I find it very difficult to name a favorite type of mystery, but it just might be puzzle mysteries. They scratch a cognitive itch. Solving them, whether in a book, an app, or a video game, feels so satisfying. Plus, they’re just fun.
In the past, some leveled the criticism that puzzle mysteries lacked in character development. I read some of the classics thus accused, such as Agatha Christie’s novels, and I disagree. The puzzle takes precedence, but the characters are very real and alive. Well, all except the victim(s).
In recent years, genres mixed, and crime fiction became more emotional, descriptive, heartbreaking at times, and occasionally heartwarming. The books I selected today all involve a main character on two quests. One they know about – the actual puzzles leading to solving a mystery. The other an emotional quest, discovered and solved alongside the other. (When not actually mixed in with it.) Every one of these books thrilled my brain and my heart and I hope they will yours as well.
The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle
By Stuart Turton
The Hardcastles throw a party at Blackheath to celebrate the return of their daughter Evelyn from Paris. But Blackheath is crumbling, because they abandoned it years ago, ever since their young son Thomas Hardcastle was murdered by the gamekeeper.
The grieving parents banished Evelyn to Paris, because they couldn’t forgive her for not watching Thomas that morning as she was asked. This party, held on the anniversary of the crime, at the scene of the crime, will culminate in Evelyn’s death at 11 pm. Every morning, that day will start again, with our narrator in the body of a different party guest, until he solves Evelyn’s murder.
A Goodreads reviewer described this book as “bonkers,” meaning it as a compliment. I agree. It’s confusing, but intentionally. It’s beautifully, creepily written, which keeps you turning pages to clear up that confusion. The twist at the end took me by surprise, which rarely happens.
Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore
By Matthew Sullivan
Lydia works as a bookseller at the Bright Ideas bookstore in Denver. Her favorite Bookfrog (nickname for guys who spend all their time in the bookstore, often homeless) Joey hangs himself on the third floor at midnight. Lydia finds a picture of herself at her tenth birthday party in his pocket. She doesn’t remember this picture and can’t understand how Joey got it. He leaves her all his possessions and when she goes through the books she discovers cutouts in some of them. What do they mean?
Meanwhile, her picture appears in the paper with the article about Joey’s death. Lydia has been hiding from her past, but now it comes to find her. Is there a connection to Joey’s sad story?
I can’t believe it took me so long to read this book. It includes horror aspects that you don’t often find in puzzle mysteries, but they tie the story together and explain Lydia’s trauma. The author evokes a marvelous sense of place with his descriptions of Lydia’s part of Denver (a city that hasn’t figured in many books I’ve read) and the mountain towns nearby. Somehow, the magic of books, the use of them to convey a message in code, and the horror and trauma aspects combine beautifully with great characters whose relationships you root for. This is a complex read, both puzzle and emotion-wise, but I enjoyed every page.
Tuesday Mooney Talks to Ghosts
By Kate Racculia
Tuesday Mooney grew up in Salem feeling different. Her best friend Abby disappeared at 16 and Tuesday started talking to her ghost. This raised concerns and Tuesday stopped listening to the voice. She’s still not sure if it really was Abby or her grief talking.
Now she lives alone happily in Boston, wears all black, works as a charitable researcher for a hospital (a job she enjoys), has a sort-of friend Dex, and tutors her teenage next-door neighbor Dory on what they call Tuesday Thursdays. She feels safe. But Vincent Pryce, the eccentric billionaire, drops dead at a charity event for Tuesday’s work. Then, a notice appears in the paper of a game. The prize? Pryce’s massive collection of priceless oddities.
This book is amazing. I can’t express how much I enjoyed it. It was everything I like and so very satisfying. The story includes some darkness, a few chilling moments, and some violence and peril, all of which are a bit unusual for the puzzle mystery genre. There are also heartwarming and heartbreaking moments. One is even transcendent. And it’s funny. You will love the characters. It is a testament to the skill of the author that she got away with naming a character Vincent Pryce.
The Twyford Code
By Janice Hallett
This very twisty book keeps circling back on itself and adding details. Then changing everything again. Yet, it does not lose the reader.
Steven Smith finds a mysterious book by the author Edith Twyford on the bus to school one day. He shows it to Miss Iles, his remedial reading teacher. The text contains strange notes and Miss Iles becomes convinced they lead to a treasure rumored to have been hidden by Twyford and her husband. On a class trip to Twyford’s home, Miss Iles disappears. Decades later, after a stint in prison, Steven is trying to start over and connect with his adult son, a professor of whom Steve is immensely proud.
Steve’s son gives him his old iPhone, which Steve treasures. As a result, the whole story is told in voice memos, complete with incorrect transcription. (I thought he was talking about missiles at first, rather than Miss Iles.)
Steve feels haunted by the day his teacher disappeared, so he decides that he needs the truth to move forward to a better life. But none of his old friends want to talk about that day. However, after finding a partner in the search, bits and pieces come to light, through old photographs, stained glass windows, and abandoned basements. Steve inches closer and closer to the truth, but is he hiding something, too?
This book confused me at times and sometimes frustrated me a little. But I loved it. I loved the clues and the ways they were hidden and connected. I loved the twist. This book is intriguing and absorbing and you really root for Steve.
Chester Keene Cracks the Code
By Kekla Magoon
Chester is a middle-schooler who lives with his mom. He has never met his dad, who is a spy. As he encounters difficulties in middle school, he wishes more and more to talk to his dad about things and figures out how to email him.
Chester follows a careful routine everyday, which usually includes school and then hanging out at the bowling alley after school, so his mom’s friend Amanda can watch him. Chester is clearly neurodivergent and both Amanda and his mom understand and accommodate this.
Chester’s routine begins to fall apart when he finds a coded note tied to the front door on his way to school. He is convinced his dad is in trouble and asking for help. Then a girl named Skye plops down at his lunch table talking about “their” clues. Chester is taken aback, but decides his dad sent her. He and Skye combine their clues into a complete message and follow them to other clues hidden around Chester’s world.
It took the puzzle part of this story a little while to get going, but hanging out with Chester provides a fun and interesting time. He’s a good kid with a big heart and very smart. His transition to middle school has been rough, a situation with which many can sympathize. When he bonds with Skye, your heart leaps.
The clues are fun, but when Chester endures some disappointments and changes your heart aches for him. Magoon does a wonderful job of bringing Chester’s emotions to life as a middle-schooler and someone who struggles with being different. The strong love between him and his mother is beautifully portrayed, too, as well as his burgeoning friendship with Skye. It seems like she might be his first friend and a great one she is.
The Swifts: A Dictionary of Scoundrels
By Beth Lincoln and Claire Powell (illustrator)
This novel is delightful (adj. causing delight, charming). Shenanigan Swift is a young girl living in the family’s crumbling mansion with her Arch-Aunt Schadenfreude (the family Matriarch), Uncle Maelström, older sisters Felicity and Phenomena, and Cook. Everyone in the family receives their name from the Family Dictionary at birth. Their names seem to match their personalities for the most part.
It is time for the Swift family reunion, which means it is also time to search for Grand-Uncle Vile’s Hoard, which has been hidden somewhere in the House for decades. This is Shenanigan’s first Reunion, but she has been prepping for this treasure hunt for a long time. She knows this House better than anyone and is sure she will find and keep the Hoard. However, a more pressing search takes priority when Aunt Schadenfreude is found at the bottom of the stairs. It does not look like an accident. Shenanigan, her sisters, and new friend cousin Erf, must put aside thoughts of treasure and find the culprit. As more bodies appear the tension causes many to question the role of their names, family traditions, and the meaning of family itself.
I enjoyed this book thoroughly. Pure fun from beginning to end. Shenanigan is a feisty, funny, smart character and the bonds between her, her sisters, their uncle and aunt, and Erf are lovely, but still realistic. I felt echoes of Flavia de Luce and her sisters from Alan Bradley’s Flavia series, particularly with Phenomena’s interest in science and Shenanigan’s troubles as the youngest sister. I am so glad a second in the series will be published in early 2024.
Do you like puzzles and puzzle mysteries?
Sara Farmer lives in Austin, TX, with her husband, three kids, and two cats. When she’s not chasing kids and cats, she reads and writes mysteries. You can find her at www.kittymomma.com and on Twitter @avonlea79.