Mystery, Suspense, & Thriller Trends, plus 49 Exciting 2020 Titles

Clear the roster for this year’s crop of mysteries, thrillers, cozies, and suspense.

The mystery, suspense, and thriller genres occupy similar spaces in readers’ minds and hearts, but each has its own appeal. Mysteries tend to focus on the "whodunit"—crime and punishment. Suspense and thrillers focus on the "whydunit," often exploring the motivations that underlie and lead up to dangerous or nefarious situations.

Each subgenre provides catharsis for readers. In mysteries, that resolution is the provision of justice; a crime is discovered, the perpetrator is found and punished, and order is restored. In suspense and thrillers, it’s found in the roller-coaster ride of emotion, in which readers experience wild twists and turns and a rush of adrenaline as motives and methods are finally revealed.

Whether readers are searching for escape from the everyday or stories that explore that which has gone wrong and how to right it, the following 49 forthcoming crime fiction titles include a wide array of intriguing suspects, unusual modus operandi, dogged investigators, and edge-of-your-seat tension.

The Evolution of the Thriller

Sophie Robinson, editor at Titan Books, notes that thrillers are still, "eight years after Gone Girl, one of the most enduringly popular genres in crime fiction." She adds that sales charts are still dominated by them: "I don’t see the trend waning anytime soon, but instead adapting and reinvigorating what have become staples of the genre."

The continuing popularity of the thriller has led to an expansion of subcategories within the genre. Where they were once simply "thrillers," the books now range from evil at home (domestic) to past misdeeds (historical) to pandemics (bioterror) to technology run amok (techno). To explore darkness close to home, look no further than Michele Campbell’s The Wife Who Knew Too Much (St. Martin’s, Jun.) and Sharon Doering’s She Lies Close (Titan, Jul.), both of which focus on intimate relationships that go wrong. Campbell’s Wife wonders whether her new husband is a serial wife murderer, while Doering’s debut centers on the hunt for a missing child and her mother’s obsession with punishing the suspect.

Near or slightly alternate futures are the focus of biothrillers, technothrillers, and dystopian thrillers. Michael McBride’s Mutation (Pinnacle: Kensington, Sept.) is a timely peek at the destruction wrought by a deadly virus.

Drew Murray’s debut technothriller, Broken Genius (Oceanview, Jun.), explores the wires and clouds that tie quantum computing, the "dark web," and corporate espionage to the geeks who inhabit high-tech virtual spaces and ComicCons.

Further out is Lauren Beukes’s Afterland (Mulholland: Hachette, Jul.), a near-future, post-pandemic dystopian thriller with a feminist bent that combines aspects of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale with P.D. James’s The Children of Men.

Spy thrillers once were practically synonymous with the genre, but after the Cold War ended, contemporary espionage stories subsided. Historical spy thrillers are still popular, featuring plenty of action and suspense, along with a chilling bit of speculation about what might have been. Particularly notable is "Aimée Leduc" series author Cara Black’s stand-alone, Three Hours in Paris (Soho, Apr.), about an ordinary American cowgirl who faces down Hitler at the behest of British Intelligence during World War II.

Lawyers get their day outside of court in Patrick Hoffman’s Clean Hands (Atlantic Monthly, Jun.), a thriller that dives into the world of big money shenanigans and all the justice that money can buy. The intersection of law, money, and politics is also at the heart of Otho Eskin’s debut thriller, The Reflecting Pool (Oceanview, Sept.), in which a DC detective finds the body of a Secret Service agent and runs into the brick wall of a White House that does not want the death investigated.

Mysteries Set in the Here and Now

Pets are a common feature in cozy mysteries, but a new trend sees working dogs taking a starring role in contemporary mysteries. In David Rosenfelt’s The K Team (Minotaur, May), a spin-off of his "Andy Carpenter" series, Andy’s wife Laurie starts her own team with a former detective and his canine partner. A cadaver dog partners with her trainer in the second book in Kylie Logan’s "Jazz Ramsey" series, The Secrets of Bones (Minotaur, May).

Mysteries often use tried-and-true procedures as a way of grounding readers while exploring locations that may be new to them. Book three in David Peace’s "Tokyo Trilogy," Tokyo Redux (Knopf, Jun.), which centers on an investigation into a high-profile crime, takes place during the post–World War II Allied occupation of Japan. The trail goes cold, but the case haunts Japanese and American investigators for decades. Qiu Xiaolong’s Hold Your Breath, China (Severn House, Jun.) combines a serial killer investigation with an undercover assignment into environmental terrorism. Meanwhile, in Tori Eldridge’s second "Lily Wong" book, The Ninja’s Blade (Agora: Polis, Sept.), a modern-day Chinese Norwegian ninja goes undercover to hunt for women who have been trafficked into Los Angeles, while dodging family members who are intent on trapping her into a different kind of sexual enslavement.

The first English translation of Spanish author Eva García Sáenz’s best seller The Silence of the White City (Vintage, Jul.) takes readers on the hunt for a ritual killer; 20 years ago, someone was convicted of the crime spree, but was the wrong person fingered?

Set closer to home is David Heska Wanbli Weiden’s #OwnVoices debut, Winter Counts (Ecco, Aug.), focused on Virgil Wounded Horse, the local enforcer for Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota, who must take justice into his own hands when it is denied by both the legal system and the tribal council.

Moving to more traditional mystery protagonists, Clemmie’s quiet life in her retirement community is destroyed when she is framed for the murder of her neighbor in Caroline B. Cooney’s Before She Was Helen (Poisoned Pen, May).

Multiple lifetime achievement award winner Peter Lovesey, author of more than 50 mystery titles, has a new book out this July, The Finisher (Soho), and a 50th-anniversary collector’s edition of his debut novel, originally published in 1970, Wobble To Death (Soho, Oct.).

Mining the Past

"In the world of mystery fiction, the 19th century, particularly the English version, is evergreen," says Maggie Topkis, publisher at Felony & Mayhem Press. Topkis attributes this to the "enduring popularity" of Sherlock Holmes stories, Dracula and Frankenstein,Sweeney Todd, and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, "all of which have given readers and writers a sort of atmospheric template of The Mysterious: This is what creepiness looks and sounds and smells like."

Kensington Assistant Editor James Abbate says, "Destabilization in Europe is a growing concern with Brexit and other international issues, which seem to be reflected in war novels." He adds, "People look to the past because it informs the present, and nothing held more widespread chaos or destruction for the continent than the Second World War." Howard Linskey’s Ungentlemanly Warfare (Kensington, May) centers on the British Special Operations Executive and its Allied effort to assassinate one of Hitler’s top scientists.

The 19th century continues to be a popular period for historical mysteries, as exemplified by C.S. Harris’s Who Speaks for the Damned (Berkley, Apr.) as well as her collaboration with Susanna Kearsley, Anna Lee Huber, and Christine Trent in The Deadly Hours (Poisoned Pen, Sept.).

World War II and the immediate postwar period in Britain are brought to life in Allison Montclair’s A Royal Affair (Minotaur, Jun.), the follow-up to her ALA Reading List Award–winning The Right Sort of Man.

After the success of her "Li Du" series, featuring a 17th-century Chinese scholar, Elsa Hart moves ahead slightly to the early 18th century for her new series opener, The Cabinets of Barnaby Mayne (Minotaur, Jun.), while Leonard Goldberg follows Holmes genealogically in his Edwardian mystery starring Sherlock’s daughter, The Art of Deception (Minotaur, Jun.).

Cozies Get Defluffed

"When people hear ‘cozy mystery,’ they often assume the book in question is going to be fluffy reading," says Larissa Ackerman, communications manager at Kensington. "But lately, I’ve been seeing cozy mystery authors and readers push back against this preconception, and I believe they will continue to do so." Ackerman concedes that there are guidelines (no blood, no cursing), but she cites a blog post from author Sherry Harris: "I try to write books that fit the parameters of the cozy genre but also have emotional depth with complex male and female characters who are trying to live their lives when a murder interrupts it." Ackerman has also noticed increasing interest in the cozy genre from younger readers. "Millennials have been called the ‘wanderlust generation,’ and it’s clear that many of our internationally set cozy series hold strong appeal for those readers who love to fantasize about far-flung travels."

Cozy mysteries tend to center on pets, food and wine, intriguing locations, and bookstores and libraries. They also tend to take place in quirky but welcoming small towns amid found families. Books such as Simon Brett’s series opener, The Clutter Corpse (Severn House, Jun.), also feature detectives with unusual backgrounds. His amateur sleuth is a professional declutterer who finds corpses among the mess. The Irish Jewish opera singer in Kathleen Marple Kalb’s Gilded Age–set A Fatal Finale (Kensington, May) is a heroine with an unusual career for a would-be investigator.

Elizabeth Logan’s series opener, Mousse and Murder (Berkley, May), is set in a typical cozy location—a small-town diner—in the fictional town of Elkview, AK. Paw and Order by V.M. Burns (Kensington, Aug.) has amateur sleuth Lilly Echosby investigating an attempted dognapping. Hannah Dennison’s Death at High Tide (Minotaur, Aug.) sees two sisters, who recently inherited a hotel off the coast of Cornwall that once hosted Golden Age detective novelists, mired in a murder investigation of their own.

Best Sellers, Breakouts, and Big Books

"Big name" authors such as John Hart (The Unwilling, St. Martin’s, Jun.), Sara Paretsky (Dead Land, Morrow, Apr.), David Baldacci (Walk the Wire, Grand Central, Apr.), Michael Connelly (Fair Warning, Little, Brown, May), and Louise Penny ( All the Devils Are Here, Minotaur, Sept.), are reliable best sellers and likely to continue to draw in new and longtime readers. But many publishers are also putting major support behind first novelists they believe will light reading lamps in some dark corners of the genre.

Several notable upcoming debuts include Susan Allott’s The Silence (Morrow, May), a domestic thriller set in Australia in which a young woman returns home to poke into the darkness of her country’s and her family’s past. Elizabeth Kay’s Seven Lies (Pamela Dorman: Viking, Jun.) asks what happens when friends and lovers just can’t get along. Caitlin Mullen’s Please See Us (Gallery, Mar.) turns its noirish light on the shadows that lurk in Atlantic City.

While breakout debuts get a lot of attention, it’s frequently an author’s second, third, or even fourth book on which their careers depend. Several novels look poised to cement their authors’ places in the crime fiction firmament. Following the success of 2019’s The Hunting Party, Lucy Foley takes readers to another isolated island house party in The Guest List (Morrow, May), which results in a corpse, a limited list of suspects, and a celebration that is anything but.

Alex North’s 2019 debut thriller, The Whisper Man, scared readers half to death with a suspense story that stayed just this side of horror. The Shadows (Celadon, Jul.) promises to send readers even further off that creepy ledge with its tale of outsiders, serial killers, copycats, and missing murderers.

Ruth Ware’s 2019 tale The Turn of the Key was not her first book, but its sweep of starred reviews and awards sets up One by One (Scout: S. & S., Sept.) to be a most anticipated thriller of 2020. Its scenario—being snowbound in a mountain chalet with eight mistrusted coworkers—will strike many readers as nightmarish even before the bodies start piling up. Irish author Catherine Ryan Howard has been attracting attention and accolades since her 2016 debut, Distress Signals. Blackstone Publishing senior publicist Lauren Maturo says of Howard’s fourth thriller, The Nothing Man (Aug.), "We expect this to be our breakout thriller of the summer!"

Better Representation Across the Genre

Crime fiction has a strong tradition of female writers dating back to the Golden Age of Margery Allingham, Agatha Christie, and Dorothy Sayers, but there is still a need for more #OwnVoices books, protagonists of color, and stories and settings that reflect the rich diversity of the world as it is.

According to Josh Kendall, executive editor at Mulholland Books, "The genre is growing more diverse and becoming more inclusive, but it’s happening slowly. We’ve seen the evolution happening at Mulholland, and while it’s a shift we’re proud of, it’s also an effort that doesn’t really abate. The goal, at least for me, is outreach…beyond the traditional channels and communities."

Maggie Topkis at Felony & Mayhem says, "Based on the manuscript submissions that every day come tumbling through the transom, I’d say the era of the wisecracking, white, heterosexual young male sleuth is not slated to end anytime soon." She adds that "alternatives are out there, if you look for them." Those "alternatives" from Felony & Mayhem include The Anarchists’ Club by Alex Reeve (Jun.), the second Victorian mystery featuring trans detective Leo Stanhope, and Barbara Wilson’s Not the Real Jupiter (Jul.), the return of sexy septuagenarian, lesbian amateur investigator Cassandra Reilly, after a 20-year hiatus.

Minotaur associate director of publicity Hector DeJean says, "Minotaur’s list is quite diverse—we’re always publishing foreign authors and authors in translation, and we’ve always been open to voices from various backgrounds, from Ausma Zehanat Khan (A Deadly Divide, 2019) to Vivien Chien (Egg Drop Dead, Feb.) to Keigo Higashino to Ellen Hart (In a Midnight Wood, Aug.). Jennifer Hillier, author of the upcoming Little Secrets (Apr.), is of Filipino descent."

Jason Pinter, publisher at Polis, welcomes the changes. "For years, it has felt like the genre has paid lip service toward wanting to be more diverse and inclusive. But over the last few years, it really feels like that desire is finally taking hold." Adding that the genre "feels younger…more vibrant, with stories from communities that have rarely been showcased in crime fiction," he notes that authors with influence "have been holding us rightfully accountable toward doing more."

Organizations like Crime Writers of Color have given many writers from marginalized backgrounds a community, Pinter explains, "but these are also just the first steps, and we can’t get complacent. It’s up to publishers to listen and understand what stories have not been told, which authors should be telling them, and what our responsibilities are when it comes time to promote them."

Kensington’s Crystal McCoy says, "Diversity, when added to crime fiction and mystery, not only enriches those genres, but publishing as a whole. Kensington recognizes the need to publish stories from authors of various racial, gender, sexual, and neurodiverse identities, starring characters of the same nature. By Way of Sorrow (Jun.) by debut author Robyn Gigl introduces readers to transgender attorney Erin McCabe, a strong, independent, fearless character who adds much-needed diverse representation to the thriller genre." McCoy points to Charlie Donlea’s The Suicide House (Jul.), which features a forensic reconstructionist who is on the autism spectrum; and the upcoming installment in Tracy Clark’s "Chicago Mystery" series, What You Don’t See (May), featuring an African American female protagonist, Chicago cop–turned–PI Cass Raines.

The range of crime fiction—from cheerful cozies and quaint historicals to intricately plotted police procedurals and twisted psychological thrillers—is enormous, encompassing fans across every demographic. And while many novels in the genre appeal because of their ability to transport readers away from the here and now, they can also serve as a means of grappling with contemporary concerns and anxieties. "Crime fiction," says Chantelle Aimée Osman, editor at Agora, an imprint of Polis, "has always been in a unique position to shine a light on issues of society and justice." Whether pure escapism, bibliotherapy, or a smart send-up of recent headlines, 2020’s roster of titles offers crime fiction devotees plenty of thrilling options. 

Mystery Lineup 

Below are the forthcoming titles mentioned in this article. Debuts denoted by (*).

Allott, Susan The Silence* Morrow May
Baldacci, David Walk the Wire Grand Central Apr.
Beukes, Lauren Afterland Mulholland Jul.
Black, Cara Three Hours in Paris Soho Apr.
Brett, Simon  The Clutter Corpse Severn House Jun.
Burns, V.M. Paw and Order Kensington Aug.
Campbell, Michele The Wife Who Knew Too Much St. Martin’s Jun.
Chien, Vivien Egg Drop Dead Minotaur Feb.
Clark, Tracy What You Don’t See Kensington May
Connelly, Michael Fair Warning Little, Brown May
Cooney, Caroline B. Before She Was Helen Poisoned Pen May
Dennison, Hannah Death at High Tide Minotaur Aug.
Doering, Sharon She Lies Close* Titan Jul.
Donlea, Charlie The Suicide House Kensington Jul.
Eldridge, Tori The Ninja’s Blade Agora:Polis Sept.
Eskin, Otho The Reflecting Pool* Oceanview Sept.
Foley, Lucy The Guest List Morrow May
Gigl, Robyn By Way of Sorrow* Kensington Jun.
Goldberg, Leonard The Art of Deception Minotaur Jun.
Harris, C.S. Who Speaks for the Damned Berkley Apr.
Hart, Ellen In a Midnight Wood Minotaur Aug.
Hart, Elsa The Cabinets of Barnaby Mayne Minotaur Jun.
Hart, John The Unwilling St. Martin’s Jun.
Hillier, Jennifer Little Secrets Minotaur Apr.
Hoffman, Patrick Clean Hands Atlantic Monthly Jun.
Howard, Catherine Ryan The Nothing Man Blackstone Aug.
Kalb, Kathleen Marple A Fatal Finale Kensington May
Kay, Elizabeth Seven Lies* Pamela Dorman: Jun.
Kearsley, Susanna & others The Deadly Hours Poisoned Pen Sept.
Linskey, Howard Ungentlemanly Warfare Kensington May
Logan, Elizabeth Mousse and Murder Berkley May
Logan, Kylie The Secrets of Bones Minotaur May
Lovesey, Peter The Finisher Soho Jul.
Lovesey, Peter  Wobble To Death: 50th Anniversary; Collector’s Edition Soho Oct.
McBride, Michael Mutation Pinnacle: Kensington  Sept.
Montclair, Allison A Royal Affair Minotaur Jun.
Mullen, Caitlin Please See Us* Gallery Mar.
Murray, Drew Broken Genius* Oceanview Jun.
North, Alex The Shadows Celadon Jul.
Paretsky, Sara Dead Land Morrow Apr.
Peace, David Tokyo Redux Knopf Jun.
Penny, Louise All the Devils Are Here Minotaur Sept.
Qiu Xiaolong Hold Your Breath, China Severn House Jun.
Reeve, Alex The Anarchists’ Club Felony & Mayhem Jun.
Rosenfelt, David The K Team Minotaur May
Sáenz, Eva García The Silence of the White City Vintage Jul.
Ware, Ruth One by One Scout: S. & S. Sept.
Weiden, David & Heska Wanbli  Winter Counts* Ecco Aug.
Wilson, Barbara Not the Real Jupiter Felony & Mayhem Jul.

This article was originally published in Library Journal's March 2020 issue 



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