One Order of Murder Mystery, Hold the Regressive Politics, Please

Magnum Bowie knife

After seeing Knives Out, I, for one, felt a new resurgence of my love for murder mysteries. There are many great murder mysteries of course, but one of the reasons Knives Out felt so rejuvenating is that it sidestepped a lot of the conservative political assumptions of the genre. Excitingly, however, there is a rich (though often undersold) strain of politically progressive murder mystery novels—ones that don’t necessarily lionize the police force, and ones that don’t assume the goal of solving the mystery is to restore or shore up an existing social hierarchy. Here are some of my favorites. 

Truly Devious
(and the following two books in the trilogy, by Maureen Johnson)

the cover of Truly Devious by Maureen Johnson has handwritten words over a dark background
This young adult trilogy, which concluded in January of 2020 with the publication of The Hand on the Wall, tells the story of Stevie Bell, an aspiring teenage detective who is obsessed with solving the crime of the previous century: the disappearance of a wealthy toddler during the Great Depression. Alice Ellingham’s disappearance in the 1930s was sensationalized in the media as her eccentric millionaire father spent lavishly trying to track her down. Stevie’s obsession gets her admitted to Ellingham Academy, an elite experimental high school that had been founded by Alice’s father himself. In addition to being glad to investigate the mystery at the scene of the crime, Stevie is relieved to be out of her fervently right-wing parents’ home. Contemporary politics rear their head at Ellingham as well, however.
As Stevie investigates the old crime, her peers begin to die in mysterious circumstances. This trilogy weaves an intricate web that often hinges on the intersections of class, money and access.

Blanche on the Lam
(and the following Blanche White series, by Barbara Neely)

a woman in an apron is shown in silhouette on the book cover

Originally published in the early 1990s, this book introduces readers to Blanche, a smart and compassionate black woman who is on the run from the law. Working as a housecleaner, Blanche hopes to avoid any notice of the police because she is wanted for writing bad checks and then slipping out of the court building to avoid a sentence of jail time. Unfortunately for her, a death adjacent to the household where she is working starts to attract attention, and Blanche herself must solve the crime and extract herself from both the situation and the wealthy white people she’s cleaning for. 

Blanche is likable and believable, and the mystery that is presented plays with a lot of genre lines enjoyably. It has a lot of the hallmarks of a cozy, interspersed with some of the corruption you might expect from a noir or southern gothic. It is also available as an ebook, thank goodness. 

Devil in a Blue Dress
(and the following Easy Rawlins series, by Walter Mosley)

the cover of Devil in a Blue dress shows a blonde woman in a blue dress

Originally published in 1990 just a few years before Blanche on the Lam, the first Easy Rawlins book shares some features with Barbara Neely’s premise. Easy, a black, out-of-work veteran in the late 1940s, becomes an amateur investigator for his community. Much more noir than cozy, this first novel in the series sees Easy searching for a missing woman in the seedy underbelly of society, and its historical setting adds an interesting perspective to this community who wishes to avoid police involvement in the solving of their mysteries. 

The Usual Suspects
(by Maurice Broaddus) 

two kids look at a notebook while sitting on the floor in this book cover illustration

This middle-grades novel got a lot of buzz before it was published in 2019, as a kids’ noir detective story. The narrator Thelonius is a black kid in Special Ed, and he is absolutely certain that when a gun is found near school grounds, it is he or his friends who will be blamed. He investigates, using a lot of the tropes and phrasing of noir, to clear himself and his classmates with a clear and believable urgency. The plot and characters are engaging and the conclusion is satisfying. 

Drive your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead
(by Olga Tokarczuk in Polish, translated into English by Antonia Lloyd-Jones) 

pink and black lines with writing on them form an abstract forest againsta blue background on the book cover

Gosh, does it feel like hubris to include a Nobel Prize winner on this list, but believe me, it fits. The narrator of Drive Your Plow is an eccentric and iconoclastic older woman, who lives alone in a tiny border village and prefers animals to people. Nevertheless, she is surrounded by fellow eccentrics with whom she has robust friendships. Their mutual support system is delightful to read. When hunters start dying in their community, the police are in the background looking for answers, but it is our narrator’s group of friends whose actions and reactions shape the plot and readers’ sympathies. 

Murder on the Orient Express
(by Agatha Christie, I mean, come on) 

red smoke billows from a train on the book cover

Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot mysteries are not particularly progressive, on the whole. They are definitely classics of the genre, and present an interesting look at how her detective could use the fact that he was underestimated by British society to his advantage. Nevertheless, he is a well-educated white western European man, who generally restores order by revealing a murderer to be taken away by police, and thus releasing the innocent from any suspicion. 

There are some exceptions to this general pattern, however, such as a book in which the murderer turns out to be a police officer (I’m not going to tell you which one it is), and Murder on the Orient Express is probably the most famously innovative of them. From the heart of the Golden Age of Mysteries in 1934, comes this story of our sleuth, Hercule Poirot, in a classic locked-room mystery. On a snow-bound train, a baffling murder takes place, and Poirot must investigate the other passengers—and then decide what to do about the information he uncovers. 

Like I said, this is a list of some of my favorites, but I wholeheartedly welcome more recommendations for both recently-published mysteries with a progressive underpinning, and new ways of looking at golden era mysteries! May Knives Out usher in a new era of exploring the genre.

Emily Lauer

Emily Lauer

Emily Lauer lives in Manhattan with her husband, daughter and dog. She teaches writing and literature at Suffolk County Community College where she studies comics, kids' books, adaptations and visual culture. She is a former Pubwatch Editor for WWAC, and frankly, there is a lot more gray in her hair than there was when this profile picture was taken.