Growing up in South Carolina, I’ve always felt that there’s just something about the South that lends itself well to a thriller. The humidity brings about a stifling sense of claustrophobia, like even your breath feels trapped. There’s life lurking around you everywhere, especially camouflaged in places where you can’t even see it, and the ever-present sounds of croaks and crickets somehow seem to amplify in the evenings, keeping you awake at night.
These are just some of the reasons why I love writing about the South, and why I set my debut novel in Breaux Bridge, Louisiana.
A Flicker in the Dark tells the story of Chloe Davis, a psychologist who, at 12 years old, uncovered a piece of evidence that convicted her own father as a serial killer in their small Louisiana town. Twenty years later, despite building her own thriving practice and getting engaged to the man of her dreams, she can’t seem to shake the sense of paranoia that follows her around everywhere—especially when, on the eve of her father’s killings, girls start to go missing again.
Below, I’ve rounded up eight mysteries that feature Southern settings similar to that in A Flicker in the Dark. So, whether you’re in the mood to curl up and read or dim the lights for a movie marathon, these stories are guaranteed to transport you somewhere swampy, salty and scenic.
The Gates of Evangeline by Hester Young
A solid thriller with a pretty big pinch of paranormal, The Gates of Evangeline is the most atmospheric novel on the list. After Charlie Cates loses her young son unexpectedly, she starts having strange dreams that feature other children asking for help. She soon realizes her dreams are more like premonitions—the things she’s seeing are actually real—so when a missing boy visits her one night and asks for her help, Charlie travels to small-town Louisiana on a quest to solve the thirty-year cold case. Hester Young does an incredible job of plunging readers deep into the bayou with this one, as well as throwing in several twists that are bound to surprise you.
Down River by John Hart
Down River begins with Adam Chase returning to his hometown of Rowan County, North Carolina. Five years prior, he was narrowly acquitted of a murder charge after the body of a boy was found bludgeoned to death on the banks of a river owned by Adam’s family. Now he’s back for reasons he won’t reveal, and when more bodies start turning up around town and the police begin to narrow in on Adam again, history threatens to repeat itself. Down River features three of my favorite things all wrapped up into one: gorgeously atmospheric writing, a Southern sense of place and complicated familial relationships that make the plot feel both intricate and emotional. You won’t be able to put this one down.
The Cutting Season by Attica Locke
While there are no literal swamps in Attica Locke’s The Cutting Season, this book deserves a place on the list for a multitude of reasons. Caren Gray manages operations on Belle Vie, a Louisiana plantation where her own ancestors once worked cutting cane. Within the first few pages, a dead body is found on the plantation grounds, juxtaposing a modern day crime with one that occurred decades earlier. This story is so much more than a mystery: it’s an honest exploration of politics, race relations and the complexities of the American South’s shameful history, all while drawing parallels to the modern-day experience many still face today. It is an at-times heart-wrenching but important read.
Blood Memory by Greg Iles
This is not only the longest book on the list, but also the one that features the darkest subject matter, so readers beware. Clocking in at 800 pages, Blood Memory wastes no time as odontologist Cat Ferry starts developing inexplicable panic attacks at crime scenes while investigating bite marks on a string of murder victims. Her quest to understand these attacks leads her back to her small hometown of Natchez, Mississippi and neighboring DeSalle Island, where she soon realizes some memories might be best forgotten. I was blown away by the level of research that must have gone into this story, so if you enjoy a detailed level of forensics in your thrillers, this is the book for you.
Season one of True Detective is one of my favorite shows in recent memory. Beyond the chemistry between Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, the best thing about this season is the Louisiana backdrop, so thick and sticky it practically seeps through the screen. McConaughey and Harrelson play detectives Rust Cohle and Marty Hart, who together investigated the sadistic murder of a prostitute in 1995; seventeen years later, they must rekindle their strained relationship and revisit the investigation again in the wake of more similarly unsolved crimes. This show is sadistic, swampy and the absolute epitome of a Southern setting thriller. Season one is the best, in my opinion—but if you get hooked like I did, season three in the Ozarks is also worth the watch.
The late, great Sean Connery plays liberal Harvard professor and former lawyer Paul Armstrong in the 1995 crime thriller, Just Cause. After being approached by an elderly woman at a debate where he’s arguing against the death penalty, Paul gets sucked into investigating the case of a black man on death row accused of murdering a child. Determined to prove his innocence, he comes across another inmate played by Ed Harris, who, in my opinion, portrays one of the most convincing serial killers since Anthony Hopkins in Silence of the Lambs. The alligator-infested Florida Everglades makes for the perfect swampy setting, as well as plays a major role in one of the wildest endings I’ve ever seen.
This movie is a classic for a reason. Originally created in 1962 and remade by Martin Scorsese in 1991, Cape Fear tells the story of a convicted rapist who, after spending 14 years in prison, seeks revenge against his former defense attorney for intentionally withholding a piece of evidence in trial. Robert De Niro is terrifyingly convincing as a vengeance-seeking psychopath, and while the majority of the film features the sweeping live oaks and Spanish moss of North Carolina, the last thirty minutes are spent on a houseboat in the middle of marshy Cape Fear, solidifying this film’s spot on the list.
Killing Fields is a two-season docuseries on Discovery following investigators as they attempt to solve a 15-year cold case. In 1997, Eugenie Boisfontaine disappeared from Baton Rouge; three months later, her body was found in a bayou fifteen miles away. While this storyline may sound familiar, in Killing Fields, it’s actually real, rendering the characters, clues and revelations all the more frightening—plus, watching detectives navigate the Louisiana swamps in real time offers an eerily authentic glimpse into just how well the bayou can swallow up secrets. For true crime fans, I highly recommend.