Private Eye July: Psychological Suspense by Women Authors

psychological suspense

I like to read books that make me think, but I also like to read to escape. It may seem like a juxtaposition, but to me, the best books are those that combine these two elements. Well-executed psychological (also called "cerebral") mysteries offer characters with depth, and peel the layers of each person within the story in an effort to understand what motivates people to do the (sometimes very bad) things they do. At the same time, the plot has to be interesting enough to move the novel forward at a fast pace. It's in this way that psychological suspense entertains while probing the nature of human interaction, often focusing on our darker sides. And as a reader, our need to both escape and to read something thought-provoking is met.  

Sometimes, psychological suspense falls into the (rather dry-sounding) category of "police procedural," which simply means that a main character is either a cop, a detective, or a lawyer, and often a team of more than one professional. Other times, as in 2012's blockbuster Gone Girl, law enforcement shows up in the novel, but the main character is someone caught up in a dangerous mystery and trying to work her/his way out of it.

Interestingly, when I started to put together my list of psychological mysteries for recommendation, I realized that every author I enjoy in this genre is female. I've never sought out books based on the gender of the writer, but perhaps women writers have a knack for keeping me interested while offering a simultaneous escape. Several of these women even write male main characters, and do it quite well. 

So without further adieu, if you're looking for an engrossing read this summer, like to get inside characters' heads, aren't willing to give up quality, and you like a tricky, fast-moving plot with some twists and turns, following are my recommendations, in no particular order:


Stand alone novels by Laura Lippman

Lippman is a bestselling author who pens a series of mysteries featuring journalist-turned-private-eye Tess Monaghan, but I actually haven't read any of them. Instead, I picked up one of Lippman's stand-alone suspense novels several years back and was quickly addicted. I caught myself up on everything she's written out of series, and look forward to each new novel roughly yearly. Lippman's non-series novels all take place around her hometown of Baltimore, and include Every Secret Thing, To the Power of Three, What the Dead Know, Life Sentences, I'd Know You Anywhere, The Most Dangerous Thing, and 2014's After I'm Gone.


Duncan Kincaid/Gemma James series by Deborah Crombie

I'll admit an extreme partiality to British suspense authors. After all, the Queen of Mystery, Agatha Christie, who saved me during pre-adolescence after I'd outgrown Nancy Drew, hails from across the pond. Interestingly, Deborah Crombie is from Texas. But she lives part time in London, and she writes an excellent series set there featuring detective couple Duncan Kincaid and Gemma James. Her books are quick reads with complex characters that often feature a different area or topic pertinent to the British Isles. My favorite of hers are No Mark Upon Her and Dreaming of the Bones, although you should read the series in order.

still life

Chief Inspector Gamache series by Louise Penny

I came across this series when Amazon ran a Kindle special on Still Life (a clever marketing scheme it sometimes engages in during which the first in a series is sold for a ridiculously low amount so that you get hooked and return to by the rest for full price). I was a bit skeptical, as the Gamache novels take place in Quebec, which seemed not exactly my thing. I could not have been more wrong, as I am completely addicted to this series, which has garnered every major mystery award and more starred reviews than any other I've encountered, and for good reason. Louise Penny was a Canadian journalist who wrote for the CBC for many years, and ex-journalists tend to often make quality novelists. Her books are so well-written, they are nearly impossible to put down. Her character development is amazing (she develops no less than ten major characters who recur throughout the series), as is her ability to tell a completely engaging story. Penny produces psychological mysteries at their very best, with questions of good and evil, morality and darkness at their core. I can't encourage you enough to pick up Still Life as soon as possible! You won't be able to stop reading this bestselling series. 

kate atkinson

Kate Atkinson's Jackson Brodie series

I've blogged about my love for Atkinson's work before; she's a multi-talented author who, having written critically acclaimed realistic fiction, historical fiction, fantasy, and mysteries, is impossible to pigeon-hole. Atkinson has penned a four-novel series featuring ex-cop Jackson Brodie, a Scotch-Englishman turned private detective who's not afraid of a fight, most likely ruggedly handsome, and owner of the soul of a poet (swoon). Clearly this woman's man was written by a female! Brodie falls into complex situations; Atkinson manages multiple plot lines with finesse, and often tells her stories without regard to chronological order, a feat that is difficult at best, but which she pulls off without a hitch. And if you like writers like Tana French and Gillian Flynn (see both below), who aren't faint of heart, but willing to take readers to the darkest parts of the human soul, often with a black comedy touch, you'll enjoy Atkinson very much. Oh, and by the way, in case, like me, you can't get enough, the BBC has made a television series out of the Brodie novels.

cuckoo's calling

Cormoran Strike series by Robert Galbraith (AKA J. K. Rowling)

Okay, so you were perhaps living under a rock last year if you managed not to hear about bazillionaire J. K. Rowling's pseudonymous publication of The Cuckoo's Calling. It got very good reviews, but sold fair-to-middling until someone accidentally released the author's real name, and well, it became an overnight international number one bestseller. Let's just say that Rowling has proven her ability to write more than good kiddie fantasy. She still knows how to keep a story moving, develop interesting characters, and throw out a few plot twists to keep her readers on their toes. (I did not see the ending of this one coming at all.)

Brit Cormoran Strike (yes, his name is laughably hard boiled), like all good fictional detectives, is easy to like. He's made up of that consummate mixture of damaged past (he was abandoned by his famous father, he's an Iraq war veteran and amputee, and his long-time girlfriend's just dumped him) and morally straight-arrow core. He's rough around the edges, but has a heart as soft as the middle of a Twinkie. Much like Harry Potter, he's a good guy in a world full of bad guys, and I'm looking forward to watching his relationship with Robin, his temp-secretary-turned-partner (who happens to be engaged to a doofus in the first novel), develop. I just received the second in the series from my local library, and recently learn that Rowling plans to write about seven (yippee!) Strike crime novels.

ice house

Stand Alone Novels by Minette Walters

Although British author Minette Walters hasn't written a full length novel in several years, her twelve psychological mysteries, written between 1992 and 2008, are more than worth a peek. Did you enjoy both the sinister tone and unexpected ending of Gillian Flynn's breakout 2013 hit, Gone Girl? If so, you definitely need to read Minette Walters. She delves into humanity's dark side, exploring issues like feminism, war, and social class in modern Britain in the midst of fast-paced suspense. You can read her stand alones in any order, but my favorites are The Ice House, The Sculptress, and The Scold's Bridle. The untidy, but brilliant, endings of these novels will leave you more than slightly unsettled, asking a few questions, and yearning for more.

I'm disappointed to note that Walter's earlier novels are out of print in the U.S., although easily available in used editions. Check out your local library, or buy her books used!

ghost in the machine

Inspector Barnaby series by Caroline Graham

I discovered this series when I was desperate for another British mystery to keep me busy while I was waiting for my favorite suspense authors to publish new titles. It's one of those series that I thought might be okay, until I picked up the first one to find they were much more than a time-filler, but excellent novels that are finely written. Between 1987 and 2004, Caroline Graham published seven Inspector Barnaby novels, and the series feels like it isn't finished, although it unfortunately most likely is. The novels were highly acclaimed and turned into a popular BBC series that has been running strong since 1997. Although a name like Inspector Barnaby sounds like one right out of a traditional English village "cozy" series (bloodless mysteries à la Miss Marple), don't be fooled. Graham brought the cozy into the modern age by placing her novels in the same setting, but introducing a contemporary feel more akin to Law and Order than anything remotely quaint. If you like dark suspense that focuses on the psychology of the main players, I strongly recommend this series, which should be read in order. I just wish there were more than seven!

rosewood casket

Ballad Novels by Sharyn McCrumb

Sharyn McCrumb, a Virginia writer, penned a set of stand-alone Appalachian mysteries, called the "Ballad Novels," which feature recurring characters Sherrif Spencer Arrowood and mountain wise-woman Nora Bonesteel. The first five novels of this series are mysteries that take place in western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee. I very much enjoy novels that strongly evoke their setting as central to the storyline, and McCrumb's novels are steeped in Appalachian folklore, customs, and culture, both old and modern. I also happen to really enjoy Southern literature. And I love the Smokies; the mountains are gorgeous, but also a bit dark, ghostly, and scary, which lends them very well to psychological suspense. Read the five mystery Ballad Novels in order from If Ever I Return Pretty Peggy-O to The Ballad of Frankie Silver. My favorite of these five is The Rosewood Casket. Creepy, Southern, and intensely atmospheric.

summer of the dead

Bell Elkins series by Julia Keller

While I'm in the mountains, let's move slightly north to West Virginia, and a new series that I am really excited about. Julia Keller is a Chicago journalist (didn't I mention above that journalists make very good mystery novelists?) who hails from these mountains, and published her first novel, A Killing in the Hills, which I wrote about here. Her novels explore the tension between the region's past and present, and feature a tough-as-nails district attorney who's come home from D. C. Like many small mountain towns, fictional Acker's Gap, West Virginia suffers the ravages of the coal industry, the loss of manufacturing, and the dual curse of poverty and addiction. And Bell, like most of her educated peers, left town for a better life, only to find her connection to home too strong to ignore.

Since the critically acclaimed first novel in the series was published in 2012, Keller's written the second in this series, and the third is due out next month. These novels are finely crafted, suspenseful, and focused on what makes seemingly normal people do evil things. Check out a very recent interview with the author on NPR ... it'll make you want to pick up her books ASAP.

scent of rain and lightning

Stand alone novels by Nancy Pickard

After writing a successful series of mystery novels for years, Nancy Pickard, a writer from Kansas living in Florida, piqued the interest of critics when she published a trio of suspense novels featuring a true-crime writer Marie Lightfoot, who hailed from the east coast of Florida. In 2006 and 2010, she upped her game even further, setting two stand-alone mysteries in her home state of Kansas. The Virgin of Small Plains and The Scent of Rain and Lightning are two powerful, critically-acclaimed suspense novels, again deeply atmospheric. (I knew little about the Plains, and I really enjoyed the unfamiliar small town settings.) Pickard explores family secrets gone wrong in both novels. I'm not sure if she's retired from writing, but even if she never publishes another book, I'm grateful for these two suspense novels. They're tense, powerful, and will stay with you long after you finish the last page.

deep south

Anna Pigeon series by Nevada Barr

I've added this series, which used to be one of my favorites, even though I haven't read the last four or five of Barr's novels. Anna Pigeon is a gutsy-but-flawed park ranger, and each mystery is set in a different national park. Barr's development of her main character, a loner with a difficult past and (rightful) trouble trusting others, is brilliant. The author's research into each national park setting makes her series all the more interesting, as the location changes dramatically from novel to novel. That being said, around about 2004 I found the series becoming less and less believable and moving more and more into the serial killer mystery genre, in which the focus is a cat and mouse game, rather than the psychology of the main players. However, I've included Barr's first eleven novels here, because they are really, really good, and perfect if you like a strong female lead, well-developed setting, and psychological suspense. 

And finally, just because the search for the next great psychological suspense novel is never over  ... here are the next authors on my list to try out. I have to get the courage up to read Gillian Flynn's considerably-darker-than-Gone Girl earlier novels, but the other three authors, (who are somewhat less likely to give me nightmares) Tana French, Sophie Hannah, and Erin Kelly are next on my list. Click the arrow on the right side of the gallery below to see their covers.