The best whodunits for reading in the sun
If what you need is a story where the girl always gets her man, and the bad guys don’t get away with it, we’ve got some picks for you.
Remain Silent Susie Steiner
I am not going to lie, I 100% chose this because of the cover. It’s very much a story of now – immigrants to the UK, a far-right political group with a charismatic leader, a 40-something woman who’s trying to figure out her life, feminism, and how to feed her family while hating cooking. If this doesn’t describe the quotidian frustrations of life in 2020, I don’t know what does:
“Why did one have to switch energy providers and set a mobile phone alert for bin day, only to find out you can not set an alert because your phone storage is full, so you decide to pay for more storage (until you die), only to find you don’t know your password. By the time you retrieve your password you are sixty-five and howling into the abyss.”
Despite what I wrote above, this one wrapped up a bit too quickly and neatly at the end, but the journey to get there was satisfyingly engrossing. And the struggle to hone that precious work life balance is more than a little bit relatable, especially in the Year Of Working From Home.
The Less Dead Denise Mina
A friend introduced me to Denise Mina late last year, and in the subsequent 12 months I have devoured every one of her books. So it was a delight to discover a new one in 2020.
This isn’t going to be the last book on the list where I give a warning: if you find violence against women particularly troubling, maybe give this one a miss, or at least go easy on yourself. This, and I mean this is an absolute compliment, is unflinching.
The Less Dead refers to murdered sex workers in Glasgow and Mina weaves a tale of a (very) cold case come to life again, class, family violence and stalking. It’s written in her usual frank and gritty style.
It’s not exactly a chill read, and it’s possibly going to make you think long and hard about who society values and who it doesn’t, but there’s enough dark Scots humour to stop you hurling it against the wall in frustration.
Bleak as all hell, but gripping and affecting. If that sounds like your ideal summer read, this one’s for you.
The Hand on the Wall Maureen Johnson
The Hand on the Wall is the third in the Truly Devious series by Johnson – a very pleasing YA mystery series. (So yes, start at the beginning – they are quick reads.)
The story weaves a 75-year-old crime into this century, complete with political scandals and feuds between YouTubers. There’s romance, intrigue, and just enough jeopardy to keep the story rollicking along.
Sassy, but unsure – and anxious – Stevie Bell, our protaganist, must prove her case, get the boy, complete her assignment, all the things normal high school students do, right?
It’s a modern, but pleasingly old fashioned whodunnit, which – not to give away any spoilers – all wraps up rather neatly.
The Eighth Girl Maxine Mei-Fung Chung
I thought about this book for weeks, and to be honest, I still can’t really decide if it was good. The tale of “beautiful but damaged” (UGH) Alexa Wú, who had been diagnosed with Dissociative Identity Disorder (she has several personalities).
It’s dark and unseemly, and I think, aiming for ‘gritty’, but not quite landing. Maxine Mei-Fung Chung is a psychotherapist, so the relationship between Alexa and her doctor rings very true. And as someone who’s spent many years in counselling, some of the ‘therapeutic questioning’ cuts pretty close to the bone.
It’s unsettling and heavy, full of trauma and misogyny, mental illness and racism. The psychological side of the novel is fascinating, and I kind of wish this had been explored more than the plot that gets us to the climax.
I’ve re-written this recommendation a bunch of times. It’s a bleak book, and not as thrilling I might have liked. But as a book about trauma and abuse – from the small, daily agressions, to the major, life-altering traumas – it is, well, intriguing.
I still don’t know if it’s good. But I do think you should read it, if only so you can tell me if you think it is.
The Herd: a novel Andrea Bartz
Please only read this one if you are in need of something really light.
The titular Herd is a thinly veiled substitute for The Wing, an expensive co-working space for women in big cities the US, which capitalised on the Instagram era with a lot of plush pink fabric and girl power slogans. (This article in the New York Times explains more about how the slogans didn’t run very deep.)
The novel centres on three old college friends, Eleanor – founder of The Herd (“emphasis on her!”), and sisters Hana and Katie. Katie is using her connections to get back on her feet, and is desperate to join the Herd, but when she turns up to her first meeting someone has scrawled misogynist grafitti inside the building (the call is coming from inside the house!).
Twisty murderous shenanigans ensue, girls can do anything, old loves rear their heads, and everyone seems to have extremely shiny hair and a lot of clothes.
It’s all very Big Little Lies, but a lot more soapy. Perfect, probably, for a day at the beach. If you fall asleep, make sure you applied sunscreen.
The SearcherTana French
If you haven’t read Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad books, oh my gosh, get thee to a library. But if you would prefer to start with her latest, but all means, pick up The Searcher. It’s bloody great.
Cal, a retired Chicago detective has been transplanted (by his own design) to rural Ireland, all lush greens and wispy rain and rooks gathering about his property, waiting and watching his every move.
As he befriends a local teenager, the local villagers resemble the rooks, patiently ascertaining the threat within their ranks, and comfortable with a bit of abject cruelty to make their point. The kid – Trey – needs a favour. Her brother Brendan is missing, presumed to have done a runner like their father.
Cal doesn’t want to investigate, but as he reluctantly does, he realises just as he hasn’t left behind his troubles, he also can’t turn a blind eye to someone in jeopardy. Even if it means putting himself in danger.
If you’ve lived in a small town, you will recognise a lot of the feelings in this book, particularly the sense of hopelessness when everyone has left for different pastures. It’s a mystery, a study in relationships, and has a very good template for how to have really hard conversations. But, like the Westerns it frequently references, it’s ultimately a story about what it means to be A Good Man. Fair warning though, it might not answer that question.
About the selector
Megan Whelan is RNZ’s head of content. If she hadn’t become a journalist, she would have liked to be a gumshoe detective.