Readers, I love a good mystery, and a recent conversation has me thinking about the mysteries I love—those books that are so ingeniously put together that when you get to the big reveal, you take a deep breath and ask yourself, How did the author DO that?
Because of a project I’m working on (coming soon!), I recently had the opportunity to re-watch last summer’s Book Club conversation with Marisa de los Santos to discuss her newest release I’ll Be Your Blue Sky. Whenever we chat with authors, we always ask them what they enjoy reading, and I was surprised to hear Marisa confess her love of mysteries.
She told us she would love to write procedurals, but alas, that’s not the kind of writer she has. (I adore her books, so that’s just fine by me.) But she reads mysteries and procedurals by the bucketful all the same, both for her own enjoyment, and to pick apart how a skilled author can ingeniously put a plot together. She loves when you get to the big reveal and can see the author has been building toward it all along, even though you had no idea how significant those clues were at the time.
Today I’m sharing books from master plotters: the 4 authors that Marisa says she reads when she wants to go to Plot School. If you’re a reader, get ready to get wrapped up in an absorbing mystery. If you’re an author, get ready to take some notes. Some authors are contemporary, some are now shelved in the classics section, all would make excellent summer reads for the right reader.
I know I’m not the only one who loves a good mystery, so enjoy today’s list, and please share your favorite intricately plotted novels in the comments section.
12 intricately plotted crime novels that will keep you turning the pages
by Dorothy Sayers
In Book Club, we paired I’ll Be Your Blue Sky with the classic Sayers’ mystery Gaudy Night as a flight selection. When I chose the pairing, I had no idea Marisa was a Sayers fan, but we loved hearing her explain exactly what she loved about Sayers’s plotting. In a word: it’s seamless.
Critics have argued that this mystery–set in 1934 England–is the greatest detective novel ever written. I'm not the judge of that, but I do know that Sayers's mystery novels keep me turning the page until way past my bedtime. The eleventh Lord Peter mystery finds Lord Peter and Bunter stranded in a ditch a mile outside a village and seek help from the rectory. In the process, Lord Peter is recruited to help with the bell-ringing New Year's Eve service at Fenchurch St. Paul’s. Thereafter, a disfigured corpse is discovered and Lord Peter is drawn into his most complicated case yet. More info →
This is Sayers' twelfth Lord Peter novel, her third featuring crime fiction writer Harriet Vane, and undoubtedly one of her finest. When Harriet returns to her alma mater to do some research, she investigates some unfortunate incidents that have recently occurred there and ultimately calls upon Lord Peter for help. More info →
It is not every day one finds a naked corpse, save for a pair of hold pince-nez, in one's bathtub and yet this is the memorable start to the first Lord Peter Wimsey mystery. Lord Peter disagrees with the lead detective's conclusion about the murderer's identity and so begins his own amateur investigation. More info →
by Kate Atkinson
Before Atkinson took her recent detour into historical fiction, she was best known as a crime novelist for her now-beloved—and recently returned-to—Jackson Brodie series. She loves reading and writing secrets, and wouldn’t have minded a career as a secret agent herself, according to interviews. Lucky for us, she’s channeled her interest into the pages of her books instead.
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. Fans of this series have been waiting nine years since the last book came out but take heart: book 5 Big Sky released June 25. More info →
This historical sticks to the WWII setting of Life After Life and A God in Ruins but stands on its own. It's 1940, and an eighteen-year-old girl named Juliet, in search of a job, is surprised to find herself plunged into the world of espionage. It took me more than a few chapters to get oriented but cemented Atkinson as one of my must-read authors. I loved this one’s droll British voice. More info →
Fans of Atkinson's Jackson Brodie series will be delighted to learn about this release, nine years after the last book Started Early, Took My Dog. Brodie lives in a quiet seaside village now and works as a private investigator. When his current job leads him to discover a human trafficking network, he also learns just how far back the crimes go. Atkinson writes mysteries exploring the human condition with trademark wit balancing out the devastation. You'll fly through the pages until justice is served.
I’m a longtime French fan, and was delighted to hear Marisa sing the author’s praises during our chat. She’s best known—and deservedly so—for her Dublin Murder Squad series, a family of mysteries that inhabit the same world, but don’t need to be read in order.
Tana French's novels have great characters, F-bombs galore, and keep me glued to the page until I finish. In the second of her Dublin Murder Squad series, detective Cassie Maddux is pulled off her current beat and sent to investigate a murder. When she arrives at the scene, she finds the victim looks just like her, and—even more creepy—she was using an alias that Cassie used in a previous case. The victim was a student, and her boss talks her into trying to crack the case by impersonating her, explaining to her friends that she survived the attempted murder. The victim lived with four other students in a strangely intimate, isolated setting, and as Cassie gets to know them, liking them almost in spite of herself, her boundaries—and loyalties—begin to blur. A taut psychological thriller that keeps you guessing till the end. More info →
The third book in the Dublin Murder Squad series follows detective Frank Mackey and the demons from his past. His dysfunctional family lived in a small flat on Faithful Place in Dublin's inner city but he yearned to get out and even planned to run away to London with his girl Rosie but she never showed the night they planned to leave. Frank figured it was what his worthless self deserved and never went home. But neither did Rosie and now 22 years later, her suitcase is discovered behind a fireplace in an abandoned house where it all started. The cops don't trust Frank will be unbiased in his childhood neighborhood but Faithful Place doesn't trust cops period, not even one of their former own, leading Frank to take up his own unauthorized investigation. Faithful Place is a character study, examining the way home can be bring out the best or the worst of us. More info →
This is French's first standalone novel and what an undertaking it is. Per usual, the character development is paramount but French weaves in a few mysteries to drive this plot forward. Toby is a privileged self-proclaimed lucky bastard but his luck takes a turn for the worst when he's attacked by two burglars and left for dead. He heads to his uncle's home to recover and all is well...until a skull is discovered in the garden, leaving Toby questioning everything he thought he knew about his family and himself. More info →
by Louise Penny
It’s a good thing Marisa is a devoted Penny fan, because I don’t know if I could have put together a list of crime novels without including the Canadian author. My usual disclaimers: yes, start at the beginning, book 1 is slow, the murders are weird in 2 and 3, but good gracious does she hit her stride in book 4. It’s possible I’m counting the days till her next release on August 27.
In the idyllic small town of Three Pines, Quebec, where people don’t even lock their doors, a beloved local woman is found in the woods with an arrow shot through her heart. The locals believe it must be a hunting accident, but the police inspector senses something is off. The story is constructed as a classic whodunit but it feels like anything but, with its deliberate pacing, dry wit, and lyrical writing. A stunningly good first novel. Still Life is the first in a series that keeps getting better. Great on audio.
Chief Inspector Gamache is supposed to be on leave after his last investigation went horrifyingly wrong. But he can’t ignore the dead body found at the Literary and Historical Society in Quebec when employees ask for his help in untangling the truth of a 400 year old secret. Meanwhile in Three Pines, Bistro owner Olivier was convicted of murder, even as his partner insists Olivier didn’t do it. As these events swirl around him. Gamache must make sense of not only the crimes but what happened in his own past. Layered and heart-wrenching, Penny skillfully moves the series forward by examining the nature of guilt, how we bear witness to culture and history, and what happens when we can't forgive. More info →
The most recent release in the series finds Gamache descending upon an abandoned farmhouse outside Three Pines after a stranger named him as the executor of her will. He has no idea what to make of the request until a body is found. All the while, Gamache faces an investigation for the events that led to his suspension. Who could have ever predicted that after reading Still Life?! Luckily, we don’t have to wait too long for the next Louise Penny novel: A Better Man, book 15, comes out August 27. More info →
Readers, what are YOUR favorite mysteries? Please tell us your favorite intricately plotted novels in the comments section.