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.
I don’t want to say I’ve had another excellent reading month because I don’t want the book gods to curse me, but I did have another great reading month—hides in book fort! My current reading obsession regarding spies continues (a double agent!) and I also discovered an upcoming book about an Aboriginal teen ghost that I want everyone to read. Plus, I have great picks for fans of historical mysteries, small-town secrets, remote settings, and book-within-a-book.
Recent (And Upcoming) Releases:
The Things She’s Seen by Ambelin Kwaymullina, Ezekiel Kwaymullina (May 14th)
I was writing about upcoming crime novels for a post and the summary left me so curious I decided to just read the first chapter and, instead, I ended up reading it in one sitting. It was so good. It’s an Australian novel that follows Beth Teller, an Aboriginal girl who died at 15 and is now a ghost. A ghost that her father, a detective, can see. And talk to. She’s trying to help him solve a case involving a fire at a children’s home that left an unidentified dead body and missing caretakers. She’s helping him stay focused on the case in order to help him get past grieving for her, but then she meets a witness to the fire who can also see her. The novel alternates between Beth and her father solving the mystery and Isobel Catching, the witness, telling her story—one told almost like poetry. It’s a beautiful crime novel about grief, death, family, and friendship, that never feels heavy but rather uplifting. I’ve been thinking about it for days—publishing really needs to be putting out more crime novels like this.
Smoke and Ashes (Sam Wyndham #3) by Abir Mukherjee
I adore this series and this is the best one yet! The series follows a Scotland Yard detective, Sam Wyndham, who left Scotland for Calcutta hoping to flee his PTSD from the war, his wife’s death, and his opium addiction. I adore this series in part because even though we get the addicted detective trope it feels different than others, and the setting of British-ruled Calcutta offers so much history to explore. This time around Wyndham has found himself in two difficult spots: while fleeing an opium den during a raid he stumbled across a dead man whose body later disappears; it’s now 1921 and the British are trying to stop the surge of Indians protesting for independence, led by Mahatma Gandhi, and Prince Edward is visiting so Wyndham is asked to help strategize against the movement. When a woman is murdered similarly to the first body Wyndham encountered, he knows he has a killer he has to stop, but he can’t say anything without revealing his addiction. Quite a pickle he’s put himself in! The book navigates brilliantly between focusing on the unrest, the mystery, and Wyndham’s personal struggles. I really like Wyndham’s character as he seems caught between being British and understanding the horrible treatment of Indians, and I love Sergeant Banerjee, his now roommate and one of the only Indians in the CID. I can’t recommend this series enough! (TW suicide/addiction/PTSD)
Fallen Mountains by Kimi Cunningham Grant
I’m a sucker for small-town mysteries where the buried secrets are gonna rise, and this novel did all of that really well. It’s told in past and present while following a group of people in Fallen Mountains, Pennsylvania: Red, a widowed sheriff set to retire; Transom, Chase, and Laney, friends who grew up together; Possum, a once-bullied kid now out of prison. Transom is missing, and while most think this is just his usual M.O. of leaving without saying anything, his girlfriend is certain something is wrong and convinces Red to investigate. This set’s off Transom’s father to hire an investigator sent to work with Red—and a thing I really liked about this novel was that instead of them fighting and trying to stop the other, they actually work together in trying to figure out where Transom is. The thing is, Transom was the type of person who even those who loved him knew to watch out for his possible bite. So soon you realize, if he didn’t pull a Transom and take off, lots of people had a reason to harm him. While Red is a good sheriff, he has a secret that Transom’s disappearance may drag out into the light and, well, it’s a small-town filled with secrets and it seems this missing person case may be a reckoning for many… (TW domestic violence/addiction/suicide)
The Stranger Diaries by Elly Griffiths
This is a modern murder mystery with wonderful nods to Gothic tales, including a short story layered within. Clare Cassidy is an English school teacher writing a book about R.M. Holland, a fictional Gothic author who once lived in the school she works at. When a coworker, and friend, is murdered, Cassidy finds strange things happening that have her and the police believing she too is in danger. That’s all I’m giving you on plot, because I really enjoyed feeling the tension of how this unfolds since I knew nothing about it. The story changes point of view between Cassidy, her 15-year-old daughter Georgie, and police detective Harbinder Kaur, while also weaving in R.M. Holland’s short story. It’s a great read for fans of Magpie Murders, books within books, literary nods inside mysteries, Gothic tales, and anyone looking for a good mystery with great characters where you feel the emotions but never get plunged into dark and gruesome waters. The book also left me 100% wanting a series that follows detective Harbinder Kaur because I loved her, and being in her head as she puts together evidence in a case.
The Last Woman in the Forest by Diane Les Becquets
This was another one of those reads that rang a lot of my bells: serial killer; character with unique/interesting job; strangers pair up to solve a mystery; did he or didn’t he? Told in past and present, we get to know Marian Engström, who works with training dogs in remote areas where conservation studies are being performed. This is how she meets the love of her life, Tate Mathias, her mentor. But after his death, things start to not add up for her and she begins to question if he could have been the still unidentified serial killer. He couldn’t have been really, she would have known, right? But he did tell her the story of having found one of the serial killer’s victims and she can’t let this go, so she contacts the psychologist/forensic profiler from the case who is now retired and dying of brain cancer. I inhaled the audiobook (great multiple narrators) of this dark, atmospheric mystery that had me both fascinated with the conservation studies and the exploration of grief and being a victim. The audiobook ends with the author explaining her own story of rape and why she wrote this novel. (TW rape/pedophile)
Agent Zigzag: A True Story of Nazi Espionage, Love, and Betrayal by Ben Macintyre
For fans of spy novels, this is a must-read nonfiction that details the life of a conman turned double agent during WWII. I knew this was going to be a ride when just at the beginning of getting to know Eddie Chapman—prior to his double agent days—there were safe heists, blackmailing women he’d given STDs to, and a prison escape. He was a criminal and conman who managed to always slip by and ended up being sent into Britain on a mission as a German spy but ended up working for MI5 for years! The thing with Chapman was no one ever really knew who he was really working for, and while MI5 believed he could be trusted to always complete any mission they gave him, they knew he couldn’t be trusted with anything else. Literally nothing else. This is one of those nonfiction reads that has the pacing and feel of a thriller with moments where you do a double take and have to remind yourself this is a true story. I really recommend the audiobook if you’re a listener, and if you’re a fan of John le Carré type novels get thee this book now! (TW suicide mention)
Orient by Christopher Bollen
This was a great mystery perfect for literary fans. Set in an isolated town in Long Island, there’s a culture clash amongst the residents, between the locals and the new residents coming from New York and new money. There’s a war with a nearby research facility that’s surrounded by plenty of rumors. And one of the residents has brought a 19-year-old gay man home with him to help around the house. When the town caretaker is found dead, the already heightened emotions get cranked up even higher, with many pointing a finger at the newest “resident.” A town filled with new and old rich, secrets, affairs, conservatives and liberals, and a push for a historic village, it’s only a matter of time before this small-town is no longer safe to be in… (TW attempted homophobic attack/addiction/pedophile/talk of suicide)