The best mysteries and thrillers of 2020

Vannessa Cronin on November 30, 2020

The best mysteries and thrillers of 2020

People frequently ask us how we pick our Best Books of the Year. What's the secret, they ask? Is it pre-orders or sales, or some other algorithmic formula? The short answer is no, there's no formula. It's just us, reading new books by authors we love, reading books recommended by publishers, or reading books because we just like the look, or the description, of that particular book. When we come to the end of the year, we cast our minds back to the reads we loved, the ones that have stayed with us all year.

The books that place highest on the Best of the Year list are the ones we read and loved so much that it wasn't enough that we enjoyed those books, they were so good that we had to get others to read them, too. Those are the books that showed up in our roundups of the most anticipated books of the season(s) and then again in our weekend reading posts, or even our books we're talking about posts. Those are the books we read aloud to each other in the office, during those seven weeks in early 2020 when we still went to the office every day. Nowadays, we pitch each other electronically but the evangelizing is no less intense.

So, below are 10 of our top picks in mysteries and thrillers, books that we loved and evangelized for in 2020, the books we quoted to each other and marveled over, and the books with the most highlights on the editors' Kindles. To see the full list of all 20 books visit the Best Mysteries and Thrillers of the Year page.

Blacktop Wasteland by S.A. Cosby

Our pick for best mystery and thriller of the year, Blacktop Wasteland, is a pedal to the metal thriller about a retired getaway driver who gambles on one last heist to get himself ahead. I knew I loved it from the first page; the writing is pitch-perfect—a smart blend of drama and humor—and the characters so relatable that once I started reading I couldn't stop. I laughed out loud in the first few pages, but as the story progressed, the laughs became harder-won. Caught between the rock of poverty and the hard place of Southern racism, the rent on Bug's garage is due, his options are dwindling, and the siren song of his old life is becoming harder and harder to ignore. Toggling between high-stakes action and devastatingly poignant family scenes, and threaded with knowing humor, this is rural Southern noir with a tender heart.

Pretty Things by Janelle Brown

I like a number of things about Janelle Brown’s Pretty Things, but two of them are the twists and turns that she conjures and the general atmosphere of the book. As far as atmosphere goes, this isn’t one of those darkly brooding novels—although it has its moments. It’s set in Los Angeles and Lake Tahoe, in fancy mansions with nice furniture and dinner parties. It feels big and expansive and fresh. As far as the twists go, I was genuinely surprised a number of times. Janelle Brown did not rest in scheming up a twisty tale, and that keeps the pages turning. I guess I’d add one more thing that I like: the characters are great. Several are thieves; one is an “influencer.” There’s a mother who engages and surprises. Every character is a complete, compelling character. So I guess that’s three things I liked about Pretty Things. —Chris Schluep

Things in Jars by Jess Kidd

True, this novel is about a "lady detective" hired to locate a kidnapped child. But Things in Jars pulls you in with one element and then surprises you, in the best possible way, with others, like supernatural romance, gallows humor, Gothic horror, and a turn through the terrifying underbelly of Victorian London.

The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman

Don't judge, but I love reading about people getting murdered in quaint English villages. Throw in a few pensioners who want to take their amateur sleuthing club pro—or at least give the pros more assistance than they asked for—and you have the makings of a riotously funny murder mystery. With tea. Lots of tea.

And Now She's Gone by Rachel Howzell Hall

PI Grayson Sykes' first missing persons case takes some peculiar turns in And Now She’s Gone. Hall has a fabulous way with dialogue, and especially with metaphors: Los Angeles smells like “tar, fire, barbecue ribs, and weed.” And in Sykes, readers get a clever, relatable Black woman they'll root for. Here’s hoping we see more of her.

The Law of Innocence by Michael Connelly

What Connelly has brought to the police procedural—strong characters, authentic details—he brings to the courtroom thriller in The Law of Innocence. Narrated in the first person, there’s no scene-setting, no buildup, just the tense, back-up-against-the-wall legal wheeling and dealing of a man desperate to free his client: himself.

Squeeze Me by Carl Hiaasen

Squeeze Me brings together a bumbling President (code name Mastodon), a philandering First Lady, Burmese pythons, a wildlife wrangler named Angie Armstrong, and a group of Palm Beach socialites/presidential groupies—one of whom is found dead. And therein lies the mystery. If you’re looking for an escapist read that will bring some much-needed laughter into your day, this irreverent, satirical mystery is the book for you. —Seira Wilson

The Devil and the Dark Water by Stuart Turton

If Stuart Turton's previous book, The 7 ½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, was an homage to Agatha Christie and the golden age mysteries, then The Devil and the Dark Water makes a great companion as a tribute to Arthur Conan Doyle and his most famous creation, albeit with a supernatural twist Doyle would surely approve of.

Winter Counts by David Heska Wanbli Weiden

When stopping drug traffickers goes from paying gig to personal, recovering addict Virgil Wounded Horse, a half-Lakota, half-white vigilante, has a reawakening. While the high-stakes trafficking plotline will have you crying out for justice of one kind, the crushing poverty and the cruel biases indigenous people face will have your blood boiling for justice of another kind.

The Order by Daniel Silva

Israeli spy Gabriel Allon is back in a new thriller involving the murder of a pope, dark secrets within the Vatican, and a conspiracy that could change the shape of the religious and political world. The Order is a fast-paced, twisty novel that keeps readers guessing from beginning to end. —Seira Wilson

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