'CORE' Best Lists
- Top 25 Best Mystery Books
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This is the first of Richard Hannay's adventures in mystery and politics. This man has the worst luck ever and has to use his wits and the author's plotline to get himself out of trouble. In this book, Hannay returns home after a long visit to find a mysterious man who claims to know of a plot for stealing war plans. Hannay does what all smart people do he lets the man sleep over. The next morning, Hannay finds the man dead and finds himself accused of murder. He has to solve the mystery in order to clear his good name and keep Britain from losing what would soon be World War I.
While the book and its sequels have a lot to say for themselves, this book has been translated to other media, which have brought it notoriety. Hitchcock filmed it in one of his early efforts. Lately, the film version made its way to the stage as one of the best comedic plays of the last few decades. A small cast takes on all the parts and mimics, mugs, and meanders through the plot of the story. Well worth seeing in all its form and reading as well.
If you you some Amateur sleuthing, this stands right near the top of the pack! Don't miss this one! Missing it would be a 'crime'.
Books in Richard Hannay Series (5)
C. AugusteDupin was the first of the amateur detectives. We dont learn much about Dupins life in the few stories that Poe wrote about him. Hes currently broke and stays with the unnamed narrator who serves as Dupins Watson. These stories highlight one of the issues with the amateur sleuth, as Poe never bothers with a reason as to why Dupin wants to solve these crimes. Hes not getting paid (and isnt that the only reason to work? I know thats my story.) He doesnt know the victims and he has nothing at stake in the crimes.
Regardless, Poe writes these stories to show off his new detective who is smarter than the reader, the writer and most of the other characters out there. In The Murders in the Rue Morgue, Dupin decides to visit the crime scene after reading about the murders in the newspaper. Why not? The police dont mind if you pop on by for a look. He deduces the solution to the crime just using his brain, showing up the police. In The Purloined Letter, at least Dupin is consulted by the Prefect of the Police to help with the solution of the crime. In all, these stories are interesting to see their place as the first amateurs in the mystery world.
Albert Campion is one of the gentlemen sleuths, who when faced with a life of uninterrupted leisure decides to solve crimes and catch killers. This seemed to be a trend in the early years of the 20th century in the years before men of leisure decided to commit crimes and buy politicians. In this book, which is Campions 14th adventure, he is asked by an old friend, Meg Elginbrodde, who is planning to remarry after her husband was killed in the war. However, on the cusp of her second wedding, shes receiving cards and photos from her dead husband.
This puzzle is tied to the newly released from prison Jack Havock, a name thats very appropriate since hes raising havoc wherever he goes. Campion and his man, Lugg as all detectives have a man have to find this man in the midst of a miserable London fog. London is a character in the book, looming large over the events of the novel. The book is a mix of thriller and detective story, since it features Allinghams regular character in an irregular role for him. This is definitely worth the effort to find and one of the best of the amateur books ever written. A film was made from the book, but it, in its finite wisdom, cut Campion from the film entirely.
Books in Albert Campion Series (23)
Nothing like meeting a crazy woman in the middle of the night to make you want to solve a crime, but thats the way that this novel begins. Published in 1859, this makes it perhaps the earliest known mystery novel complete with an amateur sleuth. Teacher Walter Hartright, after meeting the woman in white during the night, goes to his next assignment, where he meets a young woman who looks exactly like the mystery woman (but sane.) He falls for her, even though shes his student and shes engaged to someone else.
The plot grows convoluted after that, but Hartright is a model for many sleuths to come. Hes noble, in love, and yet hasnt a clue what hes doing. He misses large parts of the story, because he decides to go off and lick his wounds after the young woman marries her fiance. (He should have read those chapters!) When he returns, he lacks the means of the police and has to make do with what he has to solve the crime like a 19th century Macgyver. The book is considered Collins best and has been filmed no less than 7 times. Andrew Lloyd Webber even made a musical out of it.
Lord Peter is one of the more congenial of the man of leisure amateur sleuths who were introduced in the 1920s. These characters seem to be walking encyclopedias who are fully versed in the most minute of subjects. For the most part, no one likes a know-it-all, especially not the author who has to look up all this information. Peter can be a bit of a silly ass who talks piffle, which is his own assessment of his personality, but hes more well-rounded than many of the others of the era. Hes also one of the few who is still read almost 100 years later.
In this book, Peter goes undercover as a mere worker in an advertising agency. He commonly assumes two of his middle names (one of which is Death, meaning he was practically born to be a sleuth.) He takes over for the murdered man at Pyms Publicity. Of course, being Lord Peter, he creates one of their best ad campaigns ever. And he nearly gives away his cover while playing cricket at which he excels, of course. The book is fun in part, because Sayers, who worked at such an agency, used real people and real business examples in her book.
Books in Lord Peter Wims... Series (15)
Christie wrote the ultimate amateur detective in Miss Marple. The old spinster of the small English village is best known for knitting, comparing people to others shes known before and catching murderers. In this case, she wants to find out who has killed the local squire who was universally disliked. Every in town seems to have a motive for the crime, but the timing seems to be off. Miss Marple soon starts unraveling the clues, uncovering even those that have nothing to do with the crime.
This book has generated thousands of charming elderly women who solve crime including Jessica Fletcher, but nothing compares to the smooth way in which Miss Marple isnt taken in by how things seem. The woman is a human polygraph. The dear vicar reminds her of the fishmonger who only ate cat food. The mysterious woman across the street acts like her maids mother, and just when you despair of figuring out what these people could have in common, besides being in the same book, Christie hits you between the eyes with the truth. The Marple books have been made into several PBS series, but my favor is still the first, first book and first series. Check these out now before you start reminding her of the little boy who didnt do what he was told.
Books in Miss Marple Series (14)
The book starts with one of the most iconic lines in the history of literature. (Look it up, if you cant repeat it by heart.) The story is that of a young, nameless ward who becomes the Lady of the stately home Manderley. Her husband, Max, is seemingly bereft over the loss of his first wife, the beautiful and well-loved Rebecca.
The new wife (whose name is never even given) cowers in the corners and makes hideous mistakes around the home, making her feel even less like the lady of the house. The staff is pleasant except for Mrs. Danvers who is obsessed with the previous wife and never misses a chance to hurt the new wife and make her look ridiculous. Midway through the book, when all seems lost, du Maurier turns the entire story on its head with a revelation. From then on, the mystery takes over and the once mousy narrator grows a spine.
Why It Made the List
Not only is it well-known as a book, but this was Hitchcocks last film in England, his own Best Picture award, and probably the work that he followed most closely in adapting for film. Its a wonderful effort and has only enhanced the popularity of the book. '
Read It If You Like
English mysteries, stately homes, surprise endings
A monk is an unlikely amateur detective, but with his desire to see good prevail, many authors have turned to clerics as sleuths. In this case, the action is set in 1327, so there wasnt much competition from the police force (for another 500 years or so) William of Baskerville, a tip of the hat to Mr. Holmes and his hound, goes to Italy for a conference on the Bible in Italy (good times!) While hes there, a friar kills himself. William is charged by the abbot to find out what really happened.
This removes one of the amateurs major problems how can I stick my nose in everyones business without people thinking Im nosy? William meets a number of Medieval luminaries including Ockham of the razors fame and the head of the Inquisition, who loves a good burning question. When others start dying off at an alarming rate, William has to speed his investigation to trim the book to only 512 pages. While the book is rather dense with details about the era, the Bible and books in general, it is also a fully realized mystery and one of the best. Even the title is a mystery, because no one can quite explain how it fits with the plot of the book.
Brother Cadfael is another of the Medieval monks on our list. Hes working in a leper colony when a noble man and a much younger woman come to the abbey to be married. Its not a love match, because who likes old and wrinkled, but she is being forced into the marriage anyway. Needless to say, the groom-to-be doesnt make it to the altar in time. Hes dead.
The novel is full of tension between people wanting things that go against the Medieval way of life. Society was a few men who held sway over an entire country due to their wealth and yes, Im talking about 800 years ago. Some of the conflicts are things that cannot be solved in the book. The bride is not interested in marrying. Cadfael is a former Crusader who now grows herbs for lepers. The rigid social structure is one of the things on trial in this novel and it loses terribly. They didnt call them the Dark Ages for nothing. For readers who love to learn while they are entertained you cant go wrong with this series, which was made into a BBC series starring Derek Jacobi as a monk. The series works if you can get over Hamlet being a monk.
Books in Chronicles of Br... Series (20)
Philo Vance is the leader of the gentlemen of leisure detectives on our list. Vance was created by S.S. Van Dine, which was a pen name for a snob who didnt want people to know his erudite self was writing mysteries. Vance was the champion of art, literature and history who magically seemed to know everything about whatever arcane topic was involved in the book. He also had a bad habit of dropping his gs at the end of words which was quite annoyin dont you know?
In this case, we learn that Van Dine has been raising Scottish terriers, which of course leads him into this mystery, which features a locked room where one of the Coe brothers is found dead inside his locked bedroom and the other brother is found dead in the closet downstairs. A piece of Chinese pottery is found broken at the scene. Van Dine, who of course knows all about dogs and all about Chinese pottery as well, is able to easily solve the crime where the police fail. Of course, he still has time to explain to the gentle yet moronic reader how is superior knowledge is used to solve the crimes. This series started all of the gentlemen detectives who polished off their rough edges to be less irritating. Is it any wonder that Ogden Nash said, Philo Vance needs a kick in the pance?
Books in Philo Vance Series (12)
Everyone seems to be getting into the art of detection these days. Who isnt an amateur sleuth? Books with US Grant, Poe, Jane Austen and Ben Frankin have all popped up as intrepid detectives in recent years. If youre famous, you could be the next great detective. Lovesey writes about Queen Victorias oldest son, the Prince of Wales, better known to friends and family as the rather rakish and randy Bertie, who serves as the sleuth in a number of mysteries. In this case, Bertie learns of the suicide of a jockey, who killed himself in the aftermath of a typhoid attack. The whole inquest feels rushed and managed to him, so Bertie decides to investigate the matter himself.
Berties rather devil-may-care attitude while at the same time having the knowledge that the weight of the country will fall on his shoulders soon makes these books fascinating reading. This book is rich with researched details that tell about the sleuth and his family, which makes for a learning experience as well as a good whodunit. This is one of the best of the famous historical figure sleuths and shouldnt be missed for any reason. Just open your eyes and think of England.
Dick Francis writes mainly amateur detective fiction. Its not cozy in the definition of low violence, because his heroes stand a pretty good chance of having the stuffing beat out of them. His books are set in the world of horse racing, and his main characters are typically men who are jockeys or play a part in the racing world.
It makes sense since Francis was a well-known and loved jockey before hanging up his horse and starting to write. In this book, Andrew Douglas is a fixer who is hired by the families of kidnapping victims to get the victim back safe and make sure that the perpetrators are punished for their crimes. Of course since this is Francis, the latest kidnapping victim is a talented female jockey. The stakes get higher when the kidnappers pick up the pace and kidnap two more people in the course of the book.
Why It Made the List
Dick Francis was a beloved jockey (Queen Elizabeth is a fan) and a beloved author, who has garnered three Edgars (from the Mystery Writers of America) for his works. While Francis has written a few private eye works, most of his novels are amateur-driven.
'Read It If You Like'
Horses, racing, jockeys, British mysteries
Millar, who is better known as Mrs. Ross Macdonald these days, wrote a number of psychological thrillers in her day about people dealing with those challenged by mental illnesses. At the time not much was known about some of these conditions and Millar introduced readers to them with her works. This award-winning book pioneered what is probably one of the most over-used plot devices of the late 20th century, so we kind of have to blame her for it.
Evelyn Merrick is harassing Helen Clarvoe with phone calls and threats that dont cross the line of being criminal. Soon that grows boring, and she decides to have fun with all of Helens friends too. Of course, the stakes are upped to include porn and murder. Millar didnt shy away from using controversial subjects such as strongly implying that one of the main characters is gay, quite the shock in the mid-1950s. In the very last pages of the book, the reader realizes that all of the assumptions weve made are wrong. While Helen does use a private eye in this book, shes responsible for most of the detection, which is why it still fits into this category. Millar could bounce back and forth between private eyes and amateurs in a way that most writers cant. You need to check out this book I would gladly read anything by this author including her grocery lists.
Christie, who married a much younger archaeologist as her second husband once said that all women should marry someone in that profession because they grow more interested in you as you age. (Thats true not snark on my part.) So it shouldnt be a big surprise that she decided to set one of her mysteries in Ancient Egypt. Her regular sleuths werent around then, so she opts for a young woman as the sleuth in this case.
While Christie used her husbands friends to make sure that the mummies were wrapped correctly and the homes didnt have indoor plumbing, the rest of the mystery is all hers. The story tells about an older man marrying a much younger second wife and the resentment and emotions that come from seeing your well-deserved inheritance go for a boob job. When people in the family start dying all over the place, the youngest daughter turns focus onto her family to see who might be a killer. Not only is it a Christie, which usually means a good read, the book is one of the oldest mystery settings around and authentic to boot. The book is a fascinating look at how times have changed and how people havent in 3000 years.
This is the last of Dashiell Hammetts iconic mystery novels, and perhaps the best. Hammett wrote a tale about a pair of witty, bon vivants who like a spot of alcohol; he based Nick and Nora Charles on his own relationship with author Lillian Hellman.
The Thin Man of the title refers to Clyde Wynant, who vanished some months ago. No one much cared about where hed gone until the money starts running out. Then they decide to ask Nick Charles, who was a private eye before he married well, to look into the matter. Nick declines, but Nora has other plans. She thinks that solving crimes would be a lark. The story takes place over the Christmas holidays in New York City, but theres very little festive about the holidays.
Why It Made the List
Hammett was a master of his craft and each of his five novels is revered for some aspect. The book was made into a movie with Powell and Loy, and was such a hit that Hollywood made five more of them. Highly recommended, but make sure to have a pitcher of martinis before sitting down to read.
'Read It If You Like'
private eyes, New York fiction, Depression era fiction
Charles Dickens had flirted with the idea of a detective novel for years. Hed included crimes in many of his works, and hed included the police in works like Bleak House. Yet it wasnt until his very last book that he decided to write a murder mystery. Everyone knows it was Dickens last book, because he died before finishing it.
He didnt leave any notes or posters that said who had committed the crime, so its been a puzzle to readers for over a century. Edwin Drood is engaged to the delightful Rosa Budd. When the couple break off their engagement, practically every man in the book decides that he would be the perfect rebound boyfriend for Budd. To make sure Drood wont be coming back to start dating her again, someone takes more drastic steps. Drood disappears, but the book ends before the reader can learn what happened to the hapless man.
Why It Made the List
Everyone loves an unsolved mystery, and the speculation over the ending of the book has raged on for nearly a century. Endings have been published, and even a play was made of the book, including a potential ending. Yet the real intent of Dickens is a mystery and always will be.
'Read It If You Like'
Victorian mysteries, British mysteries, unfinished novels
Some amateur sleuths are ones you want to solve the crime. Highsmith wrote of an anti-hero who you still root for, even though hes guilty of the crimes. Tom Ripley, is a small time hanger-on, when hes hired by Dickie Greenleafs father to see what his son is up to in Europe. Ripley develops a bit of a man crush on Greenleaf, but practically lusts after the mans money. After a few people point out that he and DIckie resemble each other, Tom decides to assume his crushs identity.
Toms a helpful sort in trying to solve the mystery of why Dickie left all his friends to be by himself. He leads them up the wrong path, but if they get too close to the truth, he just clubs them to death. Not very logical, but highly effective. Highsmith wrote a series of novels about her favorite character and his exploits of solving mysteries with blunt force and his scheming mind. Hes not a character for everyone. Some people want their detectives to solve crimes not create more, but Ripley has been a long enduring character who many are fascinated with. Ripley came out as a movie in 1999, which is well worth seeing too. Its fairly consistent with the book.
Books in Ripley Series (5)
This book has not one amateur, but six! Theyve formed a group of potential sleuths who all want to get in on the action. The group is led by Berkeleys regular amateur sleuth, Roger Sheringham, another of the know-it-all sleuths. In this book, Sir Eustace who is known for his love of a pretty woman arrives at his club and receives a box of chocolates. As you can guess, one is poisoned but hes not interested in sweets. He gives the box to another club member who presents it as a gift to his wife. They both eat from the box. In this ultimate lesson in the lack of ethics involved in regifting, the wife dies and he nearly joins her. After some detection, it does appear that Sir Eustace was the intended victim and not the poor wife.
The book has a wicked sense of humor as each of the sleuths pokes holes in the theory of the others and tries to hide their own rationale until they present it to the group. They all use different clues to come up with wildly different theories as to the crime. Finally, Sheringham presents the solution which appears to satisfy all of them.
Books in Roger Sheringham... Series (11)
Amelia Peabody is, by far, one of the funniest amateurs around. She charges off in search of a solution and isnt daunted in the slightest by a dead end. In fact, well yes, she knew that was a dead end and only wanted to close it off so others might not fall into the trap of seeing it as a solution. So goes Amelia in search of adventure, missing the signposts on the road and sometimes the road itself. In her first adventure, Amelia travels to Egypt after her father passes away and leaves his fortune to his daughter.
She drags along a companion she meets along the way and they find adventure when mummies get up for strolls at the excavation site led by the two very attractive Emerson brothers. Her companion quickly and easily falls into the arms of one brother, but Amelia is bound and determined to ignore the remaining brother, who seems to feel the same way about her. They decide to rid the site of walking mummies, so that they can resume the digging for well, mummies. Amelias determination and pluck get her into all sorts of trouble, but her spirit never dims in any of the long-running series.
Books in Amelia Peabody Series (20)
One of the kings of the locked room or impossible crime books was John Dickson Carr who wrote under the name Carter Dickson as well. This is the first Sir Henry Merrivale case. HM as he is called. Merrivale would go on to feature in 22 mysteries. Though he started out as a serious character, he became a comic character as the series continued, typically entering the story with a bang. Hes saucy with the ladies and drunken with the men. Merrivale is typically consulted about murders that the police cannot solve, because they are impossible or occur in a room with no open entrances or exits.
In this case, a psychic, Roger Darworth, is hired to commune with the ghost of Plague Court, but hes suspected of fraud by the police. So he locks himself in a courtyard house with bars on the window and a moat of mud around it. After the sance where all the suspects sat in the same room, Darworth is found murdered even though the room is still locked and the mud is undisturbed. This entire series is well worth checking out. Many of them are now available in eBook form, and highly worth reading. Nothing screams the need for an amateur like a crime that cant be solved by the police.
Books in Sir Henry Merriv... Series (24)
Josephine Tey only wrote a few mystery novels, but each one is a classic and many top 100 lists feature three or four of her works and she didnt even have to pay them to do so! Brat Farrar is the mystery of an heir who mysteriously disappeared years ago only to reappear in the present. Is he Brat or isnt he? Given that he stands to inherit a fortune in the way of a horse farm, the family would kind of like to know.
In a way mimicking Poe, Tey opted to write very different mystery novels, some more domestic while others featured her police inspector, but all-encompassing the variations of the mystery novel. She could probably end up on any list I put together. The lack of the authorities doesnt make this book any less compelling. Brat, who is aptly named given what hes doing, is mysterious and yet endearing at the same time. He must be since both the neighbor girl and his sister both start to develop feelings for him. That makes dinner a very uncomfortable meal. Most of Teys works have not been filmed, and the only version of this is a 1980s PBS show that is worth scrounging up.
Two parts family mystery and three parts wishful thinking, this might have been Craigs own life, if shed stopped drinking and only married one time (and if said one husband had kicked it.) Rice used her own sanitized personal and professional life as the basis for this book. The three children of a mystery writer decide to solve a mystery for the police, so they can garner all the publicity for her books, making her a best-seller who can quit writing from dawn to dusk. When a neighbor is murdered, they see a grand opportunity to play sleuth. In the meantime, the real police come to investigate and the kids decide to play matchmaker as well.
Craig Rice usually wrote boozy novels set in Chicago featuring lawyer John J. Malone, but in this book, she gave all that up for a domestic little mystery. No booze whatsoever no characters liver was damaged during the making of this novel. The kids are so touching that they even cry when they turn the killer over to the police. It was made into a movie featuring Randolph Scott that still plays on TCM from time to time and is well worth a midnight watch.
Ellery (who is both author and character) decides to go to Wrightsville to work on a novel While hes there, he gets involved with the Wright family who allow him to use the guest house on their estate as a base of operations. The guest house was never used because their daughters engagement was broken off when her intended skipped town without her, and lo and behold, guess who shows up again while Ellery is in residence?
Ellery was an established character by this point, having been featured in a number of extremely convoluted puzzle novels that had appeared in the 1930s. The move to Wrightsville and possibly meeting Miss Wright, pun intended, allowed for a more character driven novel of deduction. The mystery is as engaging as the earlier books, given that the crimes all occur on major holidays. but Ellery acts and reads more like a real person than he did in those early works. Thats saying a lot from someone who could see a pile of dead bodies and only care about the clues. He mellows and matures in this book in a much needed personality change. This is typically called Queens best book for good reason.
Books in Ellery Queen De... Series (36)
FlaviaDeLuce is one of the most engaging characters to be added to detective fiction in the past 40 years, and shes only 12 years old. This girl is a marvel, scientific gifted and socially nave. Set in 1950s England, she along with her two sisters and her distracted father live at Buckshaw, the family manor that has started to run to ruin after the death of her mother (who possessed the familys ability to keep up the home.) The only parent figure is the PTSD-afflicted vet Dogger who reluctantly becomes her Watson in crime solving. When she finds the corpse of a mysterious man in the kitchen garden, Flavia is delighted to deduce.
Flavia is one of the strongest character voices to appear in ages, and she is equally endearing when shes pulling practical jokes on her sister as she is when she is solving a murder. Shes isolated due to her situation and her lack of formal education, but she gives even the most scheming murderer a run for his money. The first book in the series is the best with all the main characters being introduced. This series is not to be missed or Flavia might have a scientific mixture to get you hooked.
Books in Flavia de Luce Series (9)
This is not your mothers amateur sleuth. Westlake is a comic writer who is at his best when focusing on the lives and lies of the minor criminal. The mark in this book is not the currency, but another word for the victim of a con, the type of person who sends money to Nigerian princes via email. Fred Fitch is one such mark. When he inherits $300,000 from a rich but forgotten uncle, the con men of New York rejoice and all come calling. Matt also seems to have left his nephew a showgirl, who wants a piece of the action.
Thats not the only problem for Fitch. Matt was murdered and the killers are now after Fitch as well. Westlake takes aim at all the types of people who want to use you for your money including one of Fitchs neighbors who wants Fitch to finance the publication of his novel. The reader can definitely hear Westlakes own experiences on the page in these cons. This book is more caper than straight mystery, but Fitch is definitely an amateur in a world of crime professionals and he needs all the help he can get. Theres not a better way to end this list than with this book, which won the Mystery Writers of America Edgar award.
Our Version of the List
At a Glance
- 1 The Thirty-Nine Steps (John Buchan)
- 2 Tales of Mystery and Imagination (Edgar Alla...
- 3 The Tiger in the Smoke: Albert Campion #14 (M...
- 4 The Woman in White (Wilkie Collins)
- 5 Murder Must Advertise: A Lord Peter Wimsey My...
- 6 The Murder at the Vicarage (Agatha Christie)
- 7 Rebecca (Daphne Du Maurier)
- 8 The Name of the Rose (Umberto Eco)
- 9 The Leper of Saint Giles (Ellis Peters)
- 10 The Kennel Murder Case (S. S. Van Dine)
- 11 Bertie and the Tin Man (Peter Lovesey)
- 12 The Danger (Dick Francis)
- 13 Beast in View (Margaret Millar)
- 14 Death Comes as the End (Agatha Christie)
- 15 The Thin Man (Dashiell Hammett)
- 16 The Mystery of Edwin Drood (Charles Dickens)
- 17 The Talented Mr. Ripley (Patricia Highsmith)
- 18 The Poisoned Chocolates Case (Anthony Berkel...
- 19 Crocodile on the Sandbank (Elizabeth Peters)
- 20 The Plague Court Murders (Carter Dickson)
- 21 Brat Farrar (Josephine Tey)
- 22 Home Sweet Homicide (Craig Rice)
- 23 Calamity Town (Ellery Queen)
- 24 The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie: A Fla...
- 25 God Save the Mark: A Novel of Crime and Confu...
Publicly Ranked Version of the List25 items >>