The best thrillers and mysteries inhabited by history

The Books I Picked & Why

The Third Man

By Graham Greene

Book cover of The Third Man

Why this book?

According to the author, The Third Man “was never written to be read, but only to be seen.” However, I love that it is in the text where the characters—who cast such long shadows in the film—were given their original weight and heft. The story is simple, but the history is inescapable. Rollo Martins, an American writer investigating the death of his friend, unveils a black market penicillin ring. The cynicism and disillusionment of postwar Vienna are vivid and palpable. Martins—earnest and relentless—shifts between innocence and ignorance, leaving you to wonder if he isn’t Greene’s commentary on America itself.

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The Ballad of Black Tom

By Victor LaValle

Book cover of The Ballad of Black Tom

Why this book?

Set in 1920’s New York, a con man and mediocre guitarist strums his way through a city beleaguered by racism, the occult, and the impending arrival of a powerful being from another dimension. One of the many great things about this book is that it brings African-Americans, historically invisible in speculative fiction, to the forefront. The book has a bone to pick with the racism of the Lovecraft oeuvre and his story, “The Horror at Red Hook.” LaValle is a master storyteller, and you find yourself engaged in a tale that is funny, poignant, and chilling. Yes, Black Tom is grappling with Lovecraft, but it’s evident LaValle doesn’t need him.

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The Cutting Season

By Attica Locke

Book cover of The Cutting Season

Why this book?

Caren Gray, the manager of a historic plantation, learns the body of a migrant worker has been discovered on the grounds. Searching for answers, she stumbles upon another crime that occurred over a century ago in the era of slavery and may hold the key to unlocking revelations in the present. Locke does a fantastic job of balancing the two timelines for great effect. History can haunt us, but this book leaves you with the eerie feeling of being surveilled by the past.

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Forty Acres: A Thriller

By Dwayne Alexander Smith

Book cover of Forty Acres: A Thriller

Why this book?

A Black attorney is forced to participate in a plot to bring back slavery—with a particular variation. What could go wrong? Taut writing and suspenseful storytelling carry the weight of history in Forty Acres. The concept is bold and audacious, and I never questioned a word of it. The execution is that impressive.

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The Spook Who Sat by the Door

By Sam Greenlee

Book cover of The Spook Who Sat by the Door

Why this book?

In the late ’60s, Dan Freeman, a Black token hire at the CIA shares spy-craft with Black revolutionaries. The book may claim to be a satire, but it demands to be taken seriously. The historical implications of the novel are obvious; there are plenty of exhilarating thrills, and the writing bops with a jazz-like cool. The mystery, however, is subterranean and internal. Freeman has perfected many masks to survive in America, to infiltrate the CIA, and to earn the respect of revolutionaries. The amazing thing is that there is so much suspense in discovering which identity will truly take hold.

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