Eerie, Best of 2020, and More Must-Read Mystery and Thrillers

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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.

A monthly roundup of favorite mystery and thriller reviews from the biweekly Unusual Suspects crime newsletter, highlighting some great new releases and backlist mysteries that shouldn’t be missed.

Is your mystery loving heart looking for awesome crime reads? Cause I got you! From eerie mysteries to two crime novels that will be top of the 2020 best mystery lists (1st two listed), procedurals, and suspense, there’s something murder-y here to curl up with while waiting for spring.

New & Upcoming

Winter Counts cover imageWinter Counts by David Heska Wanbli Weiden (August 25, Ecco)

I especially loved two things about this novel: the characters and the setting. You realize how starved we are for certain stories and voices when publishing finally tosses you one. It’s like finally getting a drink in the desert, and as soon as you’re done you’re like, give me so much more. That’s how I felt with this mystery, which I could not put down.

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)

Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line cover imageDjinn Patrol on the Purple Line by Deepa Anappara

This will definitely be one of my favorite reads of the year. It was hard to read this and not think about all the discussions happening surrounding American Dirt and its issues, including it being trauma porn, because Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line is the complete opposite of trauma porn. Yes, it follows children navigating through slums in India to find a missing friend as children are going missing and the police are not putting in much effort, but underserved communities are still communities filled with different types of people with lives and desires and this novel shows that.

Jai is a 9-year-old boy who has watched so many procedural shows that he believes himself able to find out what happened to his missing classmate and enlists schoolmates Faiz and Pari to help. They’re determined to find out if a bad djinn is responsible for the disappearance, or a bad person, and they set out through the city to get their answers.

The novel shines a light on the 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. Anappara brings to life beautiful characters who keep things upbeat while exploring the darkness of the world in a story that starts with a coming-of-age mystery that travels along into noir territory. If you’re an audiobook listener I can not recommend it enough in that format. The narrators, Indira Varma, Himesh Patel, and Antonio Aakeel, are fantastic!

(TW child, domestic abuse/child deaths)

The Burn cover imageThe Burn (Betty Rhyzyk #2) by Kathleen Kent

This is a really good procedural series that follows Betty Rhyzyk, a former NY cop who talks to her dead uncle in her head for advice, and who has just relocated to a new job in Dallas, Texas. She’s tough and stubborn on the outside—ready to take on the world–but she’s cracked on the inside and trying hard not to completely unravel. Some of her issues are from events that recently happened (first book, so I’ll be vague), and some she brought along with her from New York. While she tries to hide her PTSD from those around her, especially her girlfriend Jackie, she’s also trying to figure out who is murdering drug dealers. But ordered mandatory therapy and desk duty, she’s going to have to get creative to solve the crime, and be suspicious of everyone, including her partner…This is an awesome procedural that’ll keep you on your toes and keep you rooting for the detective.

(TW mentions past suicide with detail/PTSD/mentions of past child abuse/alcoholism)

Untamed Shore cover imageUntamed Shore by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

This is a really good slow-burn suspense novel that, depending on your relationship with Jaws, may have an eerie setting. And by that I mean it’s set in 1979 Baja California, and there are a lot of dead sharks, guts included.

Eighteen-year-old Viridiana wants out of the town because her mom expects her to work in her shop and marry a man Viridiana has broken up with and has zero interest in getting back with. She also grew up aware that she’s the reason her mom got anchored to her father and stuck with a life she didn’t want, something Viridiana refuses to let happen to her. And so when wealthy tourists show up with a writer looking for an assistant, Viridiana takes the job, including moving into a room in their rented home. You know this tale, and you know someone is going to die in an accident, or maybe not an accident…As the cracks widen and the secrets begin to spill, who will protect themselves and who will come out on top?

If you like character driven suspense, and are looking for an interesting setting you’ve probably never read before, definitely pick this one up!

(TW domestic abuse/past suicide mentioned, detail)

The Sun Down Motel cover imageThe Sun Down Motel by Simone St. James

A ghostly mystery! Thirty-five years after her aunt Viv disappeared from her shift at a motel, Carly decides to take the same job at the same motel and figure out what happened to her aunt, along with who her aunt was, being that she grew up really not hearing much. The thing about this motel is that it’s definitely creepy and haunted. Doors open and slam on their own, customers are either walking red flags or shrouded in mystery, someone keeps smoking but there is no one there…

Told in past and present chapters we follow as Carly in the present tries to piece together what her aunt was doing and what happened to her, and we watch Viv in the past doing her own detective work as the two storylines begin barreling towards each other. A past and present mystery with an eerie setting and some spooks to curl up with.

(TW mentions past rape, not graphic)

Don't Look Down cover imageDon’t Look Down (Shadows of New York #2) by Hilary Davidson

This is the sequel procedural to One Small Sacrifice (Review) which I enjoyed so much last year I grabbed this one ASAP. It’s a great new series for fans of procedurals, detective partners, multiple point of view, and books that focus on the case at hand.

We open with Jo Greaver, a victim of blackmail, going to drop off the money at an apartment, but nothing goes as planned—does it ever?—and she ends up shot and shooting her blackmailer. She doesn’t stick around to find out what happens next, and goes back to work, and her life, as if a bullet in the arm won’t stop her. When NYPD detectives Sheryn Sterling and Rafael Mendoza show up on the scene, the evidence and witness accounts don’t make sense. And it also doesn’t add up with what we saw happen with Jo, which leads the detectives and readers to have to piece together not only who the blackmailer is, but what they’re blackmailing Jo with, and what really happened in that apartment?!

If you like page-turning, twisty procedurals that give you character depth but stay focused on the case and mystery at hand you’ll love escaping into this series.

(TW sex trafficking/past domestic abuse mentioned/past drug overdose/suicide, detail)

Good Girls Guide to Murder cover imageA Good Girl’s Guide to Murder (A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder #1) by Holly Jackson

Pip, a high school girl, decides to do a research paper on finding out what really happened to Andie Bell five years ago. The problem is that Andie Bell has already been declared dead, even if her body was never found, and her boyfriend, even though he died by suicide, has already been proven guilty of murdering her in the court of public opinion. Pip thinks there are too many what-ifs, questions, lack of evidence, and that there was racist reporting that never actually closed this case for her. So she’s asking questions—barred from speaking to the Bell family and told the project will immediately be cancelled if she doesn’t do this delicately—and trying to figure out what really happened to Andie Bell. Pip is naive in a lot of ways, not having been one to attend parties, date, rebel in any way and she’s going to find herself wading into school secrets, family secrets, friend secrets, and the age-old question: do you ever really know anyone?

This is a great, twisty read for fans of YA and I’m definitely picking up the sequel—this reads like a standalone so don’t worry if you don’t like series. And bonus: the audiobook has an awesome multicast which bravo to the publishers for doing.

(TW past suicide, with detail/mentions self harming/cyber exploitation/talk of statutory, date rapes discussed/dog dies)


strangers on a train cover imageStrangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith

I am not a rereader, but I read this as a teenager and, well, that was certainly not yesterday. Paired with discussions of Highsmith recently, because the anniversary of her death was on the 4th, her diaries releasing and revealing her as a terrible person, and seeing the Folio society edition, I decided to reread the novel.

This is one of those works that has a famous adaptation and has inspired countless works, making many feel like they already know it so no need to read it. I was curious how this would affect my ability to get sucked into the suspense, and let me tell you this is so well written that, even with all I know, I spent the day with my headphones on listening to it. The tension is so well done. The unraveling. The exploration of obsession. All connected to a chance encounter between two strangers who express hate for people they know. Only one takes seriously the idea: I’ll kill yours if you kill mine…If you’ve never read the classic, or it’s been so long you’ve forgotten it, I’d say it’s worth an afternoon to curl up with.

May your armchair be cozy warm for these suspenseful and thrilling mysteries.