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A Reader’s Guide to Crime and Suspense Fiction on the River

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Setting is a key element in all fiction, but in crime, mystery, and suspense, a book’s setting plays a critical role in establishing the flavor of the story. Imagine reading about murders that take place in a dumpster-lined New York City alley…in a family-owned café in an Iowa farming community…in an isolated Alaskan hunting lodge, and you immediately envision three vastly different mysteries.

Many years ago, I survived a harrowing whitewater rafting accident, so when I began writing Over the Falls, my starting point was the vision of several specific whitewater kayaking scenes. Once I coupled those scenes with Bryn Collins, a main character who has walled herself off from the world due to fear and betrayal, my story was off and running.

This experience makes me wonder whether other river-based stories also found their start in their setting. If calm and tranquil rivers can connect the reader with nature and the wilderness, create a sense of isolation, and provide ever-shifting locations for the story to unfold. Add in some whitewater, a flood, or a waterfall or two, and the river itself becomes part of the challenge, ramping up both danger and suspense. 

Are you in the mood for some crime and suspense on the river? Check out these books, which offer a wide range of tone and storyline.   


DELIVERANCE – James Dickey

You’ve seen the movie, and you can recognize the ‘Dueling Banjos’ theme after only the first few chords, but have you read the book that started it all? In the Georgia wilderness, four men on a whitewater canoe trip face the challenges of the river, but when they’re attacked, the challenge becomes one of primal survival. A classic action and adventure book, DELIVERANCE is often cited as one of the best books of the twentieth century.


BORDERLINE – Nevada Barr

This fifteenth entry in the Anna Pigeon National Park series unfolds on a rafting trip down the Rio Grande. Intended as a relaxing journey, nothing goes to plan when a student is swept overboard in whitewater rapids, a pregnant young woman is found trapped in a strainer, and murder enters the picture. 


THE RIVER AT NIGHT – Erica Ferencik

A page-turning thriller set in the Maine wilderness, THE RIVER AT NIGHT follows four women who decide to pep up their annual girls’ trip with some whitewater rafting.  When disaster strikes and the women are stranded, they’re happy to seize any opportunity for help. But are their rescuers actually the saviors they first believe?  This highly memorable book kept me awake and reading long past bedtime.


WHITEWATER – William McGinnis

California’s Kern River is the setting for this tale of gambling, drugs, and the efforts of an ex-Navy SEAL to find his parents’ killers. This book “overflows with the magic and beauty of rivers, a certain river-born holistic wisdom, and a celebration of nature and life itself.”


DOWN RIVER – Karen Harper

When Lisa is swept away in the rapids of Alaska’s Wild River, and Mitch sets out to search for her, they believe the river and the wilderness are their only enemies. But there’s a killer on the loose, and nature is not the only thing they have to battle.


THE RIVER – Peter Heller

A leisurely canoe trip on the Maskwa River in Canada takes on extra urgency for two paddlers when a wildfire begins making its way through the forest. One night, the men overhear a man and woman arguing—and the next day, they discover the man is paddling alone. As the two search for answers, this story becomes a taut saga of wilderness survival.


DEATH ON THE NILE – Agatha Christie

A luxury Egyptian cruise, a limited collection of suspects, and Hercule Poirot. Can murder be far behind? In this classic mystery, long considered one of Christie’s best, Poirot must sort through secrets and lies to discover the killer before he (or she) can kill again.



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Michael Neff
Algonkian Producer
New York Pitch Director
Author, Development Exec, Editor

We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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