The best crime novels for fans of slow burn psychological suspense

Who am I?

I’m a historical mystery writer, English teacher, and book reviewer for Lambda Literary. I love to write and explore buried and forgotten histories, particularly those of the LGBTQ+ community. Equally, I’m fascinated by the ways in which self-understanding eludes us and is a life-long pursuit. For that reason, as a reader, I’m attracted to slow burn psychological suspense in which underlying, even subconscious, motivations play a role. I also love it when I fall for a character who, in life, I’d find corrupt or repulsive.



I wrote...

The Savage Kind: A Mystery

By John Copenhaver,

Book cover of The Savage Kind: A Mystery

What is my book about?

Philippa Watson, a good-natured yet troubled seventeen-year-old, has just moved to Washington, DC. She’s lonely until she meets Judy Peabody, a brilliant and tempestuous classmate. The girls become unlikely friends and fashion themselves as intellectuals, drawing the notice of Christine Martins, their dazzling English teacher, who enthralls them with her passion for literature and her love of noirish detective fiction.

When Philippa returns a novel Miss Martins has lent her, she interrupts a man grappling with her in the shadows. Frightened, Philippa flees, unsure who the man is or what she’s seen. Days later, her teacher returns to school altered: a dark shell of herself. On the heels of her teacher’s transformation, a classmate is found dead in the Anacostia River—murdered—the body stripped and defiled with a mysterious inscription. As the girls follow the clues and wrestle with newfound feelings toward each other, they suspect that the killer is closer to their circle than they imagined—and that the greatest threat they face may not be lurking in the halls at school, or in the city streets, but creeping out from a murderous impulse of their own.

The books I picked & why

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The Talented Mr. Ripley

By Patricia Highsmith,

Book cover of The Talented Mr. Ripley

Why this book?

Highsmith’s detached, keenly observant prose is the perfect vehicle to explore a complicated man like Tom Ripley. Ripley stands in the shadows just outside the sun-drenched world of Dickie Greenleaf, the son of a wealthy industrialist, and wants in. What begins as fascination with Dickie’s lavish and carefree lifestyle turns into murderous obsession. Through cracks in Highsmith’s beautifully controlled prose, Ripley implicates us. We are invited into his vulnerabilities, his anxiety about his social position, and his desire to live well. We appreciate his artistic sensitivities, his cleverness. Soon this carefully constructed charisma falls away to reveal a cool, remorseless rage. But it’s too late, we’ve already been seduced.


The Paying Guests

By Sarah Waters,

Book cover of The Paying Guests

Why this book?

In the struggling post-WWI British economy, to make ends meet Frances Wray and her mother are forced to rent rooms to a married couple, Lillian and Leonard Barber. Frances and Lillian fall in love, and when Leonard finds out, the covert love affair turns ugly — and bloody. Waters’ ear for period dialog and attention to detail evokes 1922 London beautifully, making us feel how confining it was to be a woman and a lesbian during this era. The novel takes a violent turn when the oppressive British legal system threatens not only to separate Frances and Lillian, but also to destroy their love. For these women, the injustice is that criminal behavior is determined by conservative social norms, not a sign of inherent moral corruption.


A Beautiful Crime

By Christopher Bollen,

Book cover of A Beautiful Crime

Why this book?

In Bollen’s fourth novel, the boyishly handsome, 25-year-old Nick Brink meets the older and more remote Clay Guillory at the funeral of Clay’s boyfriend/benefactor, Freddy Van der Haar. Freddy, whose name is synonymous with American royalty, was one of the few remaining vestiges of the old New York gay scene. House poor, Freddy bequeathed Clay his shambling Venetian palazzo and a collection of counterfeit antiques. Nick falls for Clay, and they escape to Venice. To fund their new Continental lifestyle, they cook up a plan to con Richard West, a wealthy American retiree who has a sentimental affection for the Van der Haar name and fondness for acquiring antiques. Even as their criminal behavior begins to accrue a body count, we’re seduced by that all-too-recognizable outsider’s desire to belong to a place. For these men, Venice isn’t just a city but a way of seeing themselves, of imagining their futures.


Carved in Bone: A Henry Rios Novel

By Michael Nava,

Book cover of Carved in Bone: A Henry Rios Novel

Why this book?

One of the qualities of mystery fiction that continues to draw me to the genre is the complex interplay between past and present. Nava’s 8th Rios novel utilizes separate narrative lines that resonate and then, like a parallel perspective drawing, converge in a powerful emotional twist. The first line is the story of Bill Ryan, a young gay man who, after being cast out of his home in Illinois, flees to 1970s San Francisco to discover himself and the gay community. The second line is Rios’s recovery from alcoholism and his investigation of Ryan’s suspicious death during the beginning of the AIDS epidemic. Ryan and Rios serve as foils: Ryan is a man losing the war with his self-loathing. Rios, in contrast, is winning his war.


Eileen

By Ottessa Moshfegh,

Book cover of Eileen

Why this book?

In her debut novel, Moshfegh explores the dark corners of 24-year-old Eileen Dunlop’s disturbed mind with gorgeous prose. The narrator, an older and more self-aware Eileen, traces her younger self’s complex relationship with her alcoholic father and a dead-end job at all boys’ prison. She is self-loathing, transgressive, and deeply human. When she meets Rebecca St. John, an attractive and cheerful new counselor, she becomes enchanted with her, a bit of light in the darkness. Ultimately, it’s a novel about how far we’ll go to escape both a bad situation and, even more chillingly, ourselves.


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