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Best Classic Mystery Books

The Best of the Classic Mystery Tales (Mysteries Before 1980)

We've carefully put together a curated list of what we consider are some of the greatest classic mystery books ever put to pen. That is, fantastic mystery novels written before the 1980's which a period of mystery writing that's often considered one of the best. 

And yes, while there are plenty of great modern mysteries (see our Best Modern Mystery list for these specific recommendations) to be explored, there's a huge pile of rich classic mysteries just waiting to be plundered, if you know what to look for.

So don't ignore these books -- many form the pillar of what we consider the modern mystery book and are, in their own right, considered classics of literature (Sherlock Holmes anyone?). Indeed, there are some recognizable names here that have jumped right from the pages of books and into cinema and pop culture.

So buckle up, sit back, and get ready to wade into the not-too-distant past of some pretty damn compelling classic mystery tales that every mystery fan absolutely needs to read.

At long last we have arrived at the top spot. Are you anxious, are you excited? Are you ready? So what books havent we put on this list? Maybe Agatha Christie, another Hammett book, Raymond Chandler. Nope. The Complete Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle is the one to triumph here. Is there really anyone out here that hasnt read this or at least is totally familiar with the character? If someone actually had the kahunas to say they didnt know who Sherlock Holmes it would commence a furor the likes of which we have never seen. Who doesnt Sherlock Holmes? Honestly, I wouldnt be all that shocked if some people actually didnt although the character has spawned more movies, plays, stories and dialogues than nearly any other mystery book protagonist. Watson, the faithful slave, even is pretty darn famous. If only for his seemingly undying admiration for Holmes.

Sherlock is an unpredictable, seemingly fun loving guy. He is enamored of disguises, doesnt mind ingesting a hallucinogenic drug or two and has quite the way with the ladies. Some of the plot lines of these stories are not as well developed as they should be, but the dialogue, which is filled with humorous one liners still elicits a giggle here and there. I dont think I need to say a damn thing why this book is in this spot. Its super obvious and my assessment is even backed by the Mystery Writers of America. I may not know what I am doing, but they do this crap for living. You dont have to love it. Just respect it.

Books in Sherlock Holmes Series (9)

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Penned in 1930, The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett comes up just shy of nabbing the top spot. Another book that serialized, as many where back in the day, it is classified as the first hard-boiled detective story and Raymond Chandler was seriously influenced by the character of Sam Spade. Actually, Marlowe is a knock off this character who only surfaces in this book and in a couple short stories. Obviously most people conjure up Humphrey Bogart as the 1941 film of the same name is considered a classic and he brought Sam Spade to life.

If you are a chick be prepared for a rather sexist representation of females and if you are looking for some lengthy prose it aint happening. Hammetts characters are dark and he doesnt go into a bunch of detail describing them, but the plot twists are right on the money although the wording of sentences is not anywhere close to being grammatically correct. Hammett definitely could have brushed up on his English skills. As the defining novel of all detective stories that were produced after it, this book isnt the smoothest read but anyone that even is interesting in mystery novels has to take a look at it. It is one of the best 100 books of the 20th century.

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Here we have Edgar Allan Poes Tales of Imagination and Mystery which didnt receive too wide of a readership, probably because more people in the 1840s were more concerned with eeking out a living rather than spending their hard earned coin on books and thats even if they could read which we know many could not. This is not a novel, like every other member of this list, but rather a collection of short stories and if you havent heard of The Masque of the Red Death, The Pit and the Pendulum and the Fall of the House of Usher your head must have been in the sand for your entire life. Oh yeah and the Cask of Amontillado needs to be thrown in for good measure.

Poes mind would have been a super scary place to be. It seems like all the guy thought about was death, especially came to hot girls. Can you say an obsession? Or maybe two rolled all into one. Anyhow the man certainly was not in a happy place mentally and its quite possible he had several screws loose, but he could write. Whatever jumbled up his mind comes out beautifully on paper and as he is the Father of the Short Story his words must be read. Even if you cant end up sleeping at night wondering what was really going on that mans brain.

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Get ready to take some time reading this one as its long at 500 pages but The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins is the first English detective novel so it deserves some props. The story is told through the eyes of various characters and it revolves around a big ass yellow diamond that is shipped in from India. Not to be compared to the infamous Three Wise Men, three Hindi males have been indentured into life long servitude to the diamond and want it back where it belongs, India. A young girl named Rachel receives this vaunted bauble on her 18th birthday and promptly loses it through theft that same evening. The rest of the book is about who took the Moonstone and why.

Granted the pace of the book wanders and some of the characters are more than slightly tedious, Collins does manage to keep it fairly entertaining. Honestly, the thought of a book revolving around a big gemstone and mystic of something ancient do kind of grab your imagination. It certainly nails down a spot in the top five, although it was first published in 1868. Take it from T.S. Eliot on why it should be read as he said the first, the longest and the best of English detective novels in a genre created by Collins and not Poe.

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Lets go to 1935 for this one and put in a little Nero Wolfe. The League of Frightened Men was Rex Stouts second Nero Wolfe book and appeared as six serialized issues in The Saturday Evening Post prior to its publication in 1935. It was adapted to a film version two years later, which shouldnt come as any shock given that Stoute was named the Best Mystery Writer of the Century at Boucheron 2000 and his works are considered to a be a cornerstone of this genre. After all he was a Grand Master which is top of the heap in his world.

In this novel, Wolfe and his ever trusty sidekick Goodwin investigate the murders of three men linked to a dubious author, Paul Chapin, who they also think is more than likely responsible for the death of another man and the first trio. Going through the usual plot twists, ho hum, eventually Wolfe figures out what is really going on. That is Chapin had not a blessed thing to do with the crimes, which were actually suicides. Why should you read this book written seven plus decades ago? Because its good. Goodwin can be a bit annoying, but Stoute truly is an outstanding mystery writer and more than belongs in this spot on any list. Even if some of his writing is difficult to understand. Pick up a dictionary.

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The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey was popular enough to be mentioned by Winston Churchill and is about a detective in modern day times that takes on the daunting task of examining King Richard IIIs past to see if he was guilty of committing any crimes. It was the sixth book with Alan Grant, a Scotland Yard detective as the protagonist and was written in 1951, shortly before Teys death. After scrutinizing the facts, which are oh so plentiful, Grant concludes the King truly was innocent but there has been some disparaging of Grants analysis because some scholars felt Tey did not examine all the relevant source material out there. Really, as if there were loads and loads of it!

Right after it was published the critics lavished Tey with praise and tabbed this book as one of the most outstanding detective mystery books ever published. Even in 2012 Peter Hitchens, who is a well known English correspondent, claimed this one of the best books ever written. In 1990 it was selected as the best mystery book of all time in Britain. Do I need to say more? Just read it. Tey does a masterful job spinning this yarn without dragging you through a bunch of tunnels.

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Yet another one of our books that was made into a feature film is John le Carres The Spy Who Came In From The Cold. There isnt a lot of blood and guts in this one, as the lead character Alec Leamas is a British Secret Intelligence Service Agent working in West Berlin who has fallen on some tough times and the tale chronicles one of his tales of intrigue. When it was produced in 1963 it was hailed as a tremendous espionage book and also had political ramifications for Cold War politics. Especially since Western spy methods didnt seem to match up with the rhetoric they espoused. And of course Richard Burton got to play Leamas. Who else would it be?

So now lets list the accolades. Hmmm. It was the first book to receive the Dagger and Edgar Awards and received the lifetime Dagger Award in 2005. The screenplay for the movie also received a Dagger Award. TIME Magazine named the book to its list of the Top 100 novels and in 2006 Publishers Weekly named it the best spy novel of all time. But believe or it not there is one more reason to read itle Carre spend 10 years as a secret service agent and his frustration with the system exploded throughout the pages of this book. How often do you get to read a book about spies written by a spy? Never.

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Okay, okay enough Raymond Chandler, but hes the bees knees as far as nearly any mystery writer is concerned and that assessment also includes mystery fans. This book is The Big Sleep. As usual Marlowe is involved in some steamy enterprises and its difficult to find more sexist books than this one. In fact the ladies we meet are positively amoral. Kind of akin to animals and although Marlowe tries his best to salvage them, ultimately they are reason for the problem rather than being the victim. The plot in this one again runs a little slow despite the speed of everything else around it and Chandlers writing always makes people do dumb things that have horrific consequences.

Just a little bit of trivia here. Chandler was a big ass and said some nasty things about Christie in his rules for detective novels when he wrote her books require complete suspension of disbelief and elaborate, unnatural characters and plots. However, when this book was made into a movie and the screenwriter couldnt figure out who really shot the chauffeur Chandler supposedly replied How the hell should I know? So it appears Chandler thought pretty highly of himself, but its difficult to not like Marlowe or respect Chandler for developing the hard-boiled detective genre. For those reasons alone you must read The Big Sleep.

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Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again. Those are the famous first words of Daphne du Mauriers Rebecca. Narrated by a woman known only as Mrs. de Winter, it tells the tale of Rebecca who was killed by her husband Maxim. But its not that simple. After Maxim remarries he admits their marriage was a sham and they loathed one another because everyone seems to think Rebecca was so perfect. Especially the housekeeper Mrs. Danvers who gets him to admit the truth. The boat he sunk the body is dredged up and it was discovered Rebecca taunted Maxim into killing her because she was dying from cancer.

Its an excellent mystery and the words du Maurier uses really paint the picture of a desolate country estate along with sinister behavior. Many might think the book a bit dated and slow moving, but the suspense it builds is outstanding. Good enough to be considered a literature classic and to spawn plays, movies and adaptions. Even if you are reluctant to engage in a work from 1938 do it. The secrets of every day people and how they cope with things is brought to the forefront in this book and it will leave you wondering about human nature. Besides dont you want to read the book that famous line came from?

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And Then There Were None by yes Agatha Christie comes in at this spot. No there is no bias towards Christie. The woman just did a hell of job when it came to telling a good story and this one is no different. Actually its a cut above nearly everything else out there. Its the story of 10 people invited to a remote island that had all committed murder and never been apprehended for their crimes. Based upon the old English nursery rhyme Ten Little Indians, which the book is also referred to as, each of these people arrive in the dining room to see each one has a figurine at their place setting and the book chronicles how each of the guests dies each evening.

Even though it was written so long ago, this is a fantastic mystery which is why it has spawned movies, plays and anthologies. These people are all bad seeds but do they deserve to die? Of course they do if they accept an invitation from a stranger to come to his island. What the hell were they thinking? The best part of the book is when Christie reveals their inner thoughts when they realize they will never leave the island alive. In my opinion this is Christies best book and I dont need to give any other reason for anyone to read it.

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Does everyone know Anatomy of a Murder was an adaptation from James Travers book of the same name or are they still smitten with James Stewart, Lee Remick and George C. Scott? Then of course Duke Ellington tosses his hand in for the musical score. But enough about the film for now. Traver is not the mans real name. He was actually John Voelker, a Michigan Supreme Court Justice, that wrote this book based upon a case of his from 1953.

The plot goes something like this.a woman contacts a small town attorney to help get her husband who is a lieutenant off after he murders an innkeep. The man has no qualms admitted what he has done but claims it was only because he raped his wife. And naturally he has no recollection of the actual event. The wife appears to be kind of a tramp to the attorney, but he still pursues the case and eventually gets the husband off with a plea of temporary insanity. After he is acquitted husband and wife skip town never to be heard from again.

The book gets a little boring with how industrious attorneys are, rather than showing them as the money grubbers looking to advance for their self benefit that they really are, but it remains a good read and was is one of the first books to touch on this type of trial.

The real hook is the movie is also a classic and is one of the first to ever deal with rape and murder in this fashion. Many in the legal world consider the novel and the book to be the best depictions of lawyers ever produced and I think everyone should know what they are dealing with when it comes to attorneys, therefore, start reading that book! So toss out those DVD's of Suits and see how real lawyers get down to business.

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The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Cristie nabs this spot. This is the fourth book in the infamous HerculePoirot series. In fact the great detective that always gets his man is retired to a life of leisure in the countryside and doesnt even show his face in the first several chapters. Of course he cant control himself when Ms. Ackroyd begs for his guidance in clearing her cousins name in the murder of his stepfather Roger Ackroyd.

This story is told through the eyes of the village doctor and the awesome things about Poirot books because Poirot is really pretty lame, is since hes not telling the tale we can assume he is receiving the same information we are and everyone is entitled to their own conclusions. Its a must read because there are so many plays and adaptations of the novel that most people probably already know the end. So get an education and discover how it all came together. Ninety years later it is still well written enough to grab your attention.

Books in Hercule Poirot M... Series (164)

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Remember some of these guys and gals are going to be on here a couple times. Yes. They are just that good and our first repeater is Raymond Chandler with The Long Goodbye. As always the dialogue is right to the point and strikes like a dagger. Also the descriptions of a seedy, sinful California during the 1950s are the stuff movies are made for, but and this is a big but, this books seems to lack the compactness of many of other Chandlers works. Marlowe usually has a direction, but this time it seems to take him eons to get off the snide and figure out what the hell is happening. Thats not even where he solves the mystery yet. He definitely takes his sweet time in this book which can be a game changer.

Obviously Chandler is beloved by millions of people all over the globe and has been for decades. This book is considered by many far more intelligent and savvy than myself to be his greatest work. For that alone you should pick it up and read it if you havent already because the man was the best ever at pulp fiction.

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A lot of people reading this right now probably dont even know the movie The Postman Always Rings Twice is based upon the book of the same name by James Cain. It is the story of two star crossed lovers that plot together to kill the husband and are successful on their second attempt. They get nabbed but get out of it and then the woman dies in a car accident when the two can finally be together. Thats when the man goes to jail for her murder, which oddly enough was a freak thing.

No. Its not a love story really. Their affair is violent and the graphic sex involves punching, biting and kicking. Its not a read for the squeamish or for the people believing in love at first sight. Its more about the dark side of love and when that kind of lust can create something truly evil. The terrific thing is it is a short read and the title really has no tie to the content. It was just a catchphrase of Cains about waiting for the postman to come. Why should you bother with it? Because Cain is the master of this dark genre. Theres no one better and Frank and Cora should be more famous than Bonnie and Clyde.

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Here is another blast from the past some people were not forced to read in high school or college. That would be Fyodor Dostoyevskys Crime and Punishment. Raskolnikov is a student who has gone off the rails when he no longer attends school and is flat broke. Thats when he hatches a plan to take out a principle. Dostoyevsky still portrays Raskolnikov as rather noble immediately after he kills although he has no remorse and feels he has done absolutely nothing wrong. Although he has done nothing out of line, Rasknolnikov cuts himself off from his friends and continues to descend into his self- inflicted madness.

This book is more about suspense than anything else. Dostoyevsky makes us wonder why Raskolnikov decided to jump the line, what he is going to do about it and what caused it. He keeps all these answers hidden until very far along in the story which is a drag and only receive what we are hungrily seeking in the epilogue after the first six parts of the book. The length and the style are definitely a turn off for some people and make it a tough read, but it is something that should be forced down your throat as a classic piece of literature. How classic? It is the antecedent to Camus and Beckett, whos theories only turned the world on their head.

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Rachel Innes rents a country estate to while away from the long summer days with her niece and nephew, but the elderly Innes get a whole heck of a lot more than she bargained for. That is The Circular Staircase in a nutshell, but theres definitely more to Mary Roberts Rineharts masterpiece than Innes summer vacation that goes awry. As the decades flew by many people have forgotten this book ever existed but its remains as fresh as the morning dew. Shockingly enough in parts it is rather humorous while still having pondering just what the hell is going in this wacky house. Is it ghost, a criminal, a figment of the imagination?

Rinehart knows how to spin a good yarn, but be warned the end isnt going to get your heart palpitating and can kind of be figured out. There is also an undercurrent of racial tensions but Rinehart was writing in a time when that was openly acknowledged. Pick up this book ASAP because Rinehart was the first author to make sure she received some dough up front before publishing a book. The Circular Staircase was also so popular Rinehart fought to receive some of the profits from the publisher. This was unheard of in 1908 and even if the book sucked it should be read just for that.

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Here is Eric Amblers A Coffin for Dimitrios. This little number is already famous for being James Bonds favorite reading material in his down time and grabs you by the gut seven decades after it first went into print. It commences with mystery writer extraordinaire Charles Latimer bumbling into the task of discovering who offed the notorious criminal Dimitrios. Through his travels across WWI Europe, Latimer discovers more and more unsavory fellows that were worse than Dimitrios ever thought of being. Thats when he finally catches a clue and realizes he is in way over his head. So far, in fact that someone probably set him up and they want to kill him.

It sounds like there is nary a dull moment in this novel, but it does get bogged down when Ambler attempts to make political points and its kind of lame that Latimer kind of wants to put rose colored glasses on after he recognizes the world is brimming over with bad guys. That the fiction he writes is far more tame that what is really going on behind closed doors, in saloons and in the streets. But what more is there to say? This book is another Hitchcock favorite and also one of Graham Greenes and John le Carres, therefore in order to stay in the mystery game you gotta read it. Otherwise you are a pretty big dud.

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This might not be one name that rolls off the tongue but Dorothy Sayers Gaudy Night remains readily available despite it languishing somewhat in obscurity. Its the 12th book in the Harriet Vane series. A scandalous woman, Vane, is shockingly summoned to her old staid college for a reunion, but the kind of fun she anticipates takes a pretty wild twist so she summons Lord Peter Wimsey to help pick up her slack. And then at last long agrees to take that dreaded plunge into marriage with him.

This book is set in the 1930s and it is rather a slow mover as 90 percent of the real action takes place towards the last pages, but its more about building the aura by deep descriptions of the characters that allow the reader to make their own assumption. Dont read this book if you seek thrills or an exotic mystery plot that keeps your toes curling. Gaudy Night is more of a historical novel and its strength lies within the discussions of women of that period. Its a window into an era where women certainly still did not have power and I think maybe, just maybe, if it gets a little more exposure could likely be the foundation for the next Downtown Abbey. With a little more panache of course and a lot less servants.

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Its rather early but Agatha Christie is already popping up with The Witness to the Prosecution and Other Short Stories. Theres a little bit of everything here with a murder trial, a possession, a premonition of death, a poisoning and a rich old ladys will. All in all there are eleven short stories that run the gamut on nearly every mystery, murder, thriller scenario you can think of. Best of all they are short! No lagging with this tome. But you might want to skip the Fourth Man. It doesnt really make a whole lot of sense and is straight up boring. The best of the lot is Where There Is A Will as this loser gets exactly what he deserves after blowing some serious cash and of course good ole HerculePoirot. Hes always one man to match wits with!

Then theres Christie herself. She is the maven of mystery and one of the foundations of the genre. Granted not everything she produced is full on amazing but give the lady some credit when she did it right she certainly was on the top of the heap. Like many of Christies works this collection inspired a play. Dont you think you better grab a copy and start discovering what Christie is about before you delve into an entire novel?

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Raymond Chandler. And then Farewell My Lovely. We all know Chandler has to be on any classic mystery book list, but this one stands a bit apart. For a change Marlowe seems infallible and we have some femme fatale magic going on. This novel, however, is not for the linguistic purist as the language is pretty well a step above a rudimentary. Seedy is an excellent description but that is what mystery is all about. Toss in the missing nightclub hottie, some gambling and of course booze and there it is. A classic mystery.

While Marlowe is one of the most popular fictional figures of all time, hes not exactly the brightest, the smoothest or the coolest. Some people cant seem to get enough of him, but the thing they shouldnt be able to get enough of is Chandlers transitions from pulp fiction. Those words might not be big and erudite but the dialogue is sharp-edged and swift. Kind of like firing an AK 47 without wasting any bullets. Im not a huge fan of Philip Marlowe, but Chandlers writing hooks you. Its lurid, straightforward and the story moves right along. Besides everyone in the world seems to worship Chandler as some kind of god and you wont realize hes not any different than you or I until you read this work.

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Is Frederick Forsyth a household name? Um no, but he should be. All this dude did was write The Day Of The Jackal way back in 1971. Well, I guess thats not too far back, but far enough! Forysthe won an Edgar Award for this novel which describes the trial and tribulations (yes, this is dripping with sarcasm) of a professional assassin who is hired by a rebellious French contingent to off the Lion Charles de Gaulle. First off assassins seem to be way overrated and maybe garner a little bit too much respect. How hard is it to slink around and kill people? And what makes a professional? Is it tagging a certain number of bodies before you move up the ranks?

Anyway, before too much digression, it only took 35 days for Forsyth to piece this together, but more than a year for it to published as houses just didnt seem to think he had what it took. Plus he had to wait for de Gaulle to kick the bucket, which he did in 1970 totally of natural causes, before he could interest anyone in printing it. The funny thing is Forsyth never intended for this book to become wildly successful. He merely wanted to pay off his debts and used his reporting talents to write this. If it hasnt been on the list to read yet it should be. Even if it stunk, which it doesnt, the word jackal is so alluring because it suggests vileness, vermin and death. Hence, one hell of a mystery novel.

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When Richard Hannay returned from a little South African sojourn back to dreary old London, obviously this guy was bored to death. That is until some dies in his apartment after tipping Hannay off about an impending war. That tipped the scales to make life just a little more interesting and no Hannay is not a real person. He was created in 1915 by none other than John Buchan in his book The 39 Steps. Does that ring any bells? It should because this novel established Buchan as the original thriller novelist and he was actually the muse for none other Alfred Hitchcocks film with the copycat name.

So Hannay of course is plunged into the intrigue of evading death at the hands of assassins because he knows all about their gory little plans to commence a war between Britain and Germany so he flees to out of the way Scotland before he can inform the government of this dastardly plot. This one is a mover and what is meant by that is the pages keep turning seemingly of their own volition without the touch of a human hand. That is ghastly in and off itself! Since Buchans book hasnt been off the shelves since 1915 means hes some kind of big wig so 22 rather than 39 will be his spot. I think everyone should live a little Hannay at some point in their lives and get in touch with their wild side so pick this one up. Alfred Hitchcock knew what he was doing right? So listen.

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Umberto Ecos The Name of the Rose may slip by unnoticed on many peoples lists, but this book seriously rocks. First of all, this guy was a professor of semiotics who decided to do some writing. What the hell is semiotics? Well it just happens to be the study of signs and processes, but dont worry this book is not bogged down with that boring drivel. Its a murder mystery in a monastery in the 1300s is way better than the Da Vinci Code. Eco uses his expertise to insert cryptic messages and secret symbols while the church argues who is more powerful, them or the new countries that are coming out of the Middle Ages. This is all going on while some bishops are getting taken out.

There is a hell of a lot going on in this book, but Eco manages to pull it together rather seamlessly. History buffs will be in heaven, but the reason its in this spot isnt because I need to do some learning, its all about seeing those pillars of the Church being taken out. Im not religious. At all.

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Heres another one that will cause some bloodletting but Bram Stokers Dracula certainly nails down this slot. It is often classified as gothic horror, but there is definitely intrigue. Isnt the Count the epitome of shadiness and not just because he seems so evil. He has to have a story and thats what you wonder the entire time you are turning the pages.

Obviously, Stokers novel is an expression of his view on Victorian values, society and sexual perceptions, but I know I was asking how did the Count become this way? Also, when you are turned into a vampire isnt that a gray area? What does that mean? Whats it like to be supernatural?

Another reason you get snagged is what the hell is going to happen to everyone? Are they going to succumb to the Count or will they remain bound by their staid society? There is drama everywhere, no matter where you turn and that is what makes a good mystery. How many plays, movies, short stories and literary discussion have revolved around this book since it was published? You know and thats why I rest my case.

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After all, most of us had to read this in school and just didnt like the book because of that but Harper Lees To Kill A Mockingbird has to be on the list of mystery heavyweights. Cmon admit it. You know the Boo Radley saga got under your skin.

The movie is just as terrific. I think the best part is it is told through the eyes of babes before they become jaded by all the weights, troubles and toils of the world. Lee also interweaves family relations, race relations and describes the way of life that was common during that place, period and time.

You already know if you dont agree with me, I dont care. In fact, it only spurs me on and this book definitely belongs in the mystery genre. For once, I will cite someones druthers and when the Mystery Writers of America is on board with me, I think thats all that needs to be said. Honestly, it could even be placed just a bit higher

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