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Community Focused Mysteries

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Jamie Canaves

Contributing Editor

Jamie Canavés is the Tailored Book Recommendations coordinator and Unusual Suspects mystery newsletter writer–in case you’re wondering what you do with a Liberal Arts degree. She’s never met a beach she didn’t like, always says yes to dessert, loves ‘80s nostalgia, all forms of entertainment, and can hold a conversation using only gifs. You can definitely talk books with her on Litsy and Goodreads. Depending on social media’s stability maybe also Twitter and Bluesky.

This post was originally published in our mystery/thriller newsletter, Unusual Suspects. Sign up for it here to get mystery news, reviews, deals, and more!

Hello mystery fans! I recently finished an excellent crime audiobook that left me thinking about mysteries that are either set in communities where you get to know a lot of the residents and/or mysteries set in a community where the community itself feels like a character. — as you’ve certainly already guessed — that’s what I’ve rounded up for you today.

Deacon King Kong by James McBride

Set in1969, readers are taken into the Brooklyn Cause Houses housing project, which is filled with interesting characters, many of which are known solely by their nicknames. Like Sportcoat, a church deacon who’d taught a youth baseball team, who is also known as the drunk. In front of everyone, he walks up to the known drug dealer, Deems Clemens, and shoots him.

This surprises everyone, including Sportcoat who isn’t really aware he was responsible for the shooting and ends up with a price on his head for it. We follow the members of the community — including Colombian ants (yes, the actual insects) — after the shooting and get the history of so many characters — Latinx, white, Black, Italian — bringing not only this time period and place to life, but why Sportcoat shot Clemens, along with another mystery buried somewhere in the community…I can’t recommend this one enough: the writing is exceptional, the characters are fantastic, even though the subjects seem like it would make this a heavy novel it is not at all, and the audiobook is narrated by Dominic Hoffman who you may (should!) know as Whitley’s boyfriend from A Different World.  (TW alcoholism/slurs/past child abuse/suicide)

Four Rabbi Small Mysteries: Friday the Rabbi Slept Late, Saturday the Rabbi Went Hungry, Sunday the Rabbi Stayed Home, and Monday the Rabbi Took Off (The Rabbi Small Mysteries #1-4) by Harry Kemelman

This collects the first four novellas (a bit over 200 pages each) in the Rabbi Small cozy mystery series. Also set in the 1960s, but this time in the Barnard’s Crossing’s Jewish community in Massachusetts, a small town not lacking in small town drama, and follows Rabbi David Small. We start with Friday the Rabbi Slept Late, where a nanny has been murdered and the Rabbi is trying to solve the case, while also being a suspect…This is a really good series for fans of cozy mysteries, especially if you’re looking for characters and a community we don’t get to see a lot of in mysteries. Plus, there’s 12 books in the series for a nice marathon.

IQ (IQ #1) by Joe Ide

Taking us to modern day, and to the gritty side of crime novels, is Ide’s series set in East Long Beach. The series starts by jumping between Isaiah Quintabe’s (a character influenced by Sherlock) childhood and his current life as a PI where he helps his community by taking on cases for whatever the person can afford (sometimes chickens!). This series currently has four novels following IQ and his reluctant side kick of sorts, Dodson (rhymes with Watson!), and really brings East Long Beach’s various racial and ethnic groups to life without feeling stereotypical. This is a great series for fans of modern, gritty crime novels, Walter Mosley, and characters that aren’t just good or bad caricatures but human. (TW I would say over the course of the series it probably hits on all the major ones.)

Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line cover image

Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line by Deepa Anappara

And for fans of standalone novels here’s one of my favorite reads of this year. It’s an adult novel following child characters, that shines a light on underserved communities, treatment of women, and the voices ignored by those in power while keeping focus on the victims and those silenced, rather than the perpetrators. A trio of kids head out through a slum in India to find a missing classmate; Led by 9-year-old Jai, a boy who has watched so many procedural shows that he believes himself able to solve this mystery. But as more kids go missing it quickly becomes clear this is nothing like fictional PI shows and this is far from a Nancy Drew mystery. Anappara brings to life an underserved community filled with different types of people, showing their lives and desires rather than creating a trauma porn novel. If you’re an audiobook listener, I highly recommend that format as Indira Varma, Himesh Patel, and Antonio Aakeel are fantastic narrators. (TW child, domestic abuse/child deaths)

When No One Is Watching by Alyssa Cole

A super good suspense novel you won’t be able to put down that is set in a gentrified Brooklyn neighborhood… it’s suspense at its best. And hopefully the start to the next massive boom in crime novels being social thrillers. Sydney Green is living in Brooklyn and doing her best to get her life in order, dealing with an ill mother, and trying to keep her neighborhood together. But her research into the neighborhood, her past, and strange occurrences starts playing with her mind and soon she can’t tell what is real, what’s a conspiracy thought, and what might actually be danger… (TW mentions past domestic violence/panic attacks/past suicide mentioned, detail)

The Silence of the White City (Trilogía de la Ciudad Blanca #1) by Eva García Sáenz

If you are looking for an engrossing start to a fictional serial killer trilogy translated from Spain, have I got a great read for you! This, for me, was one of those mystery reads that didn’t break any molds but gave me what I look for in these kinds of mysteries, and added the element of a new setting.

Twenty years ago, Vitoria, the capital city of Basque in Northern Spain, was terrified of a serial killer and his ritualistic killings. Now it seems the murders have started again — which is equally terrifying and baffling, seeing as the serial killer is in prison. He was an archaeologist brought forward by his twin brother who had been a police officer at the time of the killings. Dun dun dun! Now Inspector Unai López de Ayala “Kraken” has to figure out if the imprisoned serial killer has a new partner on the outside, or if they got it wrong all those years before…

Come for the twisty serial killer mystery, stay for the tour of Vitoria, Spain. Bonus: García Sáenz has managed to write a sweet spot that I think will appeal to both fans of dark mysteries and not too dark mysteries by writing the content on the dark side, but leaving out the overtly unnecessary graphic details. Think Dan Brown’s Angels & Demons and The Da Vinci Code. If you’re wondering how much I enjoyed this, I immediately checked to see if my library had the following two installments in Spanish rather than waiting for the English U.S. releases. (TW child murders, not graphic/attempted suicide and suicide/partner, child abuse/nonviable pregnancy/date rape/past statutory not on page)

Winter Counts cover image

Winter Counts by David Heska Wanbli Weiden

Virgil Wounded Horse lives in South Dakota on the Rosebud Indian Reservation and makes a living off of a legal loophole of sorts. The local police are only allowed to handle certain cases and everything else must be passed on to the FBI. The problem in this is that the FBI does not take all the cases, which leaves many criminals, from predators to robbers, unpunished. That’s where Virgil comes in: people pay him to basically beat the snot out of criminals who fall through the cracks. He’s also raising his nephew since his sister passed away and is the only family left. Because he’s responsible for not just himself anymore, he toys with taking a high paying job to investigate who is bringing in drugs to the reservation. He’s reluctant for a slew of reasons including it’s his ex-girlfriend’s father hiring him. But when the case hits close to home he’s left without much option. That’s how he finds himself paired up with his ex-girlfriend, and the FBI, to find out what is happening.

I absolutely loved Virgil, the vigilante for hire, as he’s cleaned up his life but still struggles to find his place. He’s introspective, curious, and also listens. A great contrast in his partnership with his ex who has lived a privileged life and is also in different ways struggling to find her place. I also loved the balance of seeing many different characters’ lives, and voices, on and off the reservation. A great mystery with excellent characters — everything you want in a crime novel! (TW addiction/mentions suicides, one with detail/past rapes including children mentioned, not graphic/child death/pedophile, crimes off page/fat shaming)