The best fast-paced mysteries with a strong sense of place

Why am I passionate about this?

I’m the author of the novel The Good Ones, published by Harper Books earlier this year. I grew up in a beautiful and somewhat isolated part of the country, the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, and it’s still my favorite place to set my fiction. When I began writing crime fiction, I knew I wanted to balance telling compelling stories with creating a sense of place and interesting characters to inhabit it, and I’ve learned so much from these writers about how to do that. 

I wrote...

The Good Ones

By Polly Stewart,

Book cover of The Good Ones

What is my book about?

The last time Nicola Bennett saw Lauren Ballard she was scraping a key along the side of a new cherry-red Chevy Silverado. That was the night before her friend mysteriously vanished from her home, leaving signs of a struggle—as well as her grieving husband and young daughter—behind.

Now, nearly twenty years later, Nicola, newly unemployed and still haunted by the disappearance of her childhood friend, is returning to her Appalachian hometown. For Nicola, Tyndall County has remained frozen in time. Driven by a desperate need to know what happened to her friend, Nicola takes a job in her hometown, determined to uncover any clue that can help. As the truth begins to unravel, will Nicola finally break free of the past—or lose herself completely to unanswered questions from her adolescence?

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Secret History

Polly Stewart Why did I love this book?

Now that I’ve published a thriller, I’m often asked about my favorite novel in the crime/mystery genre, and people are sometimes surprised when I name Donna Tartt’s 1992 bestseller, The Secret History.

The story of five friends studying Classics at an isolated Vermont college makes a lot of best-of lists, but because the book is so gorgeously written, with such a high level of literary skill, people sometimes forget that there’s a murder in the very first line. In many ways, it’s an unconventional take on the genre—definitely more of a whydoneit than a whodunit—and as with most of the novels I love, I’m less interested in the mechanics of the plot than in the characters and setting.

The descriptions of the Green Mountains are lush and evocative, and the scenes when the main character, Richard, almost freezes to death in an unheated warehouse during a New England winter, are some of the most chilling (literally) I’ve ever read.

By Donna Tartt,

Why should I read it?

16 authors picked The Secret History as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?


'Everything, somehow, fit together; some sly and benevolent Providence was revealing itself by degrees and I felt myself trembling on the brink of a fabulous discovery, as though any morning it was all going to come together---my future, my past, the whole of my life---and I was going to sit up in bed like a thunderbolt and say oh! oh! oh!'

Under the influence of a charismatic classics professor, a group of clever, eccentric misfits at a New England college discover a way of thought and life a world away from their banal contemporaries.…

Book cover of I Have Some Questions for You

Polly Stewart Why did I love this book?

I love all of Rebecca Makkai’s work, but this novel, published earlier this year, absolutely blew me away.

Makkai is adept at keeping the pages turning, but it wasn’t just the story of podcaster Bodie Kane and the murder of her high school classmate that drew me in as much as the atmosphere. The novel is set in a New England winter, and Makkai does a fantastic job of using the darkness and isolation of the season to create thematic resonance.

I’ve only been to New England a few times and don’t know it well at all, but this novel makes me feel like I’ve been there.

By Rebecca Makkai,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked I Have Some Questions for You as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?


'Whip-smart and uncompromising' NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW

'Quietly riveting' IRISH TIMES

'It's the perfect crime' NEW YORKER

'Impressive and complex' GUARDIAN

'Addictive' OPRAH DAILY

The riveting new novel from the author of The Great Believers, finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award

A successful film professor and podcaster, Bodie Kane is content to forget her past: the family tragedy that marred her adolescence, her four largely miserable years at a New Hampshire boarding school, and the 1995 murder…

Book cover of In the Woods

Polly Stewart Why did I love this book?

I’ve never been to the west of Ireland at all, but like the other writers on this list, French is a master at drawing you into a story until you feel like it’s part of you.

The plot of In the Woods is complex, with two different timelines and a multiplicity of characters, but it’s the early scenes, of Adam Ryan and the disappearance of his childhood friends in the woods near their homes, that have stayed with me the most strongly over the years. The woods where Adam and his friends are both a real place and a metaphor for childhood itself, in its darkness and tangled terror.

By Tana French,

Why should I read it?

6 authors picked In the Woods as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The bestselling debut, with over a million copies sold, that launched Tana French, author of the forthcoming novel The Searcher and "the most important crime novelist to emerge in the past 10 years" (The Washington Post).

"Required reading for anyone who appreciates tough, unflinching intelligence and ingenious plotting." -The New York Times

Now airing as a Starz series.

As dusk approaches a small Dublin suburb in the summer of 1984, mothers begin to call their children home. But on this warm evening, three children do not return from the dark and silent woods. When the police arrive, they find only…

Book cover of I'd Know You Anywhere

Polly Stewart Why did I love this book?

I think I’ve read all of Laura Lippman’s novels, both the Tess Monaghan series and the standalones, but this is hands-down my favorite.

On the surface, it’s high-concept subject matter: the story of a girl who was abducted by a serial killer and then let go, told in dual timelines. I was compelled by the thrilling and fast-paced plot, but again, the scenes I remember best are of the main character’s childhood in the 1980s, as she attempts to maneuver an adult world she can’t yet understand.

The novel is set in a part of southern Maryland that resembles my home state of Virginia, and I love the way Lippman evokes a bucolic landscape turned suddenly sinister.

By Laura Lippman,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked I'd Know You Anywhere as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

“Laura Lippman is among the select group of novelists who have invigorated the crime fiction arena with smart, innovative, and exciting work.”
—George Pelecanos

“Lippman’s taut, mesmerizing, and exceptionally smart drama of predator and prey is at once unusually sensitive and utterly compelling.

Laura Lippman, New York Times bestselling author of What the Dead Know, Life Sentences, and the acclaimed Tess Monaghan p.i. series, delivers a stunning stand-alone novel that explores the lasting effects on lives touched by crime. With I’d Know You Anywhere, Lippman—master of mystery and psychological suspense, winner of every major literary prize given for crime…

Book cover of Beware the Woman

Polly Stewart Why did I love this book?

If I’d written this list a year ago, I probably couldn’t have found a way to include Megan Abbott, even though she’s one of my favorite writers.

Though setting is important to her work, it’s rarely given the place-based specificity we find in her newest novel, Beware the Woman, set in the wilderness of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. I’ve vacationed in the UP and it truly is a wild place, the perfect background for this story of a pregnant woman spending an increasingly creepy week with the husband and father-in-law she’s not sure she can trust.

The woods that crowd around the family’s remote home seem threatening at first, but then come to offer the promise of escape from a domestic environment with its own set of perils. As in all these novels, setting is more than a scenic backdrop. It’s the world the reader lives in, and a crucial element of story.

By Megan Abbott,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Beware the Woman as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

By the "master of thinly veiled secrets often kept by women who rage underneath their delicate exteriors" (Kirkus Reviews), Beware the Woman is Megan Abbott at the height of her game.

Honey, I just want you to have everything you ever wanted. That’s what Jacy’s mom always told her. And Jacy felt like she finally did. Newly married and with a baby on the way, Jacy and her new husband, Jed, embark on their first road trip together to visit his father, Dr. Ash, in Michigan’s far-flung Upper Peninsula. The moment they arrive at the cottage snug within the lush…

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Transforming Pandora

By Carolyn Mathews,

Book cover of Transforming Pandora

Carolyn Mathews Author Of Transforming Pandora

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Why am I passionate about this?

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What is my book about?

Transforming Pandora, women's fiction with a metaphysical undercurrent, is written with humour and a light touch. As the plot slips between two time frames, separated by more than thirty years, the reader explores her life and loves: her ups and downs.

In the opening chapter, Pandora is attempting to come to terms with her husband's death. At a friend's suggestion, she reluctantly attends an evening of clairvoyance, after which her life is transformed by a mysterious spirit who sets her on a new path.

Her romantic life is reignited when she encounters a new man, but complicated by the appearance of a significant figure from her past. At the same time her spiritual life is presented with a challenge when she's offered the chance of enlightenment via a heavenly correspondence course. Her quest in life to find her true purpose is within her reach. Will she grasp this opportunity? Or will she choose love over light?

Transforming Pandora

By Carolyn Mathews,

What is this book about?

Pandora, 51, childless, and still beautiful, is attempting to come to terms with her husband's death. Having a history of being drawn to the esoteric, yet remaining a healthy sceptic, she reluctantly attends an evening of clairvoyance and raises a spirit who sets her on a new path...

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