Edge-of-Your-Seat Thrills | Genre Spotlight: Mystery

Psychological suspense, unreliable female narrators, and gritty antiheroes dominate the spring/summer lineup

Mystery and suspense continue to monopolize fiction circulation in libraries. According to Barbara Hoffert’s 2016 Materials Survey, “Trend Turnaround” (LJ 2/15/16, p. 34), these genres remain the top circulators in both print and ebook formats. In recent years the engine driving this trend has been the success of such psychological thrillers as ­Gillian Flynn’s 2012 blockbuster Gone Girl, which feature female protagonists who seek to escape their pasts, or family secrets that have come to light.

Continuing this theme, best-selling author Laura Lippman returns this May with the psychologically complex Wilde Lake (Morrow). In this stand-alone novel, Lu Brant, the first female state’s attorney for Maryland’s Howard County, takes on a case that forces her to confront childhood memories of a crime and question what she truly knows about that night, her family, and the justice system. Another thriller that questions memories of the past and the crimes of those we love is All the Missing Girls (S. & S., Jun.). ­Megan Miranda, an author of teen fiction, makes her adult fiction debut with this story about the disappearance of two young women—years apart—told in reverse.

ljx160402webMystery1Catriona McPherson’s Quiet Neighbors (Midnight Ink, Apr.) tackles the idea of a woman attempting to escape her own previous sins. Jude flees her home with only the clothes on her back and takes refuge in a small bookshop in northern Scotland—only to find that the past never stays buried for long.

“McPherson’s stand-alone novels are compelling, complex, and disturbing,” says Midnight Ink editor Terri Bischoff. She praises the Scottish writer, who also pens the Dandy Gilver historical mysteries, as an author who continues to amaze her. McPherson’s 2015 thriller, The Child Garden, has been nominated this year for an Agatha Award for Best Contemporary Novel and the Simon & Schuster Mary Higgins Clark Award.

Sometimes old transgressions are out in the open yet continue to drive a protagonist in the present day. In April, ­Hachette’s Redhook fiction imprint will release It Takes One, the first volume in a new series by debut author Kate Kessler, about a criminal psychologist who returns to her hometown to discover that she can never escape a crime from her youth—and when her former best friend is murdered, suspicion is cast upon her once again.

A new girl in town

The 2015 release of Paula Hawkins’s The Girl on the Train introduced a new style of psychological thriller that appears to have overtaken the Gone Girl motif in terms of popularity. “Readers enjoy having a female protagonist who shares some of their perceived failings and self-doubts,” explains Miranda Jewess, fiction editor at London-based Titan Books.

Still, there is something within these novels that speaks to readers even more than shared failings. Jewess has noticed “a growth in narratives where we really see the darkest parts of the narrator’s personality, rather than having it hidden until the big reveal.” The protagonist of L.S. Hilton’s Maestra (Putnam, Apr.), a thriller with erotic overtones, is being heralded as a femme fatale straight out of a Patricia Highsmith novel.

“I couldn’t take my eyes off heroine Judith Raleigh,” raves Putnam senior editor Tara Singh Carlson, who acquired the book from its UK publisher in a seven-figure preempt. “The novel reminded me of a female Talented Mr. Ripley, set in the glamorous and decadent worlds of London, the French Riviera, the Italian coast, and Paris.” The house enthusiasm is so strong that Putnam owns the contract for the next two books in the planned trilogy.


Sowing doubts

Both Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train share unreliable female narrators—women who are unwilling to part with important information about themselves. A straightforward mystery with an unreliable witness or two can be plenty thrilling, but an unreliable narrator is a way to infuse a story with extra suspense. “When the voice carrying the reader through the narrative is also untrustworthy, that creates a whole new level of disorientation that can be intoxicating,” notes Jewess. Two mysteries in one makes for addictive reading.

In of one of the most anticipated literary thrillers of the season, first novelist Iain Reid uses the unreliable narrator to build momentum and ratchet up the unnerving suspense. I’m Thinking of Ending Things (Scout: Gallery, Jun.) opens with a man and his girlfriend driving to a secluded farm, but an unexpected detour leaves the girl stranded at a deserted high school—seemingly without escape. But who can be trusted?

Clare Mackintosh’s best-selling UK debut, I Let You Go (Berkley, May), plays with both an unreliable narrator and the impact of losing a child. The plot alternates between the aftermath of the hit-and-run death of the protagonist’s young son and the story of the two police investigators trying to track down the perpetrator. The shocking twist will leave readers reeling and unsure of what to believe.

Some writers use other literary devices to challenge the reader’s perception of the truth. Such is the case with Paul Tremblay’s Disappearance at Devil’s Rock (Morrow, Jun.; see the review p. 69), in which the protagonist’s teenage son dis­appears into the woods—but no one is prepared for the sinister events that follow. This mix of crime thriller and psychological suspense incorporates elements of horror and the supernatural to distort our sense of reality. Mary Kubica, New York Times best-selling author of The Good Girl, plays with her characters’ understanding of others—people they thought they really knew—in Don’t You Cry (Mira: Harlequin, May), a tale of a vanished roommate and the appearance of a mysterious stranger in another city.

Escaping the ordinary

The exciting prospect of the protagonists breaking out of their mundane existence has great appeal to fans of psychological suspense. Also making her foray into adult fiction this spring is YA author Robin Wasserman with Girls on Fire (Harper, May). In this dark and twisted tale of friendship, obsession, and murder, a charismatic and seductive girl lures another away from the comfort of her ordinary but lonely life.

Hopes are high at Little, Brown for Megan Abbott’s You Will Know Me (Jul.), an exploration of the fatal intersection between a young girl’s ambitions and those of her parents. “You just can’t turn the pages fast enough to find out how the story will end,” exclaims Regan Arthur, senior vice president and publisher. “With every novel, Megan proves that she has a finely tuned eye and ear for the tensions and desires that live below the surface of everyday lives and how those can take a sinister, even deadly turn.” The publisher plans a six-city tour and plenty of promotion at this summer’s American Library Association conference.

Despite the genre’s thriving popularity, Minotaur editorial director Kelly Ragland believes so much competition makes it more difficult for new thrillers to stand out. “Because of the success of books like [A.S.A. Harrison’s] The Silent Wife, it’s harder than ever to measure up, to stand out from the crowd.” So Minotaur, explains Ragland, is choosing its shots very ­carefully.

A lead title on the mystery imprint’s fall list is Daisy in Chains (Sept.) a stand-alone from ­Sharon Bolton. A criminal defense attorney with a reputation for getting the wrongly convicted exonerated is drawn into the machinations of a serial killer who claims innocence. Bolton plays with reader’s perceptions, comments Ragland, “constantly shifting the ground under your feet as the story progresses.” And while she isn’t delivering an unreliable narrator, “she’s always got the reader where she wants her.”


Abused wives, lost children

Domestic suspense, a subgenre closely tied to psychological suspense, is also enjoying success with readers and publishers. Such novels, explains Sarah Weinman, a mystery critic and editor of the 2013 collection Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives: Stories from the Trailblazers of Domestic Suspense, “deal with class and race, sexism and economic disparity; they delve into the dark side of human behavior that threatens to come out with the dinner dishes, the laundry, or child care.”

What makes these books so frightening, adds Weinman, is how ordinary the lives they describe are before disaster hits. This spring, acclaimed literary novelist Lydia Millet probes a domestic situation turned sinister in Sweet Lamb of Heaven (Norton, May). When Anna flees her cold and unfaithful husband with their daughter, his pursuit of them turns from merely threatening to criminal.

A lost, or stolen, child is now a common plot device in many contemporary thrillers. “It’s a page-turning hook that ramps up the emotional stakes from the start,” says Houghton Mifflin Harcourt associate editor Naomi Gibbs. “Mysteries centered on missing children have a visceral hold on a lot of readers, whether you’re a parent who can imagine the horror of having your child kidnapped, or a child who can visualize so clearly how their own parents might feel.”

Edgar Award–winning author Alex Marwood explores that fear in The Darkest Secret (Penguin, Aug.) when a small child vanishes during her wealthy father’s birthday party—and what it means for everyone touched by the tragedy when secrets about that night bubble to the surface 12 years later. Gerry Schmitt—who writes several popular cozy series under the pseudonym Laura Childs—launches a thriller series with July’s Little Girl Gone (Berkley). Minneapolis family liaison officer Afton ­Tangler probes the abduction of a baby from its home and is forced to deal with both the emotional aftermath of a family losing its child and the stark fear that this is not an isolated crime.

A rising star in the domestic suspense category is ­Debbie Howells, whose debut novel, The Bones of You (Pinnacle: Kensington, Jun.), was recently selected in the UK as a Richard & Judy Book Club Pick. Noting that this title more closely resembles The Girl on the Train than Gone Girl, Kensington Publishing editorial director Alicia Condon praises Howells for creating “a narrator who observes an apparently idyllic family with a disturbingly dark hidden history, a missing daughter, a surprise twist at the end.” The author’s second novel, The Beauty of the End, which Kensington is issuing as an August hardcover release, is proving to be a popular read with early reviewers.

Criminal investigations

Female leads also dominate this spring’s crop of crime and police procedural novels. “Women protagonists are stronger than ever and comprise the majority of our list,” says Minotaur publicity manager Sarah Melnyk, who points out that many of these characters have careers in law enforcement or investigative work. This May, Minotaur will publish City of the Lost, an interesting switch for urban fantasy writer Kelley Armstrong. Her sharp protagonist is Casey Duncan, a detective with a dark past who seeks a fresh start in a remote Canadian town.

“It might be a man’s world overall,” comments Tor/Forge senior editor Kristin Sevick, “but there’s virtually no avenue of sleuthing off-limits to women simply because of their gender.” Arriving in September is Shannon Baker’s Stripped Bare (Forge), whose strong heroine could be described as a female Walt Longmire in Nebraska’s cattle country. Kate Fox must find out who shot her cheating husband, the county sheriff. “The West doesn’t belong only to the boys,” says Sevick.

Popular UK thriller writer Mark Billingham, known for his DI Tom Thorne novels, returns this summer with a stand-alone, Die of Shame (Grove Atlantic, Jun.), and a female lead, DI Nicola Tanner, who faces the challenge of identifying a murderer in a therapy group bound by strict confidentiality. For Tana French and Kate Atkinson aficionados, Susie Steiner’s Missing, Presumed (Random, Jun.) introduces all-too-­human Cambridgeshire detective Manon Bradshaw as she investigates the disappearance of a Cambridge University grad student. Back in small-town North Carolina, meet Elizabeth Black, a dedicated, driven, and deeply troubled detective and John Hart’s first female protagonist, the star of Redemption Road (Thomas Dunne: St. Martin’s, May).

Female gumshoes

On the PI front, former police officer Alex Quick searches for her missing business partner in Susan Moody’s series launch, Quick and the Dead (Severn House, Jun.). Is Helena Drummond a victim or a killer? Sixties journalist Ellie Stone puts herself at risk in her fourth adventure, James W. Ziskin’s Heart of Stone (Seventh Street: Prometheus, Jun.), when she sticks her nose into a suspicious accident in the ­Adirondacks.

Meanwhile fans of Cara Black’s feisty fashionista Aimée Leduc will learn how the Parisian sleuth took over her father’s detective agency in a prequel entitled Murder on the Quai (Soho Crime, Jun.). “It’s garnering some of the strongest preorders and media attention of any of [Black’s] books to date—proving to us that the interest in strong female leads is very much alive,” explains Soho Press’s senior publicity manager Meredith Barnes. “Aimée in particular is of interest because Cara has taken her through all the travails that might trip up a lesser detective, male or female: lovers come and gone, a baby, and stiletto heels.”

The Soho Crime imprint, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this summer, is also reissuing Francine Mathews’s Merry Folger Nantucket mysteries. Originally published in 1994 and set for a May release, Death in the Off-Season introduces rookie detective (and the police chief’s daughter) Merry Folger, who has to prove her worth by finding the killer of Rusty Mason, a member of an old and wealthy island family. This title will be followed in July by Death in Rough Water.

The testosterone factor

Male sleuths, though, remain major players in the genre. ­Michael Koryta’s Rise the Dark (Little, Brown, Aug.) opens with investigator Markus Novak, having lost his wife in Last Words, going back to the strange Florida village to confront the man he believes killed her.

“When someone says, ‘I never know what thriller to read,’ this is the one, simply because it does it better,” comments Little, Brown executive editor and Mulholland publisher Josh Kendall. “It has a heartbroken detective on a quest across country, a wife whose abduction sets the trap, and a villain whose trap may be our country itself.”

Then there is Alex Segura’s Pete Fernandez, whose newspaper career is in ruins, and his personal life is not doing much better. In the sequel to Segura’s hard-boiled debut, Silent City, Fernandez is tracking a missing girl and comes up against a ­vicious killer on the backstreets of Miami. Polis Books founder and publisher Jason Pinter calls Down the Darkest Street (Apr.) his lead spring title.


Tom Ripley’s heirs

Patricia Highsmith created one of the most famous antiheroes in Tom Ripley, and that tradition of making a reader complicit with a less than moral protagonist has carried on in contemporary mysteries. Punk music promoter–turned–District of Columbia (DC) police detective–turned crime novelist David Swinson (A Detailed Man) inaugurates a gritty, hard-boiled series set on DC’s mean streets with The Second Girl (­Mul­holland, Jun.; see the review p. 78) in which protagonist Frank Marr, a drug-addicted ex-cop, stumbles upon a kidnapped girl and finds himself forced into the limelight.

Also coming from Mulholland is Chris Holm’s Red Right Hand (Sept.), the second book in his acclaimed series about assassin Michael Hendricks, who only kills other hit men. Yet another antihero springs to life in Steve Hamilton’s The Second Life of Nick Mason (Putnam, May). When Mason makes a deal with a criminal mastermind to secure his early release from prison, the cost is terrible.

Mystery Writers of America (MWA) Grand Master Lawrence Block’s first crime novel, published under a different title and a pseudonym, has been lost for nearly 50 years. In November, Titan’s Hard Case Crime imprint is reissuing Sinner Man with new edits by the author. Block’s lead character attempts to escape a murder charge by taking on the identity of a mobster.

Fresh voices, new stories

Reader demand for more diverse authors and themes continues to grow, a trend that Selene James, the executive editor of Kensington’s Dafina imprint, sees permeating the mystery arena. “Readers will relate to a spellbinding story regardless of the ethnic background of the protagonist,” says James. Jason Overstreet’s debut, The Strivers’ Row Spy (Dafina, Sept.), follows the exploits of the FBI’s first African American agent in the 1920s Harlem Renaissance as he crosses the lines among the law, loyalty, and deadly lies.

Another black author, Cheryl A. Head, introduces Detroit PI Charlie Mack in Bury Me When I’m Dead (Bywater, Jun.), who struggles with her sexuality and her ailing mother as she probes a missing persons case. And Rachel Howzell Hall brings back Det. Elouise Norton for her third case in Trail of Echoes (Forge, May). This time the African American cop inquires into the death of a 13-year-old girl in her old L.A. neighborhood.

“A lot of unique voices and different stories are getting published and read that might not have been ten years ago,” states Polis’s Pinter, who credits the influx of progressive new presses with robust crime fiction lines, along with the digital marketplace, for the broadening of the genre.


Addressing social issues

Increasingly, authors are using the crime fiction format to tackle such difficult issues as racism and slavery. Thomas Mullen’s hard-hitting Darktown (37 Ink: Atria, Sept.) examines race relations in 1948 Atlanta as the city’s first black police officers seek justice for a murdered black woman—last seen in the car of a white man.

What if the U.S. Civil War had never happened and slavery remained legal in four states? Such is the provocative premise of Edgar Award winner Ben Winters’s Underground Airlines (Mul­holland, Jul.; see the review p. 87). Little, Brown’s ­Arthur says, “It’s one thing (and no small thing) to come up with a plot idea as intriguing and original as [this] one. It’s another thing entirely (a very big thing) to match that idea with vivid characters, a story filled with twists and surprises, and a resolution that is breathtaking in its audacity. Winters pulls all that off with remarkable ease.”

For mystery buffs, there is still plenty of suspense to be found in the past. Thanks to the phenomenon that was Downton Abbey, “the period between the wars—the PBS era—is a fertile period for mysteries,” comments Minotaur associate director of publicity Hector DeJean. Heading his fall list is librarian Ashley Weaver’s forthcoming third entry in her acclaimed Amory Ames series. A Most Novel Revenge (Oct.) revolves around an investigation of a years-old murder. Tor/Forge’s Sevick agrees with DeJean’s assessment. “The 1930s is a dramatically revolutionary time period that readers can relate to. Classic glamour, strong women rising in a man’s world, and a tough economic time—it’s 80 years ago, and yet it could be today.” One of her favorite titles this season is Design for Dying by Renee Patrick (Forge, Apr.), a star-studded 1930s Holly­wood debut starring real-life costume designer Edith Head and shopgirl Lillian Frost, who join forces to solve a murder. And Laurie R. King’s much-beloved Mary Russell–Sherlock Holmes team, who first paired up in 1915 with 1994’s The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, returns this month with The Murder of Mary Russell (Bantam). Both Holmes and Russell have plenty of secrets, but in this installment, set in the 1920s, readers learn about the dark secrets faithful housekeeper Mrs. Hudson has been keeping under wraps. Will Russell survive the fallout?

Bookish cozies

On the lighter side of crime fiction, Minotaur associate publicist Shailyn Tavella sees a resurgence in “bookish mysteries…with odes to bibliophiles everywhere. She is thrilled that Charlaine Harris’s small-town Southern librarian, Aurora Teagarden, whose mystery-solving adventures have now been adapted by the Hallmark Channel, will be returning this fall in All the Little Liars (Minotaur, Oct.). And Minotaur newcomer Katherine Bolger Hyde “merges the fun and lighthearted aspects of a cozy with elements from classic fiction” in Arsenic with Austen (Jul.). Other bookish delights on the horizon include the tenth entry in Kate Carlisle’s Brooklyn Wainwright series. In Books of a Feather (NAL, Jun.), the intrepid book restorer must solve a murder that might involve an invaluable John James Audubon work.

Our favorite cozies are the ones with “some meat on the bone,” notes ­Matthew Martz, editorial director of independent publisher Crooked Lane Books. With regard to the flood of new titles that hit the market every season, he stresses that “it’s the authors and books that deliver on the wit, wisdom, and charm that distinguish themselves.” Ellen Byron, whose Plantation Shudders is nominated for a 2016 Agatha Award for Best First Mystery, is back this September with Body on the Bayou, the second entry in her witty “Cajun Country Mystery” series. This time, a murder and a wedding have everyone on their toes at the Crozat Plantation. Crooked Lane will also be publishing Something Buried, Something Blue (Oct.) by Wendi Corsi Staub. In the second volume in a critically acclaimed series set in a spiritualist colony in upstate New York, the spirits foresee death for a particularly difficult bridezilla. Soon guesthouse caretaker Bella Jordan finds herself trapped in a house full of murder suspects.

Psychological suspense has a lot to offer readers in terms of excitement and escape. But there are plenty of thrills to be found across the mystery genre, especially in some up-and-coming areas of social interest. And while it’s impossible to tell what the next trend will be or when it will hit, with the amount of innovative and exciting writing now being published, we can be reasonably sure that mysteries will stay on top.

Mystery Lineup

Below are the forthcoming titles mentioned in this article.
Abbott, Megan You Will Know Me Little, Brown Jul.
Armstrong, Kelley City of the Lost Minotaur: St. Martin’s May
Baker, Shannon Stripped Bare Forge Sept.
Billingham, Mark Die of Shame Grove Atlantic Jun.
Black, Cara Murder on the Quai Soho Crime Jun.
Block, Lawrence Sinner Man Hard Case Crime: Titan Nov.
Bolton, Sharon Daisy in Chains Minotaur: St. Martin’s Sept.
Byron, Ellen Body on the Bayou Crooked Lane Sept.
Carlisle, Kate Books of a Feather NAL Jun.
Hall, Rachel Howzell Trail of Echoes Forge May
Hamilton, Steve The Second Life of Nick Mason Putnam May
Harris, Charlaine All the Little Liars Minotaur: St. Martin’s Oct.
Hart, John Redemption Road Thomas Dunne: St. Martin’s May
Head, Cheryl A. Bury Me When I’m Dead Bywater Jun.
Hilton, L.S. Maestra Putnam Apr.
Holm, Chris Red Right Hand Mulholland: Little, Brown Sept.
Howells, Debbie The Beauty of the End Kensington Aug.
Howells, Debbie The Bones of You Pinnacle: Kensington Jun.
Hyde, Katherine Bolger Arsenic with Austen Minotaur: St. Martin’s Jul.
Kessler, Kate It Takes One Redhook: Hachette Apr.
King, Laurie R. The Murder of Mary Russell Bantam Apr.
Koryta, Michael Rise the Dark Little, Brown Aug.
Kubica, Mary Don’t You Cry Mira: Harlequin May
Lippman, Laura Wilde Lake Morrow May
Mackintosh, Clare I Let You Go Berkley May
McPherson, Catriona Quiet Neighbors Midnight Ink Apr.
Marwood, Alex The Darkest Secret Penguin Aug.
Mathews, Francine Death in Rough Water Soho Crime Jul.
Mathews, Francine Death in the Off-Season Soho Crime May
Millet, Lydia Sweet Lamb of Heaven Norton May
Miranda, Megan All the Missing Girls S. & S. Jun.
Moody, Susan Quick and the Dead Severn House Jun.
Mullen, Thomas Darktown 37 Ink: Atria Sept.
Overstreet, Jason The Strivers’ Row Spy Dafina: Kensington Sept.
Patrick, Renee Design for Dying Forge Apr.
Reid, Iain I’m Thinking of Ending Things Scout: Gallery Jun.
Schmitt, Gerry Little Girl Gone Berkley Jul.
Segura, Alex Down the Darkest Street Polis Apr.
Staub, Wendi Corsi Something Buried, Something Blue Crooked Lane Oct.
Steiner, Susie Missing, Presumed Random Jun.
Swinson, David The Second Girl Mulholland: Little, Brown Jun.
Tremblay, Paul Disappearance at Devil’s Rock Morrow Jun.
Wasserman, Robin Girls on Fire Harper May
Weaver, Ashley A Most Novel Revenge Minotaur: St. Martin’s Oct.
Winters, Ben Underground Airlines Mulholland: Little, Brown Jul.
Ziskin, James W. Heart of Stone Seventh Street: Prometheus Jun.

Erica Ruth Neubauer is a freelance writer living in Milwaukee. She specializes in all things crime fiction and mystery

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