Thursday, December 30, 2021

The Best Mysteries, Suspense and Thrillers of 2021


This year I read thirty books in the mystery, suspense, and thriller genre. I loved almost all of them. That may have been because the essential elements of mystery and suspense meant even more to me in a year in which I’ve been seeking answers. Mysteries offer conflict, escalating tension, good versus evil, characters we care about who are in jeopardy, problems, and ultimately solutions. To me most of those elements describe the world we’ve inhabited since March 2020. As my mind reels at our escalating tensions and I see that many of the people I love are in jeopardy due to the rise in Covid infections, I find myself mesmerized by mysteries and thrillers where problems get resolved. I purposefully used the word mesmerized* here because of a definition of the word: “to hold the attention of (someone) to the exclusion of all else or so as to transfix them.” When I read mysteries and thrillers, I want them to capture me so completely that for those brief hours the rest of the world doesn’t exist. I want them to show me that we can solve our problems if we just pay attention, observe the clues, and use what we find to determine the best resolution. 

The Best Mystery/Suspense/Thriller Novel of 2021:

Razorblade Tears by S.A. Cosby is one of the finest suspense/crime novels I’ve ever read and Cosby is a master of the genre. Ike is Black. Buddy Lee is white. They have little but violent past lives in common until their sons are murdered. Neither Ike nor Buddy Lee had accepted their sons’ marriage and both were estranged from them. Still, they loved their boys so they decide to seek revenge together and mayhem coupled with phenomenal writing, violence, tenderness, and humor are the result. Read it in a day, then return to savor it. Read it for sentences like this one: “Folks like to talk about revenge like it’s a righteous thing, but it’s just hate in a nicer suit,” Ike said.” You’ll also want to read his fabulous Blacktop Wasteland. CC/GPR/GS, BC 

The Best Mysteries, Thrillers, and Suspense Novels of 2021:

Blacktop Wasteland by  S. A. Cosby is Southern noir with metaphors so spot-on you’ll be quoting them in your sleep. Beauregard “Bug” Montage is a skilled driver and mechanic who’s haunted by his past. Despite having a great wife and kids, he doubts himself and when called to commit a crime that might solve his problems, he almost welcomes the challenge. Gritty, genuine, violent, and propulsive with fully fleshed racial tension and expert pacing, this Anthony Award winner is much more than a crime novel. CC/GPR/GS, BC (2020)

Please See Us by Caitlin Mullen is a dark, searing, literary suspense novel that forces the reader to see each character through the author’s intense portraits of them. Set in a deteriorating Atlantic City where young women keep disappearing, it focuses on Clara, a teen psychic, and Lily, an educated former NYC gallery girl, escaping a betrayal. When Lily finds extraordinary portraits from the past, she’s compelled to find the painter and bring what he sees to light. It’s an edgy, brilliant, and potent view of violence against women. G, BC (2020)

The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman is a dry British mystery filled with humor and friendship. Four clever friends living in an affluent retirement village meet weekly to examine unsolved crimes and suddenly they find themselves involved in a local murder. These wry, engaging pals will make you want to move to Coopers Chase. Elizabeth and Joyce are particularly delightful and complex. All the characters including the police and the criminals are smart, funny, clever, and charming. Osman, a well-known British TV personality, nails this cozy debut. You’ll also want to read the second book in the series, The Man Who Died Twice. D/S/SBP, BC (2020)

We Begin at the End by Chris Whitaker features fierce 13-year-old Duchess and her vulnerable, sweet younger brother Robin. Walk, the sheriff, tries to protect them, but their mother is killed and someone might be out to get them. The tension pulls you through the last page and won’t let go. Winner of the Gold Dagger for Best Crime Novel of the Year (U.K.), it has vulnerable characters, lush language, and expert pacing that makes it a winner. CC/GPR/SBP, BC

The rest of the list features Books 12 through 15 in Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs series. If you haven’t read them, start at the beginning with Maisie Dobbs. I had abandoned  the series a few years ago while looking for new mysteries but found these entries excellent. I also highly recommend Winspear’s memoir This Time Next Year We’ll Be Laughing. It explains so many of the characters in her books.

Journey to Munich by Jacqueline Winspear, Maisie Dobbs Book 12, In 1938, a trusted old friend asks Maisie to impersonate the daughter of a British industrialist imprisoned in Dachau. She agrees and travels to Munich where the woman she blames for her husband’s death is involved in the intrigue. This is outstanding with several clever twists. CC/GPR/PP/SN (2016)

In This Grave Hour by Jacqueline Winspear, Maisie Dobbs Book 13, Just as England enters the war with Germany in 1939, Maisie is asked to investigate the murder of a Belgian engineer who came to London as a teen during World War I and there may be ties to other Belgian refugees. Maisie is also caring for Anna, a five-year-old refugee orphan who’s been evacuated to Maisie’s family home in Kent. CC/GPR/PP/SN (2017)

To Die But Once by Jacqueline Winspear, Maisie Dobbs Book 14, is set in 1940 when Britain declares war against Germany. A young apprentice on assignment painting buildings with fire retardant disappears. Nefarious operators take advantage of wartime opportunities and the son of Maisie’s best friend sails into the English Channel on a harrowing rescue mission. CC/GPR/PP/SN (2018)

The American Agent by Jacqueline Winspear, Maisie Dobbs, Book 15, When Catherine, an American correspondent reporting on the war in Europe, is murdered, Scotland Yard and the U.S. Department of Justice involve Maisie in uncovering the truth of the woman’s murder. Meanwhile, the Blitz rains havoc on London and Maisie tries to protect evacuee Anna who she wants to adopt. CC/GPR/PP/SN (2019)

For most of the last decade or so, my list of the best in this genre has included an Inspector Gamache novel by Louise Penny. While I loved the latest entry The Madness of Crowds, I found the books listed above even more exceptional. I also loved State of Terror, the book Penny wrote with Hillary Clinton. Regardless of your politics, I think you’ll find it a delightful page-turner and you’ll agree that Penny’s exceptional writing coupled with Clinton’s knowledge of diplomatic circles makes for a fine read.

*FYI: I loved learning about the word mesmerize when I read this book for ages 6-10 in 2016: Mesmerized: How Ben Franklin Solved a Mystery that Baffled All of France by Mara Rockliff. 

The print of Edgar Allen Poe with a raven on his shoulder is from Altered Artichoke and can be found here:

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