A good mystery involves a balance of character and plot that keeps the reader guessing as much as it does foster a reader’s connection with the character and their predicament. As the tropes suggest, writers have found irresistible techniques and situations to make this possible time and time again. From the textbook double-cross (any noir narrative) to the Clue-like friends/family hiding a secret (see: the recent film Knives Out), a writer takes what works and turns it on its side. I mean, who doesn’t love to read something that gets you thinking, “I know what’s about to happen!” only to have the narrative subvert and surprise you with a well-developed shift and turn of the details?
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One of the most effective devices to implement into an intense, often down-and-out mystery is a character, often a protagonist, who is, let’s just say, not at their very best in life. Whatever the cause—be it drugs, alcohol, or simply matters entirely beyond them—a character experiencing some “hard luck” is often one of the most endearing types, because who isn’t on the verge of another challenge, fearful, or at the very least worried about the future? In fiction, especially hard luck mysteries, we get to relate to the down-and-out predicaments of those unlucky characters. A great hard luck mystery demonstrates to readers that life is unpredictable, and a string of bad luck can happen to anyone.
Murder & Mayhem has gathered up eight extraordinary (and incredibly relatable) hard luck mysteries with characters that are as strong-willed as they are at wit’s end.
Danger in Numbers
The latest from the bestselling author of hundreds of books, Heather Graham’s Danger in Numbers pits special agent Amy Larson against one of the most heinous and unrelenting types of homicide cases—ritualistic murder. Traditionally among the most difficult to solve, Larson and her partner, John Schultz, are still up to the task. Though maybe the bureau doesn’t think so...
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Another agent, Hunter Forrest, joins the case, if only to further stack the odds against agent Larson in what would already be a bonafide “hard luck” situation. Yet the trio find a balance and draw closer together as they dig up secrets that go far beyond the murder itself. Though Larson and crew are clearly capable, the case never relents, and the murders depicted resemble the great difficulty and darkness to which it sends its agents. The tension never lets up, Graham’s mastery of the crime scene mystery clearly at work.
Just My Luck
When more money means more problems, it’s the promise that all of your current woes will go away and the fantasy of an escape that gets people repeating the same mistakes time and time again. Lexi and Jake have a betting pool that they’ve been a part of with two other married couples—their friends the Pearsons and the Heathcotes. They play the same six lottery numbers in hopes that one day a couple would win. Not that it'll ever happen… until it does.
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The numbers are called and the lottery is won, but it’s soured a little by the sudden fissure between the friend group. Everyone backs out of the betting pool except for Lexi and Jake. Now they’ve essentially inherited more money than they could ever imagine, as well as a knot of bad luck on the horizon.
What better way to forge an effective “hard luck” mystery than using a stalled-out novelist working a dead-end low residency faculty workshop job while lamenting the downward trajectory and relative bad luck they’ve had since the signing of their first book? That’s Jacob Finch Bonner in a nutshell at the start of Jean Hanff Korelitz’s latest page-turner. When yet another low residency summer session kicks in, Bonner is ready to endure it in his typical depressive haze, only to meet an exceedingly arrogant student, Evan Parker, who claims that he has an irresistible idea for a novel—one that’ll sell millions, get him on Oprah, and be his golden ticket.
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Of course, Bonner wants to know what this idea is, and when Parker tells him during a faculty-student one-on-one, Bonner is shocked: the arrogant young man is right. However, the years go by and Parker’s novel never appears on any bestseller list, nor is it published. Bonner investigates and discovers that Parker died shortly after the workshop. With an idea that good, Bonner wonders, should he risk telling it? Bonner, down on his luck, just might be desperate enough to swipe the idea as his own.
Bad Luck and Trouble
Jack Reacher has never been one for averting danger. In the eleventh novel in the immensely popular series by Lee Child, Reacher ends up at the center of a string of incredibly horrible events. Ex-army investigators are being hunted down and killed one by one. Reacher’s friends are among those targeted, instantly blurring the hero’s ability to navigate the murky waters of conspiracy. Gone into a sort of self-induced hiding, Reacher has no means of contact, and has effectively owned the bad luck he has seemingly inherited from past wins and losses.
Of course, someone like Reacher doesn’t stay pinned down in defeat for long. Soon he is discovered by Frances Neagley and brought into a growing pod of ex-military to defend against the menace of their possible murders. Child deftly pins Reacher into a corner so that we get to watch him fight his way out.
No Bad Deed
The debut novel by Heather Chavez begins unassumingly enough—a rainy night and a tired drive home. Cassie Larkin is an endearing, strong-willed veterinarian who witnesses a man and woman fighting on the side of the road. Do you stop or keep going? Cassie stops, fearing the woman’s safety.
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This ingenious and relatable premise sets up an exhilarating series of events that make up this mystery draped in hard luck and determination. The man threatens Cassie, claiming he will come after both her and her family. It doesn’t take long for the alarming phone calls, and the impression of an orderly, safe life and home to come apart. Her good intentions result in a string of bad luck that not only threatens her marriage, but also her family.
You Were Never Really Here
This book may only rank in at approximately 110 pages, but it hits like a hammer to the skull. Every page is dripping in grit and despair. Ames introduces us to the battle-torn and mentally broken Joe, an ex-FBI agent and soldier. So buried in the trauma of endless carnage, he intends on ending his life. He gets close, having believed that he hit rock bottom, the very end of the line.
When a New York politician hires him to save his daughter from the seedy underbelly of the city’s sex trade, a glimmer of hope appears. The thing is, Joe is what happens to someone that not only experiences the worst luck, but also believes that he is bad luck incarnate. With his demons and the criminal underground chasing him down, Joe walks right into the line of danger.
Tana French has made a name for herself in the world of mystery and suspense. Her addictive and compelling novels often involve incredibly compelling characters in odd situations that remain rooted in a palpable sense of reality. In the follow-up to In the Woods, The Likeness finds detective Cassie Maddox leaving the Dublin Murder Squad to work through the trauma resulting from the case. Soon after, she begins a relationship with detective Sam O’Neill.
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Things might be okay, until Sam calls her one day, fresh on a new case: a murdered girl, one that’s the spitting image of Cassie. That’s enough to send the plot into a whirlwind of surreal twists and turns, but French adds in another detail: the ID on the body is Lexie Madison, the name and identity Cassie had used during her time as an undercover detective. Is it a metaphor for her trauma, a warning from a killer watching from the shadows, or both? Cassie has no other recourse than to pick back up where she left off, going undercover to make sense of the misery.
Like a cross between a pandemic novel and a spree killer mystery, McLeay’s Unlucky Day hits real close to home. New York City is suddenly under the “watchful eye”—or rather the sights—of a mysterious sniper who kills people on the street at random, scaring everyone into staying indoors. Detective Joe Bannon is given the case and begins hunting for the sniper in the dark and gritty alleys and underground of the city. The pressure and terror is very real, with Bannon exhibiting that pressure. With echoes of 2002’s D.C. sniper attacks and the looming dread it cast across an entire city, this novel manages to showcase how an entire city can befall a downward swing of bad luck.
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