Fall and winter always put me in the mood for the creepy and the macabre. Because what is cozier than reading about dastardly crimes while snug as a bug with a warm blanket and a hot cup of tea?
This post has been over a month in the making. I hoped to have it ready before Halloween (i.e. peak scary book season). But sadly, my original list of books I planned to include turned out to have some duds on it—not any truly terrible books, but I want every book I feature to be a banger. So as I finished the mediocre ones, I’d take them off my list and add a new title or two, and I ended up reading (many) more books than intended in order to come with up with this list of 10. But you can be well assured that each and every one of the books below comes with my uncompromising stamp of approval!
One interesting thing I noticed as I was reading all these mysteries and thrillers is that the most-hyped books on my list did not end up being my favorites. There’s nothing wrong with books that have found a wide audience, but I was tickled that so many of the books I really enjoyed were under-the-radar titles. I love tooting my horn for lesser known authors. Hopefully there are some books on this list that you’ve never heard of—discovering new authors is the best!
I’ve also realized how broad the category of “creepy reads” can be. It’s not just detective stories (although I love those too)! So far this season I’ve enjoyed historical novels, contemporary thrillers, romantic suspense, even YA and a graphic novel. If you need a little creep factor in your life, step right up!
Infidel by Pornsak Pichetshote and Aaron Campbell
This graphic novel is a horror story about a Muslim woman whose apartment building is haunted by racist and Islamophobic spirits. Imagine all of humanity’s worst impulses embodied by deadly ghosts—horrible, right? The artwork is hauntingly beautiful—you’ll want to rush through the pages because of the suspense, but the panels are worth lingering over.
The Way of All Flesh by Ambrose Parry
After visiting Scotland this year (I know, brag brag), I was on a mission to find books set there. Edinburgh is the most atmospheric city I’ve ever been to—the fog hangs in the air, the castle looms on the hill, the closes rise steeply uphill—it’s the perfect place to set a murder mystery. This book is set in the city in 1847 and throws together two unlikely allies—Will Raven, studying to be a medical doctor, and Sarah, a housemaid with considerable medical aptitude herself. (Of course, only one of them is taken seriously as a medical expert, and it isn’t the one with boobs.) They find themselves in parallel investigations involving the deaths of young women and grudgingly join forces to try to stop a murderer from killing again. Ambrose Parry is actually a husband/wife writer duo, and the wife is an anesthesiologist. The medical details are especially interesting—as you might guess, “anesthesia” in 1847 was crude to say the least!
Confessions of the Fox by Jordy Rosenberg
If you’re into criminals with hearts of gold and also really enjoy scholarly research and footnotes, you will love this book. It’s two stories in one—the first is about Jack Sheppard, a thief in 1724 London, and the second is about the present-day professor who is transcribing Jack’s manuscript, told entirely through footnotes. The professor’s interest is piqued when he realizes that Jack was a trans man, which is something they share in common. Jack’s story is mesmerizing, his exploits and escapes from jail and his lovely romance with Bess, a prostitute, but the modern story is uneven, at times dry and clinical and at others manic and shout-y. Still, Jack’s thread was compelling enough—and certainly suspenseful enough!—to pull me through. Let’s hear it for historical fiction that doesn’t pretend only straight, cis, white people existed in the past.
Long Black Veil by Jennifer Finney Boylan
Years ago, a group of friends walked into an abandoned prison on a lark, and not all of them walked out. Now one of them is a likely murder suspect and the past is coming back to haunt them all. Judith has a happy, quiet, uncomplicated life in Maine with her husband and son, and she has no desire to revisit what happened that night in Eastern State Penitentiary. If she does, her carefully constructed existence could come tumbling down. This is a book about secrets and what people will do to protect them. It also packs one hell of a denouement—the climactic scene is intricately constructed, with a bunch of moving parts and crazy things happening simultaneously. My heart was pounding, not figuratively. If your tastes lean to the literary, this will be your jam.
Wrecked by Joe Ide
I almost skipped this third installment in the Sherlock-inspired IQ series after being underwhelmed by the second book, Righteous, which came out last year, but I am so glad I didn’t. I don’t know whether the issues I had with Righteous were my fault or the author’s, but Wrecked recaptures the magic of the first book in the series and reestablishes IQ as the brilliant but awkward PI I knew and loved. In this outing, Isaiah and Dodson have made their partnership official—Dodson is now in charge of the books, making sure they get paid with real money, not hand-knitted sweaters. When a girl Isaiah meets at the junkyard hires him to help find her mom and offers to pay him with her artwork, Dodson is not enthused, but Isaiah (quietly but not so secretly smitten) takes the case anyway. And a whole lot of high adrenaline action follows. I am amazed by Ide’s ability to sustain tension (TFW what feels like the climactic scene happens halfway through, and you realize there’s a whole lot more where that came from). I also love the gritty setting of East Long Beach and the realistic way the characters speak. I’m glad I stuck with Isaiah Quintabe and look forward to more of his detective work.
Black Diamond Fall by Joseph Olshan
If you like your mysteries melancholy and contemplative, Black Diamond Fall should be on your list. I think if I’d come to it in a different reading mood I would have found it too sad, but fortunately this fall I have welcomed the growing chill and dark nights, and a book that deals honestly with love and the many ways it can cut felt just right. Sam is an architect in small-town Vermont, approaching 50, fit and outdoorsy. As the book opens, he’s in Utah skiing a remote, treacherous run with his best friend, who advises him to focus on the mountain and not to think about Luc, his recent ex-boyfriend. Meanwhile, back in Vermont, Luc, a college student, has gone missing after a pickup hockey game with his roommates. What happened to Luc, where is he now, and what really happened between him and Sam? Luc had tried to keep their relationship a secret, not ready to tell his parents and friends that he is in love with not just a man, but a much older man, and this lands Sam directly in the crosshairs of suspicion. There are quite a few threads to this one, but it’s tightly written, and I was gratified that everything came together in the end, even if it was in a way that broke my heart.
Hollywood Homicide by Kellye Garrett
This book is so much fun. If you’ve had a little too much doom and gloom but still want to solve a murder, this lighthearted romp through Tinseltown is just the thing. Dayna has “retired” from acting before her career ever really got started. Now she’s broke, sleeping in her best friend’s closet, and trying to keep her parents’ house out of foreclosure. When she sees a billboard advertising a hefty cash reward for information on an unsolved hit-and-run, Dayna decides it might be just the opportunity she’s been waiting for. She and her friends were out the night of the murder, and they may or may not have seen the car involved in the crime. Using their knowledge of television cop dramas, Dayna and bestie Sienna put on their detective caps and charge into the investigation in their designer stilettos. This is definitely not the kind of book where the amateur detective shocks the pros with her cunning—you’ll worry for Dayna’s safety as you’re laughing at her pratfalls. I’m not usually one for slapstick humor, but Garrett masterfully crafts her scenes for maximum hilarity. Dayna and Sienna—now that’s a buddy cop show I would watch.
Charm and Strange by Stephanie Kuehn
This one left my heart heavy but it’s a shining example of YA done right. Stephanie Kuehn has a background in psychology, and it shows in the dark, conflicted narration of her main character, known as Drew in his childhood and Win (short for Winston) as a teenager. Chapters alternate between a night Win spends at a party in the woods and Drew’s summertime visit to his grandparents’ house, details just out of reach until finally it all comes swirling together in a wave of crushing revelations. I can’t resist a well-executed dual timeline; I love picking up bread crumbs and anticipating where each half of the story is going to go. Kuehn confronts some very heavy issues, but her scenes are crafted so carefully and—dare I say it?—artistically. There’s nothing gratuitous here, just a heartbreaking story you won’t be able to put down.
Reckless by Selena Montgomery
I was inspired by Stacey Abrams’s run for governor of Georgia, and when I heard she had a side gig as a romance novelist under the pseudonym Selena Montgomery, I knew I had to check that out. Reckless is about Kell, an Atlanta defense attorney who grew up in a small-town orphanage run by mother figure and mentor Eliza. Kell has been called back home to represent Eliza, who is afraid she’s going to be arrested for the murder of a former resident of her program. Kell is torn—she wants to help her old friend, but she’s stayed away from her hometown for years for a reason and she doesn’t want that reason dredged up from the past. It’s getting harder for Kell to stay away, though, because the police are turning up the heat on the investigation of Eliza—oh, and because a smokin’ hot sheriff wants to be her boyfriend and she’s running out of reasons to tell him no. Romantic suspense was the perfect way to round out my mystery/thriller binge because while the stakes are high and there’s plenty of danger, the guaranteed happy ending kept me from white-knuckling too badly. Be aware if you pick this one up that it’s the first in a planned trilogy—only the first two books have been released and the wait for book three is looking quite long at the moment, as Ms. Abrams is concentrating on her political career. A loss for us readers who are waiting to have those loose ends tied up, but a win for U.S. politics!
Land of Shadows by Rachel Howzell Hall
I’ll admit, by the time I got to this final book on my list, I wasn’t so much in the mood anymore for crime and murder and sleuthing, but I just HAD to keep reading because Lou Norton is one fabulous heroine. She’s a homicide detective with the LAPD, and she has some seriously rough edges. It’s a bit of a vicarious thrill for me to read angry female characters, and Lou is one of those people who is constantly simmering with rage. And with good reason—her sister disappeared as a teenager and the police blew her off as another troubled runaway teen, and her husband has a bit of a roving eye. So yeah, Lou’s got some shit to be pissed about. This is one of those books where I show up for the detective and their character arc more than the central mystery—I will be interested to see what’s next for Lou when I get around to the next book in the series.
And with that, I’m off to read some feel-good romance and fantasy where nobody dies and the world is populated with space unicorns.