The best mysteries and thrillers of January

Vannessa Cronin on January 16, 2020
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Estranged sisters (one of whom may have fallen prey to a serial killer), a polygamous marriage, a Ghanaian private detective who must contend with internet scammers and fetish priests to find a missing Dad, and two women who may be connected by murder. Yes, January is shaping up nicely. See all of our mystery and thriller picks, or browse the rest of the Best Books of the Month.


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Long Bright River by Liz Moore

Many thrillers distract the readers with false leads and red herrings—it’s part of the joy of reading a good thriller. Long Bright River distracts the reader from seeing the wood for the trees too, by going back to childhood to painstakingly lay out the events that drove once-close sisters to take divergent paths in life. Raised by their bitter grandmother, Mickey is now an arrow-straight cop, raising a child alone, while Kacey is a victim of Philadelphia’s opioid epidemic. Estranged from one another, Mickey’s job enables her to keep tabs on her sister along with all the other lost souls and criminals on her regular beat. Every sighting of Kacey means one more day Mickey doesn’t have to worry about her sister turning up among the dead in the opioid-ravaged Kensington section of Philly. But when a string of murders coincides with Kacey’s disappearance, Mickey’s fears overrule her good sense and she obsessively hunts for Kacey in a neighborhood riddled with crime, corruption, addiction, danger, and deception. Both a harrowing tale that shows how the arc of addiction can feel like death by a thousand cuts to the rest of the family, and a tense, layered police procedural with a strong sense of place that puts it right up there with the best of Tana French or Dennis Lehane, readers will be thinking about Long Bright River long after the final page is turned. —Vannessa Cronin


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The Wives by Tarryn Fisher

There’s a virtual reality Harry Potter-themed ride at Universal Studios that simulates a Quidditch match. You strap in, and start flying through the air, only to swing wildly to the right, stop short, dip, and then lurch 180 degrees to the left. Reading The Wives felt like being back on that ride. Thursday is a nurse in a busy Seattle hospital, slowly getting back in the swing of things after a miscarriage leaves her without her longed-for baby and infertile to boot. Her husband Seth is there for support but only one day a week. The rest of his week is spent commuting to and from Portland where his other two wives live. Presumably. Thursday’s never met either of his other wives; all she knows is that one of them is pregnant, about to give Seth the one thing that Thursday no longer can. When she finds a scrap of information about one of the other wives—enough to identify her and locate her—the opening to the rabbit hole beckons, and Thursday is about to fall into it. Yes, the premise is about as preposterous as taking part in a Quidditch match, so if you’ve made it this far, ignore that fact and consider yourself strapped in and ready for a soapy, bumpy, twisty, exhilarating ride, set at a breakneck pace. Enjoy. —Vannessa Cronin


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The Missing American by Kwei Quartey

When Gordon Tilson, a middle-aged widower from Washington, D.C., falls for a young Ghanaian widow he meets in an online support group, he decides to travel halfway around the world to surprise her with a visit, and he promptly disappears. His son Derek follows him to Accra and ends up knocking on the door of Emma Djan, a private detective whose dreams of following in her father's footsteps in the Accra police department were spiked by a hideous #MeToo moment with her boss. Emma's investigation draws her and Derek into into the heart of Ghana's criminal underbelly, where outsider status is shorthand for target, and guarding secrets is motivation for murder. That's the problem with Ghana's criminal underbelly: it's not so much under as over, next-to, and besides. Crime is as commonplace as traffic, and part of The Missing American's appeal is the deft way Quartey reveals the not-for-tourists troubles facing modern-day Ghana while putting them to work in service of the plot. A colorful carousel of internet hucksters, fetish priests, corrupt politicos, and crooked cops stand between the rookie detective and her objective in this complex yet riveting novel, but formidable Emma is a force that will not be denied.


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The Wife and the Widow by Christian White

The Wife and the Widow has one of those slow burning plots where alternating chapters follow two characters and much of the suspense comes from trying to guess what connects the two and what event will make their lives intersect. Kate decides to surprise her husband John by going with their daughter Mia to the airport to greet him as he returns from a business trip. When John doesn't get off the plane, she's perplexed. And that feeling turns to dread when John is declared a missing person, and to grief when his body is discovered on nearby Belport Island. Abby lives on Belport Island with her husband and kids and pays little attention when she hears that the body of a man has been discovered in her tiny tourist town. But a discovery in one of the houses on the island makes her fear that she has a connection to the dead man. This is one of those fiendishly clever plots that allows the reader to guess parts of the plot only to shock them with bigger reveals. And the dual perspectives offer author Christian White opportunities to weave in little cliffhangers and clues that keep the reader off kilter until the end. White's The Nowhere Child was a surprise hit last year (also highly recommended) and The Wife and the Widow is a worthy follow-up.


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