Looking for a gift for the mystery lover who adores a smart heroine whose adventures will viscerally transport the reader somewhere else? Someone who loves the Miss Marple mysteries as much for their doilies as detection, Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski books as much for their tough protagonist as their evocation of the gritty underside of Chicago? Look no further; I’ve got recommendations that will take a reader from the gas giant Jupiter to the bike lanes of Brooklyn, all driven by ladies who could give Sam Spade a run for his money.
The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde
Charles Yu wrote “Every book of Fforde’s seems to be a cause for celebration,” and The Eyre Affair is the book that kicked off the party. Fforde’s riotously original debut introduces us to Thursday Next, a LiteraTec Special Operative with a mind that can’t be swayed. In the book’s alternate England, literary obsession is the status quo. The debate over Shakespeare’s identity has given rise to an entire movement of door-to-door proselytizers, and the theft of the original manuscript of Dickens’s Martin Chuzzlewit is front-page news. Operative Next, searching for the manuscript thief, gets pulled into a mystery that takes her everywhere from her hometown of Swindon to the inside of Jane Eyre itself. Each twist and turn in the plot’s intricate path is an opportunity for Fforde to dazzle the reader with another of his imaginative ideas, from hate crimes between rival surrealist and impressionist gangs to pet dodos (resurrected from extinction through home cloning technology). His deep love of classic literature shines through every page. Perfect for bibliophiles looking for a laugh-out-loud read.
Sorcery & Cecelia: or The Enchanted Chocolate Pot by Caroline Stevermer and Patricia C. Wrede
This novel-in-letters is an absolute delight, a rococo confection that melts on the tongue and will melt your heart. Cecelia and Kate are best friends and cousins in a Regency England in which sorcery helped win the Napoleonic wars. Kate is off to London for her very first Season, but Cecelia has to stay home as punishment for an unladylike prank involving the abduction of a neighbor’s goat. The two exchange letters throughout a spring’s worth of hijinks, precipitated by an unscrupulous sorceress who nearly kills Kate over a mysterious chocolate pot. As the cousins dodge magical traps and work to unravel the mystery of the chocolate pot’s owner in time to save him, dresses are ordered, dance cards are filled, magical talents revealed and hearts are won. Co-written by Stevermer and Wrede in a summer of frantic letter writing (Wrede wrote Cecelia’s epistles and Stevermer Kate’s), this novel is doubly impressive for the interlocking clockwork of the plot—which the authors worked out as the book was written, neither revealing to the other what they were planning until their letters reveal it to the reader.
The Verifiers by Jane Pek
Claudia Lin works at a company that is definitely not a dating detective agency. Yes, Veracity verifies the details from dating-app profiles, but Claudia’s boss is insistent that the company is a “personal investments advisory firm,” not three and a half gumshoes in an office. When a client arrives with an unusual request, Claudia finds herself sucked into a rabbit hole of false identities, red herrings, and murder. An English-History double major, Claudia’s tactics as a sleuth are drawn from her beloved Inspector Yuan mystery series rather than any relevant experience. Her insights, however, come from her own keen observations of family dynamics—none more sharp or unvarnished than those of her complicated relationships with her own. Claudia is a splendid narrator, a snarky lesbian with an eye for detail who bikes the breadth and length of the city over the course of the book. From char siu in Flushing to pancakes at an all-night diner in Gowanus—from the smell of exhaust in a Brooklyn bike lane to ripples on the Hudson—the action drops the reader into a snapshot of life in the Big Apple. Pek combines a fast-moving thriller, a deeply moving family story, and a love letter to New York City into one delightful package.
Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead by Sarah Gran
Claire DeWitt is the World’s Best Detective; she regularly tells people this. It’s true enough that she gets work, in spite of her sky-high fees, recent hospitalization for a nervous breakdown, and unique approach to detecting. In this first installment of the Claire DeWitt series, she’s called back to post-Katrina New Orleans to investigate the disappearance of a missing man. Her tactics are unorthodox, to say the least. A follower of mysterious French detective Jacques Silette (prone to cryptic pronouncements like “the detective will always circle around what he wants, never seeing it whole. We do not go on despite this. We go on because of it”), relevant clues in her opinion include everything from a random business card dropped on the ground to dreams of her dead mentor. She travels through a New Orleans still mutilated a year after the storm, thick with the fug of abandoned memories. In search of answers, she throws I Ching, takes drugs, gets fired—and, of course, eventually solves the case. This strange and compelling mystery would be whimsical if it weren’t for the gritty sense of loss at the center of Gran’s writing; instead, it’s something deeper and weirder, a meditation on the absurdity of imagining that anything can actually have a simple, rational explanation in a world as complex as ours.
The Mimicking of Known Successes by Malka Older
Malka Older’s slim novella deftly builds a more enveloping world than many longer volumes. Set in the far future on Jupiter, her Gaslamp-on-a-gas-giant is a continual pleasure to discover—from tendrils of the planet’s yellow-orange fog sliding down twisty alleyways to the Mauzooleum, an installation of species from the long-dead Earth, to the most mouthwatering fictional scones I’ve encountered in decades. The main characters, Mossa and Pleiti, are a female Holmes-and-Watsonesque duo with history. Lovers in college, the apparent suicide of one of Pleiti’s colleagues has brought them back together after decades apart. Their will-they-won’t-they romance is surprisingly adult, which makes each notch of heat turned up in the slow burn that much more satisfying. Malka Older juggles the mystery, the worldbuilding, and the romance with ease, and even manages to build in an urgent portrait of what humanity stands to lose if we don’t get our act together to save our only planet. This lucid and entertaining read is a weighty gem in a compact package.