What makes a great mystery? Some would argue that it’s the plot, but while that is important, character triumphs. It doesn’t matter if characters are likable as long as they are interesting. Characters must engage the reader, force us to care about what is happening to them and how that story will be resolved.
Here are the best mysteries of 2014. Some novels have likable characters – others not so much – but each novel on this list has memorable characters who have stayed in this reader’s mind long after the last page.
1. “After I’m Gone” by Laura Lippman; Morrow. A shady Baltimore businessman disappears the night before his 15-year prison sentence begins, leaving behind a wife, three daughters and a mistress. His betrayal produces a delicate balance that affects five women for decades.
2. “The Burning Room” by Michael Connelly; Little, Brown. Harry Bosch, with a new partner, is embroiled in a high-profile case that illustrates how power, prestige and the media can override the best intentions.
3. “Kill Fee” by Owen Laukkanen; Putnam. Contract killing is viewed in terms of profit and loss margins when a businessman sets up a lucrative sideline arranging hits.
4. “Those Who Wish Me Dead” by Michael Koryta; Little, Brown. A 13-year-old boy who witnessed a murder is placed for his protection in a Montana wilderness training program for troubled teens run by a survival expert. No one could find him there, right?
5. “The Killer Next Door” by Alex Marwood; Penguin. An insightful look at the desperation of six people who find a kind of a home in a decaying Victorian house in London. But as the title suggests, perhaps one resident has a different plan in this multilayered plot that succeeds as crime fiction, a gothic tale and a village mystery – all with an edge.
6. “This Dark Road to Mercy” by Wiley Cash; Morrow. A child mature beyond her 12 years contends with her 6-year-old sister, their deadbeat father who kidnaps them, a satchel of stolen money and a thug. This story about love, failed ambition, responsibility and revenge relies on emotion rather than violence.
7. “The Forsaken” by Ace Atkins; Putnam. Sheriff Quinn Colson faces the aftermath of a decades-old crime in Jericho, Miss., that leads to uncomfortable truths about his own past.
8. “The Winter People” by Jennifer McMahon; Doubleday. A fresh twist on a believable ghost story that alternates from 1908 to contemporary times, uniting an abandoned house, a dark wood and an unsolved murder. And, oh yeah, there’s a constant fog over the graveyard.
9. “Summer of the Dead” by Julia Keller; Minotaur. Two brutal and seemingly unrelated murders in a small West Virginia town is an exciting exercise for Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Keller to perfectly capture the ennui of people, stymied by lack of options and family duty.
10. “In the Blood” by Lisa Unger; Touchstone. A young college student comes to grips with her family’s murderous history and her own violent tendencies and insecurities.
11. “The Fever” by Megan Abbott; Little, Brown, and “The Secret Place” by Tana French; Viking. The dark world of teenage girls’ secrets takes center stage. In Abbott’s case, the teenagers’ insecurities lead to group illness while French follows a teenager who finds a clue to an old case that leads to a more recent crime at a Dublin boarding school.
12. “Cop Town” by Karin Slaughter; Delacorte. An incisive look at how women and blacks fought for their rightful place on the Atlanta police force during the mid-1970s with myriad details that illustrate the tension among the cops who resent that their ranks are being changed by the new arrivals.
13. “Sometimes the Wolf” by Urban Waite; Morrow. A sheriff’s deputy, who has spent years trying to prove to his small town that he is honest, deals with the return of his father, the town’s former sheriff who was sent to prison for drug dealing.
14. “The Ways of the Dead” by Neely Tucker; Viking. The murder of a politically connected Washington judge’s daughter morphs into a tale of racism, revenge, journalism and a neighborhood in flux.
15. “Truth Be Told” by Hank Phillippi Ryan. A complicated bank scam that targets foreclosed homes may be more lucrative than any subprime mortgage. Ryan’s villains are ordinary people who see an opportunity, and let greed and power take over their soul – and in some ways that is much worse than a career criminal.
• “Dry Bones in the Valley” by Tom Bouman; Norton. Echoes of a Western infuse this brisk story set in an isolated area of northern Pennsylvania where drilling for natural gas changes the landscape and pits neighbor against neighbor.
• “Ice Shear” by M.P. Cooley; Morrow. A former FBI agent who returned to her hometown for family issues is now a police officer in this poignant examination of an economically depressed town where drugs and violence are seeping into its neighborhoods.
• “North of Boston” by Elisabeth Elo; Pamela Dorman Books. An intelligent woman’s investigation of a boating accident in which her friend was killed leads to a group of ruthless businessmen. The plot tackles such far-flung subjects as environmental issues, the fish industry and perfume
• “The Home Place” by Carrie La Seur; Morrow. A chronicle of a woman’s complicated relationship with her hometown of Billings, Mont., the relatives who stayed behind and her ancestral history.
• “Dear Daughter” by Elizabeth Little; Viking. Did a young woman famous for being famous really murder her wealthy socialite mother? Now released from prison, she seeks the answer in a small South Dakota town.
• “Murder at the Brightwell” by Ashley Weaver; Minotaur. Shades of “Downton Abbey” in this light, energetic tale about a group of wealthy eccentrics. A juicy scandal, petty disagreements and snobbery fuel the plot that, at its heart, is the story of a marriage.