15 propulsive literary mysteries that balance plot and prose

15 propulsive literary mysteries that balance plot and prose

When I (metaphorically) draw the Venn Diagram of my reading life over the last year, genre fiction makes up a BIG slice. During stressful weeks, I devoured romance novels and puzzle-like mysteries for a dose of escapist bibliotherapy.

There’s nothing wrong with bookish distraction, but I’m most satisfied with my reading life when my weekly reading routine includes a robust mix of genres. That’s why, for the same reasons I adore compulsively readable literary fiction, I LOVE when a book combines the best elements of an unputdownable mystery and a beautifully written literary novel.

Today I’m sharing 15 titles by talented writers who deftly balance propulsive plot and stunning prose. Some of these books are shelved in the literary fiction section, but they contain a mystery that’s central to the plot. The remaining titles are mystery novels with exceptional writing and strong narrative choices.

With a mix of historical settings, courtroom dramas, and Gothic fantasy, this list is suited to a variety of reading tastes. I find that literary mysteries can sometimes be more HSP-friendly, perhaps because I’m entranced by the writing, perhaps because they’re less likely to include graphic depictions of violence. Your experience may differ from mine, so mind your triggers.

15 page-turning mysteries that read like literary fiction

Rebecca

Rebecca

This 1930s Gothic classic feels surprisingly current (and Mrs Danvers is as creepy as ever). Du Maurier's approach is unusual: the woman of the title is dead before the action begins; the young second wife, our narrator, is never given a name. Because she doesn't understand what's going on for a long time, neither does the reader. And by the time you find out what really happened, you may find yourself one of the many readers who feel almost complicit in the crime. Suspenseful, and it holds its tension on a re-reading: a sure sign of a well-crafted thriller. More info →
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Snow Falling on Cedars

Snow Falling on Cedars

Author:
Winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award, a courtroom drama, mystery, and compelling work of literary fiction. This lyrical and heartbreaking first novel is set in an isolated, snow-covered Washington State island town in the 1950s, where a Japanese man stands trial for murdering a white fisherman. The trial brings the town's painful history and many citizen's long-submerged sense of guilt and shame sharply to the surface; Guterson skillfully unfolds both the history of the town and that of two star-crossed lovers layer by layer. More info →
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Everything I Never Told You

Everything I Never Told You

Author:
"Lydia is dead, but they don't know this yet." That’s not a spoiler, that's the opening line of Ng's stunning debut novel. When this unexpected loss is discovered, the family begins to fall apart, and as they struggle to understand why it happened, they realize they don't know their daughter at all. Ng's use of the omniscient narrator is brilliant: she reveals what's going on in her characters hearts and minds, allowing the reader to learn the truth of the tragedy, even if the family never does. An exploration of love and belonging, fraught with racial and gender issues. When I was in NYC I watched a woman miss her bus stop because she was utterly absorbed in this novel. It's that good. Powerful, believable, utterly absorbing. More info →
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Case Histories

Case Histories

Author:
The first book in the Jackson Brodie mystery series kicks off with private investigator Brodie following three seemingly disparate cases in Edinburgh. What do a missing little girl, an attacked office worker, and a new mother who snapped have in common? Jackson Brodie follows the threads back over the past 30 years as surprising connections emerge. This was an excellent detective novel, with good writing and strong characterization, and reminded me very much of Tana French. But like Tana French, some of the content was seriously disturbing. More info →
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The Luminaries

The Luminaries

Author:
New York Magazine calls this "A very clever, absurdly fun novel that reads like a cross between a locked-room mystery, a spaghetti Western, a game of Sodoku, and Edwin Drood." This bestselling, Man Booker Prize-winning novel is set in New Zealand during the gold rush of 1866. At 848 pages, this novel is an investment, but those who are up for the challenge are rewarded with a large cast of well-drawn characters, a sophisticated structure, and a well-developed and ultimately rewarding mystery. More info →
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The Lola Quartet

The Lola Quartet

This is the kind of page-turner I love: a compulsively readable literary mystery, featuring stylish prose plus a plot that keeps you turning the page to find out what happens next, by Emily St. John Mandel, author of bestseller Station Eleven. I talked about it on an impromptu episode of What Should I Read Next that laid the foundation for One Great Book. I was so impressed by the way Mandel unfolded the story piece by piece, introducing us to a seventeen-year-old girl in hiding (with piles of cash duct-taped to the underside of her baby's stroller), and slowly revealing how she ended up there—and how the members of the old high school musical group the Lola Quartet are connected to her disappearance. Set in muggy South Florida, the story is dripping with atmosphere and has a noir feel. More info →
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The River

The River

Author:
I didn’t know a book could be both gorgeous and terrifying—but then I devoured this in a day. When two college friends plan a long canoeing trip in northern Canada, they anticipate a peaceful yet memorable summer escape filled with whitewater paddling, fly fishing, and campfire cooking. The first hint of danger is a whiff of smoke, from an encroaching forest fire. The next comes from a man, seemingly in shock, who reports his wife disappeared in the woods. If these boys didn't feel compelled to do the right thing and go look for her, they’d be fine, but instead they step in to help—and are soon running for their lives, from disasters both natural and man-made. A tightly-written wilderness adventure, a lyrical mystery, and a heartrending story of friendship, rolled into one. More info →
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American Spy

American Spy

This fascinating and multi-layered spy thriller is told from the perspective of a Black woman, recruited by the CIA in the all-white, boys' club-era of the 1980s for an important African mission. Her assigned task is to fall in love—or pretend to—with Thomas Sankara, the president of Burkino Faso, known as "Africa’s Che Guevara." (Sankara is a real historical figure and I was so curious about how Wilkinson would handle his story.) The book's epigraph is from Ralph Ellison: he refers to being "a spy in enemy country," and I'm grateful this work inspired me to learn more about the rich literary history of African American spy novels and the theme of double consciousness. More info →
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Bluebird, Bluebird

Bluebird, Bluebird

Author:
As a Black Texas Ranger, Darren Matthews has an intricate understanding of racial tensions in East Texas. He’s proud of his roots and his family, but when his loyalty lands him in trouble, he agrees to get out of town and investigate a crime for a friend. He drives up Highway 59 to the town of Lark, where a recent murder has stirred up hatred and history. Atmospheric and intense, and terrific on audio. It ends on a cliffhanger, so you might want to queue up the second book, Heaven, My Home, right away. (You might not be able to put that one down, either!). Locke is such a talented writer. I can't wait for the next installment in her Highway 59 series. More info →
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Long Bright River

Long Bright River

Author:
For fans of Tana French's dark mysteries that focus on the lives of the detectives in equal measure to the mystery they're solving, this police procedural is about two sisters. Kacey lives on the streets of Philadelphia, an addict in and out of recovery. Mickey keeps an eye out for Kacey on her police beat, constantly worrying about her sister. When Kacey disappears at the same time as murders spike in the area, Mickey grows ever more obsessed with finding the murderer—and her sister—before it's too late. In this page-turning mystery, we get a picture of complicated sisterhood, of addiction and families, and of pressing social issues. Mind your triggers, as this book covers many (addiction and abuse to name a few). More info →
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Miracle Creek

Miracle Creek

Author:
Described as an addictive legal thriller, Kim's debut is also a complicated family story, a mystery, and a page-turning literary novel. Korean immigrants Young and Pak Yoo run "The Miracle Submarine," an experimental medical treatment involving an oxygen chamber. When the submarine explodes and kills two people, the community grieves and seeks justice, attempting to answer, "what exactly happened that day?" Angie Kim brings her experiences as a Korean immigrant, lawyer, and parent to her intricately crafted novel. More info →
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The Searcher

The Searcher

Author:
You may know French from her Dublin Murder Squad mysteries. This one strikes out in a totally new direction, though her talent for prose remains. French calls The Searcher "her version of a Western," and for the first time, her protagonist is American—a retired Chicago cop who quit the force when he began to doubt his own moral code, and wanted to move far away to start over in a small Irish village. This is also the first time she's written in the third person, and as a writer, I enjoyed noting how that affects the telling. If you're looking for a gripping novel that won't let you go, this isn't it. But for careful prose from a seasoned writer, and an especially interesting 13-year-old character, this may be worth picking up. More info →
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Piranesi

Piranesi

Author:
Susanna Clarke's hotly anticipated second novel is a fantasy novel that plays with fantasy tropes, a mystery but not just a mystery, an altogether weird and extremely compelling book set in a strange house with labyrinthine passageways and just fifteen inhabitants, only two of which are alive. It's decidedly weird and took me a solid 20% to get oriented, but once I did I couldn't stop reading. Our narrator is Piranesi—though he suspects that's not really his name—and while I don't recommend googling the plot before you begin reading, I do recommend those reading with a literary lens google the Italian artist who shares his moniker. More info →
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If We Were Villains

If We Were Villains

Author:
I love a mystery that starts at the end. We know that Oliver Marks has just been released from jail after serving a ten year sentence, and he's finally ready to tell the truth. Ten years ago, Oliver was part of a close-knit group of Shakespearean actors at Dellecher Classical Conservatory, where rivalries and romance affect the troupe off stage with just as much drama as their performances. Their final year reads more like one of Shakespeare's tragedies. When violence erupts, the group tries to find out what happened while covering the truth to protect each other. A campus mystery full of Shakespeare references, perfect for fans of Donna Tartt. I just downloaded the audio version from Libro.fm so I can buddy read this with a friend. More info →
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Things in Jars

Things in Jars

Author:
Readers, this book has been sitting on my TBR shelf for forever. If you've read it and loved it, I could use a push to pick it up. Bridie Devine, infamous female detective and supernatural consultant, gets called to work on her most intriguing case yet. Christabel Berwick, secret daughter of Sir Edmund Athelstan Berwick, possesses mysterious powers that have collectors and curiosity hunters circling. Bridie comes in to figure out who kidnapped Christabel, while grappling with her own complicated childhood experiences. Full of lush descriptions of Victorian London and a heaping dose of Gothic mystery, this ghostly novel makes for an interesting genre mash-up. More info →
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Do you have any “literary mysteries” to recommend? Share with us in the comments!

P.S. Love mystery novels? We’ve got you covered with 16 page-turning mysteries that aren’t too dark and gloomy, 20 unputdownable mysteries and thrillers to keep you glued to the page, and 20 historical mysteries featuring feisty female protagonists.

15 propulsive literary mysteries that balance plot and prose

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84 comments | Comment

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  1. Caryl Kane says:

    “Rebecca” was outstanding! Anne, Thank you for compiling this fantastic list. I”ve not read any of them except “Rebecca”.

    Blessings!

    • Allison Wolfe says:

      Great list – thank you!
      I would add November Road by Lou Berney. It’s set in the days after the Kennedy assassination and told in 3 voices: a gangster who is on the run because he knows too much, a young morher and her two girls running from a drunkard husband, and the hit man chasing them all. His beautifully written prose left me gut-punched at times and the story has lingered and lingered in my mind.

  2. Kerry Anderson says:

    I’d suggest all the Louise Penny books. And yes, read them in order!

    Also, the Cork O’Connor series by William Kent Krueger beginning with Iron Lake and the Maisy Dobbs series by Jacqueline Winspear.

  3. Faith Williams says:

    I would not recommend Things in Jars – Myself and my work book club all agreed that this was not a book we would recommend. But I did love Rebecca.

    • Brooke says:

      I agree, I would also not recommend “Things in Jars”. I thought the story was a good one, but it was not well-written. I did finish the book, but it was a struggle.

  4. Terry says:

    Josephine Tey’s—“The Daughter of Time” would be a worthy addition to this list. It’s fabulous. Laura Lippman’s “Girl in the Green Raincoat” is an homage to Tey’s classic novel. Lippman’s book introduced me to Tey-I’ve now read all of the enigmatic Tey’s books.

  5. Holly Mascaro says:

    Things in Jars was an interesting one—I think I gave it a 3.5, it had some weaknesses but I do find myself thinking about it a decent amount. It had a few characters that I absolutely LOVED.

  6. Jennifer H says:

    This is so funny to me: I’ve never thought of myself as a lover of “literary mysteries,” but reading through this list I found books I’ve loved and books I immediately added to my TBR! I guess I have a new genre I love!

  7. Lisa Toner says:

    The Luminaries is one of my all-time favourites!! I also recently finished Everything I Never Told You. It was excellent.

  8. Elizabeth Grant says:

    I just stayed up until 2 in the morning to finish The Arctic Fury by Greer Macallister. I think it qualifies for this genre. I can definitely recommend!

  9. Caylee says:

    Such a great list! This sub genre (?) is right in my wheelhouse and I just added several of these to my TBR! Thanks Anne!

  10. Miriam says:

    Anything by Batya Gur is wonderful and falls in this category. They are set in Israel and explore different aspects of Israeli society while the investigator solves a mystery.

  11. Jill D says:

    Descent and The Current by Tim Johnston. The books are not connected. The writing in both is outstanding, great characters, and the pages keep turning. I finished Descent in the middle of the night with my heart pounding.

  12. Laura says:

    I am looking forward to listening to bluebird, bluebird on audio. (and, at the risk of sounding snarky, let me point out that it’s not actually a Venn diagram of your reading life but a pie chart of your reading life if you’re talking about this particular genre taking up a significant chunk of your reading. Venn diagrams compare two things and show the overlap between those two things. 😀.)

    • Dee says:

      I could be wrong, but I think she means having a circle with literary fiction, a circle with mysteries, and this list is the crossover of the two.

  13. Justine says:

    Love this list! As a mystery lover and literary fiction lover, when the two meet I am in heaven. Tana is my favorite, and I’m adding a few of these to my library holds. It took me a few pages to get into Things in Jars, but then it surprised me with how much I loved it. I hope you get to pick it up soon!

  14. I did not like The River.
    After reading the beautiful language and descriptions and after going through an extremely intense experience in the book’s plot, the ending completely disappointed me.

    I think I actually said aloud, “That’s it? I went through all of that for this?”

    It was a good book, but not for me. For me, there was a lot of anguish and tension to experience to end the way it did.

    However, I’m super excited to read most of these books. I just need to wade through my #MMDReadingChallenge first.

      • Jean says:

        I also found “The River” to be a huge disappointment. I found the plot predictable, and the ending totally unsatisfying. I placed blame on reading it too soon after “Celine”, which I loved, but am gratified to see that it isn’t just me!

    • Alana says:

      Yes, agree with you on The River. I was so excited to get my hands on it … then the writing appealed and opening few chapters were very engaging, but it dwindled and dwindled …

    • Dee says:

      I can see why people didn’t like The River, but I really enjoyed it. It’s one of those books that’s just for certain readers.

  15. Janet says:

    Thank you for including Case Histories, I love Kate Atkinson!

    I don’t like traditional mysteries (I tried Louise Penny because so many people here recommended, but after less than 100 pages I was “out”), but really enjoy Kate Atkinson and Tana French’s styles.

    Lola Quartet and Things in Jars now added to my list—when I see some people love it and some hate it, I gotta find out for myself.

  16. Jenny Stocker says:

    For me, all of the Dorothy Sayers, Wimsey books are literary mysteries at their finest! I especially like Gaudy Night for it’s college setting…

  17. Neva Gronert says:

    This may be my favorite sub-genre. I’d add, anything authored by Elizabeth George, and especially by the great P.D. James. Less well-known is Morag Joss.

    Thanks for this list! I’ve read most, but have added the remainder to by TBR.

    • Susan says:

      I agree with PD James. I just finished The Murder Room and loved the prose, character development and plot. I love it when I find words I don’t know and I look up the meaning right away. It feels satisfying.

      • Donna F says:

        I agree with both Elizabeth George and P. D. James and would add Ruth Randell and Reginald Hill. While straight up mystery novels the quality of the writing elevates them and qualifies them for the literary fiction category as well. Louise Penny from a previous thread belongs here too!

  18. Angela says:

    Great recommendations! Even better is that three of these sit unread on my bookshelf. My 2021 goal is to spend less money (we all LOVE buying books, right?) and also read more books (my 2020 reading life was off). So, I’m inspired to open these volumes I was once draw to but that lost out to new and shiny.

    2021 is also my year of the mystery. A good twisty plot is just what my mind needs these days.

  19. Erin Bradley says:

    I loved Things In Jars! It’s creepy but fun at the same time – and definitely a good mystery. I want more books about Bridie!

  20. Judy says:

    I just finished Piranesi and loved it! Looking forward to reading some of your other suggestions.
    I would also highly recommend the works of Louise Penny and the Cormoran Strike mysteries by Robert Galbraith ( J K Rowling ). I would suggest reading both series from the beginning.

  21. Tasha says:

    Things in Jars is amazing on audio. It’s got the atmosphere of Dickens but the imagination of the story itself is off-the-charts interesting (at least to me!). Long Bright River is also excellent. I’ve added several of the rest to my wish list. Thank you so much for the good recs!

  22. Thank you for this list! I love literary mysteries and it’s one of the genres I want to read more of in 2021. And, I’ve already read and loved a couple on this list (Long Bright River, Miracle Creek, If We Were Villains).

  23. Megan says:

    MIRACLE CREEK is one of my all-time favorites! So good. I also really love WOLF WINTER by Swedish author Cecilia Ekback. I rarely see it in American media, but it was wonderful and I always describe it as “literary mystery.”

  24. Alison says:

    Agree with the suggestions above of Gaudy Night (Sayers) and Daughter of Time (Tey).

    I would also think Wilkie Collins’ novels The Moonstone and The Woman in White would fit nicely on this list!

  25. Julie says:

    Miracle Creek was absolutely amazing, I was so glad to see it on this list. I missed a streetcar stop while reading, this, it was so hard to put down!

  26. Rachel says:

    Looking forward to reading so many of these. If I may add two:
    Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón was my favorite read last year (it came out in 2005) if anyone is also looking to read more translated novels this ticks off two boxes.
    Also, Weight of Ink by Rachel Kadish. For fans of Possession, it took a while for me to get into it, but once I did I couldn’t stop.

  27. Mary Duncklee says:

    The Luminaries sounds really interesting. I love puzzle kind of mysteries (like Agatha Christie). Nothing too “cosy” or gory.

  28. Holly Smith says:

    I walked into a tiny bookstore in Crested Butte and asked the lovely lady if she had any British mysteries for me to read. She showed me Things in Jars and I put my fill trust in her and gave it a go. Now, a little thing about me, I abhor horror and detest gothic style stories but enjoy fantasy. After reading a couple chapters I thought this Bookstore lady had me all wrong. I stuck with it, starting to appreciate the dark wit and style from this unknown-to-me author. I was captivated by the love story that plays in the background, scratched my head at the mythical sea creature, and totally fell for Bridie so much so I’m rooting for a sequel!

  29. Cameron says:

    I feel like this list was written for me. Everything I haven’t already read is going on my list. I would add Winter’s Bone, by Daniel Woodrell, and Human Croquet, by Kate Atkinson (similar content warnings to Tana French and Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie series). I’ll also have to revisit The Lumineers. I was definitely not following the plot the first time around. How I made it through 800 pages without knowing what was going on…

  30. Sam says:

    I’m definitely bookmarking this page for the next time I’m managing my library holds list. I didn’t know Emily St. John Mandel had a mystery!

  31. Johanna Brown says:

    Another series that I love is Susan Hill’s Simon Serrailler series similar to Louise Penney and Elizabeth George. Attica Locke’s Jay Porter series is good.

  32. Jen W. says:

    Yes yes yes to Things in Jars! It was the last book I read in 2020 and it made my Top 5 of the year. Loved it!
    As for the rest of the list I loved The River, The Lola Quartet, Snow Falling on Cedars and Everything I Never Told You.
    I do not understand the hype around Long Bright River. It really left me cold.

  33. LeAnne Hale says:

    I ADORED Things In Jars!!! It was a 5 star read for me. It is delightfully weird and wonderful… truly a mash-up of so many genres it nearly defies description. Pick it up immediately!

  34. Beka says:

    I’m really excited that I have already half of them. This says to me that since joining MMD a couple years ago, my reading horizons have immensly (it’s friday evening and my brain is fried, so I’m having a hard time spelling. LOL) broadened.

  35. Bobbi says:

    I was interested to note that you didn’t find The Searcher “gripping”. I read it in one sitting, ignoring a bunch of other obligations because I couldn’t put it down, and my aunt told me she tried (unsuccessfully) to keep reading it on her Kindle while walking her dogs. Lol. Tastes differ, so I just had to say it was my favorite of all French’s novels.

  36. Jennifer Geisler says:

    Having just watched an interview with the marvelous legal mystery author, Scott Turow, I have just finished re-reading his first book in the Kindle County series,Presumed Innocent, and his just released book, The Final Trial. So well written and such interesting characters and stories that I finished both in a few days each. Highly recommend.

  37. Danielle says:

    Peter Lawson’s books remind me of Tana French. I read all of hers but The Searcher last year, and now I’m on my 5th of his so far this year. Great writing, mystery, surprises, and some minor characters that appear in different books. He definitely belongs on this list!

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