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Existential mysteries to read over the long winter to come

Vox’s book critic recommends books to fit your very specific mood.

Ask a Book Critic Amanda Northrop/Vox
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

Welcome to the latest installment of Vox’s Ask a Book Critic, in which I, Vox book critic Constance Grady, provide book recommendations to suit your very specific mood: either how you’re feeling right now or how you’d like to be feeling instead.

I always like a good murder mystery when the weather starts to get chilly, so right now I’m reading Tana French’s forthcoming book The Searcher. I had a bad moment with it earlier when the male protagonist began describing a woman in a way that made my hackles rise — but then I remembered that by the Tana French formula, that moment just means that the protagonist is exposing his own blind spots with regard to women, and in the end she’ll turn out to be the key to everything in the way he least expects. What makes French great, though, is I have absolutely no idea how this lady could possibly be connected to the mystery, so I am still on tenterhooks waiting.

But perhaps you are not in the mood for slightly bleak Irish mysteries with feminist cred! That is perfectly reasonable! And that’s why this column exists: so I can help you find the books that you do want to read. So let’s get to it.

Since Covid depression, the only books I’m enjoying are Martin Walker’s Bruno, Chief of Police series. Any other series that are sort of gentle (despite all the murders), and sort of smart?

Probably the best author for smart-but-gentle mysteries is my girl Josephine Tey, who was a Golden Age detective novelist. She does a lot of British pastoral stuff (The Franchise Affair opens with a detailed description of a tea tray), but she’s not writing a full-blown cozy mystery, which I get the sense is not what you want. Her books aren’t thrillers, but they do always get a little bit violent.

Other options: Donna Leon’s Guido Brunetti series features a detective in Venice who deeply appreciates his wife’s cooking and might scratch some of the same food-plus-travel itch that Bruno does. And Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series doesn’t have very many murders, but it’s very sweet and very funny.

I’m looking for fiction that reads like an Edward Hopper painting.

It appears that there is actually a full anthology of short stories inspired by Hopper paintings called In Sunlight or In Shadow, so you are not alone in this request! Otherwise, I think Raymond Chandler will hit right on the mark for that sense of claustrophobic glamour-gone-to-seed. And for a sense of melancholia that’s been overexposed to sunlight, you can’t beat Joan Didion. Go with Play It As It Lays.

I was hoping you could recommend some modern fantasy or YA fantasy similar to Howl’s Moving Castle and Stardust. Looking for something to escape into.

I think you should try Pamela Dean. Her Secret Country trilogy is explicitly designed to follow in the tradition of a Narnia portal-world fantasy, but with a level of character depth and complex mythology that would still hold up to an adult reader, and there are tons of really interesting ideas in those books about why we read and what we get from stories. They’re about a group of cousins who meet up every summer to play-act the story of a king’s betrayal and murder in a fantasy land of their own imagining. And then one day they walk through a portal and end up living in that fantasy land themselves, where everything is just as they described it, only different.

Dean’s Tam Lin might also be up your alley. It’s a retelling of the Child ballad of Tam Lin, set in a Midwestern liberal arts college where the classics department is all made up of immortal fair folk in disguise. It’s very good at making you want to be sitting in a university library in the middle of winter, drinking tea and making notes on Hamlet while you worry about whether your boyfriend is secretly an Elizabethan actor who sold his soul to the fairies in exchange for immortal youth.

I’d like to find some witty social satires that skewer the upper class. Can you think of some that aren’t set in NYC, for a change — maybe somewhere like DC or Southern California, for example?

Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible might be what you’re looking for. It’s a contemporary retelling of Pride and Prejudice set in Cincinnati, and it looks very specifically at what it means to be rich in a Midwestern city. I’d also recommend Such a Fun Age, which is an enormously breezy and fast-paced satire of class and race that takes place in Philadelphia.

I’m looking for long, hefty, cerebral puzzle box mystery-ish books that are not afraid to push me into deep and bleak existential and philosophical waters, in which I can drown myself while waiting out snowstorms, pandemics, and joblessness.

This sounds like a very difficult winter! The obvious first call here is Ducks, Newburyport, which is made up of a single sentence that spans a thousand pages and deals with, essentially, all of life. I would also suggest Susanna Clarke’s excellent new novel Piranesi, which is fairly compact but absolutely ready to push you into deep philosophical waters (sometimes literally).

Your full email mentioned David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, so on the off chance you haven’t read it, I think you should pick up Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler, which Mitchell has cited as one of his influences. After that: Maybe some Neil Stephenson? Cryptonomicon might be what you’re looking for.

If you’d like me to recommend a book for you, email me at with the subject line “Ask a Book Critic.” The more specific your mood, the better!