10 authors pick the most atmospheric crime novels
There’s nothing more compelling than a novel that plays out against a rich and intense atmosphere. The kind of book that transports you to its world, inviting you to see, feel and hear the story – one that ramps up the tension with every disturbing detail and leaves you gasping for breath at the turn of every page.
So to keep our pulses racing as we read, we asked some of our favourite crime writers, including Cara Hunter, Robert Goddard and Samantha Downing, to recommend the best atmospheric crime novels that will unsettle us, in the best possible way.
Take your pick from this tantalising selection of uncompromising, gut-punching, shudder-inducing choices…
Cara Hunter, author of The Whole Truth:
I’m going to go for arguably the first and certainly the best 19th-century crime novel, Charles Dickens’ Bleak House. I happen to know it’s one of Ian Rankin’s favourites too, so I’m in good company here. It’s a tour de force of intricate plotting (and published in instalments as well, so there was no going back to tweak things later – imagine the challenge of doing that!). As for atmosphere, there’s no book richer in the sights and sounds and smells of Victorian London, and who can ever forget that extraordinary opening section…
Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights….
Simon Lelic, author of The Search Party:
A book I return to again and again, precisely for its wonderfully claustrophobic atmosphere, is Umberto Eco’s historical murder mystery, The Name of the Rose. I read it most recently last year (during the early days of the pandemic, most of my reading was in fact re-reading), and Eco’s depiction of the monastery William and Adso must infiltrate masterfully conveys not just the oppressive nature of the setting itself, but also of the ideological fervour of the monastery’s inhabitants. The aedificium – the labyrinthine library at the heart of the abbey – is particularly well wrought, a fine example of a location becoming the perfect metaphor for the mystery itself.
Sam Lloyd, author of The Rising Tide:
From the first page of Dark Pines – from the very first sentence, in fact – it’s clear we’re going somewhere special. Tuva Moodyson is driving through Sweden’s Utgard Forest when an elk steps into the road ahead. Tuva stands on the brakes and her rented pickup slides to a stop. She switches on her hearing aid just as the elk charges. And from that moment I felt like I was sitting in the passenger seat far from help, smelling the frozen forest, sensing the unadulterated wildness and wondering if we’d both get out alive. That feeling didn’t leave me for the rest of Will Dean’s fantastic debut.
Samantha Downing, author of For Your Own Good:
The first book of the Shetland series introduces us to DI Jimmy Perez… and to the Shetland Islands in Scotland. Being from America, I had never heard of them, but I was completely immersed in this cold, isolated area where a teenage girl is found murdered. After this book I read the rest of the series and watched the BBC TV show Shetland. I still haven’t been over to Scotland to visit the islands, but that’s definitely on my bucket list. And it all started with Raven Black.
Matthew Frank, author of The Killer Inside:
Asking a crime writer to propose a candidate for the ‘most atmospheric crime novel’ is akin to asking them to choose which eight records they might hope to wash up with them on a desert island. There are simply too many to choose from, so many worthy options that have shaped our lives at different stages, thrillers that chill, mysteries that build tensions and twist… My first reaction was – could you just give me a year to read all recommendations out there I’ve never had time to – but, having only a few days, I must stick to those I know. I was sorely tempted to suggest Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier for the creeping menace, but in the end, I have to go back to the beginning with a classic early influence – Crooked House, by Agatha Christie. Not everyone’s top choice of her novels, but I’ll never forget the building claustrophobia of finding myself trapped inside Three Gables knowing the killer could be just about anyone!
Nuala Ellwood, author of The Perfect Life:
One of the most atmospheric crime novels I have read in recent years is The Silver Road by Stina Jackson. The novel takes place in the northern-most part of Sweden, where the sun never sets and shadows haunt the sleep-deprived local population. The Silver Road tells the story of Lelle, a troubled man whose daughter went missing on a remote strip of road three years earlier. As he drives through endless light nights, searching for his lost daughter, he meditates on what brought him here and the demons he has yet to vanquish. The Silver Road drew me in from the very first page. Jackson writes beautifully and with heart. Her lyrical prose and masterly evocation of place combine with a gripping plot that kept me guessing right until the end. But it was the atmosphere of summer in Northern Sweden, the strange, forbidding eternal light, that stuck to me, like a second skin, long after I had finished the book. Highly recommended.
Matthew Hall, author of The Black Art of Killing:
Get Shorty, by the late great Elmore Leonard (for my money the greatest American crime writer), is set in Miami, Las Vegas and Los Angeles. Bright, sunny, plastic utopias crawling with crime, ambition and corruption which Leonard peoples with characters so stunningly real you can smell their hair oil. Leonard’s brilliance in conjuring atmosphere comes from a combination of slick, boiled-down prose and movie-quality dialogue that combine to create a world so vivid you want to quit your job, buy a six-gun and a Cadi’ and start a loan-sharking racket from the back of barber’s shop because you now know all the moves. There’s also something extra-magical in this book – our hero, Chilli Palmer, a small-time gangster sent to collect a debt from an errant dry-cleaner in Las Vegas, uses only his street-smarts and attitude to ultimately charm and manoeuvre his way into the Hollywood movie business via a beautiful double-cross or two and a partnership with a drunk and feckless B-list movie producer. It’s the ultimate American fantasy – dead-eyed outlaw rises to become glamorous big-shot – in 300 scorching pages. It’s a book that makes you feel cool – and shows you how.
Alex Pavesi, author of Eight Detectives:
The most atmospheric crime novel I’ve read is Rim of the Pit by Hake Talbot, from 1944. After the death of a logging tycoon, his relatives and colleagues gather in an isolated cabin in the woods. Where better to have a heated discussion of his plans for the business? The attendants hold a seance, while the snow piles up outside. Murders follow, in seemingly impossible circumstances. The atmosphere is so spooky that it’s hard not to think something supernatural is at work, until the night passes and everything is seen in a new light.
Lauren North, author of Safe At Home:
For me, atmosphere is location; it’s being dragged headfirst into the novel’s setting. But it’s also the intensity of the characters that really builds a great atmosphere, and one novel where setting and characters come together perfectly is Black Widows by Cate Quinn. It’s set in the desolate wilds of Utah where the sense of unease and isolation is palpable. Right alongside that landscape are three complicated sister wives whose lies, truths and history create an atmosphere charged with tension and questions as the reader and the police try to uncover which wife killed their husband. It truly is one of the most atmospheric crime novels I’ve ever read.
Robert Goddard, author of The Fine Art of Invisible Detection:
Famous for Watership Down and several other animal fables, Richard Adams ventured into adult human territory with the extraordinarily atmospheric The Girl in a Swing. In certain respects it’s become something of a period piece since it was first published forty years ago, but it still exudes an air of menace, mounting slowly to dread, as the nature of the crime at the centre of the story is slowly revealed. Right from the opening sentence, which manages to conjure mystery out of a description of the weather on a late July evening in the English countryside, The Girl in a Swing is a masterly and haunting piece of work.
What are the best atmospheric crime novels you’ve read? Let us know in the comments below!