The Best Mystery Novels of All Time
Gumshoes, investigators, flatfoots, private eyes, sleuths, G-men. There are plenty of names for detectives and plenty of ways they catch crooks in the written word and on the screen. I much prefer a mystery novel because I can envision the characters and settings rather than having them imagined for me. If you love to read this genre, too, you’re in good company.
Most critics and scholars agree that the first modern mystery was penned by Edgar Allan Poe. His short story, The Murders in the Rue Morgue, was first published in the April 1841 issue of Graham’s Magazine. Nearly twenty years after Poe’s story, Wilkie Collins published The Woman in White (1859), which is considered the first mystery novel, and The Moonstone (1868) viewed as the first detective novel.
Exactly what is a mystery novel? It is a fiction genre in which the nature of an event, usually a murder or other crime, remains mysterious until the end of the story. The most popular mystery author of all time was Agatha Christie, whose works include Murder on the Orient Express, Death on the Nile and the world’s best-selling mystery And Then There Were None. According to Index Translationium, UNESCO’s she is the most translated author of all time. Her books have been translated into 103 languages.
There are several mystery subgenres:
Cozy mystery: These novels have minimal violence, sex, or social relevance and frequently feature female amateur detectives. Agatha Christie, and Dorothy L. Sayers, popularized this genre.
Legal thriller: In the legal thriller, court proceedings play a very active role in a case reaching its ultimate solution. Erle Stanley Gardner popularized the courtroom novel in the 20th century with his Perry Mason series. Contemporary authors of legal thrillers include Michael Connelly, John Grisham, Lisa Scottoline, and Scott Turow.
Police procedural: Many detective stories have police officers as the main characters. Some of these stories are whodunits; in others, the criminal is well known, and it is a case of getting enough evidence to make an arrest. Ed McBain and P. D. James wrote in this genre.
Howcatchem: An inverted detective story is a murder mystery fiction structure in which the commission of the crime is described at the beginning, usually including the identity of the perpetrator. The story then describes the detective’s attempt to solve the mystery. (In television, we’re talking Columbo).
Hardboiled fiction: One of the primary contributors to this style was Dashiell Hammett with his famous private investigator character, Sam Spade. His style of crime fiction came to be known as “hardboiled” because it deals with criminal activity in an urban setting rather than the drawing room. Other examples of writers in this subgenre include Raymond Chandler, Ross MacDonald, Walter Mosley, Mickey Spillane, and Sue Grafton.
Historical mystery: These works are set in a period considered historical from the author’s perspective, and the central plot involves the solving of a mystery or crime (usually murder). A contemporary example of this subgenre is Rhys Bowen, who writes about England/Scotland in the 1930s.
Locked-room mystery: The crime—almost always murder—is committed in circumstances under which it was impossible for the perpetrator to commit the crime and/or evade detection while getting in and out of the crime scene. John Dickson Carr’s The Hollow Man has been recognized as the best locked-room mystery of all time.
Now that we’re all on the same page, let’s get to the nitty-gritty. After conducting loads of research, I’ve put together a list of (arguably) the best mystery novels ever written. The books you’ll find below are on many lists, which are, of course, subjective, and I present them here in alphabetical order. At the bottom of the list, I’ve added my take on the best mysteries of the 21st century.
The 39 Steps by John Buchan
The first volume in the six-book series about Richard Hannay, an ordinary fellow caught up in extraordinary events in England and Scotland.
A is for Alibi by Sue Grafton
In Sue Grafton’s bestselling mystery series, hard-boiled detective Kinsey Millhone is an ex-cop and rebellious loner. Now a private investigator, she solves all the most difficult cases in (fictional) Santa Theresa, California.
The Alienist by Caleb Carr
Fast-paced, riveting, and infused with historical detail, The Alienist conjures up Gilded Age New York, with its tenements and mansions, corrupt cops and flamboyant gangsters, shining opera houses, and seamy gin mills.
Anatomy of a Murder by Robert Traver
First published by St. Martin’s in 1958, it immediately became the number-one bestseller in America and was subsequently turned into the successful Otto Preminger film. It is not only the most popular courtroom drama in American fiction, but one of the most popular novels of our time.
The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler
Philip Marlowe was Los Angeles’s toughest detective in the groundbreaking series that helped establish the “hard-boiled” detective subgenre. (Book #1 of 10). The Big Sleep has been adapted for film twice, in 1946 and again in 1978.
Brighton Rock by Graham Greene
A gang war is raging through the dark underworld of Brighton. Seventeen-year-old Pinkie, malign and ruthless, has killed a man. Believing he can escape retribution, he is unprepared for the courageous, life-embracing Ida Arnold.
Crime and Punishmentby Fyodor Dostoyevsky
This is the second of Dostoyevsky’s full-length novels after his return from ten years of exile in Siberia. In it he explores psychology of crime and punishment and focuses on what lies between the two endpoints.
The Blessing Way by Tony Hillerman
The first novel in his series featuring Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn & Officer Jim Chee who encounter a bizarre case that borders between the supernatural and murder.
The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey
A 1951 detective novel concerning a modern police officer’s investigation into the alleged crimes of King Richard III of England.
The Day of the Jackal by Frederick Forsyth
The Jackal. A tall, blond Englishman with opaque, gray eyes. A killer at the top of his profession. A man unknown to any secret service in the world. An assassin with a contract to kill the world’s most heavily guarded man.
The Deep Blue Good-By by John D. MacDonald
From a beloved master of crime fiction, The Deep Blue Good-by is the first (of 24) novel featuring Travis McGee, the hard-boiled detective who lives on a houseboat.
Devil in a Blue Dress by Walter Mosley
The defining novel in Walter Mosley’s bestselling Easy Rawlins mystery series was adapted into a TriStar Pictures film starring Denzel Washington as Easy Rawlins and Don Cheadle as Mouse.
The Doorbell Rang by Rex Stout
There’s no one and nothing the brilliant detective Nero Wolfe wouldn’t take on if the price was right. That’s something wealthy society widow Rachel Bruner is counting on when she writes him a check for a whopping hundred grand.
Double Indemnity by James M. Cain
Walter Huff was an insurance salesman with an unfailing instinct for clients who might be in trouble, and his instinct led him to Phyllis Nirdlinger. She wanted to buy an accident policy on her husband. Then she wanted her husband to have an accident. To get her, Walter would arrange the perfect murder and betray everything.
Eye of the Needle by Ken Follett
His code name was “The Needle.” He was a German aristocrat of extraordinary intelligence—a master spy with a legacy of violence in his blood, and the object of the most desperate manhunt in history.
The Firm by John Grisham
When Mitch McDeere signed on with Bendini, Lambert & Locke of Memphis, he thought he and his beautiful wife, Abby, were on their way. Now the FBI has the lowdown on Mitch’s firm and needs his help.
Fletch by Gregory McDonald
The first in an eleven-book series about Fletch, an investigative reporter who can’t be bothered with deadlines or expense-account budgets when getting his story.
The Franchise Affair by Josephine Tey
Marion Sharpe and her mother are accused of kidnapping and imprisoning a young woman at their decrepit country house, The Franchise. Inspector Alan Grant of Scotland Yard investigates.
From Russia, with Love by Ian Fleming
James Bond is marked for death by the Soviet counterintelligence agency SMERSH in Ian Fleming’s masterful spy thriller. President John F. Kennedy named it as one of his favorite books of all time.
Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers
Book #10 in the Lord Peter Bredon Wimsey series about a bon vivant sleuth who solves mysteries — usually but not always murders.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson
An international publishing sensation, the first book in the Millennium series combines murder mystery, family saga, love story, and financial intrigue into one satisfyingly complex and entertainingly atmospheric novel.
Gorky Park by Martin Cruz Smith
The first in a nine-book series about Arkady Renko, a chief homicide inspector for the prosecutor’s office, in Moscow, Russia.
The Hot Rock by Donald E. Westlake
The first volume in a fifteen-book series about master criminal John Dortmunder. Westlake’s writing earned him three Edgar Awards and the 1991 Best Motion Picture Screenplay award. In addition, Westlake also earned a Grand Master Award from the Mystery Writers of America in 1993.
The Hounds of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Could the sudden death of Sir Charles Baskerville have been caused by the gigantic ghostly hound that is said to have haunted his family for generations? Sherlock Holmes investigates.
I, the Jury by Mickey Spillane
Classic Spillane about tough-guy private eye Mike Hammer with plenty of sex, violence, and action. This is the first book in the 26-book series.
In the Woods by Tana French
Book one (of six) in the Dublin Murder Squad series in which the detectives investigate the murder of a 12-year-old girl eerily similar to a crime that had taken place twenty years earlier.
The Ipcress File by Len Deighton
Len Deighton’s classic first novel, whose protagonist is a nameless spy—later christened Harry Palmer and made famous worldwide in the iconic 1960s film starring Michael Caine.
Last Seen Wearing… by Hillary Waugh
Eighteen-year-old Lowell Mitchell leaves her Friday morning history class and goes back to her room. Her roommate talks to her as she lies on the bed with her arm across her face. That is the last time she is seen, and twelve hours later the Bristol Police are involved.
Lauraby Vera Caspary
Laura Hunt was the ideal modern woman: beautiful, elegant, highly ambitious, and utterly mysterious. No man could resist her charms—not even the hardboiled NYPD detective sent to find out who turned her into a faceless corpse.
The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler
Down-and-out drunk Terry Lennox has a problem: his millionaire wife is dead, and he needs to get out of LA fast. So, he turns to the only friend he can trust: private investigator Philip Marlowe.
The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett
Sam Spade is hired by the fragrant Miss Wonderley to track down her sister, who has eloped with a louse called Floyd Thursby. Dashiell Hammett is widely regarded as one of the finest mystery writers of all time.
The Mask of Dimitrios by Eric Ambler
A chance encounter with a Turkish colonel leads Charles Latimer, the author of a handful of successful mysteries, into a world of sinister political and criminal maneuvers.
The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins
Hinging on the theft of an enormous diamond originally stolen from an Indian shrine, this riveting novel features the innovative Sergeant Cuff, the hilarious house steward Gabriel Betteridge, a lovesick housemaid, and a mysterious band of Indian jugglers.
The Moving Toyshop by Edmund Crispin
English professor Gervase Fen investigates an Oxford toy shop replaced overnight by a grocery store. Richard Cadogan found the apparently strangled body of an old woman upstairs, but she vanishes as well.
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie
The peaceful English village of King’s Abbot is stunned. First, the attractive widow Ferrars dies from an overdose of veronal. Not twenty-four hours later, Roger Ackroyd—the man she had planned to marry—is murdered. Book four in the 45-book series.
Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie
Just after midnight, a snowdrift stops a luxurious train in its tracks. By the morning, an American tycoon lies dead in his compartment, stabbed a dozen times, his door locked from the inside. Isolated and with a killer in their midst, detective Hercule Poirot must identify the murderer.
The Mystery of Edwin Drood by Charles Dickens
Dickens died before completing The Mystery of Edwin Drood, leaving its tantalizing mystery unsolved and encouraging successive generations of readers to turn detective.
The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco
The year is 1327. Benedictines in a wealthy Italian abbey are suspected of heresy, and Brother William of Baskerville arrives to investigate. When his delicate mission is suddenly overshadowed by seven bizarre deaths, Brother William turns detective.
The Nine Tailors by Dorothy L. Sayers
When a disfigured corpse is discovered in a country parish, the local rector pleads with Lord Peter to take on what will become one of his most brilliant and complicated cases. (Lord Peter Wimsey #9)
Out of Sight by Elmore Leonard
Before there was Raylan Givens there was Sisco… U.S. Marshal Karen Sisco is hunting for world-class gentleman felon Jack Foley in Out of Sight, New York Times bestselling author Elmore Leonard’s sexy thriller that moves from Miami to the Motor City.
The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain
Cain’s first novel – the subject of an obscenity trial in Boston—is the fever-pitched tale of a drifter who stumbles into a job, into an erotic obsession, and into a murder.
Postmortem by Patricia Cornwell
With skilled hands, an unerring eye, and the latest advances in forensic research, a medical examiner is determined to unmask a maniac. But someone is trying to sabotage her investigation from the inside. (#1 of 25-five books in the Kat Scarpetta series)
Presumed Innocent by Scott Turow
Presumed Innocent is the stunning portrayal of one man’s all-consuming fatal attraction for a passionate woman who is not his wife, and the story of how his obsession puts everything he loves and values on trial—including his own life.
Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
The novel begins in Monte Carlo, where our heroine is swept off her feet by the dashing widower Maxim de Winter and his sudden proposal of marriage. It is only when they arrive at his massive country estate that she realizes his late wife still presents a lingering evil from beyond the grave.
The Seven-Per-Cent Solution by Nicholas Meyer
This “rediscovered” Sherlock Holmes adventure recounts the unique collaboration of Holmes and Sigmund Freud in the solution of a mystery on which the lives of millions may depend.
Shroud for a Nightingale by P. D. James
The young women of Nightingale House are there to learn to nurse and comfort the suffering. But when one student plays a patient in a demonstration of nursing skills, she is brutally murdered. Another student dies equally mysteriously, and it is up to Adam Dalgliesh of Scotland Yard to unmask a killer.
The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris
The five-million-copy bestseller that scared the world silent. A young FBI trainee. An evil genius locked away for unspeakable crimes. A plunge into the darkest chambers of a psychopath’s mind in the deadly search for a serial killer.
The Spy Who Came in From the Cold by John le Carre
With unsurpassed knowledge culled from his years in British Intelligence, le Carre brings to light the shadowy dealings of international espionage in the tale of a British agent who longs to end his career but undertakes one final, bone-chilling assignment.
Still Life by Louise Penny
Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec, digs beneath the idyllic surface of village life in Three Pines, finding long buried secrets—and facing a few of his own ghosts. (#1 of 17 books in the series).
Strong Poison by Dorothy L. Sayers
Mystery novelist Harriet Vane knew all about poisons, and when her former lover died in the manner prescribed in one of her books, a jury of her peers had a hangman’s noose in mind. But Lord Peter Wimsey was determined to find her innocent. (Lord Peter Wimsey #5)
The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith
Since his debut in 1955, Tom Ripley has evolved into the ultimate bad boy sociopath. In this first novel in the four-book series, we are introduced to suave, handsome Tom Ripley: a young striver, newly arrived in the heady world of Manhattan in the 1950s.
And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie
A curious assortment of strangers is summoned as weekend guests to a little private island off the coast of Devon. All that the guests have in common is a wicked past they’re unwilling to reveal—and a secret that will seal their fate.
The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield
Reclusive author Vida Winter, famous for her collection of twelve enchanting stories, has spent the past six decades penning a series of alternate lives for herself. Now old and ailing, she is ready to reveal the truth about her extraordinary existence and the violent and tragic past she has kept secret for so long.
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John le Carre
The man he knew as “Control” is dead, and the young Turks who forced him out now run the Circus. But George Smiley isn’t quite ready for retirement—especially when a pretty, would-be defector surfaces with a shocking accusation: a Soviet mole has penetrated the highest level of British Intelligence.
Trent’s Last Case by E.C. Bentley
Feared but not loved, Manderson has no one to mourn him when the gardener at his British country estate finds him facedown in the dirt, a bullet buried in his brain. Cheerful, charming, and always eager for a mystery, portrait artist and gentleman sleuth Philip Trent leaps in to investigate.
Where are the Children? by Mary Higgins Clark
The #1 New York Times bestselling author and Queen of Suspense launched her career with this classic thriller following a woman whose past holds a terrible secret.
The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins
Engaged as a drawing master to the beautiful Laura Fairlie, Walter becomes embroiled in the sinister intrigues of Sir Percival Glyde and his ‘charming’ friend Count Fosco, who has a taste for white mice, vanilla bonbons, and poison. The novel is so beloved it has never been out of print.
The following are too new to be on the “Best” list, but IMO they deserve honorable mentions:
· Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
· Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens
· The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides
· The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
· 11/22/64 by Stephen King
· The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest by Stieg Larsson
· Sharpe Objects by Gillian Flynn
· The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon
· Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty
· The Dry by Jane Harper
· Angels & Demons by Dan Brown
· Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane
· The Girl Who Played with Fire by Stieg Larsson
· Mystic River by Dennis Lehane
· The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown
· The Lincoln Lawyer by Michael Connelly
· Maisie Dobbs by Jacqueline Winspear
Stayed tuned for my next list: The Best Romance Novels of All Time