Blog – Posted on Monday, Apr 06
The 30 Best Mystery Books of All Time
When you flip open a mystery novel, what do you expect? Probably a thrilling tale that keeps you wondering who the culprit was. The best mystery books are those with ingenious sprinklings of clues along the way that brings out the inner detective in you. Arguably, the best feeling when reading a crime novel is being faced with a sufficiently difficult puzzle and yet still being able to jump up and shout “I knew it!” when the final reveal comes around.
A good murder case will always rank high on a list of mystery novels, but other stories also have their merits. From true crime books to espionage odysseys (of course, including whodunnit riddles) here are the 30 best mystery books that you cannot miss out on if you’re looking for twisted stories to keep you on the edge of your seat.
1. And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie
It’s impossible to talk about mystery novels without immediately thinking of the legendary Agatha Christie. Amongst all of her works, none has a story quite as impeccably crafted as And Then There Were None, which explains why it is the best selling mystery book of all time.
The story follows ten people who are brought together, for various reasons, to an empty mansion on an island. The mysterious hosts of this strange party are not present, but left instructions for two of the ten to tend the house as the housekeeper and cook. As the days unfold in accordance with the lyrics of a nursery rhyme, each invitee is forced to face the music (literally) and bear the consequences of their troubling pasts, as death will come for them one by one.
2. The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler
Raymond Chandler’s idea of mystery strays from conventions — for him it’s less about the intricate plot and more about the atmosphere and characters. As such, The Big Sleep is no ordinary story: private eye Philip Marlowe gets hired to investigate the blackmailing of Carmen Sternwood, the second daughter of a wealthy general. The further he digs into this messy business, the more complicated the story gets, as Carmen continues to be blackmailed by others in a web of unexpected relations between the characters.
Chandler’s work is complex: his characters are multi-faceted and his language rich with premonitions of the tragedy about to fall on this family. While the signs he drops are not exactly there to help you find out “who done it”, it will definitely give you a foreboding awareness that makes it hard to put the book down.
3. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
Perhaps better known by its major motion picture adaptation, Gone Girl is the ultimate mystery puzzle for the modern media age. Devoted wife Amy’s sudden disappearance throws Nick Dunne into a hailstorm of suspicion — from her parents to his neighbours to the investigators, everyone leans towards believing that he is somehow responsible. Nick himself becomes aware of how his wife viewed him, as well as how little he knows of her, when stories of her emerge from friends he’s never heard of.
Even if you’ve failed to keep the media buzz regarding the movie adaptation from spoiling you, the experience of reading the minds of these unreliable narrators is well-worth picking this one up.
4. The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain
The Postman Always Rings Twice is often lauded the most important crime book of the 20th century, and it's not hard to see why. Short, racy, and full of surprises, it will leave you no time to catch your breath. In fact, the language used by Cain was so unprecedentedly explicit, the book was banned in Boston for a while.
The story follows Frank Chambers and his roadside encounter with diner owner Cora Papadakis. Frank ends up working for Cora and her husband and then falling in love with her, despite her marriage. Frank’s spontaneity gets the better of him when he and Cora decide to sinisterly plot for the breakup of her marriage. Once the plan succeeds, they can stay happily ever after in each other’s arms… or so they think.
5. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
As it’s based on a real-life case that has already been solved, you might think all the mystery is taken out of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. Fortunately, that couldn’t be more wrong, because this nonfiction novel is one of the best-selling crime stories of all time.
Capote had closely followed the investigation of a quadruple murder in Kansas, and was doing a bit of inerviewing himself before the murderers were caught. As a result, his book is filled with twists and turns you would not expect — surely such vile behaviors must be works of fiction?
6. The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins
This Wilkie Collins’s late Victorian novel is among the earliest psychological thrillers ever written. It follows what first appears to be a simple story of two star-crossed lovers — Walter Hartright and Laura Fairlie — who weren’t meant to be together. Laura was betrothed to Sir Percival Glyde and yet she was mysteriously warned not to proceed with the marriage. Meanwhile, the city is gripped by the story of a strange woman clad in white who’s roaming its dark street.
As the title suggests, this final character is the key to the mystery that will enshroud these characters. Set in dimly-lit streets, The Woman in White is as much Gothic horror as it is mystery book, and that’s precisely why the clarity you get when the riddle is solved is so incredibly satisfying.
7. Anatomy of a Murder by Robert Traver
Before there was How To Get Away With Murder and Suits, lawyer-related entertainment came in the form of criminal cases. Anatomy of a Murder, written by a Supreme Court Justice under the pseudonym Robert Traver, is such a classic. It follows lawyer Paul Biegler and his defense of Frederick Manion, who’s accused of murdering an innkeeper. While the case is overwhelmingly against Manion, his unreliable behavior leaves room for challenges against conviction, and that’s where Biegler and his seemingly laid-back attitude comes in. This thrilling courtroom drama will keep you on the edge of your seat, wondering how this lawyer can argue such an impossible case.
8. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy by John le Carré
Packed with interesting codenames and stressful covert actions, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is about an ex-spy, George Smiley (codename Beggarman), who is pulled out of retirement, to his relief, to weed out a Soviet mole in the British Intelligence Service. You’ve probably never seen the motto “Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer” in better action than this, as Smiley attempts to distinguish the double-agent amidst old partners. There are plenty of clever hints and details about these cryptically named characters that you can pick up on, thus joining Smiley on the race to safeguard his country.
From deceit to elaborate tricks, le Carré’s espionage masterpiece will not only keep you on your toes because of the constant suspicion, it will also shed some light on the incredible social tension that existed in the 1970s at the height of the Cold War.
9. The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown
Dan Brown knows how to write up a riddle — just read The Da Vinci Code and you’ll see. In this volume, Professor Robert Langdon is brought to Paris on a whirl to shed some light on a bizarre murder in the Louvre. As he and sidekick cryptologist Neveu tries to decode the artistic riddles left at the scene, all of which are related to the works of Leonardo da Vinci, Dan Brown takes readers scrambling through the City of Love, speechless (because of the shrewd puzzles and not Paris’ beauty, of course).
You can imagine Dan Brown spending hours meandering between paintings and statues in Paris before coming up with this elaborate quest that Langdon embarks on. The story thus produced is shockingly satisfying to read, and it will no doubt leave you wanting to travel to France’s capital just to retrace Langdon’s steps.
10. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson
It appears a mark of a good mystery book is that it has been made into a movie. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is no exception. The first book of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium series introduces us to journalist Mikael Blomkvist and freelance hacker Lisbeth Salander. Following two separate strings of events, the characters eventually find themselves both trying to find the person who, forty years ago, supposedly killed Harriet Vanger — niece of one of the wealthiest men in Sweden. Blomkvist is invited to stay over at the wealthy family’s island, where he comes into contact with other family members who were present at the scene years ago, and begins to wonder if any of them were involved.
As Blomkvist decodes the copious amount of decades-old notes and newspaper clippings, he slowly fills in the missing pieces of the puzzle about this dysfunctional family. Larsson’s story takes classic mystery tropes — family feud, blackmailing sequences — and spices them up with additional developments in the protagonists’ personal lives.
11. The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey
Delve into the past once more as we explore the story of King Richard III in The Daughter of Time. Scotland Yard Inspector Alan Grant takes time off from modern-day cases to recover from an injury, but still he searches for puzzles to occupy himself. Subsequently, he stumbles upon the mystery of King Richard III, a monarch accused of being a murderer but who Grant can only see as kind and wise. Following his strange physiognomic intuition, Grant rummages historical records to solve a complex case that occurred decades ago.
Josephine Tey brings to life in this novel the intricacies of the past, and the way history is interpreted to reopen a case that was once done and dusted. The political intrigue and peculiar records make for a good dramatic story that is incredibly informative and intriguing, thereby winning The Daughter of Time tremendous love from the readers and praise from the critics.
12. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
Gothic mystery Rebecca is a classic when it comes to telling bone-chilling stories set in an old, grand mansion. The unnamed protagonist of the tale becomes the wife of a widowed, wealthy man, Mr. de Winter, and moves into the Manderly, his stately home. Rather than promising a peaceful and happy marriage, the grand house holds the shadow of the first Mrs. de Winter over the new lady, and threatens not just her happiness but her life.
Elegantly crafted and movingly told, Rebecca’s beauty will remind you of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, only more sinister and enigmatic.
13. The Maltese Falcon by Danshiel Hammett
Returning to detective stories we have The Maltese Falcon, which follows Sam Spade’s journey to find his client’s sister and her unwelcomed partner. Spade and his business partner, Miles Archer, are on their tail when things go off the track and Archer is found dead. Spade goes on trying to uncover the mystery surrounding the sisters while becoming a suspect for the death of his partner.
Spade’s sleuthing opens his eyes, and yours, too, to a worldwide system he had never thought he’d walk into. Told without a single paragraph dedicated to the thoughts of any of the characters, this is truly an enigma that keeps you guessing.
14. The Day of the Jackal by Frederick Forsyth
“The Jackal” is the codename of the assassin hired to kill French President Charles de Gaulle in this enthralling tale. What’s more thrilling is the fact that this kill order came from within the government and thus must be covered up well. The Jackal’s challenge is thus two-fold — to circumvent the heavy safeguarding reserved for one of the most important men on Earth, and to protect his own identity, even from his employers.
Inspired by an actual failed assassination attempt on the French President and politcally developments in Europe at the end of the Cold War, The Day of the Jackal is intriguing on many fronts. Prepare for some serious espionage, meticulous planning, and political infighting.
15. Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty
Single mother Jane sends her son to kindergarten and befriends two mothers — Madeleine and Celeste. Along with their friendships is an array of family dramas, from ex- or abusive husbands to dark pasts. Jane doesn’t know it, but there’s a piece of her past that makes her fit perfectly into this wild puzzle. No one ever displays their domestic problems in their totality to others, not even to friends, and that makes Big Little Lies so much more captivating.
16. In the Woods by Tana French
In the Woods takes readers to the woody outskirts of Ireland, where a 12-year-old girl is found dead. Two detectives, Rob and Cassie, are assigned the case, and the case forcibly reminds the former of the mystery that haunted his childhood — a mystery which happened in these same woods. As they make their way through the crime scene and interrogate dysfunctional parents and friends, Rob’s past keeps coming back to him, begging the question of whether it is related to this sad event.
As haunting as it is alluring, In the Woods is more than just a mystery book. It is also a poignant tale of family ties and childhood trauma — a reminder of the importance of growing up in a safe and loving environment.
17. The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris
In this iconic suspense novel, FBI agent Clarice Stirling investigates a serial killer, “Buffalo Bill,” who preys on young women, and who potentially is linked to psychiatrist and cannibalistic murderer Hannibal Lecter. In order to weed a clue out from Lecter about Bill’s whereabouts, Stirling visits the psych ward where Lecter is imprisoned. However, her shuddering exchanges seem to reveal less about the killer on the loose, and more about Lecter’s astounding ability to get into the head of his victims. Follow Clarice Stirling on her bone-chilling mission, juggling two sociopathic criminals, in The Silence of the Lambs.
18. The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
The Hound of the Baskervilles is one of the best mystery books ever written; it’s certainly one of the most-read books of all time. Conan Doyle's legendary detecive, Sherlock Holmes, presumed dead, returns to the land of the living to shed light on the petrifying death of his friend, Charles Baskerville. The Baskerville family estate is located on the moors of Devon, where legend has it there’s a demonic beast roaming about. Sinister supernatural forces appear to be the only explanation for this mystery, but the supremely rational Sherlock Holmes is not going to give up on his quest to find the one and only truth.
19. The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins
Aristocrat Rachel Verinder receives a beautiful gem, the Moonstone, from her uncle, a soldier returning from India, for her eighteenth birthday. She decides to wear it to the big party celebrating her adulthood, after which the jewel disappears from her room. Distraught, Rachel and her family seek the help of Sergeant Cuff to find the thief and recover the treasure. The case is more complicated than it seems, especially since the Moonstone has a mysterious history Rachel doesn’t yet know of.
The Moonstone is widely regarded as the first mystery novel ever published, and Wilkie Collins paved the way for subsequent books in this genre by introducing hallmark elements such as the large number of suspects, an incompetent constabulary force, and an exceptionally brilliant detective.
20. The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
Rachel Watson takes a train from her home into the city center everyday, and to kill the time, she often spends much of it looking at the same houses that pass by her. She makes up stories for the lives she observes, stories that are better than her own, free of divorce and alcoholism. One day, she witnesses something that turns Rachel from a mere observer of the lives of this particular street to an active participant in it.
The Girl on the Train is yet another suspenseful read that uses unreliable narrators to the full. Its intertwining perspectives will take turns changing your mind as to who is the real threat in this domestic drama.
21. Eye of the Needle by Ken Follett
Historical fiction novelist Ken Follett’s critical success is set during the turning point of World War II, when D-Day plans were being carried out. German spy Henry Faber, codename “The Needle,” stations himself in London, and is transmitting information back to Berlin. He’s the cream of the crop when it comes to this trade: only him and a few other German agents are still at large in Britain. Faber soon catches on to a crucial operation that the British are about to embark on — one that, if successful, will turn the table against Germany. The problem is the British are coming closer and closer to uncovering him…
If you’ve read any of Ken Follett’s books, you’ll know he has a talent for vividly reviving the past in his pages. Eye of the Needle is no exception — the tension and secrecy that plagued this tumultuous time is captured skillfully in this volume.
22. Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn
Journalist Camille Preaker returns to work from her “break” at the hospital with a project that will take her back home: there is a girl who had been murdered, and another missing, in the little town she grew up in. Homecoming proves harder than she thought: Camille had been estranged from her family, and must now reconnect with them. The more she and the detective on the case, Richard Willis, delve into the mysteries, the closer to home Camille appears to be — much closer than she would hope. In probably the most unpleasantly satisfying way possible, Sharp Objects will leave you shivering with wonders about how far the effects of a broken family can reach.
23. My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite
On a similar note, let’s watch as a saucy sibling drama unfurls in My Sister, the Serial Killer. Korede has a sister who has a tendency to date horrible men — men so bad she has to kill them, “in self-defense”. Korede doesn’t report or question this — her sister is family, after all, and Korede goes to great lengths to protect her family. But when her sister starts approaching a coworker that Korede likes, she begins to wonder how far is too far. Braithwaite’s novel is bleakly humorous and as wild as Lagos, the city it’s set in.
24. Case Histories by Kate Atkinson
If you still are in need of a good domestic thriller, Case Histories is your book. Get ready for three gruesome backyard tales: the disappearance of a young child in one home, the slaughter of a husband in another, and the murder of a solicitor’s daughter in the last. Beyond exploring the hurt and loss of each of these unfortunate families, Kate Atkinson also expertly tied all three together — how exactly, you’ll have to read to find out.
25. The Detective by Roderick Thorp
The Detective is a classic when it comes to mystery novels — Thorp’s work is inspiration for several famous movies, including Die Hard. This story follows private eye Joe Leland as he is asked by a widow to look into the circumstances of her husband’s death. As he delves into the entangling relationships of this man who he happens to have known from his fighting days in World War II, Leland uncovers details about the victim he never would’ve guessed.
26. The Alienist by Caleb Carr
Maybe you’ve heard of this title before in the form of the Netflix original that takes the audience back in time to 1890s New York. Crime reporter John Moore takes the lead on the grisly and peculiar serial killing of teenage boys. The first victim who is found, and whose case Moore covered in the news, was dressed up like a girl and disturbingly mutilated, so much so that Moore believes there must be someone mentally sick behind it all. Moore turns to his friend and famous psychologist — then known as an alienist — in order to figure out this mystery and catch the murderer. This mystery book has everything from psychological analysis to breath-taking chases through New York’s grimy streets.
27. Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane
When Rachel Solando, a patient at the Ashecliffe Hospital for the criminally insane, disappears from the facility, Marshal Teddy Daniels and his partner are summoned to investigate and recapture her. Upon arriving at the island on which the hospital is located, the two detectives found traces that Solando left behind regarding the ill-boding operations of the institution. The investigation takes several sharp turns before finally unveiling the true conspiracy. In emulating Gothic elements by isolating the case from technology and the outside world, and combining it with modern-age psychology, Shutter Island fosters an eerie yet captivating atmosphere that makes it impossible to put down.
28. The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley
Not all of the best mystery books have to leave a heavy sense of dread at the bottom of your stomach, and The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie is proof of that. The sleuth who saves the day in this novel is Flavia, an intuitive 11-year-old whose father is accused of murder. A stranger has ended up dead in the family’s yard, one who happened to have been seen arguing with Flavia’s dad days before. Determined that her stamp-loving father, who has been heart-broken since the death of his wife, would never kill anyone, Flavia tours the town to try and prove his innocence. Light-hearted as it may sound, this novel’s puzzle is incredibly well-crafted and its classical mystery style, reminiscent of the works of Agatha Christie and Josephine Tey, makes it easy to finish the volume in one sitting.
29. The Deep Blue Good-by by John D. MacDonald
The Deep Blue Good-by is the first novel of MacDonald’s series about private investigator Travis McGee. As we are introduced to this tall, charming, and righteous character, he is swept away on a mission to find military man Junior Allen, a serial rapist and murderer. Allen has also discovered a smuggled treasure buried somewhere in Florida, and is using that to fund his malicious exploits. The difficult responsibility of trying to locate this psychopath falls onto McGee’s shoulders, the only person with the methodological patience to pick up Allen’s trace. Too often, the protagonist of detective stories are portrayed as being rational to the point of cold-hearted; it’s probably worth your while to change it up a little with Travis McGee’s quest for goodness.
30. Killing Floor by Lee Child
In another first book to a detective series we have Killing Floor, a novel full of action and secrets. Former policeman Jack Reacher gets arrested the moment he comes into the town of Margrave, for a murder he is sure he did not commit. As he tries to convince the detectives in charge of his innocence, Reacher initially only wants to get out of this mess and go on with his travels. The stakes, however, are raised when he found out that his own brother is somehow involved in the mystery, and the murder he is falssely accused of is nowhere near as simple as he thought.
If you’re looking for more books to send chills down your spine, check out this list of best suspense books of all time! Or have a look at our guide to Kindle Unlimited if you want to boost your reading game.