Want to see the world without leaving your cozy reading spot? Here are some mysteries where the setting is practically a character of its own. I’ve got different countries, terrains, and time periods—and, of course, murder!
Murder in G Major by Alexia Gordon
I’ve long harbored a bias against cozy mysteries, but I decided to give one a try because the older I get, the less I can stomach violence. With cozy mysteries, you can count on the author to gloss over the gory details and focus instead on the characters and their efforts to crack the case. In Murder in G Major, violinist and conductor Gethsemane Brown is hired to direct the orchestra at an all-boys school in rural Ireland. After being passed over for a more prestigious job, Gethsemane is glad to have a paying gig and a place to live, but she’s less excited when she discovers her isolated cottage harbors a ghost. Fortunately, it’s a ghost of the friendly variety, but he wants Gethsemane to investigate his and his wife’s mysterious deaths years earlier, and there are people in town that don’t want her poking her nose into the past.
The Widows of Malabar Hill by Sujata Massey
Perveen Mistry is the first practicing female lawyer in Bombay in the early 1920s. In assisting her father with the administration of an estate, she notices something odd about a letter they received from the widows of the decedent: the widows claim they all want to donate their inheritances to the family charity. The custodian of the estate is pushy and demands the funds be made available for charitable purposes, but Perveen wants to meet with the widows in person to discuss their rights to their husband’s estate. She’s uniquely suited to the task because the widows are in seclusion due to their religious beliefs and cannot be in the presence of men. When someone turns up dead at the widows’ home, it becomes clear that Perveen is dealing with more than just an estate dispute.
I’ll admit I got a little impatient with this one because the publisher’s blurb didn’t prepare me for the amount of time we would spend in Perveen’s past. We know from the beginning that she is single and working as a lawyer in Bombay, so the lengthy chapters detailing her courtship and subsequent, predictably miserable marriage dragged. If those events had been summarized in a single chapter, or incorporated in much shorter segments, this would have been a more fun book to read.
A Rising Man by Abir Mukherjee
In case you find yourself hooked on the setting of early 20th century India, here’s another such mystery for you, this one set in Calcutta. Captain Sam Wyndham just arrived from Britain to serve as a detective. He’s a widower burdened with painful memories of fighting in WWI, and he’s hoping to lose himself in his new job and the new culture surrounding him (and, now and again, his opium addiction). He and his junior officer, Banerjee, are tasked with solving the murder of an English civil servant who was found dead next to a brothel. The case is tightly wound up with the politics of the time, in the same way The Widows of Malabar Hill centers around gender roles and religion. Wyndham has a sufficiently dark past to satisfy readers who like a good guy with rough edges, and Banerjee is a character just begging to be more fully fleshed out in future books (the second is available now). There’s a melancholy, almost noir-ish feel here, but with dashes of Wyndham’s dry humor every now and then, the balance is just right. One complaint: this is very much a traditional detective novel, and as is typical for the genre, there’s only one significant female character—the rest are caricatures, bit players dismissed for their stupidity, lack of beauty, or both—and even she doesn’t get to be anything more than a pretty vehicle for the hero’s enlightenment.
Force of Nature by Jane Harper
Very rarely does an author not only avoid the sophomore slump but follow up a bestseller with an even better second novel, but Jane Harper has done it with Force of Nature. I read and enjoyed her debut novel, The Dry, at least enough to pick up the next book, but I remember being underwhelmed by the ending, maybe a bit confused by the details and how everything pieced together. This time out, Harper has tightened up her writing and maintains total control of all her puppet strings, making for a fast, enjoyable, and occasionally creepy ride through the Australian bush. It’s a place I’ve never visited, but it sure as heck sounds like the kind of place I wouldn’t want to be stranded without food, water, or cell reception. Five women on a company team-building exercise walk into the bush for a weekend campout, and only four come out. What happened to the missing woman, and what happened between all of them when they lost the trail? Federal agent Aaron Falk and his partner Carmen are involved in the case because the missing woman was working as an informant for them. Does her disappearance have to do with their investigation, or is it just a terrible coincidence? If you’re looking for a twisty page-turner, this is it!