To celebrate the upcoming release of his newest ghost story mystery Blood on the Chesapeake, Randy Overbeck shares his top 7 mystery authors who capture setting and create vivid narratives. Discover, or rediscover, some of these authors with Randy Overbeck’s Top 7 Mystery Authors Who Really Steal the Scene.
The world of mystery fiction is so rich and varied with multiple layers for readers to appreciate and enjoy. You can fall in love with an author because her characters are so real and vivid, you feel like you’ve known them all your life. Or perhaps, as a reader, you get a thrill out of unraveling the convoluted puzzle of the whodunit along with the detective. Or maybe, with so many other parts of our world unfair and unjust, you enjoy the exquisite sense of justice in capturing the murderer and making him/her pay for their nasty deeds.
Like other readers of mystery, I enjoy all these facets of the genre. But, over the years, one aspect I’ve come to savor is how perfectly some mystery writers are able to capture the setting of some unknown, foreign, or even familiar places in their narratives. With that said, my top seven “mystery authors who steal the scene” follow, though in no particular order. One caveat: these are my choices. I don’t claim they are the best, the biggest selling, or most successful.
1. C.J. Box
Box’s protagonist is Joe Pickett, a state game warden who roams the rugged outdoors of Wyoming and neighboring states in pursuit of poachers, embezzlers, murderers, and even cops gone bad. There is much to love about the persistent and down-to-earth officer and the varied narratives Box’s canvas yields. But what this author does so well is capture the stunning beauty, the desolate cruelty, and the awesome grandeur of the mountains, plains, rivers, and lakes of this magnificent part of the country. After you read one or two of the books in the series (now through #19), you’ll be checking the flight schedule to Cheyenne to see for yourself. (That’s the capital of Wyoming, population 65,000.)
2. Robert B. Parker
This choice may surprise readers, since Parker’s numerous Spenser novels are famous for other valid reasons—the hard-boiled private eye, the wit, and his enduring cast of characters. (Who can’t still picture Hawk long after putting down one of these mysteries?) But, as I’ve read quite a number of the Spenser novels, I came to appreciate his deft description of the Boston landscape—the view down Boylston Street from his office window, his chases across the Boston Commons, his battling traffic during the Big Dig, his trips to Fenway Park, and even Spenser and Hawk’s forays into the underbelly of the city. Readers of his series come away feeling almost like a Boston native, without all the traffic and congestion.
3. Tony Hillerman
My first view into the desert Southwest came through exploring several of Hillerman’s unique mysteries with their clash of traditional Native American culture and the cruelty of the modern world, usually in the form of a dead body. Two decades ago, when I first read his books, I was so taken with his portrayal of dusty, sand-swept landscapes and breathtaking rock formations, I made a trip to Four Corners (a tiny place extolled in his novels) a must in my cross-country journey. I was not disappointed. Like the other writers in this group, his whodunits have much to recommend them, especially the unique Native American characters such as Navajo Tribal Policeman Joe Leaphorn, but I always come away from Hillerman’s novels pining for a night under the desert sky with my favorite girl beside me.
4. William Kent Krueger
Speaking of desolate settings and Native American culture, no list of “scene stealing” mysteries would be complete without the inclusion of Krueger. His Cork O’Connor series is set (mostly) in northern Minnesota, a place as forbidding as it is beautiful. His narratives paint a remarkable portrait of snow-capped mountains, crystal blue lakes, and winding trails through huge, unspoiled forests. Also, Krueger does a masterful job of dealing with some of the most important and sensitive issues of today, e.g., human smuggling, drug addiction, corporate greed, and the abuse of the earth’s resources, all while tracking down a murderer or two in this remarkable land. He must be pretty good as he has several bestsellers and even an Edgar for best mystery of the year. Although I would never have originally included this area in my travel “to visit” list, after reading Krueger’s captivating novels, the home of the Anishinaabe has definitely moved near the top.
5. Janet Evanovich
I can almost hear readers. Evanovich’s books, especially the Stephanie Plum series, are devoured more for their fantastic humor, their tease of romance, and their incredible characters than for their mystery or the scene stealing. But between the crazy, mixed-up mysteries, the wacky characters, and Stephanie’s lusty struggle choosing between Joe Morelli and Ranger, lie some insightful descriptions of her home turf in Jersey. After reading one (or twenty-five!) of the entries in this addictive series, you’ll no doubt find yourself laughing out loud, doing a mental head slap, and feeling right at home on the seedy streets of Trenton, at least as long as Lulu is riding shotgun with you.
6. James R. Benn
I’m cheating a little here because this author gets the nod for his great treatment of the “when” and “where” of the scene. For those not familiar with Benn’s Billy Boyle series set during World War II, his young Boston detective is sent to locales in both the European and Pacific theaters of war to solve some crime, often in the middle of the action. In his stories, readers are dropped onto a South Pacific Island or snuck into a chateau in France during the Resistance or parachuted into a “neutral” Switzerland. Benn has the ability to capture with his pen (okay, his computer) not only the sights and smells of each stop in the wartime journey, but also the feel of the place. Readers feel as if they are going down in a Lysander plane under German antiaircraft attack or are walking on a palm tree-lined island path alongside Jack Kennedy shortly after the sinking of PT-109. For years, WWII history buffs have flocked to Benn’s series (now up #13), but there is much to enjoy for all mystery lovers, not the least of which are the incredible settings he draws.
7. Zoe Sharp
I guess I’m fudging a bit here also because Ms. Sharp’s narratives are usually found in the thriller aisle rather than mystery stacks. But since her Charlie Fox series always involves the solving of some puzzle, usually involving a dead body and a pile of money, and because I flat out love her writing, I’m including her as one of my top seven. Because she hails from across the pond, many American readers do not know her work and that is their loss. Like the others in the list, Sharp has mastered the ability to transport readers vividly to the settings of her narratives, whether it be the sights and smells of Disney World in First Drop or the twisting switchbacks of the Irish countryside in Road Kill. In Fox Hunter, the latest and twelfth in this remarkable series, the scenes of the desert are so real, I swear I could feel the hot sun and the grit of the sand in my face (and I read it in the middle of a freezing January). Of course, my teeth practically chattered when I was riding alongside Charlie atop a snowmobile up the frozen slopes to a mountain fortress. Regardless of the book you choose, one thing is for sure: Sharp always takes readers on a great ride. Besides, who doesn’t love a kick-ass heroine like Charlie Fox?
If you’re an avid mystery reader and a fan of the beautifully captured scene and the truly stunning setting—or if you’ve had it with where you are right now and want to “go” somewhere else—I can guarantee you can’t go wrong with anyone on my list.
Dr. Randy Overbeck is a writer, educator, researcher, and speaker in much demand. During his three plus decades of educational experience, he has performed many of the roles depicted in his writing with responsibilities ranging from coach and yearbook advisor to principal and superintendent. His new ghost story/mystery, Blood on the Chesapeake, will be released on April 10, 2019, by The Wild Rose Press. As the title suggests, the novel is set on the famous Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake Bay, home to endless shorelines, incredible sunsets, and some of the best sailing in the world. Blood is first in a new series of paranormal mysteries, The Haunted Shores Mysteries. Dr. Overbeck’s first novel, Leave No Child Behind, a thriller about the terrorist takeover of a Midwest high school and one teacher’s stand against the intruders, won the 2011 Silver Award for Thrillers from ReadersFavorite.com. Dr. Overbeck is a member of the Mystery Writers of America and an active member of the literary community. You can follow him on Twitter @OverbeckRandy, friend him on Facebook at Author Randy Overbeck, or check out his webpage at www.authorrandyoverbeck.com.