Recommend some state-of-the-art mystery novels.
July 21, 2016 2:33 PM   Subscribe

I'm interested in catching up with the latest developments in the evolution of the mystery novel. What should I read?

Let's say I have a decent grounding in classic mysteries and detective fiction (Doyle, Christie, Simenon, Highsmith, Chandler, Hammett, etc) but want to make sure I have a sense of what's going on in contemporary examples of the genre — especially books that might be cited as "adventurous" or "boundary-pushing" in terms of form or content. (Disturbing content is fine -- desirable, even.) If I really want to know where the action is in 21st century mysteries, what are the books and authors I absolutely have to catch up with? Interested in examples of both literary fiction and highly commercial fiction and especially any intersection between the two. Feminist undertones or other social-issue relevance a plus but not required.

I've read this thread and taken a number of cues from it, but I thought it was worth asking for an update. And for the purposes of this question, I'm less interested in a good book than I am an interesting one, if that makes any sense. As an example, maybe take Gone Girl. I'm dubious about its value as literature for a few reasons, but as a window on the zeitgeist I think it's kind of ingenious. If anything similarly clever has been published in the last couple of years, I'd love to know about it.
posted by Mothlight to Media & Arts (18 answers total) 51 users marked this as a favorite
Last year's book that got compared to Gone Girl in reviews (and which will shortly be a movie) is The Girl on the Train, by Paula Hawkins.
posted by Iris Gambol at 2:49 PM on July 21, 2016 [1 favorite]

I think Tana French and Susan Hill write interesting books that are slightly out of the ordinary. There are approximately a zillion Gone Girl wannabes; one I thought was well done and unlike everything else was Behind Closed Doors by BA Paris.

You might also want to look at YA and MG mysteries; I think that Robin Stevens is doing something interesting with updating classic mysteries.
posted by jeather at 3:44 PM on July 21, 2016 [3 favorites]

From Dan Kois' review of The Last Policeman, by Ben Winters:’s likely no detective has ever felt smaller in the face of his fate than does Detective Hank Palace of the Concord, N.H., police department, the dogged center of Ben H. Winters’ sharp, funny, and deeply wise The Last Policeman. Palace may be investigating the death of a dull insurance man found in the bathroom of what used to be a McDonald’s one cold March morning, but he knows his detective work doesn’t really matter. After all, by October he’ll be dead. So will everyone in snowy Concord, everyone in New Hampshire, everyone in America, and everyone in the world. A six-kilometer-wide asteroid is bearing down, and it’s got a 100 percent chance of striking the Earth. Odds don’t get much longer than that.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 3:45 PM on July 21, 2016 [10 favorites]

The two books that immediately occurred to me are A Tale for the Time Being and A Head Full of Ghosts. Neither of them are exactly mystery novels (both contain elements of the supernatural, especially the latter), but both definitely have a sort of a mystery feel to me in the sense of there being a core "puzzle" at the heart of the book that you're trying to figure out as you read it. Anyway, I'm not sure if these are exactly what you're looking for, but it's what popped in my mind when I read your question so maybe you would like them!
posted by rainbowbrite at 3:48 PM on July 21, 2016 [2 favorites]

maybe auster's new york trilogy? they are critically acclaimed "detective stories" that push boundaries (po-mo).
posted by andrewcooke at 4:59 PM on July 21, 2016 [3 favorites]

Oh yes, the Last Policeman trilogy is excellent, and all three are out now.
posted by Flannery Culp at 5:11 PM on July 21, 2016

The City & The City by China Miéville is an interesting and unusual take on the genre.
posted by Prunesquallor at 5:12 PM on July 21, 2016 [3 favorites]

Well.... it's for children, but I'm not a child. Greenglass House by Kate Milford is by far the best mystery I've ever read. This and her other work is also right up your alley for "interesting," "disturbing content," and "with feminist undertones," as well.
posted by Temeraria at 5:25 PM on July 21, 2016 [1 favorite]

Tana French for sure.
posted by matildaben at 5:57 PM on July 21, 2016 [2 favorites]

I really enjoyed The Yiddish Policemen's Union by Michael Chabon. It's a detective story set in an alternative world where Israel doesn't exist, and instead there is a temporary Jewish homeland in Alaska.
posted by crocomancer at 4:40 AM on July 22, 2016 [2 favorites]

Piggybacking on crocomancer's alt-history mystery recommendation (and it's a great one!), Jo Walton's Small Change series is incredible. It's a trilogy written in an alternate universe where Nazi Germany negotiated a truce with Britain, and chronicles Britain's slide into totalitarianism. A big theme is "history is not inevitable, but is a series of choices made by people everywhere and at every level," so I'd say it's very relevant given modern politics. Really interesting feminist reading, too--Walton is great for that. Anyway, the first book, Farthing, is a straight-up mystery novel that *happens* to be an alt-history novel. The second book is a bit of both. The third is more straight-up alt-history.
posted by duffell at 7:08 AM on July 22, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Relative to the writers you name, I think there was a big change in mystery writing in the 80s and 90s, shifting away from whodunits. At the beginning of A Secret History by Donna Tartt, we know exactly who did what. In A Judgement in Stone, we know who did what and why (sort of). Both of those books remain fairly revolutionary in my opinion. Kazuo Ishiguro's When We Were Orphans also takes apart the whole idea of a detective novel.

Megan Abbott strikes me as someone who's groundbreaking these days. Her books are part mystery, part thriller. They can be quite hardboiled and noir and they incorporate aspects of true crime. My guess is that down the road, people will say this was the time of the hybrid mystery/thriller-- books with the strong draw-in of the thriller, but with a mystery to be solved. Whodunit type mysteries have a problem in that the plots have been kind of exhausted; pure thrillers have a problem that they tend to fall apart in the last third. I think more writers are sort of combining the two to avoid both problems.

I suggest getting on Sarah Weinman's mailing list for frequent, thoughtful updates about crime fiction.
posted by BibiRose at 7:27 AM on July 22, 2016 [5 favorites]

The Devils Detective is a mystery set in Hell, very unusual
posted by KateViolet at 10:56 AM on July 22, 2016 [1 favorite]

The Devils Detective is a mystery set in Hell, very unusual

That's...novel! (Sorry. Sorry.)

Also, I didn't mention this because I assumed someone else had, but no! The Phryne Fisher series by Kerry Greenwood is a well-loved detective series set in 1920s Australia, featuring a female protagonist and diverse cast of characters. My wife is a big fan.
posted by duffell at 11:49 AM on July 22, 2016

Response by poster: These suggestions are all great, thanks. I marked BibiRose as best answer for the added analysis starting with Donna Tartt but I am planning to investigate every last one of these, so thanks. Love Megan Abbott, too.

Tana French and Paula Hawkins are already on deck for a cross-country plane flight that starts on Wednesday, so I'm glad I'm on the right track with them, too. I'll keep an eye out for any more suggestions to come, too!

Thank you all!
posted by Mothlight at 6:54 PM on July 22, 2016

Just read this article about the current state of crime fiction:

"Women Are Writing the Best Crime Novels" (The Atlantic)

Goes into the history of the crime/mystery novel up to the current wave of mostly women-authored crime fiction. Seems relevant to your interest in the zeitgeist!
posted by mnumberger at 6:31 PM on July 23, 2016 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Awesome, mnumberger. Thanks.

Also, I just looked up Megan Abbott and realized I haven't read anything of hers since Queenpin. Just judging from the more recent cover designs, I'm thinking she's broken out since then. I'm kind of out of touch, but it'll be fun to catch up.
posted by Mothlight at 7:39 PM on July 23, 2016

Might i recommend Rule 34 by Charlie Stross? Police Procedural in the near future where 3D Printing and AR/VR is pervasive.

I also enjoy'd the Richard Morgans Takeshi Kovacs novels (starting with Altered Carbon, which is soon to be a motion picture) : far future detective noir - very graphic, both sexually and violently.

And finally I AM NOT A SERIAL KILLER - by Dan Wells : I couldn't write anything about this without either being horribly misleading, or too spoilery... (this too is in the movie making process - I saw a trailer for it the other day, and it's got Christoper Lloyd in it ,and I'm so excited)

I'd probably recommend those in reverse order.
posted by krieghund at 8:25 AM on July 25, 2016 [2 favorites]

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