Smart detective fiction?
December 12, 2013 8:14 AM   Subscribe

What are some particularly intelligent or well-written novels in the suspense/mystery/detective fiction genre?

I'm looking to buy a book as a gift for a friend who especially enjoys detective, crime, and mystery novels (P.D. James and Elizabeth George are favorites, I believe, but she also likes John Grisham). She also likes lots of classic fiction, though (George Eliot, Wilkie Collins), and I think would enjoy something of higher literary quality than the standard airport detective potboilers. Works that are "smart" in the more traditional sense-- elegant prose, more complex characters, or interesting plotlines-- would probably be better received than anything avant-garde or self-consciously boundary-pushing in terms of form. Any ideas, Metafilter? I realize this is an eminently Google-able question, but searches for "intelligent detective fiction" just lead down a rabbit's warren of endless suggestions that I don't have time to sift through.

(On a related note: The Goldfinch keeps getting mentioned as a very good recent novel that, while not being genre fiction, nonetheless seems to have an element of suspense. If you've read it, is there enough suspense there that it might work for somebody of the reading habits I've described?)
posted by Bardolph to Media & Arts (54 answers total) 115 users marked this as a favorite
I like to recommend The Expats by Chris Pavone for this sort of thing. Also anything by Donna Leon.
posted by mlle valentine at 8:16 AM on December 12, 2013

Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem is what I generally recommend to people asking for that sort of thing.
posted by griphus at 8:16 AM on December 12, 2013 [4 favorites]

I liked The Alienist, by Caleb Carr. There was a sequel, but I don't remember liking it quite as much.
posted by jquinby at 8:17 AM on December 12, 2013 [6 favorites]

Your friend ought to LOVE Dorothy L. Sayers's Lord Peter Wimsey books.

I recommend the four with Harriet Vane:

Strong Poison
Have His Carcass
Gaudy Night
Busman's Honeymoon
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 8:18 AM on December 12, 2013 [8 favorites]

I highly recommend Alexander McCall Smith's 'The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency' series, though as Wikipedia says, they are "as much about the adventures and foibles of different characters as they are about solving mysteries."
posted by miaow at 8:21 AM on December 12, 2013

Raymond Chandler and John Le Carre would be best in this category in my book. Chandler for the elegant prose and witty extended metaphors (“From 30 feet away she looked like a lot of class. From 10 feet away she looked like something made up to be seen from 30 feet away”). He is a bit of a homo-phobe and has weird views on women, but I think otherwise he is tops in the detective category. John Le Carre has a sparser style, but still elegant, and with a more complex political worldview. "The Little Drummer Girl" is a good exposition of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, terrorism, and espionage.
posted by pynchonesque at 8:22 AM on December 12, 2013 [2 favorites]

I fell down the Pendergast hole this past year.

The first few stand on their own but as the series goes on they really need to be read in order. If you think your friend is the sort to get hooked on a series, start with Relic. If you think she'd be more interested in just a one-off, then Cabinet of Curiosities is probably a good one.
posted by phunniemee at 8:23 AM on December 12, 2013 [3 favorites]

I like Susanna Gregory's Matthew Bartholomew series, which is set in England during and after the Black Death. Lots of good description of life in that time.
posted by Anne Neville at 8:27 AM on December 12, 2013

I love Donna Tartt, and I read The Goldfinch, but I do not think it would be a good choice for your friend; the "mystery" is a tertiary plot at best, and the writing is dense, existential, and in my opinion it is not one of her best books. I would not use suspenseful as an adjective to describe it, although her other two books, The Secret History and The Little Friend, have much more of an atmosphere of dread and suspense and (I think) are better written as well, although even they are not mysteries of a traditional construction.

Sorry I can't speak to the rest of the question; perhaps some of the classics, such as Dashiell Hammett or Doyle might work? I also recall Poe having some good mysteries.
posted by stellaluna at 8:31 AM on December 12, 2013

Louise Penny's Inspector Gamache series is a good bet for PD James/Elizabeth George fans. I agree with Donna Leon. On the grittier side with complex characters, Tana French and maybe Val McDermid?
posted by songs about trains at 8:36 AM on December 12, 2013

Case Histories, Kate Atkinson. Literary mystery, first of a series. I really loved this, but inexplicably have not read any of the sequels (adding them to my to-be-read list).

In the Woods, Tana French. Mystery set in Ireland (warning: no real resolution, in case that is something that drives your friend mad). There are other books set in same universe, not true sequels.

A Drink Before the War, Dennis Lehane. This is the first book in his Kenzie and Gennaro detective series (which includes Gone Baby Gone). This is a terrific (and finished) series, and it is worth it to start at the beginning. His other books are great, too...The Given Day and Live by Night are more "literary" than the genre mysteries.
posted by maryrussell at 8:40 AM on December 12, 2013 [5 favorites]

Authors I'd recommend: Tana French, Cornelia Read, Julie Smith.
posted by Kriesa at 8:40 AM on December 12, 2013

An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears
posted by Monsieur Caution at 8:42 AM on December 12, 2013 [4 favorites]

dorothy l. sayers is the greatest mystery writer who ever lived. raymond chandler is the greatest detective writer who ever lived. john le carre is the greatest spy writer who ever lived.
posted by bruce at 8:43 AM on December 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

Thirding Tana French, specifically The Likeness and Broken Harbor. But they're all good.
posted by troika at 8:44 AM on December 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

nthing Tana French, Kate Atkinson, Val McDermid.

Also Denise Mina, Malla Nunn, S.J. Bolton, Deborah Crombie.
posted by mareli at 8:46 AM on December 12, 2013 [2 favorites]

I agree with Kate Atkinson and will add --maybe CS Harris' Sebastian St Cyr series?
posted by leesh at 8:46 AM on December 12, 2013

I'm cringing as I type this because this answer feels so obvious that I'm sure it hasn't been mentioned for a reason that I'm too dumb to see, but holy shit Red Harvest.
posted by saladin at 8:46 AM on December 12, 2013 [3 favorites]

Dennis Lehane (mentioned above), Richard Price, and George Pelecanos all write top-notch literary crime fiction. They are darker/more realistic than a lot of what has been recommended so far, but they are absolutely worth reading.
posted by Dip Flash at 8:50 AM on December 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

Michael Innes (pseudonym of J.I.M Stewart, who was an English professor at Oxford) wrote a series of detective novels that are very literate and yet very much mystery/suspense stories. (Some are more in the golden age "puzzle" vein, others, especially the later ones, are more like pulp suspense.) I find they scratch this itch very well and if she likes him, there's a nice deep bench of them.
posted by yarrow at 8:54 AM on December 12, 2013 [2 favorites]

More thoughts: for thrillers, I really like the Prey series by John Stanford (starts with Rules of Prey). Detective series set in Minneapolis, there are many of these (16?), so if she likes it she can keep going and going.

Thomas Perry has a lot of books (the Jane Whitefield mysteries are good), but my favorite of his is a crime caper from 1983 called Metzger's Dog. It's back in print now.

Other authors: Michael Connelly (detective series set in LA), John Connolly (mystery/thriller/touch of supernatural detective series, based in Maine), Timothy Hallinan (try the newer series with the ethical thief/detective Junior Bender; starts with Crashed).
posted by maryrussell at 8:55 AM on December 12, 2013

I've been on a detective/mystery spree. I can recommend a few highbrow ones:

Dorothy Sayers, as mentioned above.

Margery Allingham. Her detective, Campion, is an interesting, complex character.

Michael Innes is particularly highbrow, well-written. The scene unfolds slowly. Personal favourite: The Journeying Boy

Josephine Tey. The Singing Sands is my favourite.

Anything by Raymond Chandler.

Try also Kenneth Fearing. Especially the Big Clock and Dagger of the Mind. I won't give away spoilers but a lot of suspense movies are based around the central premise of The Big Clock but I believe he was the first.
posted by vacapinta at 9:02 AM on December 12, 2013 [3 favorites]

I often recommend Minette Walters on AskMe and I think she fits your criteria well, so... Minette Walters. Also Barbara Vine, a pseudonym of Ruth Rendell, as well as what she publishes under her own name.

Patricia Highsmith's Tom Ripley books (The Talented Mr Ripley is the first) might also suit.
posted by goo at 9:05 AM on December 12, 2013 [2 favorites]

"Cadfael" by Ellis Peters. 20+ books set in 12th century England.
posted by quackamoe at 9:06 AM on December 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

Douglas Adams' Dirk Gently series (which sadly ended with only two books) is a little different, but interesting.
posted by LoonyLovegood at 9:12 AM on December 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

Tana French. Minette Walters. Susan Hill. Carol O'Connell (Mallory series -- in order, the first 4 in particular -- and also her standalones).

I like the CS Harris books, too, if your friend is okay with historical. Also Lyndsay Faye and Dennis Lehane.

Val McDermid can be hit or miss, but A Place of Execution is pretty perfect as a standalone. I got a bit sick of Laurie R King's Russell/Holmes books after a while, but the first few in that series and her standalones and other series also work.

I'm pretty iffy on Louise Penny; I find the style stilted and don't like the perfection of the main character. I like Kate Atkinson, but not the Jackson Brodie books.
posted by jeather at 10:01 AM on December 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

I just finished George V. Higgins' Cogan's Trade. It was a great piece of writing.

I also have to recommend Rex Stout's Nero Wolf and anything by Agatha Christie. Christie is better than her reputation. I mean, she has the mantle of being 'detective writer number one' but her writing is a real pleasure to read sometimes strange and surprising and only rarely dull.

I'm also always happy to pick up Graham Greene and recently I found the complete Sherlock Holmes and damn are those well written, too.
posted by From Bklyn at 10:05 AM on December 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

Not so detectivey, but with more than enough mystery: Gone Girl.
posted by Obscure Reference at 10:17 AM on December 12, 2013 [2 favorites]

Laura Lippman! She has a mystery series (Tess Monaghan), but I think her stand-alones are particularly strong. Consider "What the Dead Know" or "I'd Know You Anywhere".

Gillian Flynn: I still haven't read "Gone Girl", but I can recommend "Sharp Objects" (very dark).
posted by maryrussell at 10:25 AM on December 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

Bukowski's last book, Pulp, "a convoluted detective story about a hard-boiled private eye who solves his cases by waiting them out."
posted by Tom-B at 10:34 AM on December 12, 2013

She's better known for her romance novels, but Georgette Heyer wrote a bunch of smart, intriguing mystery novels as well. Additionally, check out Gilbert Adair's Evadne Mount trilogy (the first is 'The Act of Roger Murgatroyd') for a rather clever take on the genre.
posted by littlegreen at 11:09 AM on December 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

nth-ing the recommendation of Raymond Chandler. I'd also suggest checking out the voluminous work of his protégée, the late Robert B. Parker, especially the Marlowe series, but also his books about the troubled, alcoholic police chief Jesse Stone.

As a fan of old-time detective stories, I'd also recommend Dashiell Hammett.
posted by Gelatin at 11:12 AM on December 12, 2013

Carlos Ruiz Zafón's The Shadow of the Wind is suspense, not detective. But I mention it anyway because it's also really good.
posted by snorkmaiden at 11:19 AM on December 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

ANYTHING by P.D. James, because she is brilliant! ( oops you mentioned her) Also like Dorothy L Sayers.
posted by Blitz at 12:09 PM on December 12, 2013

john d. macdonald
posted by bruce at 1:09 PM on December 12, 2013

The Silence of the Lambs


posted by Fukiyama at 2:41 PM on December 12, 2013

Some of these series should be read in a particular order, like Kate Atkinson's Jackson Brodie series.

An all-time favorite is Peter Dickinson. He writes for adults but also for kids, so be sure of what you are getting.
posted by sevenstars at 4:02 PM on December 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

omg, Peter Dickinson! I've read his YA books too, always a pleasure.

Have just started reading Jo Nesbo, a Norwegian writer who so far seems to follow the obligatory depressed alcoholic Scandinavian detective route--are there any who aren't miserable?--but nonetheless, interesting reading.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 4:14 PM on December 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

Reginald Hill's Dalziel & Pascoe series. Smart and nicely written, very British.
posted by BoscosMom at 5:22 PM on December 12, 2013

This obit article gives a good idea of the flavor of the of the Reginad Hill series.
posted by BoscosMom at 5:30 PM on December 12, 2013

Laurie King's Mary Russell series, starting with The Beekeeper's Apprentice.
(An aging Sherlock takes a smart adventurous young women on as his apprentice, and later as his partner. Mary is great.)
posted by jrobin276 at 5:49 PM on December 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

Dennis Lehane's Live By Night is terrific. It's about a bootlegger in 1920's Tampa. I liked it much better than his Boston books. More a crime novel than a mystery, though.

Ben Winter's The Last Policeman is a really nifty read. It's about a smalltown Maine detective trying to solve a murder, even though there is a civilization-ending asteroid due to strike earth in six months. The tension between his trying to maintain order and decency in the face of certain doom is handled really well--not cheesy, nor overbearingly bleak.

Sara Gran's Claire Dewitt and the City of the Dead is just astonishing. I loved it. It's about a private detective trying to solve a murder in New Orleans after Katrina, but she is the weirdest fucking detective ever. She does a lot of drugs, she's as much a mystic as a detective, her backstory is twisted. It can get a little dark and frequently uncomfortably weird, but I found it so interesting and engaging I wasn't put off by it.
posted by elizeh at 7:57 PM on December 12, 2013

Two names:

1) Janwillem van de Wetering. Picking a novel from his quiver is not so easy, and the prose is simple but the words are so well-chosen that his heroes, Gripstra and de Gier, are three-dimensional. His books follow a certain progression and getting in too early doesn't work that well. He suffers little from sequelitis so you can get in nearly anywhere. I'd pick "Death of a Hawker" for a start.

2) Nicolas Freeling. Freeling kills off protagonist #1, Piet van der Valk, halfway through his career. Van der Valk is gritty and gloomy and entirely believable. See if you can find "Because of the Cats". His second protagonist, Henri Castang, is a little lighter in character. The canonical Castang is "Flanders Sky"; but that will appeal to someone who thought the dialogue in the movie M*A*S*H was brillant because it was disconnected and overlapping.
posted by jet_silver at 8:41 PM on December 12, 2013

I second Louise Penny Inspector Gamache series. Very interesting/complicated characters in tough situations with no easy answers or solutions. Fits all of your "smart" criteria. There are nine in the series; read in order.

Alan Bradley's Flavia de Luce series is also "smart" in that way, but simpler plots.

Both of these series are also great as audiobooks (as is the Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes series mentioned above).

I also like the Joanne Kilbourn series by Gail Bowen. Her website is out-of-date--there is at least one more after Kalidoscope.

The Smiley books by John le Carré are the classic spy novels.
posted by Nosey Mrs. Rat at 9:04 PM on December 12, 2013

I thought Louise Welsh's The Cutting Room was great - gritty and very well written.

I also absolutely loved the first Louise Penny Gamache novel, but was disappointed by the rest.

(Now if I could just think of one more mystery-writing Louise it would be a trifecta...)
posted by abecedarium radiolarium at 1:56 AM on December 13, 2013

Two literary books that are not detective fiction per se (though both involve mysterious deaths the protagonist is trying to solve) but which kept me on tenterhooks are The Name of the Rose and Rebecca.
posted by lollymccatburglar at 4:36 AM on December 13, 2013

So far, I like the Kurt Wallander series, which is about a Swedish detective in rural Sweden. I'm only on the first book, but so far he seems a little more interesting than most detectives from mystery/detective serials.
posted by nosila at 6:07 AM on December 13, 2013

For something completely different, but utterly brilliant, I'd recommend The City and the City by China Mieville.
posted by janecr at 12:59 AM on December 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

Seconding Gone Girl, which I'm glad to see I wasn't the first to come up with. The protagonist is a de facto detective investigating his own case, and it's wonderful the way it unravels.
posted by kostia at 3:02 PM on December 14, 2013

I really enjoy Martha Grimes' English pub mysteries, the Richard Jury series. I think there are over 20 of them, each named after a pub - The Dirty Duck; The Five Bells and Bladebone; The Old Silent; The Old Contemptibles; The Horse You Came In On, and many more. Very entertaining detective/mystery novels with little blood and gore.
posted by aryma at 6:55 PM on December 14, 2013 [2 favorites]

Look into David Lindsey.
posted by yclipse at 10:02 AM on December 15, 2013

I really like Laura Lippmann's novels, especially the Tess Monaghan series.

Gone Girl had an ending that made me want to throw my Kindle across the room. However, a similar book which I hugely enjoyed was Reconstructing Amelia. (Though the cover suggests it's schlocky).

Also, slightly left-field suggestion: Catherine O'Flynn's What Was Lost. The book opens with an eight year old girl who plays detective in the 80s, and then goes missing - the rest of the book is about whether she can be found. One of the best books I've read in the past few years.
posted by mippy at 5:07 AM on December 16, 2013

The Intersection of Law and Desire, by J.M. Redmann is an absolute treasure. It's realistic, beautifully written and a joy to read.

It is the third book in a series. The first two books in the series are, frankly, not very good, although they are quite thought-provoking. I only just learned that there are later books in the series, and I'm about to go read them all!
posted by OrangeDisk at 12:07 PM on December 16, 2013

2nding James Crumley, his "The Last Good Kiss" being his best.
posted by PaulBGoode at 11:02 PM on December 19, 2013

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