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On My Nightstand: 5 Great Modern Mystery Writers

I always read before I go to sleep at night (hence the super catchy title of this column). And as often as I am dozing off with the book on my face, I’m laying awake listening to every creak and shudder, convinced there’s a psycho at the back door.

This is what happens when you read freaky murder mysteries at midnight. I can’t help myself though—I come from a family of devoted mystery readers. (Three of us showed up at the beach one year with the same Patricia Cornwell novel.) So, if I’m kept up because I’m terrified, at least I know I’m in good company.

And if you’d like to join us, here are five of my favorite mystery writers.

1. Tana French

French’s Into the Woods does a remarkable job twisting together two mysteries that may or may not be related, and ultimately convincing the reader that their relationship to one another is secondary to the complicated detectives investigating them. She also creates a lovely, dark, misty Dublin backdrop, complete with gruff cops and slick cobblestones.

Her four novels aren’t a series exactly, but each one builds off of a secondary character from a previous novel. Skimming the edges of literary fiction with her deep character development, French’s novels have a lasting effect that isn’t always present with the mystery genre.

2. Patricia Cornwell

Not exactly an unknown, Cornwell is probably the most famous murder mystery writer alive. But she’s worth mentioning, because she took the genre to a new level with her first Kay Scarpetta novel Postmortem, incorporating forensics and the science of crime in a manner that is still influencing other novelists and TV producers.

The best Scarpetta novels are the first nine, Postmortem through Point of Origin. Look out for Temple Gault, the baddest, coldest, creepiest bad guy of all. After Point of Origin, all the characters go a bit off the rails, and her Andy Brazil and Judy Hammer books are laughably bad, but Scarpetta remains a bad-ass for the ages.

3. Jo Nesbo

When Stieg Larsson took over the bestseller list with his Millennium series, many other Scandinavian mystery writers started getting attention in America that they had previously only enjoyed in their native countries. Jo Nesbo rode that wave, and his Harry Hole (pronounced Harry Hoola in Norwegian) series is violent, intricate, and highly literate, with interesting digressions into Harry’s personal struggles, the history of Oslo, and Oslofolk.

I particularly enjoy reading mystery fiction set in other countries, where the cities are often unfamiliar to me, and the police tactics and approach different. The first two Harry Hole novels haven’t been translated from Norwegian, but all the others have, beginning with The Redbreast, and most recently Phantom.

4. Gillian Flynn

Obviously, Flynn’s Gone Girl has been a sensation this year, and rightfully so. If you can read a book about the most twisted relationship since Cathy and Heathcliff, and still relate, you know the author has hit on something significant.

Flynn’s first two novels, Dark Places and Sharp Objects, are similar to Gone Girl because they take familiar types (a failing family on a farm in Kansas, a fractured mother-daughter relationship), and contort them. Flynn has a bit of an ending problem, but she’s a deeply talented writer and it’s so exciting to have another woman mystery writer out there taking names.

5. Laura Lippman

Lippman is kind of my homegirl. I mean I don’t know her personally, but we both worked at the Baltimore Sun and I know people who know her, so we’re practically besties. Also, her Tess Monaghan series is so inside Baltimore, it makes me want to grab a crab mallet. It’s also suspenseful, intelligent, and great beach reading.

There are 11 books in the series, beginning with Baltimore Blues. She’s also written several stand-alone books, including What the Dead Know, about a childhood abduction and the blowback 30 years later. It’s a good mystery, but also a keen look at loss.

Honorable Mentions

  • Karin Fossum (Inspector Sejer series)
  • Jonathan Kellerman (Alex Delaware series)
  • John Sandford (Prey Series)
  • Michael Connelly (The Harry Bosch Series)
  • Dennis Lehane (Shutter Island)
  • Natsuo Kirino (Out)
  • Photo of woman reading scary book courtesy of Shutterstock.