The first time I read Enid Blyton’s The Famous Five on a Treasure Island, I was six years old and had just discovered the hidden room behind a swinging tool rack at the back of my grandfather’s shed. It was like a double birthday: I had my first mystery novel about a secret treasure AND I found the perfect room to read it in! Apparently, I disappeared for long enough to send my parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, and the next-door neighbour searching for me around the neighbourhood. It was my grandfather who solved the mystery three hours later, finding me curled up with my book, a shovel, and a big smile on my face. Needless to say, we had some new ground rules about where we were allowed to read books after that; we being me. But it didn’t matter. I had found my love. I had found my map to mystery adventure books. And it would only grow from there.
Throughout the 1980s, I dreamed of being Indiana Jones. Travelling the world, studying civilisations, solving mysteries, and sharing this collective wisdom with the world (minus the “British Museum style” appropriation). As representation improved, I added Carmen San Diego and Lara Croft to my list. Unfortunately, my family constantly reminded there was no money in archaeology or history or anthropology. Not surprising, considering I would always end up spending my money on new books instead; especially mystery novels with maps. There is something so clever about a good mystery, filled with clues and hints to lead you towards the treasure or try to distract you away from it. It keeps the mind fresh and active. It leaves a feeling of accomplishment, learning new things or realising how much is already known. Most of us will never use this newfound knowledge to any great benefit… well, except that one time I won pub trivia thanks to the Temple of the Moon in Petra, famously used in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. As I said, I have a type.
Seven Ancient Wonders by Matthew Reilly
I will warn you: this is the first of seven books in the series. Add to that Reilly’s penchant for cliffhangers (both literally and figuratively), and his complete disregard for killing off fan-fave characters. I warn you because you may simply be better off grabbing all seven books and setting aside a whole week to read them. It’s an outrageous mix of ancient mysteries, treasure hunting adventures, and a touch of Indiana Jones at his best. This book will have you traipsing across the globe, searching for hidden secrets, and meeting the greatest mix of characters ever to fall into an adventure. It’s glorious. It’s the most fought-over and re-read book in our family. In fact, I think I’ll go read it again right now.
The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin
Possibly the most popular mystery book for YA/middle-graders since Enid Blyton. It received a plethora of literary awards, including the coveted Newberry Medal in 1979. However, its greatest recognition would be setting the “Westing Benchmark” for mystery novels ever since. This book is a true gem for any 11-13-year-old in search of mystery novels with maps full of secrets. Samuel W. Westing insured it. It was Mr Westing who left his vast fortune in a game of riddles to be solved by 16 random people who happen to live in the same building. It’s a great example of how a puzzle can be a book and is one of my earliest memories of diversity in the cast.
The Emperor’s Riddle by Kat Zhang
Eleven-year-old Mia Chen is spending her summer holiday travelling to China with her favourite Aunt Lin. It all sounds like a great adventure until Lin disappears; then it becomes a real adventure, for all the wrong reasons. Mia’s only clue is the mysterious man named Ying — an old nemesis of Aunt Lin and someone who she once worked with to find a hidden treasure. When Mia discovers an old map filled with riddles, she realises she needs to find the treasure first if she wants to save her aunt. This children’s novel is definitely aimed at middle school readers but is so much fun, I enjoyed it as an easy read in the afternoon. It has just enough mystery to keep me engaged with the classic old-map-and-riddles to feel like an adventure.
The Cartographers by Peng Shepherd
Who knew those cheap highway maps at the gas station could actually be worth something? Nell’s greatest passion is cartography, just like her father. The same father she has not spoken to since they fought over a map, and he subsequently fired her and ruined her reputation. But now he is dead and the same map is the only key she has to solve the mystery. This book ticks all the boxes for lovers of mystery novels with maps, academic adventures, and family secrets from beyond the grave.
The Mapmakers: Cordelia Hatmaker #2 by Tamzin Merchant
This is Book 2 in the series and yes, you will benefit from reading the first book: The Hatmakers. Cordelia Hatmaker comes from a long line of magical milliners who incorporate alchemy and magic in their hats. In fact, Hatmakers are simply one of the special Maker families with the skills and gifts to save the world. In the second book, Cordelia meets the secret society of Mapmakers thanks to a hidden map in her father’s telescope. Now she needs to search for clues in the streets of London and solve the mystery of magic itself. The first book is lovely but the second book really opens your eyes to the magic all around us.
Artifact: Jaya Jones Treasure Hunt Mystery #1 by Gigi Pandian
If your ex is sending you jewel-encrusted artifacts, you know you are about to have a very bad day. Artifact is the blend of mystery, murder, and romance stretching from India to Scotland and a few stopovers in between. I’m here for the archaeological digs and cryptic clues to solve the mystery. It’s a fun read with plenty of cozy mystery vibes, especially with the history woven through the storytelling. Almost tempted me to go back to academia. Almost.
Tuesday Mooney Talks to Ghosts by Kate Racculia
By now, you may be thinking, “Geez, there sure are a lot of bored billionaires waiting to die so they can torment their relatives with a secret treasure hunt mystery.” If only I was related to at least one of them. Of course, there is always that reluctant participant who knows exactly how to make the most of the ridiculous situation. Tuesday Mooney is that reluctant participant and her dry dark humour draws the map to this mystery adventure book. It’s an epic treasure hunt through the city of Boston, guided mostly by the words of Edgar Allan Poe.
The Parker Inheritance by Varian Johnson
Sometimes the true treasure in the mystery is an understanding of what happened in our history. For Candice, it starts with a letter addressed to her grandmother and shares an unsolved mystery from many years ago. Her grandmother tried and failed but now Candice might be able to bring closure. The book neatly folds between the current day and flashbacks, telling a story filled with explorations of racism, family, and friendship. It’s an ambitious effort to bring social justice and context into a tightly woven mystery novel but Johnson brings it home with respect for middle school readers and adults who can still learn a thing or two.
The Eleventh Hour by Graeme Base
This is hands-down one of my favourite children’s books to share with my kids. It is filled with clues and hidden maps and secrets and all the good stuff you find in mystery books. I know, I know — we were talking about mystery novels with maps, but The Eleventh Hour must be included. It simply must! I read this book when it first came out in 1989 and it consumed our classroom in a way most teachers could only dream of. The story is presented in rhyming prose with full-page illustrations for the 11th birthday celebration of Horace the Elephant. He has invited his 10 best friends to play 11 games and share in a feast at the end. When the clock strikes 11:00, the food is already gone! But clues have been left on each page, leading us through the map of pages to find the culprit at the end. Just so you know, the original edition did not have the solution provided at the end of the book. So here’s a shout-out to all of the teachers who had to mediate the MANY arguments in the classroom as to who stole the food (I’m so sorry, Ms. Coleman).
Mystery novels are always a treat, but there is something extra about mystery novels with maps. It’s all about finding the clues, deciphering the map, and answering the riddles. They give us that moment where we feel clever, worthy, and often a little better about ourselves. Sure, we’re often doing it from the comfort of our favourite reading nook, but it never takes away the joy of solving the mystery. I will follow any map for that joy, any day.
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