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Top 25 Best Literary Mystery Books

Top 25 Best Literary Mystery Books

So what exactly makes up a literary mystery? 

The books on this list show one of two traits: 1) They either allude to books so frequently that you need to be a literature major just to keep up or 2) they have used language or other elements of literature to twist the traditional mystery into a work of art. These books are all successful attempts to meld either perspective, voice or setting into a tightly spun plot that will keep the reader guessing while enjoying the author's love of the language.

Part of the Millennium Trilogy, a series of related books published after Larsson's death, the books were originally written in Swedish and later translated for the US. The story involves a writer/publisher who agrees to look into the disappearance of a millionaire's grandniece. The investigation uncovers a series of Bible related homicides that may be the work of a serial killer, who now knows about the investigation and the writer. The investigation takes him across Europe as he tries to learn about the women who have been killed.

Why It Made the List

Even the original translator said that the language in the books was made more attractive by the publisher. The stories are dark, but the word choices and images are haunting. All three books were best-sellers in the US, but the first is the most fleshed out in terms of character and setting. Even with the language, the book covers some dark topics, so be prepared.

Read It If You Like

serial killer books, Swedish backgrounds to a mystery

Books in Millennium Trilo... Series (4)

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In the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War, Daniel, the hero of the book, is grieving for his mother, who recently passed away. His father takes him to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books. Daniel can only choose one title from the "library" and he selects The Shadow of the Wind. As he grows up, people are fascinated by his choice of books, and he decides to solve the mystery of the book after a man who presents himself under the name of the devil from a novel approaches him regarding the book. There are layers of stories in this work with the original author and the storyline of the book and Daniel's story all playing out in the novel.

Why It Made the List

This book was a worldwide bestseller, and the publishers took care to find a translator who could do justice to the book. The book won a number of awards and was praised for its language and its plot.

Read It If You Like

stories within stories, bibliomysteries

Books in El cementerio de... Series (3)

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Gaudy Night is the penultimate book in the Lord Peter Wimsey series (Hey, if this is the literary mystery list, expect a few big words.) It's set in Oxford, which always lets you know that it's going to be high-brow and literary. The story is that of a prankster whose tomfooleries become more and more violent until female dons are being attacked at the school. Harriett Vane is asked to look into the incidents by the dons at her former college, and she is later joined by Lord Peter who comes to help her solve the mystery. Love and mystery abound.

Why It Made the List

This book marks the third book in Lord Peter's wooing of Harriett Vane, who has soundly rejected him before. As they work together in this book, she opts to finally marry him. It's perhaps the model for all romantic mysteries with its focus on both plot and character.

Read It If You Like

Mysteries set in Oxford, romance, pranksters

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Sometimes bigger is better, and that may be true with this book. It clocks in at 512 pages, which is one of the longer books on our list. However, the book is extremely well-written, though the topic may seem an odd choice at first. William of Baskerville, yes like the hound, goes to Italy to listen to discussions on the meaning of the Bible, a friar commits suicide, which was frowned upon in a big way back then. William decides to investigate and the suspects begin to die off one-by-one. He discovers a vast underground library (how much more literary can you get than that?) before solving this series of crimes.

Why It Made the List

While this novel is rather dense, both in language and the philosophy used, it is better than any textbook for understanding the middle ages. For those who love to learn and read, a twofer, this is definitely a must read. It's a literate mystery with a lot to inform the reader.

Read It If You Like

historical mysteries, literate mysteries

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This is another book within a book, which means that you're getting more than your money's worth for buying it. Almost a two for one. In this book, the main character, Margaret, is the daughter of a bookseller. She is asked to be the biographer to Vida Winter, an author who has spent nearly as much time hiding her past as she does writing her books. She's a recluse who has not given interviews or allowed any biographer to write about her until now. Margaret first wants to decline the offer until she meets the author and they begin to look at the family secrets hidden by Winter.

Why It Made the List

The book has a Gothic tone to it, and it's no surprise that Jane Eyre is frequently mentioned and used thematically in the book. The book takes some chances with its style, at one pointing changing from third to first person. Yet it all works well together and the book was extremely well-received when it was published.

Read It If You Like

bibliomysteries, hidden pasts, family secrets

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This isn't a fairy tale. The story revolves around a police officer who gets a case about a girl missing the in the woods. It's a pretty standard event except the readers learn that the officer's two siblings were also lost in the wood when he was a child and they were gone for good. He has to come to grips with his own past and try to retrieve his memories of those events to solve the case he's on now. This was French's first book, but thankfully she has written two more since then.

Why It Made the List

This woman can write. Her descriptions of the past and the woods are evocative and vivid. Yet at the same time, she writes page-turning suspense. This will be a book that you can't put down while you admire her choices of words. The book was nominated for a number of awards, which should give you an idea about the level of acclaim it received.

Read It If You Like

literate mysteries, psychological mysteries, police procedure

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Set in Victorian times, the story is of a psychologist, called an alienist. Carr sets the story in 1894, the era where the idea of a serial killer, post Jack the Ripper, is being developed. A series of sadistic killings in New York City, where Police Commissioner Teddy Roosevelt asks for the help of Dr. Kriezler, the alienist. The good doctor asks for the help of a police reporter, who narrates the story.

Why It Made the List

The book can be grisly in places, but the language is beautiful, and Carr plays up the suspense and atmosphere as the group try to deal with something that current readers are familiar with, but were unheard of in that era. The cast of historical characters will hold the reader's interests as the various political groups fight over the ramifications of the killings. The book was a best seller at the time it was published, and is still talked about today.

Read It If You Like

psychological detectives, historical mysteries, puzzle plots

Books in Dr. Laszlo Kreiz... Series (2)

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Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil: A Savannah Story by John Berendt

Okay, technically this is non-fiction, but sometimes stories are so wild that fiction truly can be stranger than the truth. The book contains a number of colorful characters in Savannah, Georgia at the time of the killing of Danny Hansford, a hustler. Given that the alleged killer is a respected member of society, the crime actually resulted in four, yes four, trial with Jim Williams finally being acquitted in the fourth trial.

Why It Made the List

The setting of Savannah in the book almost makes the city with all its quirks be a character in the story. The writing is articulate and detailed, giving the reader a clear sense of the city and the people in the story. The characters include the rich and powerful and the forgotten elements of society as well. Savannah is given almost a Gothic tone with the descriptions of the homes (and Jim William's place had a pedigree greater than his own!)

Read It If You Like

true crime, Southern mysteries, odd characters.

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A beautifully written inverted mystery, the narrator, Richard, tells the reader in the first few pages that a murder has been committed and who isn't making it until "the end." That's used as a framing device as Tartt goes back in time and tells a story about a group of friends in college and how one of them ended up dead. The focus of the novel is on how the murder comes about and its effects on the people who are left. Needless to say, they don't fare well following the murder, and the reader watches as each of them faces their own demons.

Why It Made the List

The book was an immediate best-seller with a first run that was about seven times greater than what was typical for a first novel. The story is written with a more Victorian use of language, which stands in contrast to the spare style that we so often see in modern fiction.

Read It If You Like

college mysteries, psychological suspense, romanticism as a style

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Talk about being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Jace, a fourteen year old, witnesses a murder committed by the Blackwell brothers. These two gents are not nice men. Jace gets put into a summer camp, a sort of witness protection program for kids, which seems safe at the time. However, the brothers get wind of the fact that a witness to their crime exists and quickly begin a hunt to find it that leaves everyone who gets in their way dead. IF that wasn't enough, the forest fires in the area add to the suspense and tension of whether Jace will survive the impending confrontation with the brothers.

Why It Made the List

Koryta is known for his cross-genre works. He began with private eye novels, but over the years, he's kept his roots in crime fiction while adding elements of horror, supernatural and some western in this book. He had a sparse style that is easy to recognize and his ear for character voice is always superb. It's no surprise that this book was nominated for a number of awards, or that Kortya has won several awards for his works.

Read It If You Like

western thrillers, young adults as protagonists

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Michael Chabon used historical research to learn that at one time, there had been discussion about creating a country for the Jews displaced by World War II in Sitka, Alaska. The author used this piece of history to develop an alternate history where the state of Israel fails shortly after its creation and the Jewish population moves to the frigid tundra of Alaska. Using this as the setting, Chabon creates a classic detective story where the alcoholic detective finds a body in his tenement home. The only clue is a half-finished game of chess. Of course since this is a private eye novel, the case circles back to deal with the personal issues of the detective.

Why It Made the List

his cross-genre novel (mixing fantasy/alternate history with mystery and Chabons love of language) was nominated and won a variety of awards across the different genres. Chabon won the Pulitzer prize for one of his other novels, and hes written mystery fiction as well, including a pastiche of Sherlock Holmes. Hes in good company since his wife is also a mystery writer.

Read It If You Like

ethnic mysteries, private eyes, mysteries with historical research, alternate history, science fiction mated with mystery, Jewish culture

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This was the it book of a couple of years back. The storyline is one we've heard before, the end of a relationship and the fallout from it. However, this story is not like most of those books. This is like those books on steroids. The woman in the relationship disappears and of course, suspicion falls on the husband. The second half of the book will keep you guessing since things are not at all like they seem. The suspense built up in this page-turning mystery is done through its careful use of language, making it a literate mystery.

Why It Made the List

The book was the most popular summer read a few years back. It was listed on practically every best of the year list going. Its success was followed up by a Ben Affleck movie adaptation, which did well at the box office. It was hard to read anything without seeing a mention of this book.

Read It If You Like

psychological suspense, kidnappings, twists at the end

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Christopher narrates this story. He likely has Asperger Syndrome, though it's never stated clearly. His mind has a mathematic bent to it, which explains why the chapters in the book are number only with sequential prime numbers. Christopher is suspected of the death of a neighbor's poodle when he comes across it in the neighborhood. Averse to touch, Christopher hits a police officer when the officer puts a hand on him and is arrested. Christopher begins to write a book about his experiences in order to try to solve the crime.

Why It Made the List

If for nothing else, the book is a prime example of how voice can drive a novel. Christopher has a very literal mindset and everything that he experiences and views is looked at through the literal prism. The book has been praised by doctors for its ability to show the autistic condition, to the point where some classes use the book to allow teachers to better understand the viewpoint.

Read It If You Like

stream of consciousness writing, unreliable narrators

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In the opening chapters, the main character is raped and killed. Not exactly the start of an uplifting tale, but in the hands of a good writer, it can be. Susie, the victim and narrator, goes to heaven where she begins to watch the story of the survivors unfold. She watches as the man responsible for her death is suspected of the crime, but the police and her father can never get enough evidence together to arrest him, much less convict him. As a result, he goes free, and Susie watches from heaven along with his many other victims. She then watches the rest of her family's lives played out on Earth.

Why It Made the List

The plot and the narrative devices used in the book are enough to get the book a place on the list. While a book about a girl looking down from heaven could put give the reader an overdose of saccharine, Sebold never lets it go there. The book sold over a million copies and was eventually made into a movie.

Read It If You Like

feel good stories, books about heaven

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It's a rare book that people can still quote its first line more than 70 years after its publication, but such is Rebecca. The book is a romance at its heart, about the unnamed second Mrs. DeWinter and the specter of her "rival," the deceased first wife of her husband. The suspense builds slowly as the new wife becomes increasingly paranoid about being compared to the old wife, and then du Maurier changes the tone entirely. When Rebecca's death is later labeled suspicious, the newlyweds have to prove that Mr. DeWinter was not to blame for the crime.

Why It Made the List

du Maurier was a master of creating an atmosphere, and in this book, she created Manderly, the stately home of the DeWinters with all its rooms and quirks. Of course, the fact that Alfred Hitchcock made a film from the book didn't hurt its place on the list either.

Read It If You Like

romantic suspense, Gothic romance,

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Smilla has a long history with snow. She studied it as a child in Greenland and now she is a scientist who works with snow and ice. So when a young neighbor boy falls from the roof of the apartment building where Smilla lives, she knows that he didn't fall accidentally. The footsteps appear to be those of a boy running away from something. After she learns that the boy's father was apparently also involved in an accident, she starts suspecting that everything is not what it seems and begins to unravel a conspiracy set off the coast of Greenland.

Why It Made the List

Detectives have been outsiders in fiction as long as there have been detectives. However, Smilla's solitary nature is probed throughout the book as she is forced to interact more and more with others to solve the crime and bring down the conspiracy. The author looks at this solitude with beautiful language and insightful characterization.

Read It If You Like

conspiracy novels, European settings for novels

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You can't go wrong when a book is three in one. The Historian offers three different plotlines moving simultaneously. The first is the story of Vlad the Impaler, the man who reportedly served as the model for Dracula. The second story involves Dracula, the modern day incarnation of Vlad and his place in pop culture. The last plotline is the story of a professor who is looking for Vlad's tomb in the current day with that story being told by his unnamed daughter, because characters with no names are always literary.

Why It Made the List

The book sold for two million dollars, and was the first debut novel to hit number one on the best-sellers list its first week out. The book went on to win awards and was optioned for film but never produced. The author used the romantic language of the Victorian era for the sections involving Dracula, which is a style not used often today.

Read It If You Like

historical mysteries, romantic language.

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It takes a special type of writing to slyly coerce a reader into cheering on a serial killer lacking in any sense of empathy. Yet in this book, Highsmith did just that. Tom Ripley is a man who dreams of bigger things. When a friend's father pays for Tom to travel to Europe to keep an eye on the friend, Tom follows Dickie Greenleaf around, wishing he could be the rich carefree son. With a few whacks on the head, Tom becomes Dickie and the cat and mouse game begins of keeping Dickie's friends away while trying to establish himself as Dickie.

Why It Made the List

Highsmith amazed many with her ability to make a sympathetic anti-hero, who doesn't get his just rewards in the end. (This isn't a spoiler, since there are other Ripley books.) Many awards refused to read her work, thinking it shameful. However, it's likely Highsmith's best book and the language is frank, but amazing in its focused portrayal of Ripley

Read It If You Like

serial killers, anti-heroes

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Set in the decade after World War II, this novel tells the story of a Japanese American man who is accused of killing a local fisherman on the Washington State island where they both live. The years since Pearl Harbor did not dampen the xenophobic attitudes and the Japanese American man is quickly put on trial for the killing. The story digs deep into the backstory of all the characters and we learn that one of the men involved in the trial is in love with the defendant's wife. Ooops.

Why It Made the List

The book has a quiet quality to it, but still packs a punch in looking at the various characters involved with the book. The author spent ten years working on this novel, so he should have gotten it right. Plus this book is on the banned book list in many places for its content. We all know that banned books are the best, right?

Read It If You Like

mysteries with character studies, historical mysteries

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Nothing like having to pay the bills to make you write one of the classics of history. This is by far the oldest of the books on this list, as it originally came out as monthly installments in a magazine in 1866. The story is fairly simple, a down on his luck man decides to kill a nasty moneylender. The killer goes on to try to justify his actions, saying among other things that it was fate and that his actions benefitted the masses. Of course, he falls in love and is chased by a detective, all before finally being brought to justice.

Why It Made the List

An early example of a policeman character in the role of detecting a crime, this book is frequently read by high school and college students as assigned reading. Granted that the translations are what bring some of the beauty to the language in the books, but the themes of the book and the actions of the characters are all Dostoyevsky.

Read It If You Like

Victorian era mysteries, early mysteries, inverted mysteries, Russia as a setting for mysteries.

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Geez, there must be something about snow in the title to suggest a literate mystery. This is the third such book on the list on the list that talks about snow. The novel is about a woman who wakes up one morning to find that her policeman husband has killed himself. No note, no indications, no explanation. So she goes digging to learn what had happened in her husband's life to make him want to die rather than face life with her. As she starts to look at the circumstances surrounding his death, she learns of a conspiracy that no one wants to talk about.

Why It Made the List

This book was another that was a long time in coming. The author worked for years on the book, and after publication went on a cross-country book signing tour. The book developed a lot of buzz and was a great summer read for 2013. The book deals with thematic issues of what snow can cover up, which is discussed repeatedly in the book. Themes are always literate.

Read It If You Like

suburban mysteries, conspiracy thrillers

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A literate mystery can be one in which the tone and language of the book goes far above what is needed to communicate. A literate mystery can also be a book where a solid knowledge of literature is required. Such a background is needed to read any of Jasper Fforde's books, which can contain any number of characters from literature or fairy tales in what is an otherwise normal detective story. His alternative reality is addictive and charming. Only Fforde has the imagination to create a world where Miss Havisham participates in the adventures.

Why It Made the List

Fforde is a one of a kind author who should not be missed. He's written seven novels about Thursday Next, the operative for Jurisfiction, the police of the fictional realm.

Read It If You Like

literary references, funny mysteries, imaginative settings

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Three young friends in Boston suffer when one of the boys is kidnapped and victimized. Flash forward to years later, and the kidnapped boy, now a man, is considered the top suspect in a murder in the same area. The story tells the tale of the three men and how they were impacted by the past as the police try to solve the current-day murder. The kidnapped boy's willingness to take the blame for the crime may stem from his past rather than true guilt, and the crime needs to be solved before others take justice into their own hands.

Why It Made the List

It's probably Lehane's best book, and it's been made into a Sean Penn movie. While I'll never tell you that the movie is as good as the book, I will tell you that this one is fairly close to the source material, which makes it pretty damned good.

Read It If You Like

Boston as a setting, family stories, mysteries with their beginnings in the past

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 Like many of McDermids works, the crime in the story takes place in the past and the events and reactions of that time bring to bear on the present. In 1963, a young girl goes missing. Based on the environment and frigid temperatures, everyone assumes that the girl has died. The matter is left until a journalist interviews the detective inspector in charge of that long ago case. Once the book is written, the detective calls the writer frantically, wanting all of the interview pulled from the book, which is impossible to do. To find out why the detective has changed his mind, the journalist opts to investigate the disappearance on her own. McDermid is known for surprise endings and this one packs a wallop.

Why It Made the List

The book was nominated for awards from both English and American mystery writers organizations The book was converted into a mini-series that only served to make the book more popular. McDermid has a way of evoking the past with her prose, something not to be missed.

Read It If You Like

British mysteries, mysteries set in the past

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It's hard to believe that a mystery about tax law can be funny, but Sarah Caudwell, who wrote four books in her series, managed to do just that. In this first book in the series, a member of a rather tight cadre of barristers learns that her copy of the tax code has been found next to a dead body. It's up to Professor Hilary Tamar, gender unknown to the reader, to solve the case. The group of friends in this book are highly educated and so there are frequent passing allusions to literature and other arcane matters. The reader has to keep up with the references as well as some tightly plotted mysteries in order to solve the case.

Why It Made the List

Just having a book narrated by someone of unnamed gender would be enough to gain interest on this list. So much of perspective is based on gender that it's difficult to keep all mention of it out of a text. However, Caudwell hides that as well as the clues in the most adept ways.

Read It If You Like

British mysteries, comedic mysteries, legal mysteries

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