Thursday, July 16, 2020

Discussion: Best Crime Novels For Adults

I love reading about crime. Characters with loose morals are fascinating, and criminals add tons of tension to a narrative. Will they get caught? Will they commit another crime? Are they even guilty of the crime everyone thinks they committed? I want to know!

Even though I enjoy crime fiction, I’m super picky about it. I feel ambivalent about modern thrillers. I hate most detective stories. I’d rather eat disgusting kale than read a traditional courtroom drama. I like a very specific type of crime fiction. I’d call it “literary crime.” It has to be atmospheric with complicated characters and a surprising plot. A well-developed setting doesn’t hurt either.

Here are 15 adult fiction books that fit my definition of a compelling novel about crime.

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🔥  Best Crime Novels For Adults  🗡

 1. Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood

It's 1843, and Grace Marks has been convicted for her involvement in the vicious murders of her employer and his housekeeper and mistress. Some believe Grace is innocent; others think her evil or insane. Now serving a life sentence, Grace claims to have no memory of the murders.

An up-and-coming expert in the burgeoning field of mental illness is engaged by a group of reformers and spiritualists who seek a pardon for Grace. He listens to her story while bringing her closer and closer to the day she cannot remember. What will he find in attempting to unlock her memories?

Why I love it: When I set out to make a list of brilliant crime fiction, this is the first book that popped into my head. I read it for the first time 10+ years ago, and Grace is still stuck in my mind because her story is haunting. Margaret Atwood is a champion at historical research. The tiny details she includes bring 1800s Canada to life for the reader.

2. The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

Theo Decker, a thirteen-year-old New Yorker, miraculously survives an accident that kills his mother. Abandoned by his father, Theo is taken in by the family of a wealthy friend. Bewildered by his strange new home on Park Avenue, disturbed by schoolmates who don't know how to talk to him, and tormented above all by his unbearable longing for his mother, he clings to one thing that reminds him of her: a small, mysteriously captivating painting that ultimately draws Theo into the underworld of art.

As an adult, Theo moves silkily between the drawing rooms of the rich and the dusty labyrinth of an antiques store where he works. He is alienated and in love—and at the center of a narrowing, ever more dangerous circle.

Why I love it: My first draft of this list actually featured Donna Tartt’s The Secret History instead of this book. The Secret History is stunning, but I promise you’ll get your fill of murder with this list. Art theft is a crime too! The Goldfinch opens with a terrorist attack scene that I’ll never forget. Reading it made me feel like my insides were being scraped out with a rusty spoon. (I promise that’s a positive thing.) It’s so vivid. You can’t help feeling bad for lonely Theo as he’s dragged into the deadly world of stolen art.

3. My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier

Orphaned at an early age, Philip Ashley is raised by his benevolent older cousin, Ambrose. Resolutely single, Ambrose delights in Philip as his heir, a man who will love his grand home as much as he does himself. But the cozy world the two construct is shattered when Ambrose sets off on a trip to Florence. There he falls in love and marries—and there he dies suddenly. Jealous of his marriage, racked by suspicion at the hints in Ambrose's letters, and grief-stricken by his death, Philip prepares to meet his cousin's widow with hatred in his heart. Despite himself, Philip is drawn to this beautiful, sophisticated, mysterious Rachel like a moth to the flame. And yet . . . might she have had a hand in Ambrose's death?

Why I love it: You know I have to include a few classics on this list! The atmosphere in My Cousin Rachel is intense. Philip isn’t a reliable narrator, and his paranoia rubs off on the reader. Is Rachel a nice girl with a tragic past, or is she a murderer who’s manipulating Phillip to get his money? The characters will keep you guessing.

4. Survivor by Chuck Palahniuk

Tender Branson—last surviving member of the so-called Creedish Death Cult—is dictating his life story into the flight recorder of Flight 2039, cruising on autopilot at 39,000 feet somewhere over the Pacific Ocean. He is all alone in the airplane, which will crash shortly into the vast Australian outback. Before it does, he will unfold the tale of his journey from an obedient Creedish child and humble domestic servant to an ultra-buffed, steroid-and-collagen-packed media messiah, author of a best-selling autobiography, Saved from Salvation, and the even better selling Book of Very Common Prayer (The Prayer to Delay Orgasm, The Prayer to Prevent Hair Loss, The Prayer to Silence Car Alarms). He'll reveal the truth of his tortured romance with the elusive and prescient Fertility Hollis, share his insight that "the only difference between suicide and martyrdom is press coverage," and deny responsibility for the Tender Branson Sensitive Materials Sanitary Landfill, a 20,000-acre repository for the nation's outdated pornography.

Why I love it: Okay, “love” is a strong word. I can’t say I’ve loved any of Chuck Palahniuk’s work. In fact, I rarely finish his books because they’re too weird for me. I appreciate Survivor. It’s one of the few Palahniuk books I “get.” It’s a disturbingly funny satire about televangelists and the commercialization of religion. The main character hijacks an international flight with plans to crash the plane in Australia. The pages in some editions of the novel actually go backwards from 289 to 1 as the character counts down the minutes to impact. You won’t be able to look away from this story. It really is like watching a slow-motion plane crash.

5. Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

In Shaker Heights, a placid, progressive suburb of Cleveland, everything is planned—from the layout of the winding roads, to the colors of the houses, to the successful lives its residents will go on to lead. And no one embodies this spirit more than Elena Richardson, whose guiding principle is playing by the rules.

Enter Mia Warren—an enigmatic artist and single mother—who arrives in this idyllic bubble with her teenaged daughter Pearl, and rents a house from the Richardsons. Soon Mia and Pearl become more than tenants: all four Richardson children are drawn to the mother-daughter pair. But Mia carries with her a mysterious past and a disregard for the status quo that threatens to upend this carefully ordered community.

When old family friends of the Richardsons attempt to adopt a Chinese-American baby, a custody battle erupts that dramatically divides the town—and puts Mia and Elena on opposing sides. Suspicious of Mia and her motives, Elena is determined to uncover the secrets in Mia's past. But her obsession will come at unexpected and devastating costs.

Why I love it: It raises fascinating questions about motherhood and what’s best for children. The story’s main conflict involves a Chinese immigrant who abandons her baby. The child is adopted by a wealthy White family. Then the mother decides she wants her baby back and will stop at nothing to get her child. The author tackles morally difficult questions that don’t have clear answers. No character is a hero, but their motivations are understandable. It makes you wonder what you’d do in their situation.

6. Rita Hayworth And Shawshank Redemption by Stephen King

Suspenseful, mysterious, and heart-wrenching, this iconic King novella, populated by a cast of unforgettable characters, is about a fiercely compelling convict named Andy Dufresne who is seeking his ultimate revenge.

Why I love it: It’s a novella, so if you’re looking for a book you can finish in an afternoon, check this one out. It’s the story that The Shawshank Redemption film is based on, and it’s just as captivating as the movie. The characters are resilient. They’re living in a prison that’s designed to wear them down, but they refuse to let the cruelty break them. Like the book’s subtitle says, “Hope springs eternal.” It’s a hopeful tale.

7. The Hound Of The Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle

Generations ago, a hound of hell tore out the throat of devilish Hugo Baskerville on the moonlit moor. Poor, accursed Baskerville Hall now has another mysterious death: that of Sir Charles Baskerville. Could the culprit somehow be mixed up with secretive servant Barrymore, history-obsessed Dr. Frankland, butterfly-chasing Stapleton, or Selden, the Notting Hill murderer at large? Someone's been signaling with candles from the mansion's windows. Nor can supernatural forces be ruled out. Can Dr. Watson—left alone by Sherlock Holmes to sleuth in fear for much of the novel—save the next Baskerville, Sir Henry, from the hound's fangs?

Why I love it: A list of crime fiction wouldn’t be complete without Sherlock Holmes. This is the best of the Holmes books. It’s set in a creepy mansion that’s surrounded by ancient ruins, haunted moors, and mysterious locals. You won’t forget this setting. Like every Sherlock Holmes book, this one is full of plot twists that will keep you up way past bedtime. I always marvel at Arthur Conan Doyle’s creativity. How did he come up with such intricate plots?

8. The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time by Mark Haddon

Christopher John Francis Boone knows all the countries of the world and their capitals and every prime number up to 7,057. He relates well to animals but has no understanding of human emotions. He cannot stand to be touched. And he detests the color yellow.

Although gifted with a superbly logical brain, for fifteen-year-old Christopher everyday interactions and admonishments have little meaning. He lives on patterns, rules, and a diagram kept in his pocket. Then one day, a neighbor's dog, Wellington, is killed and his carefully constructive universe is threatened. Christopher sets out to solve the murder in the style of his favorite (logical) detective, Sherlock Holmes. What follows makes for a novel that is funny, poignant and fascinating in its portrayal of a person whose curse and blessing are a mind that perceives the world entirely literally.

Why I love it: We’ve moved from Sherlock Holmes to a novel inspired by Sherlock Holmes. This isn’t your typical crime story. The “detective” is a sensitive teenager who sets out to solve the murder of his neighbor’s poodle but ends up unearthing secrets buried in his own father’s past. The main character has a unique voice and an odd way of seeing the world. This book is unpredictable and surprisingly funny.

9. Snow Falling On Cedars by David Guterson

San Piedro Island, north of Puget Sound, is a place so isolated that no one who lives there can afford to make enemies. But in 1954 a local fisherman is found suspiciously drowned, and a Japanese American named Kabuo Miyamoto is charged with his murder. In the course of the ensuing trial, it becomes clear that what is at stake is more than a man's guilt. For on San Pedro, memories of a charmed love affair between a White boy and the Japanese girl who grew up to become Kabuo's wife; memories of land desired, paid for, and lost. Above all, San Piedro is haunted by the memory of what happened to its Japanese residents during World War II, when an entire community was sent into exile while its neighbors watched.

Why I love it: If you’ve read this blog before, then you’ll know I adore historical fiction and books set in remote locations. This story was like literary catnip for me. The writing is gorgeous. The characters feel raw and real. Best of all, it’s not your typical courtroom drama because nature is an integral part of the plot. I’ve never been to San Piedro Island, but I feel like I can picture every bit of it. The characters are a product of their environment. They’re fishers and farmers, and they’re so attached to the land that they may be willing to commit murder to get their piece of it.

10. Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

Set against Iceland's stark landscape, Hannah Kent brings to vivid life the story of Agnes, who, charged with the brutal murder of her former master, is sent to an isolated farm to await execution.

Horrified at the prospect of housing a convicted murderer, the family at first avoids Agnes. Only Tóti, a priest Agnes has mysteriously chosen to be her spiritual guardian, seeks to understand her. But as Agnes's death looms, the farmer's wife and their daughters learn there is another side to the sensational story they've heard.

Why I love it: If you’ve already read Alias Grace or Snow Falling on Cedars, then this novel needs to be on your reading list. Like those other books, it’s about a murder in an isolated location, and the author does a brilliant job of bringing the setting to life. It’s based on the true story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, the last woman to be executed in Iceland. Even though you know the main character will be killed at the end of the story, the book isn’t lacking suspense. The reader’s fear and dread will grow with each passing page . . . .

11. The Collector by John Fowles

Withdrawn, uneducated, and unloved, Frederick collects butterflies and takes photographs. He is also obsessed with a beautiful stranger, the art student Miranda. When he wins the pools he buys a remote Sussex house and calmly abducts Miranda, believing she will grow to love him in time.

Why I love it: It’s a classic that has had a massive impact on the modern-day horror genre. It’s about a shy butterfly collector who wins the lottery and uses his winnings to build a dungeon and kidnap a woman to keep there. Creepy, right? If you enjoyed Emma Donoghue’s Room, then this is a must-read. They have a lot of similarities.

12. Three Things About Elsie by Joanna Cannon

There are three things you should know about Elsie.

The first thing is that she’s my best friend.

The second is that she always knows what to say to make me feel better.

And the third thing . . . might take a little bit more explaining.

84-year-old Florence has fallen in her flat at Cherry Tree Home for the Elderly. As she waits to be rescued, Florence wonders if a terrible secret from her past is about to come to light; and, if the charming new resident is who he claims to be, why does he look exactly like a man who died sixty years ago?

Why I love it: There aren’t enough books about elderly people solving cold cases! I love that this book is set in a retirement community. There’s so much potential for drama when a bunch of people are cooped up in the same place without much to do. The main character, Florence, is feisty. She’s convinced that the new resident in her community is a murderer whose been hiding from the law for sixty years. She’s determined to bring him to justice. The end of this book is devastating. Brace yourself. The mystery is worth the pain, though.

13. The Butcher’s Hook by Janet Ellis

Georgian London. Summer 1763.

Anne Jaccob is coming of age, the daughter of a wealthy merchant. When she is taken advantage of by her tutor—a great friend of her father’s—and is set up to marry a squeamish snob named Simeon Onions, she begins to realize just how powerless she is in Georgian society. Anne is watchful, cunning, and bored.

Her savior appears in the form of Fub, the butcher’s boy. Their romance is both a great spur and an excitement. Anne knows she is doomed to a loveless marriage to Onions and she is determined to escape with Fub and be his mistress. But will Fub ultimately be her salvation or damnation? And how far will she go to get what she wants?

Why I love it: You need a strong stomach for this one. It’s gory, crude, and full of violence, but if you like historical horror, I recommend giving it a try. I read it in 2018 and still find myself shuddering about it. I love this novel because it’s unusual. You don’t often hear about upper-class women committing strings of brutal murders. Anne Jaccob is a twisted character. She’s never been told “no” before. For her, people are just obstacles to overcome. She either kills them or manipulates them until they give her what she wants. Everything about this book is brilliantly messed up.

14. Where The Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

For years, rumors of the “Marsh Girl” have haunted Barkley Cove, a quiet town on the North Carolina coast. So in late 1969, when handsome Chase Andrews is found dead, the locals immediately suspect Kya Clark, the so-called Marsh Girl. But Kya is not what they say. Sensitive and intelligent, she has survived for years alone in the marsh that she calls home, finding friends in the gulls and lessons in the sand. Then the time comes when she yearns to be touched and loved. When two young men from town become intrigued by her wild beauty, Kya opens herself to a new life–until the unthinkable happens.

Why I love it: Did Kya murder Chase Andrews? I spent the whole book changing my mind about that question. The author kept me guessing until the very end. Also, the nature writing is magnificent. Seriously, some of the best nature writing I’ve ever read. The North Carolina marshes are so vividly described that I can picture every detail. They’re a perfect place to (maybe) commit a murder.

15. The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith

Suave, handsome Tom Ripley: a young striver, newly arrived in the heady world of Manhattan in the 1950s. A product of a broken home, branded a "sissy" by his dismissive Aunt Dottie, Ripley becomes enamored of the moneyed world of his new friend, Dickie Greenleaf. This fondness turns obsessive when Ripley is sent to Italy to bring back his libertine pal but grows enraged by Dickie's ambivalent feelings for Marge, a charming American dilettante.

Why I love it: Tom Ripley is a devious dude. This novel is full of near misses. I wanted Ripley to be caught because he’s a dangerous criminal, but I didn’t want the story to end. I couldn’t put the book down until I found out how far Ripley would push his crimes. The suspense comes from watching him weave a tangled web and then frantically work to keep it from crashing down. The plot is so intricate! I’m impressed by the author’s skills.

Do you have any books to add to my list? What’s your favorite crime novel?


  1. I really love Curious Incident and Hound of the Baskervilles. Survivor is my favorite Palahunik novel!!! I want to read The Talented Mr. Ripley!

    fun post - thanks for sharing.


  2. Hmm, some good choices here, for sure! My taste runs more to the Golden Age of crime (Sayers, Christie, etc) -- enough of the modern stuff gets too gritty and gory for me that I kind of got turned off.

  3. I really enjoyed My Cousin Rachel!

  4. I've read most of these and ear-marked the few that I haven't. Especially interested in the Survivor story by Chuck whats-his-name.

    Great post AJ!

  5. I've read two of your list-The Curious Incident and The Talented Mr Ripley, both of them being decent reads. I'd recommend The Bone Collector by Jeffrey Deaver, Pit Perfect by Renee George, The Weight of Silence by Heather Gudenkauf, Unstolen by Wendy Jean, Lightning by Dean Koontz, The Hunt by Tim Lebbon, Blackout by John J Nance, Fear Itself by Jonathan Nasaw, The Godfather by Mario Puzo, The Chalk Man by CJ Tudor.

  6. I've just recently started broadening my genre horizons and reading more crime novels. I'm so glad you gave me this list to look at! New ideas!! :)

    1. You should also give The Silent Patient a try, it’s one of the best books of this genre I’ve ever read!

  7. I think the only one I’ve read on the list is Baskervilles, The Goldfinch is waiting impatiently to be read. It’s a great list which has given me so new books to look at.

  8. I always say I don't read many crime stories but I have read #s 2, 8, 9, and 14 and found them all fantastic. So maybe I don't like certain kinds of crime storeis.

    I have a crime tag, and there you can find any of the crime stories I read, quite a few.

    Happy Reading.

  9. Love this list! I have only read Hound, but it was ages ago and I could probably read it again. Lots of great looking titles here.

  10. My Cousin Rachel is one I've been meaning to get to for what seems like ages now. Hopefully soon! Burial Rites is another that I've seen nothing but raves about, it seems. I love The Collector and The Goldfinch! This is a fantastic list, I'm definitely going to be expanding my TBR now.

  11. This is a good list! Quite a few of them I've read. I agree with your Top 2. I'll add two to your crime fiction list that came to my head: Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem and Presumed Innocent by Scott Turow. Both pretty good.

  12. Ooo, The Collector sends shivers.

  13. I'll take your word about these since I don't really read crime fiction and I'm barely an adult (at heart). :-)

    Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction

  14. A varied list within the genre of crime... I have Where The Crawdads Sing coming up in August hopefully, and after seeing you mention Snow Falling on Cedars again I have just purchased myself a second hand copy. I look forward to getting to both books eventually.

    Great list!

  15. I think The Silent Patient and The Chalk Man deserved a place on this list, both of them kept me guessing till the very end, I loved them both so much!