“Dark” is definitely one of those terms that is a feeling and that readers will draw very different lines for. Being a crime reader since middle school, I’ve had many people tell me variations of “OMG this book is so dark, read it!” and I’ve found that it is not in fact very dark, if dark at all. Which does not change that it was in fact dark for them. So what really makes a book “dark” is the question I wondered as putting this list together. Readers will most likely agree that Scandinavian noir falls into the dark category as both the books and procedural shows generally not only have a dark moody feel but plunge into dark violent acts and do not shy away from being very graphic about it. So I stayed away from Scandinavian noir for the reason that it felt like cheating (okay, one Swedish graphic novel). I did gravitate towards books that either felt like they blended horror (also a feeling) and mystery/thriller or books with dark crimes. One will forever haunt me and another will forever be remembered as the book I made the mistake of starting before bed. So enjoy!
The Jigsaw Man (Inspector Anjelica Henley #1) by Nadine Matheson
I’d say for regular readers of dark crime books this isn’t that dark, however the crimes are (the serial killer is called The Jigsaw Killer!) and for someone who wants to dip a toe towards darker procedurals, this is a great start to a new series. It follows a lot of tropes loved by readers: seasoned detective paired up with rookie; messy personal life detective; serial killer taunting detective; if the serial killer is behind bars, who is responsible for the new murders?!
(TW: side character with early onset dementia/ mentions flasher case/ past rape case discussed, detail/ past suicide discussed, not detailed/ mentions suicide cases, brief detail/ panic attacks/ PTSD/ attempted rape)
Perfect Days by Raphael Montes
Two scenes in this book will forever haunt me. And the whole thing is just disturbing. Teo is a medical student whose only friend is a cadaver — yup. When he meets Clarice and falls for her, he can’t understand why she doesn’t want to be with him. So he decides to kidnap her until she falls in love with him. If you’ve ever wondered what Annie Wilkes and Norman Bates’s child would be like, pick up this book.
(TW: I don’t remember specifics, but absolutely anything dealing with a man kidnapping a woman)
Theme Music by T. Marie Vandelly
I’m going to say that any book with a family massacre is going to be on the dark side. I’d definitely say this one is a mystery/thriller for fans of horror. Also, for fans of the trope “well that is just a horrible, no good, bad idea”: Wheeler, the sole survivor of a family massacre, decides to move back into the family home where the crime happened. Now an adult, she begins to question whether the accused, her father, was innocent as her uncle has always believed. And whether maybe there isn’t something wrong with the house…
(TW: suicide, including murder suicide and assisted/ graphic violence/ stalking)
Alena by Kim W. Andersson
I grew up on cruel vibes/doesn’t-fit-in/revenge teen/woman centered films like Heathers, Cruel Intentions, and Single White Female so I am always here for dark with a lady lead. Especially horror with a lady lead. I don’t want to give anything away on this one so I’ll just say if you like, dark, twisty, revenge as something fun to read here’s a graphic novel.
(I do not remember the TW for this one, sorry.)
The Initial Insult (The Initial Insult #1) by Mindy McGinnis
Let’s stick with the revenge theme, shall we? Tress Montor’s parents disappeared seven years ago and living with her grandfather at an animal attraction with dangerous wild animals is not easy for various reasons. She’s already miserable when she believes her once best friend broke in to graffiti the attraction and fed her dog to their alligator. So she decides she’s going to make her ex-best friend confess by slowly bricking her into a basement wall à la Edgar Allan Poe (The Cask of Amontillado). Yup, as f’ed up as that sounds. Making it even more interesting is there is a raging high school party happening above them.
(TW: animal cruelty/ seizures/ it feels like a date rape scene is going to happen but that’s not what it is or what happens/ fat shaming/ briefly mentions past domestic abuse)
The Bright Lands by John Fram
I would like more mystery novel meets horror novel, please and thank you. If you feel the same way, this one is for you as it feels like a small-town murder mystery married a horror novel after marathoning Friday Night Lights. Also, it has a seriously bananapants ending. Dylan is the star quarterback of a small town who goes missing after leaving a strange message for his brother Joel, who ran from the homophobic town the second he was old enough to. Now Joel returns to find out what happened to his brother and is confronted by his past trauma.
(TW: homophobia, slurs/ talk of suicide, detail/ brief mentions of domestic abuse case, detail/ fat shaming/ forced nude photos/ statutory)
The Craftsman (The Craftsman #1) by Sharon J. Bolton
I will forever think of this book and remember my grave mistake of starting it before bed. You live, you learn — except I still routinely start mystery and thrillers before bed so really it’s like I don’t learn. Anyhoo, fictional serial killer novels generally are dark page-turners because there’s always a clock ticking on the need to catch a person(s) before the next one is murdered. This one is creepy, there’s witchcraft, and at a serial killer’s funeral a note is left which will just bring the past back of course!
(TW: claustrophobia / rape)
The Tokyo Zodiac Murders by Sōji Shimada, Shika MacKenzie (Translation), Ross MacKenzie (Translation)
And I’ll finish off with a book that I wouldn’t deem dark as a whole but rather more for classic mystery fans — then why is it on your list, you ask! It’s a gruesome murder: a father murdered his daughters and chopped them up to create one woman. I know! If you’re looking for a Japanese locked-room mystery — with a solve you’ll NEVER figure out — that is set in the ’70s with two characters trying to solve a 1930s case, this is your book.
(I do not remember the TWs, sorry.)
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