A Mystery Maven's Favorite Whodunits, Thrillers, and Capers of 2020

Posted by Cybil on December 1, 2020
Kellye Garrett's first novel, Hollywood Homicide, was released in August 2017 and won the Agatha, Anthony, Lefty, and Independent Publisher “IPPY” awards for best first novel. Hollywood Ending, the second book in her Detective by Day mystery series, was chosen a best mystery of 2018 by Suspense Magazine, Book Riot, and CrimeReads. In addition to being featured on the TODAY show’s Best Summer Reads of 2019, it was nominated for an Anthony Award for Best Paperback Original and a Lefty Award for Best Humorous Novel. She lost both awards, but to really cool people, so it was OK, she swears! 

In addition to writing, Garrett currently serves on the national Board of Directors of Sisters in Crime and is a cofounder of Crime Writers of Color alongside Walter Mosley and Gigi Pandian. Her most recent project is an #ownvoices domestic suspense novel about a woman looking into the overdose death of a onetime reality star found within blocks of her house—her own estranged younger sister.

Books have always been my happy place, which made them that much more vital in a year when a lot of us didn’t have much to be happy about. Having been quarantining since March, I turned to books to visit the places I couldn’t go and meet new characters, as I wasn’t able to meet people in real life.

This year I went everywhere from the grim reality of a South Dakota Native American reservation to the fake reality of a shot-on-location movie set. I also had the chance to visit both Brooklyn and the Florida Panhandle, hang out with reformed getaway drivers and more than one con artist, meet a pair of kick-butt Black women private investigators and a pair of women trying to figure out what happened to their husbands.

And, as you’ll see, I’m already planning my itinerary for next year.

I think I’ve read more books this year than the past three years combined—both new and new-to-me. So much so that I started adding a “Last Five Books” read section to my email signature.

But it also meant that when Goodreads asked me to pick my ten favorite books of 2020, it was harder than I thought. They could have asked me for my favorite 25 books this year and it still wouldn’t have been enough. But I’ve done my best to narrow it down to my ten favorite this year.

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I’ve been a huge fan of Elizabeth Little since I read her crime fiction debut, Dear Daughter, in one sitting back in 2014. And though Dear Daughter’s Janie Jenkins would eat Pretty as a Picture’s Marissa Dahl for breakfast, Little’s new thriller still takes a wry look at celebrity while telling a twisty, character-driven story about what happens when Hollywood comes to an isolated Delaware island to shoot a film about the island’s most famous cold case.

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Rachel Howzell Hall stepped away from her self-assured Detective Lou Norton to introduce us to newly minted Los Angeles PI Grayson Sykes. And Now She's Gone seamlessly borrows from several subgenres—noir, psychological suspense, even the humor in cozies—to create an unforgettable story and character while shining a light on what Black women have to deal with each and every day.

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S.A. Cosby’s #ownvoices story about a Black getaway driver in rural Virginia forced to do one last score puts you right in the passenger seat of this story about what one must do to take care of one’s family. Beauregard “Bug” Montage is a beautifully written, beautifully flawed character, and our genre is better for S.A. Cosby having written Blacktop Wasteland.

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I listened to Janelle Brown’s twisty novel, about a grifter who must confront her past for her final scam, on my daily walks to get out of the house and would gasp out loud at least once each day. Nina and Vanessa are two thoroughly modern characters who deserve each other. Pretty Things is as fascinating as a perfectly planned Instagram influencer post.

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Like Rachel Howzell Hall, Sherry Harris stepped away from her acclaimed first series, about a New England garage sale aficionado, to introduce us to a whole new world: the Florida Panhandle. Chloe is younger and not as put together as Harris’ other series lead, but she’s just as likable. From Beer to Eternity has all the hallmarks that you love in the cozy genre—unique location, interesting characters, good twists—in a way that makes them feel fresh and unexpected.

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E.A. Barres (a pseudonym for Anthony-nominated author E.A. Aymar) finally hits the mainstream with They’re Gone, about two vastly different women who find they have more in common than they bargained for when both their husbands are murdered on the same night. Barres manages to put his own unique take on the husband-with-secrets trope while perfectly balancing violence with grief.

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As fun as it is sexy, Halley Sutton’s debut crackles while telling the story of Jo, a woman whose job it is to take down Los Angeles’ most corrupt men by any means necessary. But when one of those men ends up dead, Jo branches out on her own to do one more score to protect herself and the boss she secretly is in love with from their evil boss, The Lady Upstairs.

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Alyssa Cole is one of the leading romance writers publishing today, but When No One Is Watching proves she can master any genre she wants to write. She takes the timely issue of gentrification and uses it to tell a shocking story about what happens to Sydney Green and her beloved Brooklyn neighborhood when they get too many new neighbors with bad intentions.

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David Heska Wanbli Weiden’s debut, Winter Counts, shows why it’s so essential that people of color are allowed to tell our own stories. It’s as much an unflinching look at living on an Indian reservation as it is a heart-pounding thriller about Virgil Wounded Horse, a local enforcer who attempts to take down a drug cartel after their organization hits way too close to home.

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Tracy Clark won the Sue Grafton Memorial Award earlier this year for her Chicago Mystery series, and it’s extremely fitting because of her Cass Raines, a tough-talking yet vulnerable cop turned PI with Daddy issues. The third book, What You Don’t See, is why I love this series. It allows us to watch Cass still struggle with the fallout of being shot on the job years ago while also telling a fun, well-plotted story about her protecting an Oprah-like local celebrity who isn’t what she seems.

2021 Preview

There are quite a few gems on my 2021 radar, including:

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As much as I love cozies, the subgenre hasn’t always been known for breaking barriers when it comes to marginalized main characters. Luckily things have changed over the past few years and we can add Mia P. Manansala’s Filipino American culinary cozy series to our bookshelves. The story focuses on Lila Macapagal, who must figure out what happened to the food critic—her ex—who died at her family restaurant before they’re shut down permanently.

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Like cozies, the domestic suspense subgenre isn’t necessarily known for diverse main characters, which is why I’m so excited for P.J. Vernon’s story about a young gay man trying to hide a transgression from his husband. I can’t wait to meet Oliver Park.

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Valerie Wilson Wesley broke barriers when she published the first in her Tamara Hayle series, about a Black woman PI in Essex County, New Jersey, in 1994. After expanding to write both romance and paranormal, she’s come back to the crime fiction genre with a paranormal cozy about a Black psychic who must investigate when the boss at the real estate firm where she works is killed.

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I read a lot of U.S.-set crime fiction, so I’ve made a vow to step outside my comfort zone next year, and Lightseekers’ examination of the Nigerian sociopolitical landscape feels like the perfect book to do that. The story focuses on an investigative psychologist tasked with looking into what happened to three murdered college students.

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Wanda Morris is another much-needed voice in a thriller genre that John Grisham has perfected for decades now. Her upcoming debut introduces us to Ellice Littlejohn, a Black, on-the-rise Atlanta corporate attorney who’s tapped to replace her boss—and crush—when he’s mysteriously killed. But the promotion turns up way too many secrets, both in her professional and personal lives.

Plus, one more! Information on multiple award-winning author Lori Rader-Day’s new book, Death at Greenway, is scarce, but as soon as I heard Agatha Christie, I was all in. The story focuses on a nurse-in-training who flees Blitz-torn London and her own mistakes only to find herself at the holiday retreat of Agatha Christie. Of course, there’s dead bodies. [Goodreads checked with Rader-Day about her new book, and she says to look for it in October]
See more Reading Year in Review book recommendations in the following genres: Young Adult, Fantasy and Science Fiction, Literary Fiction, and Romance.

Fellow fans of mystery, what are some of your top reads of 2020? Share your picks with us in the comments.

Check out more recent articles:
Goodreads Members Suggest: Favorite Winter Reads
Goodreads Staffers Share Their Top Three Books of the Year
33 Reader-Approved, Highly Rated Fiction to Discover Now

Comments Showing 1-31 of 31 (31 new)

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message 1: by Loren (new)

Loren This article is a thriller in itself -- I feel the thrill of anticipation coursing through my brain at the thought of reading all these selections! First, though, I must discover the books by Ms. Garrett. Can't wait!

message 2: by Diptanjan (new)

Diptanjan Sarma Purkayastha My favourite mystery of 2020 is 'Troubled Blood' by Robert Galbraith.

message 3: by Julia (new)

Julia Ogden What is all this “cozy” business?

message 4: by Jan (new)

Jan Cozy mysteries, also referred to as "cozies", are a subgenre of crime fiction in which sex and violence occur off stage, the detective is an amateur sleuth, and the crime and detection take place in a small, socially intimate community. Wikipedia

message 5: by Vivienne (new)

Vivienne No books and/or authors from outside the US?

message 6: by Victor (new)

Victor Wright Excellent list especially Janelle Brown and SA Cosby, but may I add two books by an African American & other author of color whose 2020 works I feel were breaths of fresh air for the genre. One is "Scavenger" by Christopher Chambers, which gives us an amazing new kind of gumshoe in hardboiled noir, in the Himes tradition, and the other is the sequel to "The Ninja's Daughter," called "The Ninja's Blade," by Tori Eldridge, which likewise provides original and fresh takes on the traditional mystery-thriller. Eldridge give me a harrowing exotic journey minus the "exotic cliche."

message 7: by Heibs (new)

Heibs Ken Bruen’s new book is out. It is excellent!

message 8: by Kathy (new)

Kathy Julia wrote: "What is all this “cozy” business?"

I believe it initially started as a crime subgenre

But now it's branched out to other genres. Usually minimal violence and sex (or it happens "off-screen"), profanity, typically in a small town with a cute cast of characters, etc.

message 9: by Kellye (new)

Kellye Vivienne wrote: "No books and/or authors from outside the US?"

Hi Vivienne:

Thanks for reading! There's one non-U.S. based author on here. As I mentioned in the article, I don't read a lot of non-U.S. authors and need to do better.


message 10: by Orlanda Thompson (new)

Orlanda Thompson Thanks for this!! Added a few more to my check out list!!

message 11: by Barbara (new)

Barbara Ford The Searcher by Tana French is my pick for best read of 2020. A departure from her police procedural series. Set in a small village in Ireland, the protagonist an ex-cop from Chicago. Tana weaves the tight story of an outsider finding his way through the tightly woven walls of secrecy and local code of honor and protection that he knows surrounds the village but can’t quite identify where it comes from or who it involves. Loved this book!

message 12: by Patti (new)

Patti Thank you for this list! I will definitely check them out. My all time favourite crime novelist Louise Penny, and would highly recommend her books.

message 13: by Kimberly (new)

Kimberly Russell Patti wrote: "Thank you for this list! I will definitely check them out. My all time favourite crime novelist Louise Penny, and would highly recommend her books."

I Love all of the Inspector Gamache/Three Pines mysteries too. Both the mysteries and the characters are so wonderful!

message 14: by Kathy (new)

Kathy I scanned the list and there are some books to add, EXCITED!

message 15: by Kathy (new)

Kathy I've read ALL the Gamache novels including the current one, great reads!!!

message 16: by Joe (new)

Joe Holzer Winter Counts was a good read. I look forward to more stories from David Heska Wanbli Weiden.

Blacktop Wasteland was not only the best of the genre for 2020, but also the best novel of the year.

message 17: by Rhea messam (new)

Rhea messam It's not like that

message 18: by Kiandra (new)

Kiandra Halstead I'm looking forward to reading every one that's been mentioned in this list as well as the comments. Thank you! If anyone had anymore recommendations, you're welcome to send them my way. Catch you all later!

message 19: by Larissa (new)

Larissa Were they supposed to be all American? I was expecting a more broad-based sweep of whodunnits, including perhaps even Canadian options. If Africa, Asia or even Europe were too far to travel -- even in the imagination...

message 20: by Ariane (new)

Ariane Discovered so many new authors thanks to this article, thank you! I've added Arsenic and Adobo, Lightseekers, The Elephant Fighter and Hollywood Homicide to my TBR (I already had Winter Counts and When No One Is Watching on there).

message 21: by Sophie (new)

Sophie In 2020, I can highly recommend-Louise Jensen's The Stolen Sisters(UK), The Lady Upstairs....so good for a debut femme noir,
also how about Death at the Orange Locks by Anja De Jager-a great Dutch series-Lotte Meerman series....so there are well written non-American options out there!

message 22: by Carla (new)

Carla This is a fabulous list. Thank you so much - I can't wait to dig in.

message 23: by Julie (new)

Julie Butcher Boom! Pretty much every one of these! I read my first two Rachel Howzell Hall Detective Lou Norton books this year and think she may write LA better than any of the many others. I'm reading the new Valerie Wilson Wesley and it is perfect! Is Sherry Harris writing another Chloe book?!?

message 24: by Liz (new)

Liz Lori Rader-Day is an amazing author. I highly recommend anything by her.

message 25: by Jamie (new)

Jamie I'm so excited by this list! So much to look forward to reading. Thank you!

message 26: by Sylvia (new)

Sylvia Winter Counts was simply fabulous. The author IS Lakota and the novel deals with life on the reservation. But while the mystery moves right along, Weiden gives us some American history from the point of view of the original inhabitants: Wounded Knee, etc.

message 27: by Ann (new)

Ann Dzuik Kimberly wrote: "Patti wrote: "Thank you for this list! I will definitely check them out. My all time favourite crime novelist Louise Penny, and would highly recommend her books."

I Love all of the Inspector Gamac..."

I don't get why people love Louise Penny's work. I'd rather watch paint dry!

message 28: by Katie (new)

Katie Kuczek Already had a couple of these on my Want To Read. They just moved to the top so thanks!

message 29: by Kathy (new)

Kathy Louise Penny is not for everyone

message 30: by Karen (new)

Karen Killebrew Barbara wrote: "The Searcher by Tana French is my pick for best read of 2020. A departure from her police procedural series. Set in a small village in Ireland, the protagonist an ex-cop from Chicago. Tana weaves t..."

message 31: by Nancy (new)

Nancy Ann wrote: "Kimberly wrote: "Patti wrote: "Thank you for this list! I will definitely check them out. My all time favourite crime novelist Louise Penny, and would highly recommend her books."

I Love all of th..."

I agree about Louise Penny except for Still Life.

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