Literary puzzles to lose yourself in
March 25, 2020 8:58 PM   Subscribe

I just devoured the audiobook of Tuesday Mooney Talks to Ghosts by Kate Racculia and now I want more books with slowly unwinding mystery games and puzzles at their core. What else would scratch this itch? Other specific things I liked in this book and questions about mystery as a genre inside.

Things I loved about Tuesday Mooney Talks to Ghosts:
-Mystery solved completely by ordinary people, no law enforcement or professional detective presence
-That Tuesday's career in development and donor prospecting was such a key element of her solving all the puzzles--ordinary office professionals never get to be mystery heroes!
-That the madcap, puzzle-solving elements and the book's more serious undertones co-existed so well.
-The shifting point of view.

I loved The Westing Game as a kid and that seems like an obvious influence on Tuesday Mooney, but I've never been a big mystery reader as an adult. I know that there are subgenres within mystery--do any of them encompass the sort of puzzle structure I'm after, or is that something I need to find in non-genre fiction? Are there specific authors or titles you recommend in any genre, or at least keywords I can search for? Right now the only good descriptor I can think of for what I'm after is "The Westing Game for grown-ups."

Hard pass on any book that glorifies law enforcement or has graphic murder or sexual violence on-page. Extra points for realistic city settings and authors who aren't cis white men.
posted by ActionPopulated to Media & Arts (21 answers total) 38 users marked this as a favorite
I'm afraid I can't think of anything that's "Westing Game for grownups" other than this specific book, but the rest of Ellen Raskin's work is probably something you'd enjoy. Twisty interesting mysteries.
posted by jenfullmoon at 10:11 PM on March 25

Looking at the readalikes in Novelist... I would say Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan and maybe Midnight at the Bright Ideas bookstore by Sullivan, Matthew but I haven’t read the second one.
posted by amapolaroja at 10:46 PM on March 25 [1 favorite]

They also have Meddling Kids and Ready Player One on the list and while I enjoyed both of them, Meddling Kids is very dark and there was some graphic, supernatural violence.
posted by amapolaroja at 10:53 PM on March 25

I think you should check out Mr. Penumbra. However, be cautious about Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore; although I quite enjoyed it, I also remember being a bit surprised at some graphic descriptions of a murder scene.

I liked Anthony Horowitz’ Magpie Murders, which features a book-within-a-book, and Elly Griffith’s The Stranger Diaries.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 11:34 PM on March 25

I haven't actually read it yet but The Ghost Network by Catie Disabato sounds like it might fit what you're looking for.

Cozy mysteries are a sub-genre that meets most of your requirements, except there usually is the presence of law enforcement in a beneficial or at least non-malevolent way. Also I'm not sure if they usually have the intricate puzzle/game aspect that The Westing Game does.

Usually mystery is basically short for "murder mystery." Sounds like maybe you prefer the central mystery to be something other than "who murdered this person?" If so, probably you will have better luck with non-genre books. I think the biggest reason is that while i can think of a few interesting, unconventional, literary takes on mystery novels that I might recommend they almost always include the presence of police and some degree of cooperation between the protagonist and at least some members of the police force.
posted by overglow at 12:59 AM on March 26 [1 favorite]

Seconding Mr Penumbra and Magpie Murders, and adding The Art Forger.
posted by DarlingBri at 1:19 AM on March 26 [1 favorite]

Also looks like The Hidden Keys by Andre Alexis might be a great fit.
posted by overglow at 1:55 AM on March 26 [2 favorites]

Truly Devious by Maureen Johnson sounds like it would be right up your alley. It’s YA but as a non-YA reading adult, I devoured it and its sequel. The protagonist/mystery solver is a teenage girl, the mystery contains more mysteries, the setting is amazing and the characters are complex (there’s a minor non-cis character too.) I have no interest in police presence myself and there is none in these books. Just found out the third one came out in January and I’m going to download it right now.
posted by tatiana wishbone at 4:35 AM on March 26 [2 favorites]

Two very different authors: William Robertson Davies, Robin yokum. Add John Barth.
posted by SemiSalt at 5:54 AM on March 26

I really liked Marisha Pessel's Special Topics in Calamity Physics, although it's a while ago I read it and it could be that the ending is ambiguous, in case that's something that would bother you.
posted by sohalt at 6:39 AM on March 26

Have you read Racculia's Bellweather Rhapsody? I recently reread it after coming across a thread where I, myself, had recommended it. It is basically exactly The Westing Game for grown-ups (complete with a tribute music school named Westing).

+1 to Truly Devious, too, I just finished the third book!

+1 to The Ghost Network and The Hidden Keys as well.

(I love this kind of thing and found Mr. Penumbra and Special Topics hugely disappointing, fwiw; I hope you do not!)
posted by ferret branca at 7:18 AM on March 26 [1 favorite]

This is a bit of a tangent but something about your question makes me want to recommend The View from Saturday by EL Konigsberg.
posted by nakedmolerats at 10:24 AM on March 26

Swing by Rupert Holmes might fit the bill, but it’s been years since I read it and I don’t remember the details—it might not work with some of the other criteria. But I remember the puzzle aspect being quite satisfying at the time.

This is a left field suggestion, but I wonder if you might enjoy Griffin and Sabine as well.
posted by music for skeletons at 10:27 AM on March 26 [1 favorite]

I loved The Flanders Panel by Arturo Pérez-Reverte. An art restorer is working on a panel of a chess game. She works backwards from the how the game pieces are laid out to solve a mystery.
posted by daneflute at 10:33 AM on March 26 [1 favorite]

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime does a lot of what you're asking for because of the identity of the protagonist, though it's not (and is not intended to be taken as) a true mystery novel.
posted by Mchelly at 10:52 AM on March 26

Possibly The Boy Detective Fails by Joe Meno, or Lucky Wander Boy by D.B. Weiss. Both off-kilter recommendations but I feel they might be what you're interested in.

PS The "boy" theme is pure coincidence!
posted by moons in june at 11:15 AM on March 26 [1 favorite]

Depending on how far you're willing to stray from classical mystery and into pure literary puzzle (and how much you want to tax your brain during these trying times) you might want to look at Life: A User's Manual by Georges Perec.
posted by The Bellman at 11:31 AM on March 26 [1 favorite]

I recently read The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, which is basically a Downton Abbey setting. It's more fun the less you know going in, but it definitely matches "slowly unwinding mystery", and has a puzzle vibe that was pretty different from anything I'd read before. There is some fisticuffs-type violence, but I didn't find it grisly or gratuitous.
posted by thoughtful_ravioli at 12:24 PM on March 26

Seconding The Flanders Panel!
posted by ceithern at 3:59 PM on March 26

The Quincunx is a great example of a book like this but it's like a billion pages long (although - hey - it's not like we've got much else to do at the moment). The Unburied, by the same author, is similar - you have to do as much 'detecting' as the main character in order to get to the bottom of what's going on. What both books have in common is unreliable narrators and the requirement on the part of the reader to be willing to read between the lines, do lots of dogearing/scribbling in the margin and flipping back a number of pages to double-check things. They are both really good, touching, interesting reads too. Can you tell this is a favourite genre of mine?

These are set in Victorian times and about white males, so ymmv.
posted by unicorn chaser at 3:13 AM on March 27

Seconding Life: A User's Manual, sort of. Not a true mystery, but maybe more of a puzzle than anything else I've read. The intricate interconnectedness of things is amazing. Some of the vignettes are so delightful and funny and strange. Don't be intimidated by the overdescription - you can skim it, it is not essential.
posted by taltalim at 8:06 AM on April 6

« Older Bring my overgrown yard back to life.   |   Where can I read the terms (all 700 pages) of the... Newer »

You are not logged in, either login or create an account to post comments