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Best Mystery Books of the 20th Century

The Top Mystery Books Written During the 1900's

The 20th century produced not one, but two Golden Ages of mystery. The first appeared between World War I and World War II when a number of the best known writers of mystery appeared. This was the time of Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen, Dorothy L. Sayers, and others. Puzzles and plots abounded. 

The second occurred in the late 1980's when a number of new authors, many of them women, appeared. While there's a temptation to list the first publication of authors, the best book in a particular series is more likely to find its way onto the list than the first. This list is specifically designed to honor books that made a difference to the genre during the 20th century.

There are so many good books by incredible authors in this century. Why wouldn't we celebrate a century that has done so much for this genre?

Make sure you read our sequel period list: Best Mystery Books of the 21th Century which covers the best books written from the year 2000 and on.

This is one of the most discussed mysteries of all times. There's actually an article called "I Don't Care Who Killed Roger Ackroyd." Without spoiling the story, it's been called either ingenious or cheating. There are two camps about this book, and both are passionate about their positions. Add to this skirmish the fact that Christie disappeared for nine days shortly after its publication, and you get a second debate for the price of one. Did she really have an issue where she needed to escape or was this a particularly well-planned publicity stunt? That's one mystery that Agatha carried to her grave.

Why It Made the List

As I said, this is probably the most discussed book of the century. It's used frequently as an example of the genre, of the Golden Age, and of British mysteries. Christie's plot twist is rarely done and never done with the aplomb that she managed. Like it or not, it's a must-read for the genre.

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puzzle plots, quirky detectives, amateur sleuths

Books in Hercule Poirot Series (41)

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This book was not meant to be one of the best books of the century. Conan Doyle had killed off Holmes because he'd tired of the character, but the fans hadn't. Bills and annoying fans made him slightly rethink his position, so he wrote this novel as a case that occurred prior to Holmes' demise. While it wasn't a full revival, it opened the door to that moment in the not-too-distant future.

Why It Made the List

This book showed the power of the fan. The roar over the loss of Holmes was unimaginable to his author, who had wanted to focus on historical fiction. Even his family was up in arms. So Conan Doyle relented a little and wrote more. The book gave us social media action before Facebook was even imagined.

Read It If You Like

Sherlock Holmes, dog stories

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Though it's not really a novel, it's a true crime case written in a literary manner with a number of liberties with the facts. So it's fictionesque. Capote read of a family who was killed by two drifters in Kansas. He opted to write about the case, the background and the killers. The bad thing was that when he started, he only had the case. Finally they caught the two men, but Capote had to cover the trials and appeals before getting his resolution (the hanging of the two killers.) The book was an immediate success, probably Capote's best work.

Why It Made the List

Capote created his own form in writing this book. He took a rather neglected subgenre and made it the talk of the town, spawning hundreds of imitators. Yet this work is one of the best of its kind still. They've done two movies on Capote that cover this era of his life. Read the books and then watch the movies.

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true crime, literary mysteries

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One of romance's greatest love stories set to a fascinating look at the role of women in society and oh yeah, it's a great mystery too. Harriett Vane, Lord Peter's would-be lady friend, goes to Oxford for a reunion and is asked to look into the random acts of vandalism seen on campus. She finds that she enjoys her time away from the world in academia, but several loose ends remain loose and they frustrate her. It isn't until Lord Peter arrives that he neatly weaves those threads into a pattern that leads to him.

Why It Made the List

Sayers created the benchmark upon which all other sleuths would meet and marry the woman of their dreams. To know the origin of all the married detectives today, you should definitely read the first. Not only is the beginning of a movement, it's also one of the best. Definitely a must read.

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university mysteries, amateur sleuths, romantic suspense

Books in Lord Peter Wimse... Series (15)

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This novel has it all: the private eye who is unaffected by the corruption around him, the dysfunctional family he's investigating, and a fancy turn of phrase. Philip Marlowe is the detective, and he has to figure out which of a former general's daughters is responsible for a series of murders. The plot's a bit weak at point, but the apt metaphors and figurative language make up for it. When asked about a plot point for the movie version, Chandler said that he wasn't sure who had killed the general's drive, but said that people didn't care.

Why It Made the List

Chandler mainly wrote at the last minute in a frenzy and drunk as a skunk. Still he was a perfectionist when it came to word usage. His character was the prototype for every sarcastic, single, hard-drinking private eye for rest of the 20th century, which makes this a book that set the tone for the century. The book was made into a Bogey and Bacall vehicle, the film is incredible. It still runs on the classic movies stations. .

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private eyes, cities as more than just a setting, twisted family dynamics

Books in Philip Marlowe Series (8)

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Though Hammett is often credited with developing the hardboiled novel, he didn't really do that. However, he did hardboiled so well that everyone just remembers his name first. Hammett wrote five novels, and just as Poe had developed the mystery from a few short stories, Hammett developed the hardboiled school of writing with each of his books. In this novel, Hammett shows the private eye who stands as an outsider to society and lives by his own peculiar moral code. It's been a hit for nearly 90 years since then.

Why It Made the List

Even though it wasn't the first, it's the best example of a private eye novel going down to the shady client and secretary who secretly loves the dick. All the pieces are in place and the writing is incredible. Sam Spade is an iconic piece of American characterization. Read the best before you bother with the rest.

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private eyes, hardboiled fiction.

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Himes had a varied life that included scores of part-time jobs, a stint in Paris, interactions with James Baldwin and Langston Hughes. He spent six years in prison and wrote about the experience while he was there. Afterwards, he wrote a series of hard-boiled novels featuring "Coffin" Ed Jones and "Gravedigger" Johnson. In this book, the detectives have to solve a crime to keep Harlem from exploding. A conman who was selling back-to-Africa is robbed by racists who then lose the money in a bale of cotton. Tracing the cotton and the loot, the detectives have to walk through the dangers of a neighborhood on the edge of riots and the men who want to get that money at any cost.

Why It Made the List

Himes was one of the first black authors to make it big. It's no surprise that though he was American, his novels were first published in French. After they had acquired a following there, the books were then published in the US. Himes wrote hardboiled novels, having read the pulps while he was in prison.

Read It If You Like

mysteries with New York City as the setting, hardboiled novels

Books in Harlem Cycle Series (9)

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Romance may never go out of style, but it has in mysteries. For a time, the sleuths were expected to be thinking machines. In fact there was actually a detective nicknamed that. However, because of the works like Daphne DuMaurier, romance has lived on in mysteries. The mousy second wife of Max de Winter only wants to be the mistress of Manderly, but the staff and neighbors are only too quick to remind her of her competition in Rebecca who seems flawless to her. After her husband becomes a possible suspect in the murder of Rebecca, romance truly blossoms as she realizes that her competition was not anything of the sort.

Why It Made the List

The book created a surge in romantic suspense fiction after it had gotten a bad rap. The strong heroine who wins back her man became a staple of many mysteries throughout the middle years of the century. The book was made into a Hitchcock film which was faithful to the book and his only Best Picture Oscar.

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romantic suspense, twists at the end

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This book, beyond being written by one of the big names in American mystery, was a very early precursor to the serial killer novel. The Cat is a mass murderer who is bumping off people with what seems to be no rhyme or reason. Ellery Queen reluctantly joins the team looking for the killer and immediately notices patterns in the killings. From there, it becomes a race to save New York from more killings before Ellery can make sense of the patterns.

Why It Made the List

The book does a phenomenal job of writing about New York City during a panic. Scenes with the paranoia and the demands for justice could be written about the city today just as much as then. The book set up the plotline for many serial killer novels in that the odd patterns of the killers become the clues to learning their identities.

Read It If You Like

serial killer novels, puzzle plots, New York City as the background

Books in Ellery Queen De... Series (35)

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Is he or isn't he? Only Brat knows for sure and the reader who finds out quickly the truth about what happened to Brat Farrar. However, it's not the mystery of who has shown up to claim the horses and farm; it's really the mystery of what happened to Brat all those years ago when he disappeared. Josephine Tey only wrote a few mystery novels, but each one is a classic. Brat Farrar is the least controversial of her best books and deserves a spot on the list of best mysteries for the century.

Why It Made the List

Tey is one of the best loved authors of all times. She's one of the few mystery writers who has not received a full length biography of her life (though one is apparently expected soon.) It's hard not to find a genre list without her name on it. Sadly, most of Tey's works have not been filmed, and the only version of this is a 1980s PBS show that is worth scrounging up.

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horses, questions of identity

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The title refers to a statue of a boy in metal shoes that resides in an antique shop. However, all the items in the shop aren't likely to be there long as the owner of the shop is brutally murdered. This is Sharon McCone's first case at the All Souls, a legal co-op that could only exist in San Francisco. Sharon has to find out who killed the owner, which appears to be related to some land scheme in the housing market of San Francisco. The series has been running nearly 40 years, and while the cast and careers have changed, the series is still well-written and timely.

Why It Made the List

This book is typically named by all the women writing about female private eyes today. Marcia Muller started a tsunami of tough female protagonists at a time when women were thought to be only helpmates. Her characters are well-drawn and likable, meaning that you'll come back for more.

Read It If You Like

female protagonists, private eye novels.

Books in Sharon McCone Series (31)

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Philo Vance, the debonair amateur sleuth, is an expert in everything. Just ask him. He'll gladly tell you all about it. The Ogden Nash poem goes "Philo Vance needs a kick in the pance," and he's right. The detective in the case is insufferable. In this case, he figures out whodunit in about 10 minutes, but then lets the police pin the crime on half of New York City before he decides to share his knowledge with the police. Still Vance started an entire movement of overly intelligent detectives who showed up the police. This is Vance's first case and likely one of his best.

Why It Made the List

The novel was written about the Joseph Elwell case, the murder of a rather randy bridge player. The man in question was shot in a locked room and he wasn't wearing his toupee, which was unheard of for this man. The case has never been solved, but Van Dine fictionalized the case for Vance to solve. Well worth reading both for Vance and Elwell.

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amateur sleuths, puzzle plots, locked rooms

Books in Philo Vance Series (12)

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Sleeping with the boss is never a good thing especially when the boss wants you to kill her husband. That's the setup for this novel, which takes place during the Depression and is a fine example of noir, which is French for "everyone in this book is screwed." Instead of moving away, Frank Chambers decides to help his boss kill her ancient, hairy husband, who also happens to own the restaurant that they all work at. Of course, murders never go the way they should, and this one is no exception. It takes a few tries before they get it right, and even then, you know that the end will not be happily ever after.

Why It Made the List

Noir is a big deal these days and this is a prime example of the subgenre. Plus all of Cain's works were filmed well. Noir is mainly remembered as a film movement these days, but Cain's works started out on the page. Plus the books are fairly short, so you can look well-read for a small investment of time.

Read It If You Like

noir, Depression era mysteries

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Margaret Millar, who is sadly better known today as Mrs. Ross Macdonald, was an incredible suspense and psychological thriller author from the middle years of the last century. She developed some of the plots that are now used way too often, but when she wrote them, they were fresh and original. Millar's works are best known for the twists at the end of the story, and this novel is no different in that regard. The reader gets to read the full contents of a letter in the last chapter, which puts a new spin on the entire investigation.

Why It Made the List

Millar boldly moved into psychological suspense at a time when the field was really growing. She used some of the new diagnoses for her plot point and characterizations. Her ability to change the meaning of the story in the last few words of a book is amazing.

Read It If You Like

psychological suspense, twists at the end, domestic suspense

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There's an entire subgenre called impossible crimes, not because they can't happen, but because they happened and it looks like no one could have done it. The locked room is the best known of these and Carr is the best known Two men are killed with the same gun, but in both cases, the crime is not possible. Professor Grimaud is shot in the study and the murderer vanishes while the room remains locked from the inside. Then a second man is shot in a cul-de-sac with the same weapon. The readers are treated to Dr. Gideon Fell, who is Carr's main detective. Fell solves the crime and gives a lecture on how to commit a locked room murder. The speech is famous and covers all the possible permutations of the impossible crime.

Why It Made the List

It's no surprised that this book has been named the Best Locked Room Novel of All Times. The speech itself with its inclusive explanation of all impossible crimes is worth the price of the book by itself.

Read It If You Like

puzzle plots and locked room mysteries

Books in Dr. Gideon Fell Series (23)

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MacDonald was an accountant turned writer, and the character he created, Travis McGee, showed the same type of depth beyond the veneer. The private eye, who didn't have a license, also served as a philosopher to the client and to his best friend, who hangs out with him even when not solving crimes. He only takes money to keep his boat afloat, since he doesn't even have a house. In this novel, a former girlfriend stops by to say that she's in danger. They sleep together, which is the kiss of death in these novels, and she gives him some money to hold on to. Of course, she dies soon after and McGee has to find out who killed her. Most of the books, including this one, deal with financial transactions and the impact of men on the Florida's coastline, a cause that was dear to MacDonald.

Why It Made the List

This private eye cum philosopher spoke to a generation of men who enjoyed the freedom of living on a boat and being unencumbered by romantic entanglements. Travis McGee is considered to be a man's man, and the books are still wildly popular today.

Read It If You Like

private eye novels, environmental issues, boat and travel books

Books in Travis McGee Series (21)

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Poor Tom Ripley is literally poor, and Dickie Greenleaf's father holds large sums of money over Tom's head if he agrees to get Dickie back to the good, old United States. So Tom develops a man crush on Dickie, but wants a lifelong commitment from the Greenleaf fortune. So he does the logical thing. He clubs Dickie to death and assumes his identity.

But it's hard pretending to be someone else, especially around people who knew Dickie. So Tom is forced to "help" them play detective and learn what happened to the poor heir. If these friends are successful, they suffer the same fate as Dickie. Some readers want protagonists who solve crimes not create more of them. But in this novel and the three sequels, Tom Ripley continues to fascinate.

Why It Made the List

Anti-heroes have been around for a long time, but Highsmith introduced the modern version of the anti-hero, the psychopath who wants the good life for its own sake. No one would have suspected that readers would actually root for him to get away with his crimes.

Read It If You Like

Anti-heroes, serial killers, books set in Europe

Books in Ripley Series (5)

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Award Nominations:1989 WFA

It's a solid bet that you've read this book, seen the movie or both. A million cultural references and a few Halloween costumes have emanated from this book. Clarice Starling is put in the unenviable position of asking one serial killer how to catch another serial killer. People who eat people are probably not the world's best co-workers, but she has to do this to stop a madman. Hannibal doesn't ask much in return, just a chance to get into her head and mess with her brain somewhat. Small price to pay for a closed case, right?

Why It Made the List

The movie is a cult classic these days and a worldwide bestseller in its time. You can't flip through the cable channels without finding it playing somewhere at some time. Haven't read this damn book yet? Stop reading and pick it up already -- you won't be disillusioned if you enjoy thrillers with serial killers. .

Read It If You Like

Serial killers, thrillers, suspense

Books in Hannibal Lecter Series (4)

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Lehane's novel tells the story of three boys who are playing in their Boston neighborhood when one of them is snatched. The boy, Dave, escapes after several days of abuse and molestation. The book then jumps ahead to the present where Dave is still haunted by the crime and his two friends have distanced themselves from him, feeling guilty that it could have just as easily been them. When the daughter of one of the men is found murdered, Dave becomes the primary suspect. After all, he's a mess. But the answers aren't anywhere near that easy, and the book takes more than a few twists and turns.

Why It Made the List

Lehane is one of the best writers out there today. He's written a well-liked mystery series as well as a number of standalones, most of which have been made into blockbuster movies. Of course, this was made into a movie with Sean Penn and no Madonna, so it did well at the box office.

Read It If You Like

Police procedurals, crime novels, deep backstories, Boston settings

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Ed McBain, which is the pen name for Evan Hunter, created his own subgenre. If for that alone, he should be on this list. The fact that he's also well-known for his TV and movie work, including writing the screenplay for Hitchcock's The Birds, is only icing on the cake. Hunter decided to follow the police around and write a realistic type of fiction reflecting how they operated. The subgenre, police procedurals, has been around ever since, with McBain's books being among the best of them. In this book, someone has already confessed to murdering the swinging wife, but the husband just seems a tad too happy about the whole matter for the 87th Precinct to just give up on the case.

Why It Made the List

Though other authors have jumped on the police procedural bandwagon since McBain introduced it, he's still the first and quite possibly the best. McBain's later books are bigger and deal with a number of themes including marriage, fidelity and identity.

Read It If You Like

ensemble cast, police procedurals

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Kenneth Gibson has a mundane life. He teaches to students who don't care, and he's married to a woman who loves the landlord and not himself. Fortunately, his sister is staying with them, so she can remind him daily how crappy his life is. When Kenneth decides to kill himself, he takes some poison and stores it in an olive oil container. Then he forgets to take the container when he gets off the bus. The suspense of trying to find the poison before someone steals and uses the supposed olive oil is enough to drive a well-written book that won the Edgar award for best novel.

Why It Made the List

Armstrong was one of the few women authors during the 1950s and early 1960s writing about the dangers of hearth and home. At a time when spy novels and macho private eyes abounded, she was one of the first authors to write about more domestic crimes, a movement which has come to be known as domestic suspense or suburban suspense. Many authors including Mary Higgins Clark have followed in her footsteps.

Read It If You Like

domestic suspense, mysteries where no one is killed

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While lawyers and courtroom thrillers have been around for decades, Turow revived interest in the genre after it had been convicted of redundancy and forced to serve 25 years for boring the audience. In this book, Prosecutor Rusty Sabich is assigned to look into the murder of a coworker. Not only did Rusty and the woman write briefs together, Rusty was often in her briefs as well. When everyone else finds out what Rusty had been doing, he's considered the prime suspect and as the evidence seems to build up, pointing to his guilt, Rusty has to investigate on his own to find out who really killed the woman.

Why It Made the List

The legal thriller is based on the law and readers have come to expect a major twist at the end of the book to solve the case. This was one of the best legal thrillers of the century, and given that it was Turow's first novel the accolades are even more deserved. The movie rights were purchased even before the book was published and was a Harrison Ford vehicle.

Read It If You Like

legal thrillers, twists at the end

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The century wouldn't be complete without discussing the affected detective, the quirky man who builds a fortress around himself to protect himself from the real world. Nero Wolfe, the large detective who never leaves the house on business, is one such man. He keeps his brownstone in New York City operating on a strict schedule that he hates to see disrupted. So the reader is surprised to learn that Wolfe has gone out of the city to pick up some orchids, when his detective-amanuensis-partner Archie Goodwin wrecks the car. After they find a body, Wolfe is forced to stay at the scene of the crime and away from his precious routine. That makes him mad enough to solve the case.

Why It Made the List

The Nero Wolfe series contains some of the best dialogue ever written. It's witty, concise, and bears a strong resemblance to everyday speech. Added to the fact that this is one of the most popular entries in the series, where Archie meets his "girlfriend" Lily Rowan, it's sure to bring a smile and an excellent meal.

Read It If You Like

puzzle plots, quirky detectives

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Before you even ask, it's pronounced Nai-Oh, so you can ask for the book by the author's name. Marsh was a prolific writer of mystery fiction from the 30s to the 80s. She's best known for her works featuring Inspector Roderick Alleyn. In this book, it's a classic example of the British village mystery where the murder seems rather simple at first glance, but soon becomes a mire wrapped in a puzzle. Nothing is particularly easy about it, given that the poor dead woman appears to have been shot by a piano. Of course, Alleyn manages to solve the crime without difficulty.

Why It Made the List

First, you can impress your friends with the pronunciation of her name, but even beyond that Marsh is typically considered one of the "Crime Queens" along with Christie and Sayers on this list. Her stories are humorous at points and cleverly plotted like this novel.

Read It If You Like

genteel mysteries, village mysteries, British police

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Craig Rice, a woman who wrote under a man's name, wrote hilarious mysteries, but had a sad life. Married multiple times, she didn't find happiness with any of them. She drank and partied herself out a career and only managed to start a comeback when she died in 1957. This novel is one of her funniest, a version of the missing corpse story, where the victim keep disappearing and reappearing at the most inconvenient moments. Rice has comedic timing and the city of Chicago is highlighted in this series as an all-around fun town.

Why It Made the List

The saying goes that dying is easy, comedy is hard. It's especially true in mystery where the truly comedic touch in mystery can only be found in a handful of writers. Likewise it's a rare comedic mystery that gets any literary respect, so be a little surprised that it made it onto this list at all.

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comedic mysteries, Chicago as a setting, married sleuths

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