In books, the mystery genre usually (but not always) refers to fiction. Within the mystery genre, there are several types, including, but not limited to, police procedurals, detective stories, hard-boiled detective stories, espionage, medical mysteries, some thrillers, some speculative fiction, cozies, and closed-room mysteries.
For the purposes of this list, I’m grouping them all together and including some from several different classifications. To save myself the agony of trying to list them starting from the absolute best mystery book of all time, I’m going to list them in order of initial date of publication starting with the oldest. And don’t worry; I’m not giving away any spoilers.
There are two things I’d like to mention before you read this list.
First, in some cases, I mention book prizes that were won, and in some cases, I don’t.
I always counsel readers not to rely solely on or weigh too heavily whether a book won a prize or several or which prize it may have won, before reading the book at hand.
The book judging for literary prizes is a lot like the judging for championship, long-program, figure-skating. In other words, it’s subjective, not always fair, and occasionally corrupt. Or as the English philosopher, Bertrand Russell, said, “Even when the experts all agree, they may well be mistaken.”
And, of course, the corollary to that is that there are a lot of fantastic books out there that never won anything or were even panned when they were first published.
My second point is that when you read books that were written many years ago, sometimes they may feel dated. People dressed differently, and in some cases, spoke differently. Men were typically the breadwinners, and women wore lots of aprons and carried cigarettes in gold cases. Don’t let any of those details bother you.
What’s important in a great book are the characters and their motives, the themes which rise above the written page, the structure, the pacing, the figures of speech, diction and the dialogue. And most of all the story.
If I want to read something critically, I read it twice. First I read a book for the story, and then I read it to analyze it. Above all else, these mysteries are great stories.
Table of Contents
- 1. The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins, 1868
- 2. A Study in Scarlet by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, 1887
- 3. The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett, 1930
- 4. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, 1938
- 5. Anatomy of a Murder by Robert Traver, 1958
- 6. Killer’s Payoff by Ed McBain, 1958
- 7. The Deep Blue Good-By by John D. MacDonald, 1964
- 8. And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie, 1964
- 9. The Patience of Maigret by Georges Simenon, 1965
- 10. The Detective by Roderick Thorp, 1966
- 11. The Blessing Way by Tony Hillerman, 1970
- 12. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John le Carré, 1974
- 13. True Confessions by John Gregory Dunne, 1977
- 14. The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco, 1980
- 15. Cinnamon Skin by John D. MacDonald, 1982
- 16. The Secrets of Harry Bright by Joseph Wambaugh, 1985
- 17. Double Whammy by Carl Hiaasen, 1987
- 18. Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris, 1991
- 19. Relic by Preston and Child, 1995
- 20. The Chimney-sweeper’s Boy by Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine, 1998
- 21. On Beulah Height by Reginald Hill, 1998
- 22. The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith, 1998
- 23. In the Woods by Tana French, 2007
- 24. The Dry by Jane Harper, 2017
- 25.The Midnight Line by Lee Child, 2017
- 26. The Day of the Jackal by Frederick Forsyth, 1971
- 27. A Morbid Taste for Bones by Ellis Peters, 1977
- 28. Black Cherry Blues by James Lee Burke, 1989
- 29. Maximum Bob by Elmore Leonard, 1991
- 30. The Drifter by Nick Petrie, 2016
The Moonstone is generally considered by scholars to be the first detective book in the English language. It’s an epistolary work, meaning that it’s written in the form of letters, which was a common style of writing in mid-nineteenth century literature.
The book was originally serialized in Charles Dickens’ magazine, All The Year Round. At the time the book was published, the genre was called “a sensation novel.” Now we call these books mystery or suspense novels.
The moonstone in the book is a large diamond; and the book is about a woman who inherits the diamond, and then the diamond is stolen from her. So, throughout the book, the mystery turns on who stole the diamond and why.
Wilkie Collins wrote a few books before The Moonstone, including The Woman in White, another initial attempt at a “sensation” novel. However, I chose The Moonstone for this list because I think it’s better than The Woman in White.
If you want to read the best mysteries from the beginning of time, The Moonstone is the one to start with. If you like The Moonstone, then read The Woman in White, too.
Conan Doyle invented Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, his sidekick, and Holmes is so important both in the development of the detective book genre as well as in today’s culture, that no list of best mysteries would be complete without at least a hat tip to Conan Doyle.
A Study In Scarlet is the first novel in which Holmes appears, although Holmes continues to figure in a total of four novels and 56 short stories.
A Study in Scarlet is a murder and revenge story told in the third-person point of view, a first in mysteries. And the mystery is solved purely by deductive reasoning and intellect, something that was most welcome in the Victorian era, which was a tough time for the average man.
All of the Sherlock Holmes stories have nice and neat endings, and you will find it refreshing to read a good mystery that has a sensible solution to it like a neatly wrapped Christmas gift.
Since Conan Doyle was a great storyteller, and so many of the Holmes stories are good, I thought it made sense to put the first book of the series on this list. You can always explore the rest of Sherlock’s adventures at your leisure.
Dashiell Hammett is considered the father of the hard-boiled detective genre. In this type of mystery, there’s a no-nonsense, tough-guy detective solving crimes and/or mysteries. And these types of books usually rely more on dialogue and less on everything else, such as long-winded descriptions to move the plot along.
Hammett’s Sam Spade appeared first in The Maltese Falcon, published in 1930—which was originally serialized—and then later in some short stories.
The Maltese Falcon is basically about a valuable stolen falcon statue, and the question is who stole it and why, and can Spade recover it for his client.
It’s amazing that Dashiell Hammett managed to get something brilliant written much less published. He suffered from tuberculosis, alcoholism, and writer’s block for most of his life. He also had a wife and children, more than one mistress, and a 30-year off and on a relationship with the famous playwright, Lillian Hellman (Watch on the Rhine).
The Maltese Falcon has been made into four different movies (so far), but the best one is the 1941 version with Humphrey Bogart and Peter Lorre, and directed by John Huston (his first film). It’s a great movie, and you should try to see it after you read the book. The movie is considered a film noir classic, which is not surprising since film noir marries well with hard-boiled detective fiction.
You’ll probably want to read The Maltese Falcon several times just to be able to memorize some of the dialogue and toss out some winners at cocktail parties. Here are a couple of funny lines from the book:
Joel Cairo: “You always have a very smooth explanation ready.”
Sam Spade: “What do you want me to do, learn to stutter?”
It’s important to read the right version of the book, linked above.
Rebecca is a great book, a classic, no matter how you look at it. It’s definitely a crossover book in that it could just as easily be found on a list of great books from the twentieth century, English literature, or gothic literature.
That said, however, it’s also a mystery. I wouldn’t describe it as a thriller, but it is suspenseful. It’s one of the very early mysteries in which an eerie and oppressive atmosphere plays a big role in the story as opposed to mainly dialogue.
The book is about a young woman who marries a much older man and accompanies him back to his manor, Manderley. The mystery is what is going on in that crazy mansion, and what is the deal with the older man’s first wife, Rebecca.
Du Maurier wrote a few books, and another one, Jamaica Inn, is often required reading in junior high or high school. Rebecca has been adapted to film several times, and Netflix is working on a new version right now, but the best-known film version is the one directed by Alfred Hitchcock in 1940. Another Hitchcock movie, The Birds, was based on another story by du Maurier.
The Alfred Hitchcock version is a good movie, which won two Academy Awards, one for Best Picture and one for cinematography. However, be forewarned, the movie plot departs from the original book in a few significant ways. As always, read the book first.
Rebecca did not get good reviews when it was first published in 1938, but neither did The Catcher in the Rye by Salinger or Slaughterhouse-Five by Vonnegut. So, don’t let that stop you from reading it. Rebecca has been in publication continuously since 1938, and there’s a reason for that.
Unfortunately, du Maurier, who died in 1989, was accused of plagiarism more than once. I don’t know if she plagiarized anything or not; but I don’t care, either, because Rebecca is still good enough to find a place on this list.
If you’re partial to courtroom mysteries/thrillers and authors like Scott Turow or John Grisham, you can thank Robert Traver, the pen name of Michigan Supreme Court Justice, John D. Voelker. The book is a fictionalized version of a real case Voelker came across.
Traver wrote a few other fiction novels and a few nonfiction books about fishing, which I haven’t read. As far as writing mysteries, this book was his one-hit wonder.
Anatomy of a Murder is an early and great example of courtroom mysteries and the one that paved the way for future works in the subgenre. Many still regard this book as the best of its type ever written. I still recall one quote—forgive me if it’s slightly off—“that’s more complicated than a 99-year chain-store lease.”
In brief, the book is about a man accused of murder. The mystery is what really happened on the night of the murder and whether the two main lawyer characters will be able to successfully defend the accused in court.
The book is fast-paced, with excellent dialogue, and although it’s long, you will read it fast, because it’s just that good.
The book was made into an excellent movie in 1959, starring James Stewart, George C. Scott, and a bunch of other big names. The movie was directed by Otto Preminger and was nominated for seven Academy Awards although it didn’t win any. Definitely watch the movie if you can.
Ed McBain was the pen name for Salvatore Lombino, who aside from McBain, also had a dozen other pen names. He was a prolific writer, who wrote many books in many genres and also several screenplays including the one for Hitchcock’s The Birds, mentioned earlier.
He rotated through several different names because his publisher was worried that some of the genre mysteries might pull down his literary reputation from other more literary books.
McBain was best known for his 87th precinct mysteries or detective books that take place in New York City. There are (I think) 55 books in the series, written over about 50 years.
I include Killer’s Payoff in my list, which is the sixth because I think it’s one of the best. You can always go back and read them all starting with the first, Cop Hater, if you like it.
Killer’s Payoff is about a blackmailer, Sy Kramer, who is found dead, and the detectives in the 87th precinct have to figure out who killed him, why, and catch him or her before the murderer kills anyone else. Steve Carella is the main detective character in this and all the other 87th precinct books.
The reason why McBain belongs on this list is that McBain was one of the earliest mystery authors to give us a police procedural, one in which cops are real people.
Both the cops and the crooks are good and bad and all shades of grey, but never black and white. The book is a quick read and well worth your time.
The Deep Blue Good-By is the first of the Travis McGee series, and it’s listed here because it’s also one of the best. Travis McGee was a character whose work was “salvage” or getting things back for people when they couldn’t go through normal legal channels to recover whatever they had lost. The book takes place in Florida, as do most of the McGee series.
All the books have a color in the title, and all the books have McGee trying to get something back for a handsome fee as he works inside or outside the law.
This first book is about him trying to recover…well…I’m not even going to tell you. Let me just say the ones who have lost something sorely need what they have lost. And McGee has a conscience and often gets emotionally involved in his cases against his better judgment.
What’s important about this book is that as far as the mystery genre goes, we are introduced to the main character whose main job is just solving mysteries. He lives on the fringes of society, operates on the fringes of the law, and as you’re wondering what’s going to happen next, you will also be questioning the world you live in and society at large.
Travis McGee’s books introduce existentialism and pop culture to the mystery genre. The books are not quite hard-boiled, not exactly procedurals, but lean more toward thriller and are really in a class by themselves. That coupled with an original and interesting plot gives The Deep Blue Good-By a permanent spot on my list of must-read mysteries.
Now in our list of the best mysteries ever written, we have to jump over the ocean to the United Kingdom and talk about Agatha Christie. She was best known for her 66 mysteries, and this one, And Then There Were None, was the one that sold the best, something like 100 million copies.
It’s a standalone mystery and not part of a series. In interviews, she said that And Then There Were None was the hardest one for her to write.
What’s important about And Then There Were None is that it’s a great example of one of several literary tropes or devices that Christie developed and was known for: the closed-room mystery.
A closed-room mystery is a mystery/crime story in which a crime is committed—usually a murder—where there is a limited pool of suspects, such as in a locked room or locked home or in this case, an island, and then one or more individuals try to solve the mystery before more people die.
There are lots of examples of great mysteries from the United Kingdom, in books, as well as in film, theater, and television from the BBC, and there are many great series as well. Space doesn’t allow me to list all of them, but in a list of the best mysteries ever written, I’d be remiss if I didn’t include at least one Agatha Christie book.
Georges Simenon was a prolific Belgian writer, best known for his series of detective or mystery novels with the main character of Superintendent (or Commissaire) Jules Maigret in France.
Over the course of 42 years, Simenon wrote 77 Maigret books and short stories. Many have been adapted into film or television.
Maigret is a large, plodding character, who doesn’t have a clear recipe for solving crimes like Sherlock Holmes did, for example. Maigret tries to understand the psychology of the situation, the perpetrators, the victims, and motives in order to figure out what happened. Maigret also capitalizes on being underestimated, perhaps a little like the fictional Columbo did on television in the 1980s and ’90s.
The Patience of Maigret is one of the later books in the series, but one of the best. Maigret investigates a murder, which he thinks may be related to a long-unsolved series of robberies.
The story is captivating but a slower-paced read than you may be used to. However, as Maigret patiently eliminates suspects, the reader is offered insight into the criminal mind, the mind of a compassionate detective, and the greater world at large.
Maigret books are not very long, and they are not hard to read. If you have the most basic command of French, try reading them in their original language, as something is always lost in translation.
Simenon’s books are somewhat less plot-driven than earlier mysteries, but they are nonetheless great reads that had a major influence on the mystery genre that came afterward.
This is a book you may have never heard of before. I’m going to fix that. Roderick Thorp wrote maybe a dozen books. He wasn’t a genius or a professor or a prolific writer who penned a book per week.
The Detective was made into a movie with Frank Sinatra that did well at the box office, but then the story faded into obscurity–except that Thorp’s sequel to The Detective, called Nothing Lasts Forever, was made into the movie Die Hard. And that you may have heard of.
The Detective is about a New York City detective, Joe Leland, who is asked to investigate the death of a man and figure out who killed him and why. It’s an unusual story, crafted unusually well, and I consider it one of the best detective/mystery novels ever written.
If I could only take 10 books with me to a deserted island, this would be one of them.
The book addresses some of today’s societal issues and biases and considering that it was published in 1966, I’d say it was well ahead of its time. It’s a big fat book, and although it’s not likely still in print, you can still find a copy of it, and then sink into it and enjoy.
Tony Hillerman grew up in Oklahoma, served during World War II, came back and finished university in Oklahoma, then began a career in journalism. He rose through the newspaper ranks and moved to New Mexico as United Press International’s Bureau Chief.
As he continued to live and work in New Mexico, he grew to love the area and the culture. And then he started writing books.
The Blessing Way was Tony Hillerman’s first of 18 books in a series featuring Detective Joe Leaphorn. Later on in the series, Detective Jim Chee is added to the mix.
The Blessing Way and the rest of the series would be considered police procedurals. However, what’s different about these books is that the police procedural does not take place in an urban setting, but rather in the vast American Southwest—and on the Navajo reservation.
The reason why Hillerman’s books are important is that Hillerman was the one who brought the stories and culture of the indigenous peoples of the American Southwest to mainstream fiction at a time when that wasn’t altogether popular.
Although all of the books revolve around the Navajo in some way, Hillerman also covers Zuni, Hopi, and the Pueblo people (also referred to as Anasazi, which is no longer politically correct).
More than once, Hillerman acknowledged that he was inspired by the books of Arthur W. Upfield, who in the 1920’s wrote mysteries in Australia surrounding the aboriginal culture.
So, The Blessing Way, like the other books in the series, is a multi-layered affair. There is always one or more murders to solve by Leaphorn, but there is also considerable local anthropology, sociology, and archeology that play important roles in the stories.
Hillerman tried from the beginning to make indigenous cultures accessible to the reading public through the mystery genre.
These books acquired a young following at first and then a cult following. As the years went by, he became recognized by the literary world.
However, because of the underlying indigenous flavor to his themes, he had difficulty selling the first book to a publisher, and Robert Redford, who held most of the movie rights for many years similarly had difficulty getting the films made.
Tony Hillerman died in 2008. His daughter Anne continues to write books for the series.
Hillerman’s Leaphorn books have won all the major mystery prizes, including the Edgar, Nero, Macavity, Anthony, and several other prizes as well including the Grand Prix de Littérature Policière, a major French literary prize. It is well known that the award Hillerman cherished the most was one given to him by the Navajo Tribal Council.
Some have found Hillerman’s books preachy, and he was accused more than once of getting a few cultural facts wrong. However, as a body of work starting with The Blessing Way, his influence on the mystery genre cannot be overstated. The series is best read in order, and for that reason, The Blessing Way is the one to read first.
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is a crossover mystery/spy novel. It’s the first of a trilogy, and I recommend reading all three—in order. Le Carré’s career was working for British Intelligence, so my guess is that he knows a thing or two about the spy business.
He has written about 30 books, mostly fiction, a few nonfiction, a few screenplays, and he has also produced and acted in a few films.
Tinker, Tailor and the others in the trilogy are dense books. They are not the easiest to read, and alternating scenes and characters don’t make it any easier. Nevertheless, they are seamlessly plotted with important minute details everywhere, so, read them slowly and enjoy the author’s way with language and dialogue. And there is a mystery in this book, or several as you will find out.
Hint: while you’re reading watch for the themes of betrayal and redemption.
George Smiley is the main character, and the question is can George, now retired, pull himself back together to solve a crime that has been unsolved for at least 20 years and not get killed in the process.
There have been two films made of this book. The best one is the one made for BBC television with Sir Alec Guinness. Another one made in 2011 with Gary Oldman is not as good—and I’m being kind. Don’t bother with that one.
Sometimes spy novels can be considered a subgenre of mystery. So, this is my hat tip to spy novels, as this trilogy is the best of the best, bar none.
And now we come to the second book on my list that you may not have heard of. And yet I consider it one of the best mysteries ever written.
John Gregory Dunne was just never a household name. He was an accomplished writer, literary critic, and screenwriter. He was also married to Joan Didion, who always seemed to be better known than he was, even though they collaborated on a number of works.
So, he amassed a respectable collection of writings during his career, then in 2003, one night he keeled over dead at the dinner table. Joan wrote a massively popular prize-winning book about her grief over his loss, which I find a bit…ironic.
True Confessions was published in 1977 around the middle of his career. It was made into a very good movie in the early 1980s with Robert De Niro and Robert Duvall. And few people have heard of the movie either. Pity.
I put the blame for this squarely on the shoulders of the publishers, who gave the book a terrible title. There have been a few times over the years that I have recommended this book to someone, and the person thought I was recommending garbage, like the newspaper rags you see in front of you when you’re paying the cashier at the grocery store.
The book is about two brothers, a priest and a detective, and some murder and mayhem. Look for the themes of right and wrong, hypocrisy, courage, corruption, graft, and redemption. Read it slowly.
The book was translated from Italian to English in 1983.
Umberto Eco, who died in 2016, was an academic with a broad publishing history. His main area of expertise was semiotics or the study of symbols, however, he was also an expert on history and languages (he spoke several); and so throughout his career he wrote academic texts for universities, fiction novels, and he even wrote children’s books. He was not a sleepyhead.
The Name of the Rose was his debut novel. It’s generally considered a historical mystery, sometimes considered a post-modern mystery, and I just plain consider it the best historical mystery ever written.
The book has sold over 50 million copies, been translated into several languages, and it has also won a bunch of prizes.
So, there is a real murder mystery that takes place in a monastery during the fourteenth century.
In addition to a complex plot, prepare yourself for the following: several subplots, a deep dive into history, church history, medieval history, biblical history, symbols, and Latin, and lots of clues. Everywhere. On every page. Yet, as dense as it is, and despite taking place in a monastery where there isn’t too much cheerful conversation, the book is not all somber. There is some humor in it, too.
It’s a book that you may need to read several times to understand it fully. But it’s worth it.
This is the only entry on my list where I have mentioned the same author twice. Cinnamon Skin, written almost 20 years after the first one, The Deep Blue Good-By, is one of the later John D. MacDonald books in the Travis McGee series.
Why is it on this list? Because after reading thousands of mysteries, I think it’s one of the best ever written. In most of the later books of the McGee series, another regular character figures into the mix: Meyer, the retired economist. And this mystery turns on one of Meyer’s relatives.
It’s a lean mystery. There aren’t a lot of Latin clues, and there isn’t a Byzantine plot. But the book is all muscle and sinew. There isn’t one wasted word.
Since the murder involves one of Meyer’s relatives, both McGee and Meyer take it personally, and they are loaded for bear when they try to unravel the mystery.
MacDonald, who died in 1986, had an MBA from Harvard. His knowledge of business and economics was very useful for unraveling shady business deals in his books as well as the character development of Meyer. Meyer may well have been a somewhat fictional version of MacDonald, himself.
Cinnamon Skin is a bit of a mystery/thriller, and you will enjoy every minute of it.
Joseph Wambaugh is a former cop with the LAPD, who rose to Detective Sergeant after 14 years.
While he was on the force, he went back to school and got a master’s degree in literature. In 1974, he published The New Centurions while he was still on the force, but left and became a full-time writer shortly after.
Since then, he has written about a dozen mystery/detective novels, about half a dozen nonfiction crime, and a few screenplays. Many were prize-winning, and several have been made into films.
His work had a substantial influence on detective stories that came after his. Wambaugh introduced the public to the gritty reality of police work, and he started the whole new wave of mystery that had the backdrop of police-work-isn’t-glamorous.
Wambaugh’s books told us what was really going on, and it often wasn’t pretty. He showed the police work that is boring, often thankless, difficult and life-consuming and work that wasn’t so much thrilling as emotionally draining.
We see cops who are depressed or nuts or jaded. And pretty soon, television started creating police series that were like this.
Both his fiction and nonfiction are very good. His books are well plotted, although not over the top, characters are developed into real people, and there is often some humor, the black humor of cops.
The Secrets of Harry Bright was Wambaugh’s seventh novel. We have a police procedural set in the fictional town of Mineral Springs. Then there is the juxtaposition of world-weary cops and people in southern California who can be best described as having more money than brains. And then there’s a murder.
Watch for quirky but realistic characters, and careful plotting.
I also heartily recommend his nonfiction book, The Blooding, an account of the first case in which DNA was used to help convict someone.
As soon as I started this article, I knew that one Hiaasen book needed to be on this list. I hesitated between Double Whammy or Tourist Season, but I decided on Double Whammy because it’s his first novel in which the character, Skink, is introduced. And I don’t want you to miss out on Skink.
Double Whammy is otherwise Hiaasen’s second novel, and Tourist Season is the first, although Hiaasen did co-write a couple of books before Tourist Season. But I will admit that Tourist Season is the only mystery I’ve ever read that made me laugh out loud. I mean laugh until I cried.
Double Whammy is a type of fishing lure, and the book is about a private investigator who is investigating a celebrity bass fisherman to see if he is cheating on the fishing tournament circuit. But then there’s a murder. And that’s all I’m going to tell you about the plot.
Hiaasen grew up in Florida, got a degree in journalism and has been writing ever since. He started by writing for newspapers, then he started writing novels. He still writes occasionally for some south Florida newspapers.
He has written fiction, nonfiction, and some children’s books. And won a few prizes, too. The fiction books could all loosely be classified as humorous mysteries.
They don’t all have the same main character or characters like the John D. MacDonald series, although Skink does appear in a few as a minor character. And you probably wouldn’t find them in the mystery section, but rather in the fiction section. But they are mysteries. Trust me on this.
These Hiaasen mysteries usually center on a reporter or private investigator who is going to solve a mystery and a crime and hopefully see to it that the bad guys get some kind of justice.
The books are funny in a weird, outrageous, crazy kind of way. You will snicker as you see the steamy and seamy underbelly of Florida and its corruption, which go together like peanut butter and jelly.
Hiaasen merits a spot on my list because his books are great, and there’s nothing else like them. Sometimes Hiaasen’s books remind me a little of Elmore Leonard’s books, but in their writings, Hiaasen is wackier and Leonard is leaner.
Thomas Harris is something of an enigma. He hasn’t written a ton of books, and the others that he did write haven’t achieved the level of success that this one has. His first book was Black Sunday, and his second book was Red Dragon, the precursor to Silence of the Lambs.
Harris has not been interviewed much and abhors the spotlight. He was recently interviewed in The New York Times, following the publication of the new book in 2019, Cari Mora.
The Silence of the Lambs was made into a blockbuster movie starring Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins, which swept several Academy Awards. However, the movie aside, it’s a terrific book. It’s rare that a terrific book turns into a terrific movie, and this is one of the few examples of that.
Harris raised the bar on writing about serial killers. Silence of the Lambs is well plotted, has good character development, excellent dialogue, intricate details and it makes sense, as in it’s plausible. Prepare yourself for some grisly details. And it’s long. The only thing a mystery reader likes better than a great mystery is a great mystery that’s very long.
Silence of the Lambs is about a young FBI recruit, Clarice Starling, who helps to catch a serial killer. Another serial killer, Hannibal Lector, who is now sitting in jail for previous crimes, helps her to catch the bad guy.
Harris created Hannibal Lector first in Red Dragon, so if you like Silence of the Lambs, then definitely go back and read Red Dragon in which he first appears.
If you’re one of the three people who has not seen the movie, Silence of the Lambs, read the book first. Always read the book first if possible. Red Dragon was also made into a couple of movies, but the earlier one (Manhunter) with a young William Peterson is the better of the two.
Personally, I think Jodie Foster was miscast as Clarice Starling, but I digress. Just read the book; it’s the best of its type ever written. I have a friend who calls me regularly on the phone and starts the conversation with, “Is that you, Clarice?”
I included Relic on this list for a few reasons. First, as you get into the late twentieth century you begin to see more and more mysteries that include a science/techno/paranormal angle. I would be remiss not to include at least one great one.
Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child have written a lot of books, and many of them are excellent. Both authors have written books alone and together.
Relic is a top-notch mystery about some strange goings-on in a museum in New York. Most museums have what’s on display which is a small percentage of what they have in storage. Who knows what’s filed away in old boxes or drawers.
In Relic, there are some deaths at the museum, and there are several people trying to figure out what happened there, including FBI Special Agent Pendergast.
This is the first appearance of Pendergast, who is seen again in several later Preston and Child books. So, if you like this one, there are plenty more.
The book is very well-written. It’s tight, lean, well-plotted, and you’ll learn a lot about how museums operate. Pendergast is a memorable character, who will leave you wanting to learn more about him, too. Read the book and see if you like these types of mysteries with the science/techno/paranormal flavor.
Hat tip to my brother, who put Relic on my radar, many years ago.
The Chimney-sweeper’s Boy was one of Rendell’s later books. She had an enormous bibliography, as well as an enormous collection of prizes. Later in Rendell’s career, she wrote a number of books under the name, Barbara Vine. This book is one of those.
Rendell, who died in 2015, is best known for writing the psychological mystery and trying to understand or elucidate for the reader why people–who appear normal on the outside–do strange, crazy, illegal, and murderous things.
Many of her books are great, and I could have put any one of at least 10 on this list. I chose The Chimney-sweeper’s Boy because I think it’s the best of the best.
It’s a long book with an extremely complicated plot, a surprise ending, it’s plausible, and it’s just a great story. It’s, in my opinion, a great example of the best of her work.
The mystery is what crime was committed, why, and who was involved. Period. Not giving anything else away.
If you like this book, there are only another hundred or so waiting for you to read. Rendell also created the Inspector Wexford series, and many of her books have been turned into films or BBC television shows.
Reginald Hill, who died in 2012, was another great British mystery writer with scores of both books and prizes under his belt, an amazing feat considering his first book wasn’t published until 1970. Before that he got a degree in English and taught English for years.
Eventually, he retired from teaching to devote himself to writing. Many of his books have been adapted to film or television.
Hill wrote the Dalziel and Pascoe, Yorkshire detectives, series, another shorter series with a private investigator, and several standalone books. On Beulah Height is one of the later Dalziel and Pascoe books.
I usually recommend reading series books in order, but in this case, if you aren’t familiar with the series, I’d start with this one, then go back to the beginning if you feel inclined.
On Beulah Height is a mystery surrounding the disappearance of several little girls over a period of years, a crime that has never been solved.
Dalziel and Pasco are tasked with putting this disaster to bed once and for all. The book is a part ghost story and part modern detective story.
When you read this book, look for a complex plot, allusion, metaphor, and lyrical English. What sets Hill apart from other writers of his generation and his genre is his command of English and English literature.
Good stories, beautifully written—that’s what great mysteries are all about.
I included this book on my list because it’s so good and so different from anything that has come before or after it. You’ll love this book.
Alexander McCall Smith is an academic. He grew up in Africa, when there was still a British colony in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and then went to university in Scotland.
He is a respected expert on medical ethics in the UK, but starting in 1998, at the age of 50, he began writing books for the non-academic public. He is a prolific writer, who reportedly writes several thousand words per day. Every day. And he has a long bibliography to show for it.
The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency is the first of a series that takes place in Botswana and has a female main character solving mysteries. The BBC started adapting the series for television in 2007.
It took a while for the book (and series) to gain traction, but I believe this book to be a little masterpiece. It’s not too long, it’s upbeat despite some grim details, and the main character is very endearing.
With the African backdrop, the book is totally different from any other mysteries that you may have read before.
The main character, Precious Ramotswe, doesn’t rely on DNA or microscopic particles to solve crimes. She uses common sense and psychology.
When highly educated academics write great books, you get much more for your money than you may at first realize. Like Umberto Eco’s books, The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency will require reading more than once, but it will be worth it.
You will learn about history, politics, African culture, and gender-bias, while you’re reading a whopping good story that is also filled with wisdom and humor.
In the Woods is a brilliant first novel by Tana French, who lives in Ireland. The book won four major mystery prizes and was a short-list finalist for The Los Angeles Times Book Award.
It’s a police procedural, well-plotted and very atmospheric. It’s not exactly a thriller, but it is a scary book.
It’s about a police detective investigating a case that strongly resembles something he, himself, was involved in as a child—but doesn’t quite remember.
The author was originally an actress, who gave up acting to pursue writing. Since this book was published, she has published another six, and one is just as good as the next.
In this day and age of eBooks, most of the books I read now are downloaded onto my tablet. I buy Tana French’s books in hardcover because I think someday they’ll be worth something on the Antiques Roadshow. I sincerely believe her books are among the best mysteries of the last 15 years.
Coming out of Australia is The Dry. The author was previously a journalist, and previously from the UK, but she moved to Australia in 2008. The Dry is her first novel.
The book is the beginning of a series with the main character, Aaron Falk. The second book is Force of Nature.
The book has already won 12 awards from several different countries, so I’m not alone in liking it. I put it on this list because it’s just that good.
Basically, a federal police investigator returns to a small town to go to a funeral and investigate a case. He has ties to the small community that he had left long ago, and that clouds his judgment …a little.
The book is relatively fast paced, however, if you pause between chapters, you will feel the heat on your back and the sand in your teeth. Atmosphere plays a significant role in the book, and it is oppressive.
The Dry is part mystery, part thriller, and part a glimpse into Australian culture. It’s a great book being adapted to a movie right now.
Lee Child, the pen name of James Dover Grant, has written 24 books in the Jack Reacher series starting with Killing Floor in 1997. They’re all good mysteries, part thriller part hard-boiled mystery, and part just plain good story.
I chose The Midnight Line, one of the more recent books, for my list because I think it’s a step above the others.
The main character, Jack Reacher, is a former military police guy who has never really integrated himself fully back into society since his tour of duty ended.
So, Reacher travels across the states, living a nomadic life with as small a footprint as possible while he solves some mysteries and rights some wrongs along the way.
The Midnight Line is first and foremost a good mystery. But the book also takes a close look at some modern societal problems: what happens to vets when they come back from duty, and how difficult it can be to help family members in crisis.
This book is not high literature. It’s not lyrical prose with multi-layered metaphors. But for what it is, a great page-turner within the mystery genre, it’s the best of its kind. Child’s books have definitely subtly improved with age.
Many of the Jack Reacher books have been made into movies with Tom Cruise as Jack Reacher.
The movies are pretty good, and if you like action movies, then, by all means, watch them all. However, movies are a different art medium than books, and in this case, the movies are only distantly related to the books.
The biggest problem with the films, which has been addressed many times in the media already, is that Tom Cruise is seriously miscast as Jack Reacher.
Jack Reacher is six foot five inches, blond, and with hands the sizes of “chickens”. Many of the antics and fight scenes that Jack Reacher is capable of are physically impossible for a man half his size, but someone made an economic decision to cast a too-short and too-old heartthrob and guaranteed box-office winner instead of staying true to the book. Pity.
I decided to add five more books worth an Honorable Mention.
I wouldn’t say these are the best mystery books ever written on a short list of 25, but they are so good, that I couldn’t leave them behind either.
They are listed in the order of date of publication.
A terrific mystery/thriller about a failed plot to assassinate the President of France, Charles de Gaulle.
There have been three movie versions, however, the most recent one (1997) with Bruce Willis, is only very distantly related to the book (although it’s a good movie).
The first in a great series of historical mysteries set in the twelfth century featuring the monk, Brother Cadfael. Many of the books in the series have been made into excellent films. Ellis Peters is the pen name for a woman.
The third book in the Dave Robicheaux series, which won an Edgar Award. James Lee Burke writes beautifully.
Prepare yourself for full immersion in the deep south and a riveting story. Burke has written many other books if you like this one.
It’s impossible to write about the best mysteries ever written without a nod to Elmore Leonard.
Maximum Bob is interesting, memorable, quirky, lean, and mean. In true Hemingway tradition, Leonard never has one more word than necessary on the page.
For those who are partial to newer books, I offer you The Drifter. The book is a great mystery, carefully plotted, realistic, ironic, and occasionally funny. I hear notes of John D. MacDonald, Carl Hiaasen, Elmore Leonard, and Lee Child.
It’s about a damaged war veteran, trying to survive, doing the right things, living on the fringes of society, and solving some mysteries that come his way.