Mysteries with Character
June 3, 2016 3:11 PM   Subscribe

I am looking for mysteries that don't focus just on a dead body, but whose plot is more puzzle like. More under the fold.

I would like to read more mysteries which have more complex plots than "someone died and we must find out who did it." I would like recommendations of any sort, murder mystery etc, but I'm especially looking for ones where the mystery isn't related to a murder. I like being able to connect to the characters in the mystery, both the detective/person solving the mystery and those around them. I enjoy reading more about the lives of the detectives/person solving the mystery, seeing more than just the incidentals, getting to know their situation as well.

Examples of those I've liked: The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin, all of Blue Balliett's mysteries, Alan Bradley's Flavia deLuce books, Dorothy Sayers.
posted by azalea_chant to Media & Arts (37 answers total) 90 users marked this as a favorite
Have you read any of Elizabeth George's Lynley books? While some of them have murders, there are a lot of other types of things going on, and there is definitely development of the main (and some side) characters over the course of the series. While I enjoy the murder/mystery parts of the books, I look forward to each next one in the series in order to find out what happens next with the characters. Recommend reading in order for that reason (starts with A Great Deliverance).
posted by msbubbaclees at 3:19 PM on June 3, 2016 [4 favorites]

Since it's summer, definitely try The Long Secret by Louise Fitzhugh. A sequel to Harriet the Spy and, in my opinion, better.
posted by BibiRose at 3:25 PM on June 3, 2016 [2 favorites]

I think you might like Kate Atkinson's Jackson Brodie books, starting with Case Histories, and Tana French's Dublin Murder Squad books, starting with In the Woods.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 3:29 PM on June 3, 2016 [6 favorites]

I very much enjoyed Iain Pears' historical novels An Instance of the Fingerpost, Stone's Fall and The Dream of Scipio .

They don't really fit the genre conventions of mysteries very neatly (though they do each revolve around some central mystery or mysteries), but each of them uses different sections, narrated in the first person by different narrators separated by vast gaps of space and time to gradually reveal different perspectives on the mysteries that concern them.
posted by firechicago at 3:29 PM on June 3, 2016 [6 favorites]

I think you would really like the work of Denise Mina.
posted by brookeb at 3:49 PM on June 3, 2016 [2 favorites]

It never quite fits in the other mystery threads I comment in, but it works here: Jesse Kellerman's The Genius is one of the best, most memorable mystery/suspense novels I've read in the past decade or so.
posted by lalex at 3:52 PM on June 3, 2016 [1 favorite]

You might enjoy Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe stories. Most of them do involve a murder, but the mysteries are clever and also multilayered. But at least half the joy of the books, at least for me, is the relationships between characters and the details and Wolfe and Archie's domestic arrangements. (And, okay, all the descriptions of food. I like detailed descriptions of food.)
posted by darchildre at 4:04 PM on June 3, 2016 [4 favorites]

Anything by Tana French.
posted by matildaben at 4:04 PM on June 3, 2016 [5 favorites]

The Chief Inspector Gamache books by Louise Penny might fit. They're character-driven murder mysteries with varied themes and points of interest for each book in the series. Theyre set in Quebec, mostly around the life of a small village.
posted by sk932 at 4:07 PM on June 3, 2016 [5 favorites]

I love the first three authors/books you mentioned. First, have you read the rest of Ellen Raskin's books? Second, I think you might enjoy Milton T. Burton's books. The focus is far less on whodunit and much more on how and why.
posted by epj at 4:10 PM on June 3, 2016

Lisa Lutz's Spellman series fits this exactly.
posted by BlahLaLa at 4:21 PM on June 3, 2016 [2 favorites]

I love the Murder Most Unladylike series by Robin Stevens, which are middle grade and great.
posted by jeather at 4:29 PM on June 3, 2016

You might enjoy the Vanished Man by Jeffrey Deaver. They are trying to solve murders, but the setup is around magic and performance and misdirection. It's a pretty complex, puzzle-filled mystery.
posted by ChuraChura at 4:33 PM on June 3, 2016

Oh, I am recommending Laurie Ling twice in one day! But this time the Mary Russell books rather than the Kate Martinelli ones. Very well done Sherlock fanfic - definitely puzzles!
posted by jrobin276 at 4:53 PM on June 3, 2016

I frequently come here to recommend Elizabeth George. I also recommend Sara Paretsky. VI Warshawski is a PI, and the complicated puzzles frequently involve convoluted property and financial crimes as well. And the writing and the characters and the development of their daily lives are supurb.
posted by hydropsyche at 5:11 PM on June 3, 2016 [1 favorite]

The Yiddish Policeman's Union is a murder mystery that unfolds in pieces rather than as a cookie cutter whodunnit. It also has the added dimensions of culture, alternate history, conspiracy, and a nontraditional love story.
posted by Alexandra Michelle at 5:19 PM on June 3, 2016 [6 favorites]

Yes to Tana French. If you're open to older stuff, try Josephine Tey - particularly Daughter of Time.
posted by une_heure_pleine at 5:21 PM on June 3, 2016 [1 favorite]

Seconding Iain Pears. Instance of the Fingerpost is incredible. A couple other very strong historical novels built around a mystery but not really whodunnits: Charles Palliser, The Quincunx (like every Charles Dickens novel rolled into one, with terrific scrappy characters & a complex legal puzzle); and Josephine Tey, The Daughter of Time (a bedridden detective examines a famous murder).

Also: have you read any Iris Murdoch novels? Tremendous psychological portraits, often with some sort of mystery--a disappearance, a death, some inexplicable act--at the center of things.
posted by miles per flower at 5:31 PM on June 3, 2016 [3 favorites]

Nicci French and Ruth Rendell writing as Barbara Vine, more psychological suspense.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 5:41 PM on June 3, 2016

You're going to think i'm crazy but the lilian jackson braun "the cat who..." mysteries are what you've been looking for. they're light reading but the world in them is well developed. You can pretty much start with any of them but they are somewhat serialized.
posted by noloveforned at 6:11 PM on June 3, 2016

My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk is a rather unconventional historical murder mystery with philosophical digressions.

The Name of The Rose by Umberto Eco is a more famous book in this style.
posted by ovvl at 6:19 PM on June 3, 2016 [3 favorites]

Seconding The Yiddish Policeman's Union!
posted by duffell at 7:29 PM on June 3, 2016

Thanks for all the awesome suggestions! I'd love even more suggestions if people stop by later and have a couple more answers. Another example of what I'm looking for is The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg, which isn't a traditional mystery but has a mysterious element. I'd welcome books of that nature too, whether kid's books or adult books. I'd like the characters to feel like real people, like in The Westing Game, or the mysteries that they solve to be unique every time and not just a new twist on a whodunit. There are plenty of things here that are intriguing, but I'd be happy to take more suggestions!
posted by azalea_chant at 10:12 PM on June 3, 2016

Laura Lippman!

Donna Tartt.
posted by Violet Hour at 11:25 PM on June 3, 2016 [2 favorites]

Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey
posted by terrortubby at 11:49 PM on June 3, 2016

OH MY GOSH you want The Quincunx by Charles Palisser. The Unburied by the same author is also excellent for this. Basically, you have 2 parallel narratives in both these novels - what the narrator is telling you, and what the narrative is actually hinting at, so it's a very active reading experience where you have to puzzle out the clues and sometimes you come to a different conclusion than that of the narrator... possibly. It's so clever and fun. I also really liked The Roth Trilogy by Andrew Taylor for its similar vibe.
posted by Ziggy500 at 2:13 AM on June 4, 2016

The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler! Come sit by me! You need to read The Witch of Blackbird Pond too. Middle grade mysteries and thrillers are wonderful; I honestly think the bar is set higher for writing in that age group than any other.

I also enjoyed the teen book, We Were Liars which is sort of in the Gone Girl vein of "Whoa, this is messed up! What kind of story is this actually?" And Liar, by Justine Larbalestier. Teen is more about the thrillers than the mysteries.

But I originally came to elaborate on the Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine suggestion. Not so much the Inspector Wexford series (though that is very good) as the standalones. Some of them are written as Rendell, some as Vine. I highly recommend The Bridesmaid or A Fatal Inversion. A Fatal Inversion has a plot that's strangely similar to The Secret History by Donna Tartt, which I also recommend. Rendell is very special and I am sure she would have won the Booker during her lifetime had she not been classified as a mystery writer. Her books are all different and most fans have some that they don't care for. If you don't like one, give her a second chance at some point.
posted by BibiRose at 5:34 AM on June 4, 2016 [1 favorite]

Oh! I thought of a non-obvious one! Where'd You Go, Bernadette is about a 15-year-old girl's attempts to find her mother, who has mysteriously disappeared. That sounds dire, but it's funny, and it shares a sense of playfulness with a lot of the kids' books that you like. It's a satire about, among other things, liberal parenting norms and tech culture in Seattle. Here's a good review.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 6:02 AM on June 4, 2016 [1 favorite]

I think jrobin276 meant Laurie R. King and had a typo. Agree that her Russell/Sherlock series is topnotch.
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 6:07 AM on June 4, 2016

If this is what you're looking for, I agree that you very definitely need to read Tana French.
posted by holborne at 8:16 AM on June 4, 2016

I am currently reading Drood by Dan Simmons, and OMG, it is an excellent story! It mixes true history involving Charles Dickens and fiction, but it is very good so far and I'm 3/4 through it (it's 770 pages). Has a lot of mystery and suspenseful elements with some great characters.
posted by foxhat10 at 8:54 AM on June 4, 2016 [1 favorite]

The Stephanie Plum books by Janet Evanovich!
posted by SisterHavana at 9:59 AM on June 4, 2016

If you're interested in children's lit I hugely recommend Rebecca Stead's When I Reach You. Really smart, funny, spectacular original non-murder mystery and very moving also.
posted by bluebird at 12:15 PM on June 4, 2016 [1 favorite]

Robert McCammon's Boy's Life. It's a mystery with urban fantasy elements.
posted by Constance Mirabella at 7:53 PM on June 4, 2016

I know it's probably a series that everybody knows about and may be too light hearted for you, but The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series often has a few mysteries in each book and they are rarely about murder.
posted by Foam Pants at 11:46 PM on June 4, 2016

If you enjoy Sayers and the Flavia de Luce books, you'll probably like Kerry Greenwood's mystery novels.

Her Phryne Fisher series of historical mysteries is probably the more popular, but tends to favor murder mysteries and with 20 books it starts to repeat itself a little.

I'd really recommend Greenwood's Corinna Chapman mysteries, starting with Earthly Delights. There are only six books, and they tend more towards lost children, theft, and puzzles.

I'm just now on my third (or maybe fourth?) read of the Corinna Chapman books. Even when I remember the mysteries, the books are still enjoyable. Greenwood's prose is clean, elegant, and sometimes amusing. Her characters have depth and detail, and you'll read plenty of their day-to-day experiences that frame the mysteries.
posted by sibilatorix at 9:09 AM on June 5, 2016 [1 favorite]

Farthing, the first book of Jo Walton's Small Change trilogy, definitely fits the bill. Small Change is an alternate history series set in a version of mid-1900s Britain where the UK has negotiated a peace with Nazi Germany, and it is brilliant. The first book, Farthing, is basically a murder mystery with political intrigue that *happens* to also be an excellent alternate history novel.

But be warned: you will absolutely be compelled to read the other two books in the trilogy, neither of which I would classify as mystery novels, though they're both superb.
posted by duffell at 11:53 AM on June 27, 2016

« Older Replacing our bed with futon to save space?   |   Shipping things halfway across the world Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.