One of the reasons for the mystery genre’s enduring popularity is, surprisingly, its tendency to hit familiar beats, something I wrote about in this article. While the specific mystery in a novel is, hopefully, a surprise, readers often turn to mysteries because they know they’ll follow a particular pattern — the crime, the chasing down of clues, the red herring, and the return to the status quo at the end. Mystery novels function like puzzles, and the more you read, the more practice you have at solving them. One of the reasons I love reading mystery novels is because, even if the story itself is new, the genre itself can feel like a comfy blanket, wrapping you up in its familiarity.
However, sometimes you want something a bit different from the norm. Another great thing about the mystery genre is its malleability. It can cross into other genres, creating fantasy or sci-fi mysteries. It can get literary, examining a family’s interactions as they deal with the fallout of a tragic crime, or it can form the basis of a comedic parody making fun of the foibles of the mystery genre. If you’re looking for a mystery that’s a little off the beaten path, here are some unique, genre-defying mystery books for you to start unravelling.
The Body Library by Jeff Noon
Jeff Noon is a veteran cyberpunk writer, creating trippy stories like the Vurt series, and he brings his world-bending writing style to the mystery genre with The Body Library. Second in a detective series starring PI John Nyquist, The Body Library is a locked-room mystery set in a world where the lines between reality and fiction are blurred and where Nyquist finds the murder victim constantly whispering in his ear.
Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
The Gothic horror and mystery genres have often crossed over, but Mexican Gothic puts a new and interesting spin on these old literary companions. Glamorous socialite Noemí Taboada travels to the rural Mexican countryside after becoming worried about the safety of her newly married cousin. When she arrives at the old, crumbling mansion High Place, Noemí realises that there is something mysterious and dangerous going on under the surface of her cousin’s new family. But as she digs deeper, she discovers more sinister goings-on than she could ever have imagined.
Hammers on Bone by Cassandra Khaw
If you like Lovecraftian cosmic horror with none of the racism and a healthy dash of noir aesthetics, Hammers on Bone is the mystery novel for you. This short, creepy story follows John Persons, a gumshoe who also happens to be a monster — but this is fortunate for his current job, as he has been employed by a young boy who wants him to take down his abusive stepfather, who may also have some supernatural traits of his own. Khaw’s mystery is tense and compelling and puts a unique spin on the genre.
Magic for Liars by Sarah Gailey
A fantasy rather than horror twist on the noir genre, Magic for Liars is a mystery with a magical edge. Ivy Gamble has turned her back on her magical heritage in favour of solving mysteries but is forced back into contact with her estranged sister Tabitha, a professor at a highly-regarded magical academy. A member of Tabitha’s teaching staff has been murdered, and Ivy is the only one Tabitha trusts to solve the crime.
The Mimicking of Known Successes by Malka Older
A Sherlock Holmes-inspired story set on Jupiter, The Mimicking of Known Successes combines the sci-fi and mystery genres in a unique, compelling tale. Investigator Mossa travels to our solar system’s largest planet to find a missing man, and when the trail leads her to Jupiter’s acclaimed university, she finds herself back in touch with her old girlfriend, who may be key to unravelling the mystery.
The Deep Sky by Yume Kitasei
The sci-fi equivalent of a locked-room mystery, Deep Sky is the story of the inhabitants of The Phoenix, a generation ship containing 80 elite crew members. As their mission into deep space begins, three of the crew are murdered by a bomb, which also causes damage that sends the ship off-course. Asuka is the only survivor of the attack, but unfortunately, this makes her the prime suspect — she must clear her name, stop the crew from falling apart, and try to find the real culprit before another bomb can be detonated.
The Family Chao by Lan Samantha Chang
The Family Chao is a murder mystery story that’s also a generational tale, set in a small-town Chinese restaurant run by the titular Chao family. The family has been part of the town of Haven for years, but the townsfolk become suspicious of the Chaos after the death — and possible murder — of family head Leo Chao. The surviving sons have to work out who killed him before their neighbours lose all trust in them.
What Happened to Ruthy Ramirez by Claire Jiménez
Twelve years ago, Jessica Ramirez’s sister Ruthy went missing, shattering her family. When Jessica sees a woman on a reality TV show who she is convinced is Ruthy, she, her younger sister, and their mother decide to go on a road trip to the show’s location to determine once and for all whether Ruthy is still alive.
The Big Over Easy by Jasper Fforde
Jasper Fforde is best known for his metafictional Thursday Next series, but if you love potboiler noirs with a comic twist, his Nursery Crime books are well worth a read. The Big Over Easy is the first in the series featuring Detective Inspector Jack Spratt and his second-in-command, Mary Mary, who must solve the case of who killed Humpty Dumpty.
Do you like your murder mysteries light on the guts and gore? Try our list of Lighthearted Murder Mysteries for the Faint of Heart. If you’re looking for mystery stories that don’t centre the police, have a browse of our 8 Mystery Novels with Non-Detective Main Characters.