The best mystery books where great art leads to even greater crimes

Shelley Costa Author Of A Killer's Guide to Good Works
By Shelley Costa

The Books I Picked & Why

Long Time Coming

By Robert Goddard

Book cover of Long Time Coming

Why this book?

When an uncle – presumed killed in the Blitz – turns up after serving nearly forty years in an Irish prison, he tells a story about having been one of the thieves of Picasso paintings stolen from a diamond merchant in Antwerp in 1939. At clever work in this tale are forgers, revolutionaries, and family members out to recover their treasure or their family honor. I have known for a long time that what I love most – more than mere murder mysteries – are what I call novels with murder. For me, the story has to be a beautifully realized bit of writing, and a murder is just one feature of it.

I have always loved Goddard’s style, which is both elegant and readable. And murder, more than a puzzle, becomes a natural part of the lives he depicts. Known for his plot twists, he sets me down in a maze of long-held secrets and I can hardly imagine a place I’d rather be! Several years ago, as Chair of the panel judging Best Paperback Original, I had the distinct pleasure of presenting Mystery Writers of America’s Edgar Award to Robert Goddard for this splendid book.

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A Thief of Time: A Leaphorn and Chee Novel

By Tony Hillerman

Book cover of A Thief of Time: A Leaphorn and Chee Novel

Why this book?

The story begins with the murder of two grave robbers who have been stealing ancient pots from Anasazi burial sites in the American Southwest. Hillerman’s atmospheric sweep crosses land, centuries, and warring interests. This is The Book that inspired my love for reading and writing mysteries with great art, artifacts, and relics at the heart of the crime. For me, there’s hardly any story more compelling than one where a work of art – a thing of beauty and priceless cultural value – leads to the ugliness of murder. I’m instantly interested in those people and what makes them tick. 

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The Name of the Rose

By Umberto Eco

Book cover of The Name of the Rose

Why this book?

This stand-out historical mystery features serial murders occurring in a 14th-century Benedictine monastery in a remote area of northern Italy. I love a murder mystery with a Ten Little Indians set-up: a small group of people stranded together, unable to get outside help when a killer sets to work. Who’s next? is the fear that drives the story. 

How, wonders the monk investigating the murders, can a crime be solved when there is no pattern? The writing is so wonderful it lands me right there among the monks – and the murderer. Eco has written a story towering in its reach, its writing, and the murderous intentions generated by a lost work of art that — should it turn up — could threaten key beliefs. 

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The Beautiful Mystery

By Louise Penny

Book cover of The Beautiful Mystery

Why this book?

In this installment of her beloved Three Pines series, Penny locates the crime in a remote abbey in Quebec, where a couple of dozen monks – renowned for their singing – are cloistered. When the choir director is murdered, enter the series hero Inspector Gamache, who unfolds a story of timeless yet sinister beauty about the origins of Gregorian chant. This is the second book on my Best Five list that is set in a monastery, which speaks to how I can’t resist well-written mysteries set in closed communities – there’s just something so frightening and compelling about that small ring of victims and suspects, not to mention palpable atmosphere and themes that matter. I’m really interested in the psychology of a killer who places an obsessive love of an art object above the sanctity of life. 

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By Aaron Elkins

Book cover of Loot

Why this book?

When a famous stolen Velazquez painting from a truck that went missing back in 1945 turns up in present-day Boston, this fast-paced thriller to recover the rest of the “loot” begins. By me, a girl can’t have too many stories about the infamous Nazi theft of priceless art during WWII. The set-up for this kind of tale is just about the opposite of the intimate crimes in a closed community of “stranded” victims and suspects, which I also really like. Here it’s a big canvas: many works of art stolen during wartime by armies (sometimes during the grunt work, with masterminds off planning). It’s the scope of the art crimes themselves that is so compelling – whole swaths of cultural history disappearing from view. These are enormous crimes with dire implications – even before the murders begin. Loot is the kind of story that slams my heart (in a good way!) with the momentousness of the crimes. Everything feels big – there’s Evil, and there are things that matter, and there’s simple heroism. In one size or another, that, for me, is the core of a great mystery.

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