The 25 Best Mystery Books of All Time

Mystery Novel Journalism
2022 Jun 01

All products were independently selected by our editors and contributors. When you buy through links on our site, we may earn an affiliate commission.

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, Im 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, Im going to list them in order of initial date of publication starting with the oldest. And dont worry; Im not giving away any spoilers.

There are two things Id like to mention before you read this list.

First, in some cases, I mention book prizes that were won, and in some cases, I dont.

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, its 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. Dont let any of those details bother you.

Whats 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.

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. Killers 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 Carr, 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-sweepers 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

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

1. The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins, 1868

The Moonstoneis generally considered by scholars to be the first detective book in the English language. Its an epistolary work, meaning that its 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 beforeThe Moonstone, includingThe Woman in White, another initial attempt at a sensation novel. However, I choseThe Moonstonefor this list because I think its better thanThe 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 readThe 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 todays culture, that no list of best mysteries would be complete without at least a hat tip to Conan Doyle.

A Study In Scarletis 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 Scarletis 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 Sherlocks adventures at your leisure.

Dashiell Hammett is considered the father of the hard-boiled detective genre. In this type of mystery, theres 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.

Hammetts Sam Spade appeared first inThe Maltese Falcon, published in 1930which was originally serializedand then later in some short stories.

The Maltese Falconis basically about a valuable stolen falcon statue, and the question is who stole it and why, and can Spade recover it for his client.

Its amazing that Dashiell Hammett managed to get something brilliant written much less published. He suffered from tuberculosis, alcoholism, and writers 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). Its 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.

Youll 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?

Its important to read the right version of the book, linked above.

Rebeccais a great book, a classic, no matter how you look at it. Its 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, its also a mystery. I wouldnt describe it as a thriller, but it is suspenseful. Its 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 mans 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.

Rebeccadid not get good reviews when it was first published in 1938, but neither didThe Catcher in the Ryeby Salinger orSlaughterhouse-Fiveby Vonnegut. So, dont let that stop you from reading it.Rebeccahas been in publication continuously since 1938, and theres a reason for that.

Unfortunately, du Maurier, who died in 1989, was accused of plagiarism more than once. I dont know if she plagiarized anything or not; but I dont care, either, because Rebecca is still good enough to find a place on this list.

If youre 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 havent read. As far as writing mysteries, this book was his one-hit wonder.

Anatomy of a Murderis 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 quoteforgive me if its slightly offthats 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 its long, you will read it fast, because its 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 didnt 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 HitchcocksThe 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 includeKillers Payoffin my list, which is the sixth because I think its one of the best. You can always go back and read them all starting with the first,Cop Hater, if you like it.

Killers 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-Byis the first of the Travis McGee series, and its listed here because its also one of the best. Travis McGee was a character whose work was salvage or getting things back for people when they couldnt 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 recoverwellIm 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.

Whats 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 youre wondering whats going to happen next, you will also be questioning the world you live in and society at large.

Travis McGees 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.

Its 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.

Whats important aboutAnd Then There Were Noneis that its 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 committedusually a murderwhere 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 doesnt allow me to list all of them, but in a list of the best mysteries ever written, Id be remiss if I didnt 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 doesnt 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 Maigretis 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.

Simenons 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. Im going to fix that. Roderick Thorp wrote maybe a dozen books. He wasnt a genius or a professor or a prolific writer who penned a book per week.

The Detectivewas made into a movie with Frank Sinatra that did well at the box office, but then the story faded into obscurityexcept that Thorps sequel toThe Detective, calledNothing Lasts Forever, was made into the movieDie Hard. And that you may have heard of.

The Detectiveis 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. Its 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 todays societal issues and biases and considering that it was published in 1966, Id say it was well ahead of its time. Its a big fat book, and although its 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 Internationals 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 Waywas Tony Hillermans 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 Wayand the rest of the series would be considered police procedurals. However, whats different about these books is that the police procedural does not take place in an urban setting, but rather in the vast American Southwestand on the Navajo reservation.

The reason why Hillermans 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 wasnt 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 1920s 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.

Hillermans Leaphorn books have won all the major mystery prizes, including theEdgar,Nero,Macavity,Anthony, and several other prizes as well including theGrand Prix de Littrature Policire, 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 Hillermans bookspreachy, and he was accused more than once of getting a few cultural facts wrong. However, as a body of work starting withThe Blessing Way, his influence on the mystery genre cannot be overstated. The series is best read in order, and for that reason,The Blessing Wayis the one to read first.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spyis a crossover mystery/spy novel. Its the first of a trilogy, and I recommend reading all threein order. Le Carrs 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, Tailorand the others in the trilogy are dense books. They are not the easiest to read, and alternating scenes and characters dont make it any easier. Nevertheless, they are seamlessly plotted with important minute details everywhere, so, read them slowly and enjoy the authors way with language and dialogue. And there is a mystery in this book, or several as you will find out.

Hint: while youre 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 goodand Im being kind. Dont 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 bitironic.

True Confessionswas 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 youre 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 childrens books. He was not a sleepyhead.

The Name of the Rosewas his debut novel. Its 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 isnt too much cheerful conversation, the book is not all somber. There is some humor in it, too.

Its a book that you may need to read several times to understand it fully. But its worth it.

Related:23 Best Christian Fiction Books of All Time

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 its 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 Meyers relatives.

Its a lean mystery. There arent a lot of Latin clues, and there isnt a Byzantine plot. But the book is all muscle and sinew. There isnt one wasted word.

Since the murder involves one of Meyers 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 masters degree in literature. In 1974, he publishedThe New Centurionswhile 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-isnt-glamorous.

Wambaughs books told us what was really going on, and it often wasnt pretty. He showed the police work that is boring, often thankless, difficult and life-consuming and work that wasnt 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 Brightwas Wambaughs 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 theres a murder.

Watch for quirky but realistic characters, and careful plotting.

While Joseph Wambaugh is usually remembered forThe Onion FieldorThe Choirboys, the book he should be remembered for isThe Secrets of Harry Bright.

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 its his first novel in which the character, Skink, is introduced. And I dont want you to miss out on Skink.

Double Whammyis otherwise Hiaasens second novel, andTourist Seasonis 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 Ive ever read that made me laugh out loud. I mean laugh until I cried.

Double Whammyis 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 theres a murder. And thats all Im 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, a