Escape the Heat: Mysteries Set in the North

Lori Lamothe

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(Ethan Robertson on Unsplash)

It's July, the hottest month of the year. Just how hot it will get in 2022 is up in the air but last year's summer was the warmest ever recorded. Ideally, I recommend taking a trip to somewhere cool, preferably with a large body of water nearby.

If that's not possible, escaping to a cool imaginary locale is second best option. Check out these eight thrillers set in Northern places:

1. The Winter People by Jennifer McMahon

I’ve read most of Jennifer McMahon’s novels and her ghostly supernatural mysteries rarely let me down. The Winter People is set in Vermont (as are most of McMahon’s books) on a remote farmhouse. When 19-year-old Ruthie’s mother goes missing, the teenager finds an old diary under the floorboards in one of the bedrooms.

She soon realizes it belonged to Sara Harrison Shea, who died a few months after her daughter Gertie disappeared on a cold winter’s day in 1908. Sara’s story is inextricably linked to the present-day disappearance, but can Ruthie figure out the connection in time to save her mother?

Why You Should Read It: This dark, creepy tale will keep you up until you’ve finished it. And good luck falling asleep after you put it down.

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2. The Darkest Evening by Ann Cleeves

I recently discovered Ann Cleeves and fell in love with the unglamorous but brilliant Detective Inspector Vera Stanhope. The ninth installment in the Stanhope series begins on a snowy Christmas Eve, when Vera discovers a toddler in an abandoned SUV on the side of the road that leads to her family’s ancestral estate. As it turns out, the snowstorm — and the toddler — are the least of the Detective Inspector’s problems. The child’s mother has been murdered not far from her car and Vera’s team soon arrives, rather reluctantly, to help solve the case.

Why You Should Read It: The Darkest Evening is an excellent whodunit Agatha Christie style. It’s beautifully written, expertly plotted and every character exerted some sort of pull on me. And have I mentioned I didn’t figure out the murderer’s identity until 91 percent into my Kindle read?

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3. No Mercy by Joanna Schaffhausen

This mystery is the second novel in Joanna Schaffhausen‘s Ellery Hathaway series but it works fine as a standalone. Set in an icy cold Boston, No Mercy begins with a group therapy meeting Ellery is forced to attend during her involuntary leave from her job as a police officer. She’s not interested in getting in touch with her feelings but she does want to find out if a fellow group member convicted the wrong suspect of arson.

Ellery also wants to help a woman who survived a brutal rape. Her attacker hasn’t been caught and his Spider-Man-like ability to climb through bedroom windows makes him seem invincible. To get the job done, Ellery reaches out to FBI profiler Reed Markham, who rescued her from a serial killer’s closet when she was 14 years old.

Why You Should Read It: No Mercy is a suspenseful page-turner that held my interest from beginning to end. The developing relationship between Ellery and Reed was almost as compelling as the mystery itself. I discovered this series a couple of years ago and have read all five books. If you haven’t heard of it, I highly recommend giving it a try.

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4. The Bone Jar by S.W. Kane

S.W. Kane’s debut novel is a police procedural that centers on the murder of an elderly woman at a dilapidated asylum on the banks of the Thames. By far the strongest aspect of the book is the setting, which is gorgeously eerie, especially because the murder occurs during a bitterly cold winter.

Blackwater’s interiors are full of shadows, broken glass, rusted beds, peeling paint and decayed mattresses. Outside, the grounds glitter in the sunlight and heavy snow clings to the trees. The asylum’s best-kept architectural secret — which is revealed at the end — is just as beautiful, just as disturbing.

I also liked the characters, especially DCI Lew Kirby, former patient Raymond Sweet, and “urban explorer” Connie Darke. Kirby’s and Connie’s efforts to uncover Blackwater’s sordid history fascinated me. Both of them soon realize the asylum’s past must be connected with the old woman’s death — they just need to figure out how before somebody else turns up dead.

Why You Should Read It: Kane’s writing style is crisp and the story’s pacing is brisk but not breakneck, which is perfect for a procedural.

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5. The Absolution by Yrsa Sigurdarottir

There is a reason critics tout Yrsa Sigurðardóttir as the queen of Icelandic crime fiction. Her richly complex characters, twisted plots and socially conscious themes have earned her a place at the top of the Nordic noir authors.

Told mostly from the perspectives of Huldur, a Reykjavik police detective, and Freyja, a child psychologist, The Absolution begins with the murder of a popular teenager at a local cinema. What makes this murder even more gruesome than usual is that the attacker uses the victim’s own Snapchat account to broadcast her death to her followers. Not only must viewers cope with the loss of a close friend, but they must also witness what may well be her last moments.

However, it soon becomes clear the murdered girl and her friends are not simply victims. They may appear to blithely share every aspect of their lives on social media, but they are hiding secrets — secrets that are as disturbing as they are dangerous.

Why You Should Read It: While the acts in the novel are heinous, the moral landscape is as gray as the Icelandic sky, with the line between good and evil hopelessly blurred. Ironically, that blurred morality becomes crystal clear on the last page, which is fantastically chilling.

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6. Death in St. Petersburg by Tasha Alexander

When Emily Hargreaves emerges from the Mariinksy Theatre, she encounters more than just another frigid Russian night. Swan Lake’s prima ballerina lies broken across the snow, a spray of blood spattered across her tutu. Despite the best efforts of the police, Lady Emily manages to push her way to the front of the crime scene for a closer look. She quickly detects what the police have missed: a diamond-encrusted Faberge egg hidden beneath the body.

Unfortunately, investigating a death in a foreign country is not part of Lady Emily’s duties as the wife of Colin Hargreaves, a dashing undercover officer who is in St. Petersburg at the Queen’s behest. But as is usually the case — at least when it comes to investigating murders — luck is on her side. The next day a handsome prince presents himself at Emily’s hotel and begs her to uncover the truth on his behalf. Finding out just what the truth is proves to be as challenging as ever for Lady Emily.

Why You Should Read It: If you crave Victorian mysteries on a regular basis, Death in St. Petersburg will hit the spot. The smart, intrepid Emily is appealing as ever, as is Alexander’s tale of murder, ballet and Russian mayhem. The chapters alternate between Katenka’s point of view in the late 1890s and Lady Emily’s in 1900, which kept the pacing brisk and the mystery engaging.

I especially liked Katenka’s chapters, which gave me a glimpse into a dancer’s life in Imperial Russia, as well as some interesting background on the political turmoil brewing at the turn of the century.

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7. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

When it comes to psychological thrillers, Stieg Larsson is hands down my favorite author. The Lisbeth Salander series has been around for a long time and it became so popular that even Larsson’s death didn’t bring it to a close. I do like David Lagercrantz’ continuation of the Millennium books but they can’t match Larsson’s four novels. Of those, The Girl with Dragon Tattoo remains my favorite, maybe because Lisbeth’s appearance on the noir scene suddenly made it cool to be an awkward nerdy girl who spends most of her time in front of a computer.

The story begins when Harriet Vanger’s uncle hires investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist to look into her disappearance forty years earlier. Blomkvist, whose reputation is in tatters after a libel suit, is eager to decamp to the remote Swedish island where Vanger went missing. Salander — genius, hacker, social misfit and ward of the state — soon comes to his aid. It’s not long before they discover more murders and learn that the decades-old cold case isn’t cold at all.

Why You Should Read It: Larsson's style can be slow and meandering--not to mention that everyone in the book constantly drinks coffee--but Lisbeth is inimitable. The novel's plot is solid and outshines the others in the series.

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8. Gorky Park by Martin Cruz Smith

Martin Cruz Smith’s novel not only happens in the frigid Moscow winter, it’s set during the Cold War. I read the runaway bestseller when I was studying in Russia and came across a dog-eared copy of the book. It has always been one of my favorite thrillers. This brilliantly plotted book opens when chief homicide inspector Arkady Renko is called to investigate three frozen bodies found in a Moscow amusement park. The killer has cut off the corpses’ faces and fingertips, but that is nothing compared to the difficulties Renko encounters from the very people who should be helping him.

To find the truth, Arkady must battle the KGB, FBI, and the New York City police. Not surprisingly, corruption is deeply embedded on both sides of the Atlantic and Smith’s depiction of Soviet totalitarianism is absolutely convincing. Not to mention that the ending is priceless…

Why You Should Read It: Cold War novels seem more relevant than ever. Not only is this a suspenseful, well plotted read, it gives great background on life in Russia.

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Heat is never fun but it can be conquered. Pour yourself an iced tea and head to the beach to spend some time with one of these mysteries.

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Writer, assistant professor, former baker. I cover cold cases, history, recipes, and culture. If you have a story idea you'd like me to investigate, you can email me at lorilamothe29@gmail.com.

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