Editor’s note: This post was originally published in January 2014. We’ve selected it as one of the posts we’re republishing for our 10th anniversary celebrations in May 2017.
In these weeks of midwinter, there’s nothing more satisfying than curling up by the fire with a good novel — and in particular a good mystery novel, because they somehow seem to keep you the warmest. Plus, what with a new season of Sherlock starting this week, your appetite for more murders, clues, and suspicious persons might just be piqued. After the jump, check out 50 essential mystery novels (and spy novels, and crime novels — the genre tends to get a little blurry) that will bring color to your cheeks and set your brain ticking. Usual rules apply: one book by any given author, and all choices subjective — add your own favorites in the comments and keep the list of essentials growing.
Hound of the Baskervilles, Arthur Conan Doyle
Really, you should read this as all the Sherlock Holmes stories, but choices have to be made. This one is a classic among classics because it manages to be both a great story and a particularly interesting take on Holmes and Watson’s dynamic, wherein the former disappears and the latter deduces. Holmes is better at deducing.
Gaudy Night, Dorothy L. Sayers
Again, read: everything Sayers has ever written. Ahem, please excuse those hysterical italics. Her Lord Peter Wimsey novels, of which Gaudy Night is one, are particularly wonderful, not least for Harriet Vane, everyone’s favorite ass-kicking mystery novelist, nor for its double duty as a philosophical novel. “How fleeting are all human passions compared to the massive continuity of ducks.”
A Coffin for Dimitrios, Eric Ambler
A classic mystery with a postmodern twist: a protagonist who is also a mystery novelist, the result being that this 1939 novel is as much a comment on the genre (and even the genre to come) as it is a particularly delightful example of it. Plus: James Bond has been spotted reading it. Can’t get a better endorsement for a spy novel than that.
Arthur & George, Julian Barnes
This novel, which was shortlisted for the Booker in 2005, is a delightful retelling of a real-life mystery (the “Great Wyrley Outrages”) that Sherlock Holmes creator Arthur Conan Doyle actually solved at the turn of the 20th century! And a luminous book (what else would you expect from Barnes?) to boot.
The Big Sleep, Raymond Chandler
Setting aside its women problems (rampant amongst the hardboiled detective novel), there’s no denying that this is a thrilling, complex classic worthy of inclusion on any list. Plus, it’s where we meet Philip Marlowe for the very first time.
The Maltese Falcon, Dashiell Hammett
This might just be the greatest hardboiled detective novel ever published in this country. Yes, still. Immensely influential, immensely entertaining, and excellently written, it is both a rollicking example of the genre and transcendent of the same.
Murder on the Orient Express, Agatha Christie
A thrilling classic from the grand dame of mystery. It was tempting to choose And Then There Were None, which still stands as the best-selling mystery novel of all time, but Orient is not only better but also features the detective Hercule Poirot, Christie’s most famous creation and the only fictional character to have gotten an obituary in The New York Times.
An Unsuitable Job for a Woman, P.D. James
A kick-ass lady detective in the ‘70s? Yes, please.
The Complete Auguste Dupin Stories, Edgar Allan Poe
That’s right, you sleuth: this is not a novel, but you’re going to have to allow me this one cheat on Poe’s account. After all, Poe basically invented the genre, and “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” in which Dupin first appears, is widely considered the first-ever detective story, and influenced all that came after. And besides, Arthur Conan Doyle basically took Dupin and his unnamed confidante, slapped pretty names on them, dropped them off in London, and created the largest detective franchise of all time. Plus: these stories are amazing.
Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier
In this mystery-cum-Gothic romance, a young woman marries an older man only to be plunged into the swirling secrets surrounding his first wife’s demise. Another classic of every genre.
The Alienist, Caleb Carr
The absolute pinnacle of historical crime fiction.
The Intuitionist, Colson Whitehead
This speculative mystery features all the classics of noir: an arranged accident, a scapegoat, elevator inspectors. Er, maybe that last bit is more unusual. Whitehead’s excellent detective novel, set during an alternative version of the Harlem Renaissance, investigates race and society as well as being a terribly good story.
The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, Michael Chabon
Here’s another compelling mystery set in an alternative version of the universe we know, this one featuring one of the best homicide detectives you’ll meet in any medium and not a little investigation of Judaism.
When We Were Orphans, Kazuo Ishiguro
Ishiguro uses the trappings of the detective novel to get at the thing that always fascinates him: the swirling inner workings of a mind ill at ease. Uneven but mesmerizing and sometimes brilliant, this deconstructionist’s detective story investigates the investigator.
A Rage in Harlem, Chester Himes
The first in Himes’ legendary series of crime noir introduces us to Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones and the dirty, rampaging, blood-soaked streets of their Harlem. A giant of the genre. Side note: this cover. This cover, you guys.
The Woman in White, Wilkie Collins
Sometimes cited as the first true mystery novelist, Collins is a must, and this book is as gripping as they come. A nod should go to his later work The Moonstone, too, which T.S. Eliot called the “first and greatest of English detective novels,” but falls just below The Woman in White on this reader’s personal radar.
Dust and Shadow, Lyndsay Faye
Sherlock Holmes will continue to skulk around this list, and good luck to anyone trying to stop him. Faye’s Dust and Shadow is a prime example of what a Holmes pastiche can do when it’s really, really good — solve the Jack the Ripper murders, for instance.
The New York Trilogy, Paul Auster
One of contemporary fiction’s established greats, Auster uses the convention of the detective to get at something else entirely, creating his own, meta-detective genre and twisting the reader inside and out in the process.
Devil in a Blue Dress, Walter Mosley
In this novel, one of the best of Mosley’s many great books and the first of his Easy Rawlins mysteries, an unemployed World War II vet gets a strange job offer: to find a missing woman. So begins a truly great series of mysteries.
The Postman Always Rings Twice, James M. Cain
The classic roman noir from one of the genre’s founding fathers.
The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, John le Carré
A spy novel that reinvented spies in literature — and questioned the morality of just about everyone. Possibly the best spy novel ever written.
Fadeout, Joseph Hansen
In 1970, Hansen gave us Dave Brandstetter, the first openly gay private eye in the mystery genre. “When I sat down to write ‘Fadeout’ in 1967, I wanted to write a good, compelling whodunit, but I also wanted to right some wrongs,” Hansen said. “Almost all the folksay about homosexuals is false. So I had some fun turning clichés and stereotypes on their heads in that book. It was easy.” In this wry and rollicking novel, he accomplished that and more.
The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco
Everyone’s favorite historical murder mystery set in a monastery, this big, postmodern novel is smart as hell and twice as entertaining.
The Circular Staircase, Mary Roberts Rinehart
Rinehart is known as the “American Agatha Christie,” though her first novel predates Christie’s by about 14 years. The Circular Staircase is widely considered the first in the “Had-I-But-Known” school of murder mystery writing, and is also widely considered to be amazing. Plus, she’s the person who originated the phrase “the butler did it.” Can’t argue with that.
True Confessions, John Gregory Dunne
This novel (by Joan Didion’s husband!) is a lyrical, literary mystery about a mysterious murder based on the “Black Dahlia” case in LA. So good it transcends any label you’d care to throw at it, other than “amazing.”
Beast in View, Margaret Millar
Millar’s novel, often overlooked nowadays, is a Gothic thriller featuring a wealthy heiress being stalked by an alluring stranger. And then, twist ending! In 1956, the book won the Edgar Award for best novel.
The Daughter of Time, Josephine Tey
This 1951 detective novel by one of the queens of the genre follows a modern Scotland Yard detective as he investigates the crimes of Richard III. Not only an engaging mystery but an important book that questions the way we make and understand history.
From Russia, With Love, Ian Fleming
Possibly the best Bond novel of the bunch.
The Talented Mr. Ripley, Patricia Highsmith
Because everyone loves a really good liar — not to mention an ashtray as murder weapon. Fun fact: Highsmith’s most famous work won the Grand Prix de Littérature Policière for best international crime novel in 1957.
Presumed Innocent, Scott Turow
One of the best and most beloved in a long tradition of American courtroom novels.
The Day of the Jackal, Frederick Forsyth
A perennially popular thriller about an assassin sent to kill Charles de Gaulle that has influenced more than one actual would-be assassin. Not that that should put you off — it’s just that good.
Mystic River, Dennis Lehane
Lehane has already established himself as one of the best contemporary mystery and crime writers around. His 2001 novel is arguably his best, a twisty mystery of three best friends, abuse, and murder. Not to be missed.
Sneaky People, Thomas Berger
The funniest book about a used car salesman plotting to kill his wife that you ever shall read.
In The Woods, Tana French
This gripping and much-lauded literary mystery took the world by storm in 2007, and for good reason. It’s not only a deft police procedural-cum-psychological thriller, but a captivating investigation into modern Ireland and personal memory.
A Dark-Adapted Eye, Barbara Vine
Nothing is more mysterious than the madness of family. Especially this family.
Anatomy of a Murder, Robert Traver
You know this novel as the book that spawned the classic Otto Preminger film. Like so many, it’s more than worth reading, too — the most suspense you’ll ever feel in a courtroom, even if you’ve been arrested (probably).
The Thirty-Nine Steps, John Buchan
This is one of the earliest novels featuring that now tried-and-true “man on the run” plotline (read: every action movie ever). Plus, a spy-riddled mystery that can’t be beat.
Eye of the Needle, Ken Follett
Follett’s spy thriller set during World War II explores the mystery of war and (but of course!) of the human heart. The book won him the 1979 Edgar Award for Best Novel from the Mystery Writers of America.
I, The Jury, Mickey Spillane
Spillane’s 1947 novel debuted Mike Hammer, the not-so-subtly named PI who would be around for 18-odd future books plus a ‘50s radio series. One of the classics, see?
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Stieg Larsson
For all its gender politics, hacker style, and bleak brutality, Larsson’s book is still a well-crafted locked-room (er, if the locked-room is an island) mystery with a twist. Agatha Christie would be proud, even if she couldn’t stomach it.
Blanche on the Lam, Barbara Neely
The first installment of Neely’s stellar series starring Blanche, an African-American “domestic” for a dysfunctional family in the post-emancipation era. She is on the run and, of course, also something of a detective herself. The novel won the Agatha Award and the Anthony Award for Best First Novel, and the Macavity Award for Best First Mystery upon its publication in 1992.
Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow, Peter Høeg
No potboiler here, but an icy, beautiful book about a girl who connects with the snow and nothing else. Of course, there’s a murder mystery, but there’s also Smilla and her Danish/Inuit heritage, icebreaker ships, and old Copenhagen conspiracies. Truly lovely, and a haunting story to boot.
The Secret Agent, Joseph Conrad
Conrad tackles terrorism.
The Third Man, Graham Greene
Greene didn’t care much for this book; he considered the movie version the final product, and this novella just the draft before the draft. But there’s no denying Greene’s skill with a pen, and this great little spy book, set in World War II Vienna, proves him wrong.
The Black Dahlia, James Ellroy
This neo-noir novel, based on the notoriously unsolved LA homicide, investigates murder, insanity, corruption, all that good stuff. Widely remembered as the book that elevated Ellroy from the genre ghetto and burned him into the minds of all the literary snobs.
The Snowman, Jo Nesbø
Nesbø is a modern master of the Nordic crime novel, and this chilling (that’s right) mystery is one of his best.
Laura, Vera Caspary
In this 1942 novel told from multiple perspectives, Caspary deftly manipulates the constraints of the genre to investigate not only the death of Laura Hunt but class and sexual politics at large. Not to mention the way a man can fall in love with a memory.
LaBrava, Elmore Leonard
Another Edgar Award winner for best novel. In this, a man meets the woman of his childhood dreams, a famous femme fatale, but it turns out she’s in trouble. Could be the perfect opportunity — for what, though, is the question.
The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, Alexander McCall Smith
There has never been a more delightful detective than Mma Precious Ramotswe, the first female private investigator in Botswana. Luckily, there are a lot of books after this one.
The Blue Hammer, Ross MacDonald
The final Lew Archer book is also the best. Detective noir at its finest.