My Top 10 Crime/Thriller/Mystery/Suspense/Horror Books of 2020

Merry Christmas (a little belatedly)! Hope you are all well and healthy and have had nice celebrations even if they looked a bit different this year. I’m trying to get all of my best books of the year posts up before we hit January 1st, but it looks like I won’t quite make it. Nevertheless, I am cracking on today with my favorite Mystery/Crime/Thriller/Horror books. I read 43 books in those combined genres, and these were my top 10.

This year I challenged myself to try out some genres I don’t typically read, specifically horror and romance (more on that later). In the past I would have said that horror was not a genre that interested me because I’m pretty easily scared and have very vivid dreams, and I’m not really into giving myself nightmares. However, I do like a certain type of thriller or crime novel, and I’ve realized there is some genre crossover with horror. Since even I have trouble differentiating which genre some of these fit into, I’m going to mash them all together and explain a bit more in the blurbs.

Best Mystery/Thriller/Crime

The Family Upstairs by Lisa Jewell (Domestic Thriller)

Before 2020 I had only read 1 Lisa Jewell novel (Then She Was Gone) but I remembered enjoying it, so I decided to give her new one a go. The Family Upstairs is a bit different to most of her other novels and fans seem to either love that or hate it. I (obviously) loved it. I went on to read 3 more Jewell books this year (so total of 5) and this is still my favorite.

Libby Smith has been waiting her whole life to find out the identity of her birth parents and who she really is. When Libby turns 25 she receives a letter that tells her not only who her parents were, but also that she is the sole inheritor of their Chelsea mansion. Libby quickly learns that the house has been abandoned for twenty-five years, ever since police found a healthy ten-month-old baby clean and fed in her crib while three dead bodies lay downstairs in the kitchen. What really happened to her parents? And what about the other four children who supposedly lived at the house and who vanished without a trace?

The Night Swim by Megan Goldin (Crime Thriller)

Rachel Krall is an investigative journalist turned true-crime podcaster, has just arrived in small-town Neapolis, North Carolina to cover a high-profile rape case for the new season of her show. Neapolis is a tight-knit and tight-lipped community and they aren’t all that pleased to have Rachel there. To make things even more uneasy, someone unrelated to the trial appears to be stalking her, and they desperately want her help to solve a twenty-five year old case that happened in the same town.  

I found the characters and the scenario to be believable. I liked the medium of the true crime podcast as I am an occasional listener of them. Goldin did an excellent job of balancing action scenes with summary and exposition using the podcast as interludes for commentary in a way that made sense within the narrative. It felt very relevant, though it may mean that the book doesn’t age well. I think the questions Rachel raises in her podcast are timely and important as we continue the work of the #metoo movement and challenge the systemic silencing of women’s pain and women’s voices.

Long Bright River by Liz Moore (Crime Mystery)

Kacey and Mickey are sisters who grew up as close as they come, but as adults they find themselves on opposite ends of the opioid crisis. Kacey is gripped by addiction and lives on the streets in Philadelphia. Mickey, meanwhile, patrols those same streets as a cop. Things come to a head when Mickey begins investigating a mysterious string of murders in her neighborhood and finds out that Kacey has also disappeared. While this has all of the elements of a typical crime thriller, it doesn’t read like one, which makes it much more memorable. The pacing is much slower and it is much more about character development than just plot. 

All the Devils Are Here by Louise Penny (Crime Mystery)

I’m a huge fan of Louise Penny, and Chief Inspector Armand Gamache has my heart forever. This is the 16th book in a series and I definitely recommend reading them in order because the richness of these books comes from the character development and the relationships between characters. This newest installment takes us away from the village of Three Pines in Montreal (where much of the series takes place) and over to Paris where the Gamache’s are visiting their children and grandchildren. The story centers on Gamache’s fraught relationship with his son along with the usual intrigue of uncovering high-level corruption with danger at every turn. I found the exploration of Gamache’s relationship with his son particularly compelling as it centers on is how two people in a relationship can interpret the same events in vastly different ways and assign motivations to the other person that are wildly different from what that person intended. These characters are deeply human and we see them, warts and all, and still walk away with the sense that there is goodness in the world.

The Snowman by Jo Nesbo (Crime Thriller, but graphic…so also Crime Horror?)

I’ve heard about this book for years and finally picked it up. On the day of the first snowfall in Oslo, Jonas’ mother goes missing. The only clue left behind is her scarf wrapped around the neck of a snowman in the yard – a snowman Jonas did not build. Police investigator Harry Hole suspects there is a link between this woman’s disappearance, and those of several other women. Hole begins the hunt for a brutal serial killer known only as The Snowman because he always attacks at the first snow of the year and  leaves behind a calling card – a snowman. This is technically the 7th book in the Harry Hole series. Although I’m sure the other books would give you more context for the relationships between recurring characters, I don’t think you need to read the others to appreciate this one. Also, fair warning, there are a LOT of characters in this book, so you might need to draw yourself a chart or something.

Best Horror/Suspense

The Girl With All the Gifts by M.R. Carey (Zombie Thriller)

This is a zombie novel, which is not my thing at all. And yet, it really got me in the feels. Every day, Melanie gets strapped into her wheelchair and wheeled to school where she learns about the world from her beloved teacher Miss Justineau. And when school is over, she and the other children are strapped back into their wheelchairs and brought back to their cells with loaded guns trained on them all the while. Melanie is the brightest of the bunch, but she still can’t understand what everyone is so afraid of.

Home Before Dark by Riley Sager (Paranormal Thriller)

When Maggie Holt was a young girl, her parents moved into Banebury Hall. They made it three weeks before fleeing for their lives in the middle of the night. Maggie doesn’t remember much about her time in the house, but her father recorded his version of events in his bestselling (supposedly) nonfiction book House of Horrors. Now twenty-five years have gone by and Maggie’s father has recently passed away. She is shocked to learn that her father still owned Banebury Hall, and that he has left it to her. Now a professional restorer, Maggie decides to tackle the job of revitalizing the abandoned house and getting it ready to sell. And while she’s there, she’ll try to uncover what really happened in the house all those years ago.

Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia (Psychological/supernatural horror)

Mexican Gothic is what it says on the tin – a Gothic horror novel in the vein of Rebecca or The Haunting of Hill House, but set in 1950’s Mexico. Noemi is a beautiful young socialite living it up in Mexico City. When Noemi’s father receives a letter from her cousin, Catalina implying that all is not well with her, Noemi is sent to investigate. Catalina has recently married a mysterious Englishman after a whirlwind courtship. Now she is living in his isolated mansion in the Mexican countryside cut off from her family and friends. After Noemi arrives at High Place, she realizes that the house and its inhabitants are not as they appear.

While I wouldn’t say overall that this was super scary, it is very unsettling, and I admit there were a few moments where I got the shiveries.  Also, the cover is to-die-for.

I’m Thinking of Ending Things by Iain Reid (Psychological suspense/horror)

Jake and his girlfriend have only been dating for a couple of months. They are on their way to meet his family at their isolated farm. But she isn’t so  sure about the relationship. In fact. She’s thinking of ending things. When they arrive at the family home things begin to get…weird…and when they take an unexpected detour to an abandoned high school things get…weirder. This was a very fast read that was the right amount of weird and creepy for me to feel spine tingles but not have nightmares. Having said that, some parts of this felt very tangential. And the ending, while creepy, felt a little overlong. Like after you realized what was going on it kept going on for a little too long. But it was also kind of fun…? And I liked the character development…but did I? I am perplexed.

The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires by Grady Hendrix (Creature/Body Horror)

Patricia Campbell is your typical southern housewife. She spends her days caring for her two teenage children, her doctor husband, and her declining mother-in-law. She once dreamed of a bigger life, but instead she’s found herself solidly entrenched in the mundane world of the upper middle-class in Charleston, South Carolina. The only thing she really looks forward to are meetings with her book club, a group of women who have carved out space away from their regular lives to talk about the sordid details of the harrowing true crime they read together. When a stranger moves to the neighborhood, Patricia is initially excited. Until children begin to go missing, and she suspects there is more to her new neighbor than meets the eye.

I really loved the descriptions of southern society ladies which reminded me so much of people I knew when we lived in South Carolina. This is a book that doesn’t take itself too seriously and invites the reader to lean into the campy-ness of it all. I didn’t feel particularly afraid at any point in reading this book. Having said that, there are some pretty gross scenes involving body gore/horror. There is also a scene that describes a cockroach burrowing into Patricia’s ear and she has to just sit still and let it because she’s hiding and I just about lost it. And yet…I had fun!

Have you read any of these? What did you think? Have I inspired you to pick anything up?

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