't go too much into it again - needless to say, every book in this series is brilliant; each book is, in my opinion, better than the next. You don't have to read them in order, as they are loosely connected only through the characters rather than the plot. They are atmospheric, creepy, and Tana French has one of the best senses of pace, plotting and setting that I've ever read in the genre. Highly, highly, highly recommend. Personal favorites of the series are The Likeness and The Trespasser (perhaps coincidentally, or perhaps not, those are the two books in the series where the central detective is female).
3. The "Flavia de Luce" series, by Alan Bradley: This is an easier, cozier murder mystery series than the "Dublin Murder Squad". Our heroine is 11-year-old Flavia de Luce, who lives in a crumbling English estate in 1950, and solves grisly murders in her tiny village of Bishop's Lacey. The mysteries are fun, clever little puzzles; Flavia is a delightful heroine with a razor-sharp wit and delightful histrionics; and her relationships with every single one of her supporting cast is fresh and absolutely hilarious. There are 10 books total in the series (the 10th is potentially the last one, booooo) so there's plenty to keep you occupied, and these are definitely a great read when you want a crime book that still feels escapist and comforting but still gives you a puzzle to work out.
4. The "Kinsey Millhone" series (also known as the Alphabet Murders), by Sue Grafton: Sue Grafton died before she could even start writing Z is for Zero, the last book in this behemoth 25-book series, and I am STILL NOT OVER IT. Anyway. This series focuses on Kinsey Millhone, a private investigator in Southern California in the 80s and 90s, and the different cases she takes on. They take in all sorts of different crimes, but mostly focus on murder. The supporting cast of characters are fully vivid and realised, and Kinsey is the definition of a strong, intrepid female lead who's complex, nuanced, and not always easy to like but always easy to root for. The mysteries are definitely a slow build - the books are on average 250 pages long, and they take about 90 pages to really start bundling along, and there's a definite dip in quality in the PQRS section of the alphabet, but A-G are absolutely excellent and I'm beyond gutted that X and Y (which are also excellent) won't be followed up by the final chapter. Highly recommend.
5. The Secret History, by Donna Tartt: A backwards murder mystery - we know who dies and who kills him, and we go backwards in the book to find out why. This book is meticulously well-plotted and well-paced, and the claustrophobia of the setting and the characters' relationships builds and builds and then continues to build you're honestly surprised the breaking point didn't come much, much earlier and much, much more violently. Donna Tartt is an absolute master of character studies, and that shines through really well in this novel. It's a gripping, un-put-down-able character study of a murder and mob mentality itself, and this also functions really well as a murder mystery you can curl up with and savor as the writing is absolutely exquisite.
6. The Hound of the Baskervilles, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: We close off with another classic! I went through a real Sherlock Holmes stage in my early teenage days, and The Hound of the Baskervilles is the one that stayed with me the most and the one I always want to go back and revisit. It's got everything - a nefarious villain, a psychological puzzle, an ancient family curse, a potentially haunted house, very creepy English moors... it's in my opinion the best of the Sherlock Holmes stories, and a really great example of the typical 'mystery' novel that existed in the early 20th century. It's enough of a wonderful book that it might even get you into the rest of the Sherlock Holmes stories if you don't know them already.
And there you have it, folks - my top 6 recommendations for murder mysteries as we edge into fall. Watch this space, as murder mysteries is one of my favorite genres and I'm always sampling new authors and new series so might have an updated recommendation list for you soon!
As always, if you've read any of these books or pick them up going forward, please let me know - and if you've got your own murder mystery recs, holla at me. And let's go off and solve some puzzles together.