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Writer Carole V. Bell celebrates a genre that is embracing political and social relevance and voices from around the world.
Though popular, crime fiction has a somewhat checkered reputation: On-screen or on the page, pro-police propaganda, sexism, and repetition are a few of the sins that plague it. But there is more to crime fiction than loner detectives and volatile vigilantes with badges. Both socially and politically relevant, crime novels reflect the darkest dangers and fears of society and can be powerful as well as entertaining. The concerns of bestselling white male authors aside, to remain vital, such a genre demands a diversity of experiences and perspectives.
Fortunately, despite persistent barriers to entry throughout mainstream publishing, there are plenty of new and dynamic voices available, and some of the most exciting are women of color. Still, my enthusiasm comes with a caveat. As Crime Writers of Color (CWoC) cofounder and award-winning mystery author Kellye Garrett attests, in the past, interest in diversity has been fleeting.
So I am cautiously optimistic. Authors of color are not a trend. Writers like Rachel Howzell Hall have been writing for decades, withstanding the boom and bust eras. Networks like CWOC and Sisters in Crime are supporting each other to ensure that new opportunities last. And the outstanding results speak for themselves. Many of the women of color writing mysteries and thrillers today bring relevant contexts and issues to the forefront: how the model minority myth shapes lives; what it’s like to balance community and duty when they’re in opposition; the consequences of workplace harassment in the movie industry from a female insider’s perspective. The subjects are rich and varied. These writers frequently have day jobs that lend their books originality and texture. They’re journalists, TV and film screenwriters, attorneys, and PhDs, as well as cracking storytellers. Alma Katsu draws on a 30-year-long career in international intelligence in Red Widow; Winnie Li is a former film executive writing about sexual misdeeds in the workplace in Complicit; and Vera Kurian, a social psychologist, puts her expertise to diabolical use in Never Saw Me Coming.
These writers are creating interesting work in subgenres that run the gamut and settings that span the globe, so this list could easily be 40 or even 50 books long. That’s how deep the bench is.
This story is deliciously messy. If you’re a fan of Gone Girl or The Guest List but grow bored with the homogeneity of domestic thrillers, this Sri Lankan author’s second novel (after My Sweet Girl) will revive your interest. The setup is a nightmare: Amaya’s ex-boyfriend is marrying her social influencer ex-best friend Kaavi in a lavish ceremony in Sri Lanka, and she’s invited. Amaya accepts with every intention of flying halfway round the world to stop the wedding. On the morning of the big day, Amaya wakes up bruised and bloody, and Kaavi’s missing. Buckle up. This is a psychological thriller with corkscrew-tight twists and surprising depth as the novel explores issues of class, identity, and friendship.
Also recommended: Her Three Lives and The Darkness of Others, by Cate Holahan.
The headline is riveting: A woman’s double life ends in murder, one husband dead, the other in prison. But this is really the story of two people told in parallel—the woman juggling two husbands in Texas and Mexico, and the blogger tracking her story 30 years later, knowing there’s more to it than headlines allow. Cassie is an aspiring journalist with a loving fiancé and a true crime obsession that began in childhood watching Dateline and with an event that split her life into before and after. Secretly, she relates to Dolores and all the other true crime figures whose facades obscure darkness and unfulfilled desire.
Also recommended: Things We Do In the Dark, by Jennifer Hillier.
Former police officer turned P.I. Cass Raines is a prickly-pineapple-like detective—tough on the outside, sweet and tart within. When a teenager goes missing from her foster home the day before she was scheduled to reunite with her recovering-addict mother, it tugs at her heartstrings. Cass takes the job of tracking her down and finds there’s more going on than just one missing girl. With intricate and timely plots, each installment keeps getting stronger, and this fourth novel, which works well as a stand-alone read, is the best yet.
In childhood, Rita Todacheene’s secret made her an outcast from her Navajo community. Now it helps her excel in her job. Rita is haunted by ghosts. They’ve been with her since she was a baby. She sees and hears them, and they share tips that help solve crimes in her role as a forensic photographer, capturing what others overlook. It’s a killer premise–what if murder victims could help solve their own deaths? But Rita’s reality is more sinister. Her gift (or is it a curse) turns ugly when she’s blackmailed by a dead woman whose body was found scattered across the highway—with one pinky toe missing and “the iliac crest overhung the torn flesh right above ripped, blood-soaked pants.” Despite the catastrophic damage, a ghostly Erma Singleton keeps popping up, confused, angry, and demanding justice. Her ultimatum: Find her killers or she’ll unleash literal havoc on Rita’s life. This paranormal police procedural is unusual and multilayered, but what stands out is the gorgeously expressive and propulsive first-person storytelling, which is split between Rita’s present and her past. A former forensic photographer herself, the pictures Emerson paints with words are as vivid as they are brutal.
Also recommended: Murder on the Red River, by Marcie Rendon.
This fast-moving and action-filled spy thriller addresses some of the darker events that dominate American headlines about West African nations—from mass kidnapping to violent conflict—but the story is told from an nuanced perspective by its Ghanaian American author, and has a redemptive arc. Years after her world was ripped apart and she was brutally victimized by a group targeting her privileged Ghanaian family, Nena Knight has become a highly trained and powerful female assassin for a shadowy international group called The Tribe. While the organization’s mission is to protect and advance the people and nations of Africa, Nena craves retribution. Part of her journey is learning to reclaim her power and her humanity, which includes her capacity for love. Book 2, They Come at Knight, comes out in September.
Also recommended: Red Widow, an international spy thriller about the hunt for a deadly CIA mole from horror and fantasy master Alma Katsu.
This New York murder mystery paints a multidimensional portrait of people often overshadowed by stereotype. I tried to think when last I’d seen Black celebrity and hip-hop rendered with this much humanity in fiction. Little came to mind. Almost no one questions it when reality-TV star Desiree, the child of a controversial hip-hop mogul, is found dead and half-dressed on a playground in the Bronx—the police and the press are happy to chalk it up to an overdose. Only Desiree’s estranged half-sister Lena refuses to believe the official story. She knows her bougie sibling wouldn’t be caught dead in that part of town and didn’t like needles. That skepticism pays off, leading Lena on a twisty search that resolves both the mystery of Desiree’s death and long-held family issues.
This Texas-based murder mystery by an award-winning author and screenwriter is smart and original, with a heroic yet humane main lead and elegant writing. It introduces Darren Mathews, a Black Texas ranger and former attorney, juggling a politically sensitive investigation into two suspicious deaths in a small town. With one victim an African American lawyer from Chicago and the other a local white woman, the cases exacerbate existing fault lines in the region.
A sentiment we often hear in light of #MeToo is how sad it is that the work of flawed men is now tainted. Frequently overlooked is the wreckage their bad behavior inflicts on the work of less powerful, often female, creatives. What about all that creativity thwarted? Complicit offers an answer. A promising Columbia graduate and the child of Chinese immigrants, Sarah Lai is full of ambition when she joins Firefly Films, but that promise is exploited and eventually squelched. Years later Sarah is out of the business and her hugely successful former colleague is caught up in scandal. Sarah seizes an opportunity for payback.
This mystery is cozy-adjacent—an edgier riff on an Agatha Christie– type mystery set in a picturesque English village with eccentric neighbors, and a lead character who bakes cakes with macabre themes for a living. Arya is a loner not entirely of her own choosing. Between her social anxiety and Tourette’s, fitting in was always a challenge. Her quiet life is rocked by a series of murders that reveal dark secrets. Murray takes common tropes and pierces them with darker realities to great effect.
Also recommended: Under Lock and Skeleton Key, by Gigi Pandian, and Dial A for Aunties, by Jesse Sutanto.
Ky Tran is a complicated character. A rookie reporter based in Melbourne Australia, she hears her best friend’s voice in her head, both resents and fears authority, and wrestles with her distance from the culture she grew up in. But when her straight-arrow younger brother Denny dies violently in her hometown of Cabramatta, she jumps in to find justice. In a community where the police force is all-white and most residents are not, no one is talking, and neither her parents nor the police are pushing. But Ky is a journalist and Vietnamese; she has skills and access to people who want nothing to do with the official investigation. What she learns is maddening. There were over a dozen people present at a local bar and restaurant. Yet no one saw anything. No one helped. While the mystery is compelling, like the richest literary crime fiction, this story has broader ambitions than revealing who did it. As the investigation progresses, Lien, a former reporter for The Los Angeles Times, explores the contingent nature of the welcome afforded to Asian immigrants in ostensibly liberal places like Australia, a dynamic the author knows well. Lien’s poignant and impeccable storytelling shines as she lays waste to the pretenses.
This page-turner has a secret weapon behind its well-plotted mind games. The author has a PhD in social psychology. Chloe is a freshman honor student who likes yogalates, frat parties, and plotting bloody revenge against her enemies. She’s one of seven college students in a campus-based study of psychopaths, people who lack empathy and can’t comprehend common emotions like fear or guilt. When one of them turns up dead, they all become potential targets in a deadly cat-and-mouse game. This revenge thriller is a strangely rewarding must-read in the age of #MeToo.
This dark psychological thriller from the perspective of a young Black woman kept me riveted and up all night. As a digital archeologist, young, bright, and inquisitive Michaela pieces together a person’s life story from the artifacts they hold dear and transforms them into a high-tech, multimedia scrapbook. Now she’s been tasked with helping an older woman obsessed with collecting, hoarding, and selling memorabilia make a record of her life before her memories slip away. But her new client is found dead, with a plastic bag over her head. A note indicates suicide, but that seems shaky, and Michaela is determined to suss out what’s happening in her rapidly changing and deadly neighborhood.
Also recommended for its eerie, urban gentrification theme: When No One Is Watching, by Alyssa Cole.
In this twisty, sardonic thriller exploring the darker side of “wellness,” even the ravens have their own voice and personality. After decades of emotional and physical abuse following her parents’ death, Ronnie Khan is desperate to escape her aunt’s tyranny. So meeting fashionable, empowering Marley Dewhurst is life-changing. Though she’s fond of neither new age spirituality nor the outdoors, Ronnie jumps at the chance to follow Marley, a healer she’s known for mere months, to Sedona, Arizona. Unlike Ronnie, “Marley had visited Sedona several times before.… She loved the vibes, the energy vortexes, the hiking. She loved that everyone wore crystals and you could buy dream catchers just about everywhere….” Ronnie doesn’t care about vibes or vistas; she’s just happy to be out of Queens. On their first hike, Ronnie and Marley encounter a murder of crows circling round parts of a dead body. Then things get complicated.
Like a Black, British Clarice Starling, Detective Inspector Angelica Henley is a smart and ambitious investigator trying to outwit a clever serial killer. Unlike Clarice, she’s also navigating the tricky gender and racial politics of London’s elite police force while juggling family responsibilities. When body parts emerge floating in the Thames, life gets trickier as certain details resemble that of a previous case Henley thought was solved, an investigation that left emotional and physical scars. This modern and multilayered take on the high-octane thriller keeps the pages turning, and a second book, The Binding Room, is just out.
Along with cozies, women have made serious inroads with historical mysteries, and the Bangalore Detectives Club is a perfect example. Authored by an Indian professor of ecology, the story is rich with the sights, sounds, tastes, and politics of southern India in the 1920s under British Colonial rule. After a newlywed doctor’s wife becomes an ear witness to the murder of a pimp at an exclusive members-only club in Bangalore, she dives headlong into the case. Though her husband’s peers dismiss the death as having nothing to do with them, Kaveri Murthy isn’t convinced. With keen intelligence and an approach that defies the expectations of her caste and gender, Kaveri’s inquiry unearths secrets that rock an already tense and divided community. One of the book’s strengths is how the heavier themes are balanced by the sweetness of the relationship between Kaveri and her husband.
Also recommended: If you haven’t read Sujata Massey’s The Widows of Malabar Hill or Murder in Old Bombay, by Nev March, time to jump in.
A heist caper with depth: In this cinematic thriller, a diverse group of young Asian Americans band together to steal back precious art that was taken from China by European powers. The characters’ anti-colonialist motivation and personal struggles elevate the plot as they contemplate how they do and do not fit in as first- and second-generation immigrants in the USA, and the challenge of balancing American identity while honoring their Chinese heritage. The mission is complicated by the romantic attachments that bloom within the team. Though the technical aspects of the heist are questionable, the characters and culture are memorable.
Bloody, sexy, hardboiled detective fiction is a notoriously macho crime genre, so Charlene “Charlie” Mack stands out. Not only is she a Black woman in a field dominated by grizzled white guys, she’s in charge. And the love of her life is a woman. I recommend the whole Charlie Mack Motown Mysteries series. But Wake Me When It’s Over is my favorite because of its supremely Detroit automotive industry setting. When a visiting engineer is murdered near the Cobo Center weeks before an international trade show, the official story is street crime, but there’s evidence of a terrorist conspiracy. So the organizers hire Mack Investigations to identify and neutralize the threat. Failure would have grave implications for the already struggling city, which in 2006 was poised to host the Super Bowl. It’s the perfect setup for a pulpy and action-filled quest.
In this New Zealand–based thriller, a famous author recovering from a serious car accident struggles with debilitating cognitive difficulties as he looks to solve his mother’s decade-old murder. Along with a quarter-million dollars, Nina Rai disappeared when her son Aarav was a teenager. Now her body’s been found in the wilderness near home. Aarav is missing crucial memories, and the gaps leave him with a jarring confusion just when he needs to be at his sharpest. The fact that Aarav is as much a mystery as what happened to his mother only enhances the suspense. Perfect for fans of The Silent Patient and The Witch Elm.
With decades of research under her belt, award-winning author Hirahara takes on one of the thorniest episodes in American history: the internment of Japanese Americans in World War II. Recently released from Manzanar camp in California where she was detained with her family and thousands like them after Pearl Harbor, Aki searches for the truth about what happened to her beloved older sister. The family was set to meet up with Rose who had been resettled in Chicago months earlier, but just before their reunion, Rose was killed. They’re told it was suicide, but Aki knows better.
Looks can be deceiving— in handbags and people. This novel had two inspirations: the first, a news story about a real multimillion-dollar fake luxury goods scheme. The other was the dubious model minority concept.
Ava Wong is a mother and an attorney. From undergraduate study at Stanford to a top law school to her surgeon husband, she never made a misstep, at least on paper. Whereas Winnie Fang left Stanford in her first year amid a cheating scandal and went on to find wealth in the gray economy, selling imperceptibly counterfeit copies of high-end leather goods. Despite stark differences, the two form a complicated bond 20 years after losing touch and end up doing big business. How and why that happens is a story told from competing perspectives. This subtly subversive story will surprise you to the end.