Five literary mysteries worth investigating

Erin Kodicek on August 08, 2019
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We all have certain genres that we gravitate towards. Given a choice between reading literary fiction or a mystery thriller, the former is more my jam. But I love it when I come across a good marriage of the two, because it broadens my reading horizons. Here are five books from this year that did just that.  


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Lights All Night Long by Lydia Fitzpatrick

In a decrepit mining town in northern Russia, Ilya discovers his gift for language while watching Die Hard with his charming, indolent older brother, Vladmir. As they get older, Vladmir’s gusto for the seedier things in life (prostitutes, partying) grows dangerous when a powerful new, opiate-like drug called krokodil comes to town. Just before 15-year-old Ilya leaves for an exchange program in America, Vladmir is accused of murder. The reader is then thrown into a raucous, Christian family in Louisiana where the oldest daughter has a secret with an unexpected connection to Ilya’s personal mission to exonerate his brother.

Watching each relationship in the book unfold – parent/child, student/teacher, siblings, lovers – was like being held in a strange, thrilling embrace by a boa constrictor. From the ice-locked kommunalkas to the hot showers and cold Pepsi of suburban America, the author charts the ferocity and carelessness of family loyalty, and the terrible resilience of love. A brutal, beautifully told story of teenagers and adults doing the best they can, and that often not being enough. This book will look you in the eyes as it languorously bootheels your heart, all the more painful for the author having only written this one book so far. --Katy Ball


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Miracle Creek by Angie Kim

The Yoo family are Korean immigrants plying an unusual trade, running a pressurized oxygen chamber participants use in the hopes of improving conditions ranging from autism to infertility. When a horrific explosion at the facility leaves two dead, the case against the alleged culprit is not as open and shut as it first appears...Angie Kim’s intricately-plotted courtroom thriller, Miracle Creek, isn’t a conventional whodunit where the bad guy is eventually unmasked and the reader closes the book with righteous satisfaction. Kim has weaved a more complicated web than that, one that ensnares characters many readers will empathize with--well-meaning but flawed, doing foolish things for noble reasons--and that only adds to the suspense. There were many times I thought I had Miracle Creek all figured out, only to realize I'd been hoodwinked by another red herring. Kim was a former trial lawyer and that experience shows, but if this debut is any indication, she made the right career change. --Erin Kodicek


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The Night Tiger by Yangsze Choo

Some readers will be intrigued by apprentice dressmaker Ji Lin and her strongminded pursuit to achieve more with her life than her old-fashioned family will condone. Others will be hooked on the premise of a young houseboy named Ren trying to find the severed finger of his former master, who might or might not also be a weretiger. Still others will gravitate toward the mythologies, food, traditions, and culture of 1930s colonial Malaysia under British rule. Once Ji Lin comes in possession of the mummified finger that Ren seeks, they are destined to collide, even as a deadly tiger roams the edges of town. Whatever your entry point to The Night Tiger, Yangsze Choo will win you over with her newest historical novel, and you'll find yourself embracing everything she hurls onto the page, including a number of curveballs that contain the perfect amount of surprise. Too often historical novels can feel overstuffed or simply stuffy. The Night Tiger is supple and powerful, like the predator that stalks the shadows of Choo's ensnaring tale. --Adrian Liang


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The River by Peter Heller

Peter Heller has written three previous novels, but he has been writing about the outdoors in magazines like Outside and Men’s Journal for much longer. In The River Heller has drawn from all that experience to create an exciting, thoughtful, and well-paced thriller about two friends paddling into trouble in northern Canada. A distant wildfire is the first portent of danger. When the friends hear a man and woman arguing on the foggy riverbank, they decide to warn them about the fire—but their search for the pair turns up nothing. The next day a man appears solo on the river. Was he one of the people they heard the day before? The River starts out as a leisurely backwoods paddle and inexorably picks up speed before spilling readers down its cascade of an ending. This is a thriller, an adventure novel, and a meditation on friendship, the outdoors, and something altogether deeper. As I read, I felt like I had been waiting for this book without knowing it, and I fully expect The River to persist as one of my favorite reads of 2019. --Chris Schluep


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Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk

Janina Duszejko, the book’s solitary, 60-something main character, is earnest bordering on kooky. She writes long, unanswered letters to the police department about animal rights issues. (Hunting is popular in the remote Polish village where she lives and cares for part-time residents’ summer houses.) When she’s not preparing simple meals for herself and a former student with whom she translates William Blake on Friday nights, she’s weathering her ”Ailments” or looking for correlations between what’s on TV and the configuration of “the Planets.” Thinking that names don’t match the person (including her own), she refers to those around her by their defining characteristics: Oddball, Bigfoot, Dizzy, Good News. And it’s through her eyes that we watch the body count rise in this most unusual literary murder mystery.

The book opens with a widely disliked neighbor found dead in his home. As more local figures are murdered, Janina develops a peculiar theory that brings her closer and closer to the truth. Between the indelible first-person voice and the pitch-perfect translation of author Olga Tokarczuk’s original Polish, it’s easy to forget that this engaging portrait of small town life is also a devilishly well-plotted crime novel. —Katy Ball

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