To a novice, the mystery and thriller category might seem like a monolith. Insiders know it’s a world of subgenres and even sub -subgenres, each with its own codes and conventions. In this feature, we visit two distinct but related corners of the category: historical mysteries with fantastical elements, and thriller and suspense novels with a dash of horror. Even as they spook, shock, and seduce, these books also challenge, raising rich questions about women’s empowerment and all-too-real terrors.
Several forthcoming mysteries imbue bygone decades with spirits, prognostication, and futuristic spy gear. In doing so they grant their female characters a degree of agency that, historically, has been in short supply.
Minotaur will publish The Silver Shooter, third in author Erin Lindsey’s Rose Gallagher series, in November. The book, which PW’s starred review called “exceptional,” is set in 1887 and follows the protagonist and her partner, both detectives in the (fictional) supernatural crimes unit of the Pinkerton agency, as they try to solve a mystery involving dead cattle and ghost sightings on the Dakota Badlands ranch of Theodore Roosevelt (who also figured in the previous installment, 2019’s A Golden Grave).
Stacie Murphy’s A Deadly Fortune (Pegasus, Jan. 2021) takes place in 1893 New York City and centers on a variably gifted female fortune-teller who, while trying to escape an asylum, uncovers a wife-murdering scheme. PW, in its starred review, said that “Murphy chillingly evokes some social ills of 19th-century America, including the complete control of women by their husbands.”
The author, a first-time novelist, says she’s drawn to the Gilded Age for its combination of “glittering wealth” and “very obvious poverty.” She adds that playing into the tropes of the historical fiction genre enabled her to examine the era’s social changes. “Historical fiction has a strong strain of ‘woman entering into a new profession,’ ” Murphy says. “I like the idea, especially in that time period, of an almost entirely self-made woman.”
Tin House, too, is publishing a paranormal mystery set in 1893: Paraic O’Donnell’s The House on Vesper Sands, also a January release. The novel revolves in part around a “shadowy group” in London, led by a wealthy lord, that is “said to steal the souls of working-class women,” per PW’s starred review.
Masie Cochran, editorial director at Tin House, says she was struck by how “modern” O’Donnell’s book felt, despite its Victorian trappings. She adds that the novel’s otherworldly elements tie into O’Donnell’s project of affording his female characters agency, including “spectral agency from beyond the grave,” as when a dead woman takes revenge on one of the book’s villains.
Taking readers several decades forward is T.A. Willberg’s debut and series launch, Marion Lane and the Midnight Murder (Park Row, Jan. 2021), set in London in 1958. In this first installment, the title character, a female apprentice at Miss Brickett’s Investigations and Inquiries, works to unravel the stabbing death of a coworker. The fantastical elements here pertain to Marion’s employer, which “exists in an underground labyrinth far beneath the streets of London” and uses “futuristic spy gadgets,” per PW’s review.
The fright fantastic
Other authors go darker, using elements of horror to pull their readers ever closer to the edge of their seats.
Among them is John Connolly, a star of the supernatural noir category. The recently released The Dirty South (Atria/Bestler) is his 18th title featuring private investigator Charlie Parker and serves as that character’s origin story. Set in 1999, the plot picks up when Parker, a former NYPD detective haunted by the ghosts of his murdered wife and daughter, heads to a blighted region in Arkansas to root out their killer, who may also be behind the deaths of teenage girls there. PW, in its starred review, said Connolly “is writing at the top of his game.”
Jonathan Maberry, too, revisits a detective from an earlier work and combines suspense with the supernatural in Ink (St. Martin’s, Nov.). Monk Addison, who first appeared in Maberry’s 2018 novel Glimpse, travels to a Pennsylvania town famed for its hauntings—fans will know it as the setting of the author’s Pine Deep Trilogy—where a figure known as the Lord of the Flies, a “striking villain,” per PW’s review, has been stealing people’s memories. And in February Agora will publish Cynthia Pelayo’s Children of Chicago, a retelling of the Pied Piper fairy tale in which Det. Lauren Medina investigates the murder of a teenager in Chicago.
Horror might prove even more horripilating when readers can’t hide behind a detective protagonist. In The Lost Village by Camilla Sten (Minotaur, Mar. 2021), for example, a documentary filmmaker and some friends visit a deserted mining community whose residents, including the protagonist’s ancestors, mysteriously vanished long ago. Amid further disappearances, the crew begins to suspect the place is not deserted after all.
Sam J. Miller’s The Blade Between, out from Ecco in December, sees a gay photographer return to his hometown of Hudson, N.Y., to care for his father. When he and two old friends pull a prank aimed at gentrifying newcomers, they accidentally rouse the literal ghosts of the town’s past in what PW called a “gripping mashup of psychological suspense and horror.”
Sara Birmingham, associate editor at Ecco, says the supernatural aspect of Miller’s novel emerges organically out of tensions between past and present. “It’s in the service of exploring what a town’s identity means, what gentrification looks like in a small town, and what responsibility people have to the place where they grew up,” she says. “Social issue–oriented horror,” she adds, is becoming more prevalent. “It’s exciting to have the chance as a reader to think about these really complex issues in a way that feels fresh, but also emotionally surprising.”
Such books needn’t be set in the present in order to have contemporary resonance. Hour of the Witch (Doubleday, Apr. 2021), a horror-inflected thriller by Chris Bohjalian, is set in Boston in 1662. The 24-year-old heroine’s attempt to divorce her violent husband is complicated when a boy she has treated with “simples”—medicinal herbs—dies, a tragedy that, together with other mysterious occurrences, makes her the object of a witch hunt.
Jenny Jackson, v-p, executive editor at Knopf Doubleday Group, says she’s been sensing, “in the ether, an interest in all things witchy,” a phenomenon that in the past has correlated with “rising feminism and distrust of government.” For Jackson, the “real monsters” in Bohjalian’s novel aren’t putative witches but the protagonist’s husband and her suspicion-frenzied community. She describes the book as a “cry against the paternalistic culture and the persecution of outsiders”—in other words, very 2020.
Below, more on Mysteries and Thriller books.
Subversive Thrills: PW Talks with Aya de León
In de León’s ‘A Spy in the Struggle,’ a Black corporate lawyer cum FBI agent is dispatched to infiltrate a group of Black activists in the Bay Area.
Good Spirits: Mysteries & Thrillers 2020–2021
Paranormal cozies show how a touch of the supernatural can take an otherwise traditional story in surprising directions.
Maternal Instinct: Mysteries & Thrillers 2020–2021
The protagonists of several forthcoming books go to extreme lengths to protect their children.
Faithful Sidekicks: Mysteries & Thrillers 2020–2021
MX Publishing supports Arthur Conan Doyle’s onetime home through new Sherlock Holmes stories.