The best crime books that won’t have you skipping description (to get to plot)

Christine Carbo Author Of The Wild Inside: A Novel of Suspense
By Christine Carbo

Who am I?

When my family moved from sunny Florida to the cold, rugged mountains of Montana when I was in eighth grade, I thought I would hate it. Instead, I fell in love with Montana and its arresting landscape, especially Glacier National Park, which was only about a half-hour drive from our small town. When I began writing crime novels, I considered setting before plot or character because landscape was so central to me. I decided to place my stories in and around Glacier National Park where the backdrop is stunning, stark, and sometimes haunting. The following books allow you to luxuriate in atmosphere while being propelled by dynamic characters and interesting plots.

I wrote...

The Wild Inside: A Novel of Suspense

By Christine Carbo,

Book cover of The Wild Inside: A Novel of Suspense

What is my book about?

What was supposed to be a pleasant father-son camping trip beneath the rugged peaks and starlit skies of Glacier National Park turned into a full-fledged nightmare when Ted Systead’s father was attacked by a bear and dragged to his death. Now, twenty years later, Ted is a Special Agent for the Department of the Interior and has been called back to investigate a crime that mirrors the horror of that night —but this time, the victim was tied to a tree before being mauled. As Ted investigates, he realizes that the locals are wary of outsiders treading on their territory. The residents’ intimate connection to the wild forces them to confront nature, and their fellow man, with equal measures of reverence and ruthlessness.

The books I picked & why

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Mystic River

By Dennis Lehane,

Book cover of Mystic River

Why this book?

I always know I’m reading a thought-provoking book with a strong sense of place when I marvel at the descriptions and say to myself, “I want to do that too!” In fact, I didn’t even really become a crime fiction fan until I was well into adulthood. Although I’d always wanted to write novels, it wasn’t until reading Lehane’s deeply compelling characters paired with an intriguing plot and terrific descriptions of a Boston neighborhood that I thought I’d try my hand at crime fiction. Not only is Mystic River a page-turner, but it’s also an exploration of the capacity for darkness in us all while maintaining a deep sense of empathy and humanity.  

Winter's Bone

By Daniel Woodrell,

Book cover of Winter's Bone

Why this book?

One might think a crime novel employing meth labs, pervasive poverty, and arcane backroad rules might succumb to cliché. However, Woodrell’s Winter’s Bone does anything but. His mesmerizing descriptions of the Ozark landscape and its people took my breath away. Although I deeply appreciate fiction that leaves me with little hope the way crime noir often does (a la Cormac McCarthy’s No Country For Old Men), I don’t usually rate these types of books as my top reads. Shallow or not, I like to be left with a sliver of hope. Winter’s Bone though is equal parts poetically luminescent and triumphantly ruthless, and by the time I turned the last page, I was touched. Through all its grit, it manages to hold onto an innocence that leaves you with some optimism and an appreciation for the raw beauty of the countryside and the strength of the folks who live there.

The Secret History

By Donna Tartt,

Book cover of The Secret History

Why this book?

When I read a novel and certain images and incidents stay in my mind indefinitely, I know I’ve digested something akin to a five-course feast rather than a fast-food meal. Most of Donna Tartt’s novels are this way, but none more than The Secret History, a story that begins with a young man fulfilling his dream of getting away from a small California town and going off to college in New England. The tale, however, quickly spirals into psychological turmoil when the main character learns a terrifying secret shared by an elite group of Greek scholars. Tartt is a master of psychological and physical description, and the setting of the fictional school, Hampden College, acts as its own looming character. Years later, without even picking up the book, I still remember how the tops of the trees soughing in the wind sounded like the fizz of champagne and the land shone like velvet in the late autumn near the house in the country where one of the crimes ensued. 


By Jennifer Haigh,

Book cover of Faith

Why this book?

Hemingway once said that a writer should “convey everything to the reader so that he remembers it not as a story he had read but something that happened to himself.” As a reader, I don’t always need to feel like the story has happened to me, but when a book is written in first-person narrative, I do enjoy feeling like it really happened to the narrator. I love it when the main character sounds authentic and the author fades to the background, making it seem like a memoir. Such a book is Faith, by Jennifer Haigh. Although Faith isn’t categorized as crime-fiction, it involves an Irish Catholic family in Boston in 2002 during the height of the church’s pedophile scandals. As the narrator navigates her family dynamics after her half-brother is accused of sexual assault, she becomes a woman caught between faith and doubt, and she explores this limbo superbly. The story unfolds masterfully precisely because the fictional narrator seems so perceptive and so human, and all the emotional details along with descriptions of place, captivate. The narrator ends up offering shades of gray, and it is this nuanced area, of being suspended between believing in her half-brother and doubting him, that works so brilliantly. 

Where the Crawdads Sing

By Delia Owens,

Book cover of Where the Crawdads Sing

Why this book?

This book is as much a young girl’s coming-of-age saga as it is a crime novel. Set on North Carolina’s coastline, its brilliant descriptions engage the reader’s full senses, totally engaging you in a child’s lonely, but captivating story of survival out on a stretch of marsh where her family has abandoned her. The author, Delia Owens, is a retired wildlife biologist who gives enchanting glimpses of the ecosystem while never boring the reader. The crime the protagonist becomes embroiled in as a young woman adds to the gripping descriptions, and by the end, we are left with a story involving two wonderful main characters: the girl and the marsh.

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