In Your Face by Scarlett Thomas
While Thomas would go on to write more ambitious books like The End of Mr. Y and PopCo, her first books were the three Lily Pascale mysteries (the third being Seaside, which I've not yet read), a quirkily charming series with a surprising amount of gore and depravity.
After dumping her vapid boyfriend and giving up on an unpromising acting career, Lily leaves London and moves back home with her mother to take a lecturing job at the local university.
Lily finds it a little odd that she's able to waltz into a position in the literature department with only a phone interview. Then she arrives at the school and finds that she's the third lecturer her classes have had in a term, and that a student on her roster recently showed up in the woods minus a head.
Then another of her students turns up dead behind a club - a drug overdose - except (yes, you guessed it) things don't add up. Lily's soon on the case.
While Dead Clever is a satisfying read, In Your Face is much better. Here, Lily receives a phone call from a former schoolmate with disturbing news. Jess, a freelance journalist, submits a piece on stalking to the women's tabloid, Smile! The day the magazine hits the newsstands, all three women featured in the article are savagely murdered in a spree killing. And when Lily gets to London, her friend is nowhere to be found.
Despite the gruesome crime, the Lily Pascale mysteries are of the cozy mystery variety. However, Thomas does some nice things with the conventions of the genre. She's excellent at setting up red herrings and surprise endings, and the crimes committed are bizarrely inventive. Thomas is a scarily smart and interesting writer, and her books just keep getting better - it's nifty to watch her hone her craft in these early works.
If you like your female sleuths a little younger and hipper than Agatha Raisin, or if you're looking for a chick lit heroine who is refreshingly uninterested in being fabulous, this book is for you.