The best books of mystery/suspense by women authors

Who am I?

I have been an avid reader of mysteries since I discovered Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden at age seven. I not only consume mysteries but I write about them: in 2002, my PhD dissertation discussed Victorian novels of suspense. Since then, I have published four Victorian mysteries with Random House, Harper Collins, and Crooked Lane. I am perpetually drawn to reading and writing books that trace the arc from confusion and chaos to clarity and order because I believe it is one of our deepest impulses as human beings—to understand our world. 

I wrote...

Down a Dark River

By Karen Odden,

Book cover of Down a Dark River

What is my book about?

Described as “a superbly written Victorian mystery, dark and atmospheric” by Mystery & Suspense Magazine, Down a Dark River, my fourth novel, is again set in 1870s London. 

Scotland Yard Inspector Michael Corravan is a former thief and bare-knuckles boxer raised in the Irish section of seedy Whitechapel (home of Jack the Ripper). Following a corruption scandal that destroyed public trust in Scotland Yard the previous year, Corravan is faced with the case of a beautiful young woman, daughter of a prominent judge, found murdered in a boat floating down the Thames. Her family has skeletons in the closet, which Corravan uncovers. But when a second young woman and then a third are found similarly murdered, he must discover the connection before the newspapers froth London into a panic. A case of injustice and revenge, the solution demands that Corravan delve into the darkest corners of his own heart.  

The books I picked & why

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Faithful Place

By Tana French,

Book cover of Faithful Place

Why this book?

All of Tana French’s books are characterized by intensity. Her protagonists have powerful backstories that generate the emotional drive to solve the mystery they face. In Faithful Place, set close to the present day, the protagonist Frank Mackey grew up working class in Dublin. Now he’s a detective, called home to Faithful Place when his family discovers a suitcase in an abandoned building—a suitcase that belonged to Frank’s girlfriend Rosie, who vanished years ago, the night she and Frank were to run away together to London. Frank always believed that Rosie abandoned him; but what if she was murdered? In solving this case, Frank must excavate his family’s history and his own emotionally wrenching past, which shapes both the mystery arc and the subplot of this book—Frank’s reconciliation with his ex-wife and his daughter. This book is poignant, painful, and suspenseful, with a powerful ending. 

The Tenderness of Wolves

By Stef Penney,

Book cover of The Tenderness of Wolves

Why this book?

This heart-wrenching historical novel won the prestigious Costa Book of the Year award. Set in 1867 in Dove River, a tiny settlement in the Northern Territory, this tale is told by several narrators. Often, that technique is used ineffectively, but Penney has made each voice so distinct that the book transcends the genre of murder mystery to become a reflection upon how people perceive the same event very differently. When Mrs. Ross discovers the murdered body of the trapper Laurent Jammett, her worst nightmare comes true: her seventeen-year-old son Francis has disappeared and has been named the primary suspect. Searchers set out from Dove River, following his tracks across the snow, ultimately discovering the truth behind the murder. This tale compellingly explores themes of justice and redemption. 

Nine Coaches Waiting

By Mary Stewart,

Book cover of Nine Coaches Waiting

Why this book?

An oldie but goodie, first published in 1958, this beautifully written novel of suspense and romance is often compared to Daphne du Maurier’s masterpiece Rebecca. I actually prefer Nine Coaches Waiting, with its nod to Bronte’s Jane Eyre and the gorgeous setting of a French castle. In this book, the orphaned Englishwoman Linda Martin becomes the governess to young, orphaned Phillipe, of Chateau Valmy in France. At first, the situation seems perfect, and young Phillipe is a shy but engaging pupil. His aunt and uncle, however, raise Linda’s concerns, and the ensuing cat-and-mouse game lays bare the ways ambition and injury can twist a heart. Mary Stewart won the prestigious Edgar Award for mystery in 1965 for This Rough Magic, but Nine Coaches Waiting is my favorite of hers.

The Witch of Blackbird Pond

By Elizabeth George Speare,

Book cover of The Witch of Blackbird Pond

Why this book?

This is another oldie but goodie from 1958. The Young Adult genre is often overlooked, but I would recommend this Newbury Award Winner to the YA crowd as well as adults who love a strong historical novel of suspense tinged with romance. In 1687, sixteen-year-old Kit Tyler leaves gorgeous, sunny Barbados after her father dies, relocating to her uncle’s household in a small, bleak Puritan town in Connecticut. Lonely and ostracized by the stern villagers, Kit befriends a Quaker woman named Hannah, who is thought to be a witch. When a vicious neighbor accuses Kit of bewitching her child, Kit is put on trial for her life. With a nod to The Crucible and exploring themes surrounding trusting the Other, this book is still relevant today.

Girl Waits with Gun

By Amy Stewart,

Book cover of Girl Waits with Gun

Why this book?

Based on the real Constance Kopp, one of the first female deputies in the US, this book begins in 1914, when Charlotte and her two sisters, in a buggy, are run off the road by a gangster, and she teams up with the sheriff to do something about it. I recommend this book because the voice is utterly original and compelling. Here’s the opening: “Our troubles began in the summer of 1914, the year I turned thirty-five. The Archduke of Austria had just been assassinated, the Mexicans were revolting, and absolutely nothing was happening at our house, which explains why all three of us were riding to Paterson on the most trivial of errands.” Named one of 2015’s Best Books by NPR and a New York Times Editors’ Choice, it’s the first of a wonderful series.

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