RecommendationFilter: Deep secrets slowly revealed
January 15, 2021 1:49 PM   Subscribe

I love books and shows where a minor mystery leads to a major mystery - especially if the major mystery turns out to be far deeper, weirder and more sinister. Help me find more!

For an example of what I'm thinking of, think of perhaps L.A. Confidential, in which a holdup turns out to be part of a citywide conspiracy. Or a bunch of Gothic romance/horror, with long-buried secrets. Or The Name of the Rose, where a murder leads to a much deeper, weirder mystery. Some sci-fi (like Spin and Revelation Space) do something similar, or even The Expanse (which I'm reading right now). Recently I also watched The Wailing, which really scratched that itch.

Basically, what if Dan Brown but good?

I just love the loose thread that when someone pulls it, turns out to be connected to a much bigger, much scarier ball of yarn than expected. I realize that's the basis of a lot of plots, but I really like the larger scale ones, where a small "wait, what about..." leads to a century-old scheme or the unraveling of reality. Not so much that city hall has been pulling the strings and the mayor is implicated (I know... L.A. Confidential is along those lines. I enjoy them but have tons to choose from already) or the fantasy trope where the protagonist is the chosen one.

Books, comics, shows, movies, as long as it's available in English (subtitles or translations fine) I'm game!
posted by BlackLeotardFront to Media & Arts (55 answers total) 107 users marked this as a favorite
 
Ian M. Banks, The Use of Weapons. scifi. ties into larger The Culture series (one of the very best, ever). no spoilers from me.
posted by th3ph17 at 1:52 PM on January 15 [11 favorites]


Miss Smillas Feeling for Snow
posted by crocomancer at 2:07 PM on January 15 [4 favorites]


The German series Dark (subtitled, three short seasons, streaming on Netflix, has good recaps on Fanfare that helped me keep track of the characters at the beginning).

It starts out with a small town missing-teenager mystery and ends with…well, let's just say it makes most "wall of clues connected with red string" conspiracies look like child's play. A perfect puzzle box that also has hefty emotional weight and (IMO) sticks the landing.
posted by bcwinters at 2:16 PM on January 15 [11 favorites]


I haven't seen season 3 yet but I think Search Party moves along this general trajectory, albeit maybe not in the way you'd expect.
posted by saladin at 2:18 PM on January 15 [2 favorites]


Twin Peaks seems to fit this schema
posted by fancyoats at 2:30 PM on January 15 [6 favorites]


In re Name of the Rose, Foucault’s Pendulum and the Prague Cemetery also.
posted by sudogeek at 2:40 PM on January 15 [1 favorite]


Not exactly the same thing, but The Broken Earth Trilogy by N.K. Jemisin slowly reveals the world and what's going on in a way that tingles that same part of my brain. It's not quite a mystery, but a slow and satisfying discovery.
posted by matrixclown at 2:44 PM on January 15 [10 favorites]


The Seventh Function of Language starts out with What if Roland Barthes was murdered? and goes into deep secret weirdness from there.
posted by betweenthebars at 2:51 PM on January 15


This may be kind of an oddball recommendation, but I've been playing 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim, lately. It's designed to be experienced and plays out like a mystery, albeit not quite one in the exact style you describe. You see a lot of events without any context, and it gradually builds up to make more sense as the game goes on.

If you're open to anime or sci-fi stories, definitely give it a look.
posted by Alensin at 2:51 PM on January 15


W.G. Sebald's Austerlitz does this quite well.
posted by niicholas at 2:59 PM on January 15 [4 favorites]


The Umbrella Academy on Netflix scratches this itch for me.
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 3:03 PM on January 15 [1 favorite]


This is *exactly* An Instance of the Fingerpost.
posted by BlahLaLa at 3:06 PM on January 15 [10 favorites]


Never Let Me Go? Ostensibly its about a girl remembering her time in boarding school but as the book progresses we learn more about the true situation of her world.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 3:20 PM on January 15 [8 favorites]


Just to let you know you're on the right track, several of these mentioned are ones that I know and love. I won't even say which, because I don't want to threadsit!

Obscure and labyrinthine is completely fine by me. I already mined Q and Aegypt out of an earlier thread, which I understand are that.

.... pray continue.
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 3:27 PM on January 15 [1 favorite]


Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon. An unrelated group of people are trying to figure out just what their grandparents were doing in WWII, and the hero slowly comes to understand a lot of family history as they all converge on a rather large treasure. It's unusual in that the main characters were shoehorned into historical setting and interact with real people, and the history is mostly real. If you know anything about WWII you'll sit back and say, 'Oh - that's what was really going on.' Witty, entertaining, informative, and completely insane. One of my favorite books.
posted by AugustusCrunch at 3:27 PM on January 15 [6 favorites]


The Mere Wife. It is really really best if you go in knowing as little as possible. This is one of those where the world and the facts unfold as you go, rather than being a whodunit type of thriller.

I Remember You: A Ghost Story. I listen to a lot of books on audio, and this was beautifully produced but is one of the rare cases where I think you're better on paper. With extra lights on.
posted by Lyn Never at 3:28 PM on January 15 [1 favorite]


A couple of feature-length documentaries:

Tickled, about a journalist who covers oddball stories trying to cover a strange online "sport" of competitive tickling, and gets way more than he bargained for as he learns more.

Three Identical Strangers, about a young man, adopted as an infant, who enters college to find that he has a doppelganger who is actually his separated-at-birth twin brother. The press from this remarkable event causes the realization that there is a third identical brother. The second mystery, and then a third, unfolds as the hows and whys of the situation are explored.

Both are on Hulu, at the moment.
posted by Sunburnt at 3:35 PM on January 15 [7 favorites]


Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy might fit into this group--the book, not any of the adaptations, which make it a lot more obvious that Something Is Up right away.
posted by praemunire at 3:44 PM on January 15 [5 favorites]


The Cuckoo's Egg, older book about a bookkeeping anomaly that wound up uncovering a hacking exploit.
posted by theora55 at 3:44 PM on January 15 [4 favorites]


I really liked the first season of Broadchurch and I think it hits on the points you're looking for. I'm not sure if it ends up being deep enough, but it certainly had enough secrets and twists that really made it feel like a mystery that really deepened over the course of the series run.
posted by Carillon at 4:04 PM on January 15 [3 favorites]


Miss Smillas Feeling for Snow

Also issued as Smilla's Sense of Snow - I've read it a couple of times, with long enough between them that I had forgotten just how big/weird things get.

The webcomic Gunnerkrigg Court is an amazing drip feed of weirder/deeper. It's not finished yet. 3 times / week I get my little hit.
posted by inexorably_forward at 4:06 PM on January 15


Catherine House, by Elisabeth Thomas. I thought it was going to be one sort of mystery and it turned into something very different. (I didn't like it all that much, but it's worth trying out.)
posted by The corpse in the library at 4:12 PM on January 15


The Keepers, documentary on Netflix.
posted by bearette at 4:17 PM on January 15 [2 favorites]


Doctor who, especially (and I'm not familiar with others,) late 10 and all of 11. Lots of late season "ohhh that's what that was about"
posted by freethefeet at 4:21 PM on January 15


Seconding Dark on Netflix. Such a simple beginning, yet eventually so mind-bendingly elaborate! The series rewards observant, repeated viewing. The mess is very logically woven, and there are answers that end up very satisfying. If you watch it, be sure to also visit this beautiful website which will tell you only as much as you need to know based on the last episode you watched. The FanFare recaps as noted by bcwinters were also fun to check out.
posted by oxisos at 4:34 PM on January 15 [1 favorite]


Lodge 49
Inherent Vice
posted by Lorin at 4:37 PM on January 15 [2 favorites]


‘Miracle Creek’ by Angie Kim is a crime/courtroom drama novel that had this feel for me - just discovering lies on lies on lies and even near the very end it doesn’t all seem clear, yet it ends in a satisfying way.
posted by obfuscation at 4:54 PM on January 15


I suppose it goes without saying that you are only interested in works that are not ubiquitous because you would undoubtedly know the complete story line (such as the Matrix movies with the red pill, Lord of the Rings with the gold ring or the Watergate story with the duct tape on the door latch).

Daemon by Daniel Suarez starts with the obituary of a game programmer appearing in the newspaper, and the rest of the book is about what follows.

I agree with The Cuckoo's Egg, as non-fiction.

Also, having just finished Ready Player 2 I think that pair of books represent the kind of continual delving into a global scaled virtual reality where there are layers and motivations and dynamics and conflicts that are constantly evolving. I think it meets your requirements though I'm not saying its the best example.
posted by forthright at 5:41 PM on January 15


Books:
Tana French's mystery novels. Start with In the Woods.
Conviction by Denise Mina.
Perfect Little Children by Sophie Hannah (published as Haven't They Grown in the UK).

TV series:
The Flight Attendant
seconding the recommendation of Dark

The less you know about any of these going in, the better.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 5:53 PM on January 15 [1 favorite]


2nding praemunire's recommendation for 'Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy' (the book version!) from everything that I've read, this book is the perfectly slow untangling a dark ball of evil yarn...
posted by ovvl at 6:15 PM on January 15


The Historian, by Elizabeth Kostova
posted by armoir from antproof case at 6:44 PM on January 15 [2 favorites]


The (ongoing) Steerswoman Series by Rosemary Kirstein starts out seeming like a fantasy novel about a woman inquiring after an odd jewel. By the end of the first book, you'll likely have figured out that (1) there's more going on than any of the characters understands and (2) it probably shouldn't be shelved with fantasy.
posted by sibilatorix at 6:59 PM on January 15 [11 favorites]


Mexican Gothic, by Silvia Morena Garcia.
posted by JawnBigboote at 7:13 PM on January 15


forgot to add about the Steerswoman books - it's not just the reader who's figuring things out. The books feature a quasi-monastic order devoted to seeking truth, and follow one particular mystery as they tease out all its threads, starting from the question "what's up with these funny blue jewels" and heading in the direction of an ages-old conspiracy dedicated to hiding a number of fundamental truths about the world.

Also, the "Small Change" series by Jo Walton (starting with Farthing) which initially looks to be a Sayers/Christie-style cosy murder mystery in an English country house. Except it isn't England as we know it, and the motives for this murder have much broader implications...
posted by sibilatorix at 7:13 PM on January 15 [1 favorite]


Storyville, starring a youngish James Spader.
posted by shadygrove at 7:22 PM on January 15




The Expanse series (books, TV). Would be hard boiled detective can't let a side job investigation go, and it sets off a very deep down the rabbit hole story.
posted by zippy at 10:21 PM on January 15 [1 favorite]


My usual recs for “What if Dan Brown but good” are these:
The Eight, by Katherine Neville. Chess, history, secret plots.
The Club Dumas, by Arturo Perez-Reverte. The Devil, rare books, and secret plots.
Declare, by Tim Powers. I love most of his books but this one resonates the hardest for me and probably is the closest to your ask. Spying (in a Le Carre way, not a Bond way), double-agents, and something immense underneath it all. Oh, and secret plots.

I also think Pamela Dean’s book Tam Lin might fit. It’s a straightforward college story until the very end and then you read it again and it never was a straightforward college story.
posted by PussKillian at 11:10 PM on January 15 [4 favorites]


This is exactly why Captain America: The Winter Soldier is the best Marvel movie—it starts with a hostage rescue on the open sea and then spirals into something completely sinister back home in Washington DC. It’s also creepily prescient. If you’ve never seen it, it should fit your requirements to a T.

The Winter Soldier run of Captain America comics by Ed Brubaker is a bit different than the movie it inspired, but it also follows that small mystery to bigger story format, and is available in a collected trade edition.
posted by kitten kaboodle at 12:07 AM on January 16 [2 favorites]


Fingersmith by Sarah Waters is exactly this. There's a fantastic TV adaptation as well, both are delicious.

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke ( of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell fame) is a perfect puzzle. Short, incredibly atmospheric and beautifully paced.
posted by freya_lamb at 12:24 AM on January 16 [5 favorites]


It's been many years since I read it, but I seem to remember that The Crying of Lot 49 fits the bill and is wonderfully written. Writing this, I realize I need to go back and re-read it.

Books I have read more recently and can therefore recommend more confidently:

The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell.

The Yiddish Policeman's Union by Michael Chabon.

And if by some chance you haven't read it yet, Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons.
posted by yankeefog at 1:44 AM on January 16 [3 favorites]


The MaddAddam trilogy by Margaret Atwood.
Shorter: The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood.
Even shorter: "Rape Fantasies" by Margaret Atwood.

(anything by Margaret Atwood?)
posted by basalganglia at 4:13 AM on January 16 [3 favorites]


The sci-fi noir film Dark City is definitely one in which the story (which starts with a murder!) develops into an increasingly "deeper, weirder mystery." You can watch it on Amazon.
posted by pangolin party at 4:41 AM on January 16 [1 favorite]


Great thread! I'm going to be chasing up a couple of recommendations that I hadn't seen before. For my part, a couple of thrillers which I feel go down the deeper mystery route in a particularly effective way:

Gorky Park, by Martin Cruz Smith - set in the USSR, a murder mystery goes in unexpected but very satisfying "big picture" directions.

Fatherland, by Robert Harris - set in an alternate timeline where the Axis powers won WW2, another murder mystery that opens up a much bigger conspiracy.

(Also, a couple of people upthread mentioned L.A. Confidential and it's worth noting that, while the book stands alone, it's the third of Ellroy's L.A. Quartet, all of which would probably fit the bill. They're all murder mysteries that open up deeper historical corruption stories.)
posted by chappell, ambrose at 5:36 AM on January 16 [1 favorite]


Oh and as you note in the OP, this is fertile territory for SF. As well as the examples mentioned, I'd add A Fire Upon The Deep and Ancillary Justice.

Both books won the Hugo (Ancillary Justice also got the Nebula and Arthur C Clarke awards!) and - in addition to the requisite "deeper mystery" themes - they also both have really interesting attempts to write from the perspective of hive / swarm intelligences.

I think they make a really good "double feature", a bit like the Fatherland / Gorky Park double feature for historical thrillers.
posted by chappell, ambrose at 5:45 AM on January 16 [2 favorites]


S., which is also a fun multimedia experience- it's a book with marginalia that slowly grows from there. It's co-written by JJ Abrams, in case that makes it a plus/minus.
posted by damayanti at 8:51 AM on January 16 [1 favorite]


I want to strongly second PussKillian on Tim Power's "Declare." I remember feeling this way about the "Illuminatus" trilogy by Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea, conspiracy nested within conspiracy, although I haven't had the fortitude to reread it.
posted by SandiBeech at 9:03 AM on January 16 [2 favorites]


I haven't read all of China Mieville, and he might not be everyone's cup of tea, but your question made me think of The City and The City, Kraken, and Embassytown.
posted by Occula at 9:26 AM on January 16 [3 favorites]


Seconding the graphic novel Watchmen. It starts with a vigilante investigating a murder, which leads to something considerably vaster and more sinister.

Then, check out Watchmen, the HBO series! Begins with some right-wing domestic terrorism, leads to something much weirder, with multiple mysteries blooming on the way.
posted by ejs at 11:20 AM on January 16 [2 favorites]


I recommended this book earlier for different reasons, but it also applies perfectly to your question. Amelie Nothomb's Hygiene and the Assassin.
posted by perhapses at 8:10 PM on January 16


I'm going to leave the question open for a little longer in case anyone browses the tags, but thanks to everyone for your recommendations. Some of these I know, some I've heard of, some are totally new to me! Really looking forward to them!
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 4:52 PM on January 17


Many/most of the work by David Mitchell, but especially Slade House and Cloud Atlas. There is a long, slender and connecting thread between most of what he has written so far and it keeps getting more intriguing -- kind of an endless supply of what you are looking for.
posted by missmobtown at 8:15 PM on January 17


The Quincunx is what An Instance of the Fingerpost wishes it could be, and yes I will fight people about this.

+1 to all Tana French and Fingersmith. (I feel like 90% of my AskMe answers are convincing people to read Tana French and/or Fingersmith. It's a noble calling.)
posted by wintersonata9 at 9:12 PM on January 17 [4 favorites]


I think The Library at Mount Char is a good example of this. As is The Rook and it's sequel.
posted by jclarkin at 9:28 PM on January 18 [1 favorite]


In Leonora Carrington's delightful The Hearing Trumpet, a nearly deaf woman receives from a close friend a hearing trumpet, and that night she tries it and overhears her son and her in laws' plan to send her to a sinister institution, and on the wall of the dining room in this very strange institution turns out to be a portrait of a very strange winking nun, who may or may not once have been on a quest to find the holy grail, which might not originally have been the holy grail as we think of it...

Leonora Carrington is an OG surrealist of the highest caliber, and this book achieves a weirdness that totally wowed me.
posted by Rinku at 5:43 PM on January 19 [2 favorites]


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