As a child, I vividly remember being chased by Joan Aiken’s ravenous wolves across an icy, unwelcoming landscape and seeking refuge in the warmth of Willoughby Chase. I can picture myself, bent double against the howling winds on the bleak moorlands of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights and cringing in fear when confronted by a clown holding a red balloon. This single image from Stephen King’s It remains with me, decades later.
When images an author has cleverly created on the page dance willfully behind my eyelids and refuse to leave, keeping me awake at night, I know that I am reading a good book.
Here are some of the best recent mysteries with strong visual elements that will stay with you—lasting reminders even when the minutiae of the plot eventually fades into the background over time.
The Dry, by Jane Harper
The Dry was Harper’s debut novel. It has become an international bestseller and been optioned for film by Reese Witherspoon’s production company. Which actor should play the lead role— federal police officer Aaron Falk, who returns to his hometown after 20 years for a funeral only to become embroiled in a murder investigation—remains open to debate. However, it is the parched Australian landscape that will prove the biggest star. The searing heat raises the stress levels of the characters—and readers—while blowflies swarm, cattle die, and the inhabitants of Kiewarra are seemingly driven to madness and murder. Aaron mourns the river where he and his friends used to gather, which is now “nothing more than a dusty scar in the land,” an image mirroring the scars found on drowned teenager Ellie Deacon’s arms years before. No one is spared the trauma of the relentless heat—children at school draw never-ending brown fields and stick figures of cows with “angel wings.” Readers will feel the heat on their necks and dust on their clothes as two mysteries begin to unspool in this tinderbox ready to ignite at any moment. The climate is just as merciless and brutal as the murderer’s weapons, yet we can’t tear our eyes away from the pages of this outstanding novel.
The Woman in the Window, by AJ Finn
Classic black and white movies flicker ominously from the television as Dr. Anna Fox obsessively spies on her neighbors through a Nikon D5500. The camera “doesn’t miss much” as she zooms in on her targets, residents of the large Harlem town houses across the street. With severe agoraphobia and a drinking problem, Anna is a prisoner in her own home—and and her own mind. Has she witnessed a murder or did her usual mixture of self-medication and merlot make her hallucinate the attack? Images seen through Anna’s camera and television continually make the reader question her version of reality. Is Anna an actress, putting on her own private performance? Has she absorbed something she has watched in a movie through a blur of alcohol and drugs, or is she in fact telling the truth? Short chapters echo the quick scene changes in a film—and an adaptation by Fox 2000 is already underway with Amy Adams in the leading role. With echoes of Rear Window and The Girl on the Train, Anna is the ultimate unreliable narrator—one who is tortured by her own set of traumatic images that she cannot find the words to describe, until she is finally forced to confront her past.
Fierce Kingdom, by Gin Phillips
A small, toy spear stabs Joan’s hip as she plays with her four-year-old son, Lincoln, in the Dinosaur Discover pit at the zoo shortly before closing time. The sand around the pair is scattered with plastic heroes and villains such as Thor and Loki—foreshadowing the battle for survival about to play out. When Joan initially hears pops like balloons bursting, she is not immediately alarmed. But when she sees “scarecrows” lying on the ground and glimpses a figure armed with a rifle by the women’s bathrooms, Anna grabs her son and runs. And so it begins—a deadly game of cat and mouse that Joan must play, to save her son from shooters who prowl the grounds in a hunt for human prey. High fences keep animals from escaping, but also trap Joan and Lincoln, while lights are alternatively friends and foe. Phillips doesn’t need to use gore to shock the reader—it’s the simple images which are most effective, such as a child’s abandoned sippy cup “spilling a wet liquid.” This is enough to make us imagine the unspeakable horrors unfolding, while reinforcing the fact that Fierce Kingdom is essentially a book about motherhood, and how far a mother will go to save her child. The novel has been optioned for film by Margot Robbie’s LuckyChap Entertainment.
The Chalk Man, by CJ Tudor
This adrenaline-pumping page-turner begins with the description of a dead girl whose “almond eyes” stare up at a canopy of trees, while beetles scurry over her pupils. Her head is a short distance away from the rest of her body. An unidentified person takes the head, putting it in a bag among “a few broken stubs of chalk.” Linking a gruesome murder with children’s chalk immediately signals the loss of innocence in this sinister coming-of-age book. Creepy chalk stick men are the overriding images from the book, bringing together horrors from the past and present. The narrative switches between 1986, when a murder is foreshadowed by a group of children using different colored chalk to send coded messages to each other, and 2016, when the ominous images of the “chalk man” reappear to signpost more horrors to come. They torture the dreams of narrator, Eddie, and the chalk-man shaped marks will also haunt the reader. Reminiscent of Stephen King’s work, and praised by the author himself, the ending of this book will make the hairs stand up on the back of your neck.
The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, by Stuart Turton (forthcoming in US)
Creepy plague masks, silver pistols, and bottles of poison gleam from the pages of this high concept murder mystery with twists on virtually every page. Fireworks as dazzling as the beats of Turton’s ingenious plot explode overhead, signalling that Evelyn Hardcastle is going to be murdered—again and again. Aiden Bishop has been invited to a masked ball at Blackheath house, a looming, beast-like country house that has trapped its guests in a deadly time loop. Clearly, this is no ordinary country house whodunit—more Agatha Christie meets a fiendishly complex and nightmarish Groundhog Day. Surrounded by endless threatening forests and a fog that prevents escape attempts, Blackheath is almost a living, breathing monster, looking for fresh victims. Aiden describes it as a “sleeping beast” the first time he sees it and his gut instinct is right—it hides a psychopathic knife-wielding footman in its corridors and also the Plague Doctor, who plays puppetry with characters’ lives. A compass given to Aiden at the beginning of the book is meant to help him find his way out of the forest, but also hints at the greater theme of being lost in life and trying to figure out the right path to take. Already optioned for television by House Productions, this is a brilliant, unique, and unforgettable book.
Resin, by Anne Riel (forthcoming in US)
It’s not hard to see why this dark, foreboding, and creepy novel is already a multi-award-winning, international bestseller that has scooped up Scandinavia’s three most important crime novel awards. The authorities believe Liv died at age six in a boat accident from which her father, Jens Horder, reported her missing. Yet she continues to live in secret with her parents, hidden away from prying eyes on the small island of The Head. Images of homemade coffins— crafted by Jens and by his father Silas before him—glare from the pages. Silas would test out his carefully crafted coffins by lying in them with his son, a macabre childhood bonding session that contributes to the sense of mounting dread. But it is the resin, golden sap that bleeds from the trees around the Horder house, which is even more chilling. It can preserve small, dead animals forever, as well as a chunk of amber that Silas finds on the shores of the beach. Similarly, all the characters remain trapped—Liv by a father who wants to keep her safe in his increasingly warped world and her mother by an obese body that renders her immobile. Meanwhile, Jens is a prisoner to his own past—unable to escape from his obsessive desire to preserve those closest to him. Highly disturbing, with a shocking ending, this book will haunt you.
The Corset, by Laura Purcell (forthcoming in US)
Purcell has already established herself as the British Queen of Gothic with her debut novel, The Silent Companions. This follow-up, a chilling Victorian thriller, is equally gripping and unsettling. Dorothea Truelove is wealthy and beautiful, with a burning desire to carry out good works, including prison visitations. This isn’t an entirely charitable occupation, as Dorothea has an agenda of her own—an obsession with phrenology, the study of the shape and size of prisoners’ heads as an indication of their character. She meets Ruth Butterham, a young, poor prisoner and former seamstress, who is convinced she can kill with a needle. The events leading to Ruth’s incarceration are harrowing, with sewing and death inextricably linked. Sharp needles and images of skulls flash from the pages, while Ruth’s prized creation, a homemade corset, twitches and breathes—a supernatural presence that seemingly has a new victim in its sights. The horrific images from inside the outwardly respectable Metyard house are hard to forget. Dripping with Gothic imagery, this is a chilling and highly atmospheric book, with a terrific twist that will take you by surprise. A great read.
Dark Pines, by Will Dean
The dense, damp pines of Utgard forest hide a murderer in this terrific debut thriller, set in the remote town of Gavrik in Sweden. Three hunters were shot in the torso and had their eyes removed in the forest in the 1990s—unsolved crimes labelled the Medusa Murders. Decades later, another hunter is killed in the same way and deaf local reporter, Tuva Moodyson, begins her investigations in a bid to prove her journalistic mettle. Menacing and eerie, the forest is a threatening landscape, littered with rotting dead animals and clouds of mosquitos, while also shielding a far more bloodthirsty aggressor. Often described as the “murder forest” or a “hellhole,” it is also a monster—terrifying Tuva, a city girl, who has reluctantly moved to from London to look after her terminally ill mother. Describing herself as “frozen and out of place” in her new environment, Tuva must face her worst fears and go deep into the forest to catch the serial killer. Tense, claustrophobic, and beautifully written, the book has a filmic quality and has already been optioned for television by Lionsgate.