Throughout its history, the mystery genre has been defined by transformations. If the great detectives created by Poe and Conan Doyle sought to impress readers, the golden-age detectives of Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Ellery Queen invited readers to a competition, solving crimes based on the scrupulously fair presentation of the evidence. The hard-boiled private eyes of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler rejected the country-house coziness of the golden age and emphasized the inhumanity, professionalism and prevalence of violent crime, and the police procedurals pioneered by Ed McBain and J.J. Marric subordinated individual mysteries to their heroes’ expansive caseloads. All the while, female investigators from Jane Marple to Kay Scarpetta had been making inroads into the once exclusively male province of detectives, and the formulaic story of crime and detection was being gradually supplanted by what Julian Symons called the crime novel, which generated suspense by exploring a surprising range of mysteries outside the realm of the traditional whodunit. So any attempts to transform the genre these days operate within both a long tradition of earlier transformations and a challenge to produce further changes that feel genuinely new.

Recent writers have risen to this challenge in refreshingly varied ways. The most obvious way to transform the mystery genre is to transform the detective, either by creating detectives whose race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, or background makes them look and sound and act different from other detectives or by expanding the detective’s brief to cover a wider range of activities. Take Yasmin Angoe’s trilogy about Nena Knight, whose foster father, Ghanian patriarch Noble Knight, has had her trained as an assassin for the African Tribal Council. Though Nena’s professional brief would seem to make her the opposite of a detective, Angoe intersperses her three adventures—Her Name Is Knight (2021), They Come at Knight (2022), and It Ends With Knight (2023)—with so many details about her traumatic childhood, which was marked by betrayal, kidnapping, enslavement, and gang rape, that the commissions she’s given become quests for personal vengeance and defining actions in the formation and preservation of her larger community. Readers whose interest in the struggles of African heroes and nations to determine their own destinies has been kindled by Black Panther will revel in Nena’s scorched-earth tactics and Angoe’s radical rehandling of traditional detective tropes.

If Nena Knight is the avenging detective as superwoman, Samuel Honig, the unlikely hero of half a dozen novels ostensibly produced by the team of E.J. Copperman and Jeff Cohen (Copperman’s birth name), is a nondetective who struggles endlessly to persuade other people of his humanity. In five cases beginning with The Question of the Missing Head (2014), Samuel insists that his Asperger’s syndrome isn’t autism and that Questions Answered, the establishment he owns and operates, isn’t a detective agency. The romantic, emotional, and interpersonal problems of Samuel’s clients seem specifically designed to challenge his limited powers of empathy, which are rooted in the same emotional detachment that Dr. Watson diagnosed early on in Sherlock Holmes. Can Samuel tell a client whether or not a suspicious associate is really his friend? Can a man cheat on his wife with a dead mistress? What’s become of Samuel’s own father, gone AWOL a generation ago to Samuel’s own complete lack of interest? Samuel’s encounters with both clients and suspects constantly use these riddles to raise questions about the relations between the neurodivergent and the allegedly neurotypical.

A closely related way of expanding the remit of the mystery story is to expand its boundaries literally. From its earliest days, the notoriously Anglophone genre established outposts as far away as India, China, and Japan, and the explosion of Nordic Noir—following the international success in the 1970s of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s stories about Stockholm police detective Martin Beck—opened the gates still wider. Given the richness of Nordic Noir in the hands of authors as different as Henning Mankell, Karin Fossum, Camilla Läckberg, and Jo Nesbø, any choice from among the field would inevitably be arbitrary. But Ragnar Jónasson stands out because of the varied ways he roots his detectives’ investigations in both the natural and the sociocultural particulars of Iceland. Whether he’s chronicling the adventures of Ari Thór Arason of the Siglufjördur police in his Dark Iceland series or penning blistering stand-alones like The Darkness (2018) and Reykjavík (2023) that take up cold cases that are both colder and hotter than you can imagine, Jónasson’s sense of Iceland as an otherworldly place that’s both sequestered from the rest of the world and a cesspool for all the world’s problems is unexcelled.

Readers seeking tropical warmth after their Icelandic excursion will welcome the detective stories of Kwei Quartey. Building on earlier anatomies of African crime by James McClure and Alexander McCall Smith, Quartey pits DI Darko Dawson of the Ghana Police Service against a series of killers who target homeless teenagers, an oil executive and his wife, an American who vanished after he was scammed by a romantic correspondent who may never have existed, and Dawson’s own sister-in-law. Whether he’s prowling the mean streets of Accra or getting dispatched to remote backcountry regions, Dawson uproots the systemic corruption behind individual crimes in a way that would do Philip Marlowe proud. Emma Djan, the private eye Quartey debuts in The Missing American (2019), has a personal history marked by so many kinds of more intimate oppression that she and her investigations focus the social problems of postcolonial Ghana even more painfully.

Closer to home, C.J. Box has used Wyoming Fish and Game Warden Joe Pickett to reimagine the role of the Western lawman in some two dozen novels from Open Season (2001) through Storm Watch (2023). Joe is no Wyatt Earp. He can’t shoot straight; he’s always losing administrative battles with his bosses and counterparts in other law-enforcement agencies; he keeps getting tangled up trying to keep his old friend, falconer Nate Romanowski, out of legal trouble; he’s constantly getting played by the Wyoming governor, who calls on him for favors and then sends him away; he can’t even control the rapacious and increasingly criminal activities of his much-married mother-in-law. But his finely honed instincts make him an effective sleuth whose adventures trace the ongoing conflicts between newcomers and natives, developers and preservationists, humans and animals, against a consistently spectacular series of high-country landscapes.

Boris Akunin has devoted his career to expanding the boundaries of the mystery field both geographically and temporally. Although the historical mystery has flourished for nearly 75 years, Akunin’s tales of Russian Collegiate Assessor Erast Petrovich Fandorin are unlike any others in the subgenre. Fandorin’s successive encounters with a Russia-bound Jack the Ripper, an anti-czarist cabal of terrorists, and a 1900 Moscow suicide club are at once more earnest, more deeply rooted in historical detail, and more exuberantly playful than those of his forebears. Akunin, whose contemporary novel Sister Pelagia and the White Bulldog (2007) unearthed a raft of remarkable affinities between Fyodor Dostoevsky and Agatha Christie, is so resourceful and inventive when he returns to the past that Fandorin’s mind-bogglingly complicated adventures are guaranteed to astound even the savviest fans of historical mysteries even as they reveal both unexpected links between past and present and unexpected gaps in readers’ historical hindsight.

Fans who are less interested in original characters and settings than in original plots have a wide range of other options. Brad Parks has made a career out of premises as audacious as they are compelling. The people who’ve snatched a judge’s young twins in Say Nothing (2017) are determined to influence the outcome of what looks like an utterly routine criminal case. A Virginia trucking dispatcher with a troubled past enters a much more troubled present when she’s suddenly accused of drug dealing, assaulting a police officer, and murder in Closer Than You Know (2018). In Interference (2020), a Dartmouth physicist whose work on quantum interference has made him wonder whether his consciousness has been merged with the larger universe is grabbed on the way to the hospital— and held for $5 million—after his latest attack sends him into a coma. In Unthinkable (2021), an attorney whose kidnapper insists that he can see the future is faced with the question of whether he should kill his wife to prevent a billion deaths threatened by the calamitous global warming her lawsuit will unwittingly release.

A more widespread development in recent mystery fiction, the floridly melodramatic inflation of pedestrian domestic fears and follies, pushes the conventions of gothics like Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca into the stratosphere. After alternating in The Widower's Wife (2016) between an insurance investigator’s inquiries into Ana Bacon’s fall from a cruise ship deck and a series of flashbacks from Ana’s viewpoint in the days leading up to her apparent demise, Cate Holahan turned Lies She Told (2017) into a beleaguered romance novelist’s attempt to write herself back from the edge by basing her new novel on a nightmarish version of her own life, producing an even more extravagant tour de force of back-and-forth. In One Little Secret (2019), her treatment of a Hamptons vacation interrupted by murder is even more time-warped, fragmented, and ambitious. Genre fans tired of linear plots can find mounting suspense in Holahan’s after-before-during cocktails, each of them guaranteed to leave readers both shaken and stirred.

A.R. Torre’s tales of suburban secrets are less twisty but nastier. A pampered wife finds that she has to fight to keep her husband from an affair with an ambitious neighbor who wants either a wealthier husband or a big payoff in Every Last Secret (2020), which the Kirkus reviewer described as “Mean Girls for grownups.” The psychiatrist who signs on to prove the innocence of a serial kidnapper she’s convinced is guilty in The Good Lie (2021) finds that the case has unwelcome ties to her professional and personal life. An obituary writer’s revenge affair turns her life and that of her high school son toxic in A Familiar Stranger (2022). Every character in A Fatal Affair (2023) seems to be hiding life-threatening secrets, and Torre provides a series of dazzling revelations that knit them together so tightly you want to cry uncle even if, as you keep reading, you wait for her to connect the murder that opens the story with the double disappearance that keeps it going.

Other writers are less interested in devising inventive plots than in putting inventive spins on familiar plots. Melding the conventions of John le Carré’s tales of post­–Cold War spying and Christopher Fowler’s farcical tales of not-quite-retired police detectives Arthur Bryant and John May, Mick Herron’s novels about Slough House, where British agents who can’t toe the line are put out to pasture, tread a fine line between wickedly pointed satire and global paranoia. Beginning with Slow Horses (2010), Herron patiently traced everything that can go wrong as these has-beens struggle to bring themselves to the attention of their uncaring, careerist bosses at MI5 and succeed all too well, though not in the ways they’d hoped. In Bad Actors (2022), the eighth and most recent installment in the series, heartless Diana Taverner, the First Desk nemesis of Slough House, is forced to go into hiding, and even though the fate of the free world hangs in the balance, it’s great fun watching her squirm while members of the intelligence community demonstrate everything but intelligence.

Readers hungry for lower-stakes laughter in an equally unlikely setting will eat up Elle Cosimano’s first three novels about the improbable adventures of a struggling novelist of romantic suspense. In Finlay Donovan Is Killing It (2021), a neighbor who overhears the eponymous heroine talking about her latest novel, thinking that she’s a professional killer, hires her to murder her abusive husband. Cosimano follows up this unrepeatable premise by putting Finlay in the middle of a hit against her own ex by the online assassin EasyClean in Finlay Donovan Knocks ’Em Dead (2022). Threatened with exposure in Finlay Donovan Jumps the Gun (2023), the chatty, resourceful heroine, whose ongoing domestic problems already threaten to tax her past the breaking point, develops new strategies, ruses, and stunts en route to a cliffhanger ending that will leave fans hungry for another sequel as soon as they stop laughing.

Still more authors keep familiar pots simmering by supplying transformative pastiches of beloved authors and detectives. Television writer Anthony Horowitz, who’s also published a series of successful Sherlockian adventures and a pair of James Bond capers, turns to Agatha Christie as the model for a series of increasingly meta homages beginning with Magpie Murders (2017), which Kirkusdescribed as “both a pastiche and a deconstruction of golden-age whodunits.” The Word Is Murder (2018), The Sentence Is Death (2019), A Line To Kill (2021) and The Twist of a Knife (2022) all pair the author’s fictional namesake with irascible ex–Scotland Yard DI Daniel Hawthorne; Moonflower Murders (2020), a sequel to Magpie Murders, is another fiendishly inventive novel-within-a-novel that will have readers begging for both mercy and further installments.

If Sophie Hannah can’t quite match Horowitz’s cleverness, her own authorized pastiches of Christie’s best-known detective, Hercule Poirot, are more faithful to their model, which they treat with affection and deep respect. Her five new cases for the incorrigible Belgian dandy, from Closed Casket (2016) to Hercule Poirot’s Silent Night (2023), read less like deconstructions of Christie’s own fiction than like Christie on steroids, their densely imagined puzzles never shattering the illusion of immersion in newly discovered golden-age mysteries, all wedded to Hannah’s signature talent for imagining characters whose psychologies both fit their formulaic roles perfectly and deepen them invitingly.

Horowitz and Hannah, both of whom began far from the franchises they’ve continued or sent up, show how mystery writers from James Lee Burke to Lisa Scottoline can keep inventing themselves as they reinvent their genre. But the mystery writer who’s built the most impressively transformed career of all is Walter Mosley, whose groundbreaking period stories about Easy Rawlins, the reluctant sleuth of the postwar Los Angeles neighborhood of Watts, have been supplemented by the parallel universes of “philosophical investigator” Socrates Fortlow, explosive Fearless Jones, and New York shamus Leonid McGill. Not content to explore the impact of Black heroes on mystery conventions and vice versa, Mosley has branched out into visionary science fiction (Blue Light, 1998, and Futureland, 2001), erotica (Killing Johnny Fry, 2006, and Diablerie, 2007), graphic novels (the co-authored Maximum Fantastic Four, 2005, and The Thing, 2022) and political essays from Workin’ on the Chain Gang: Shaking Off the Dead Hand of History (2000) to Twelve Steps Toward Political Revelation (2011). If Mosley’s rich career is any indication, the most exciting transformations in and near the mystery genre may be yet to come.

Thomas Leitch is the mysteries editor.

Photos by Anatoly Belov (Boris Akunin), Rodney Williams/Creative Images Photography (Yasmin Angoe), Dave Neligh (C.J. Box), Jeff Cohen (E.J. Copperman), Powell Woulfe Photography (Elle Cosimano), Onur Pinar (Sophie Hannah), Jo Howard (Mick Herron), Nechama Photography (Cate Holohan), Anna Lythgoe (Anthony Horowitz), Bill Waters (Ragnar Jónasson), Marcia Wilson (Walter Mosley), Soho Press (Kwei Quartey), Eric Dean Photography (A.R. Torre)