'CORE' Best Lists
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- Underrated Mystery Books
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'AUDIENCE' Best Lists
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'FILM' Best Lists
'COMICS' Best Lists
Part witty repartee, part breaking down the fourth wall to talk directly to the reader and a damned good mystery on top of it, this was the number one pick for books that are not often heard of today. When poet Richard Cadogen takes a trip to Oxford, he stumbles into a toy shop and finds the body of a woman. Before he can notify police, hes knocked out. When he recovers, he is no longer in the toy store. He returns to the site of the store and finds out that its been a grocery store for years. Left with this puzzle, Cadogen decides to contact Oxford don and sometimes sleuth, Gervase Fen.
The clues to the case are hidden in nonsense verse and the poet and don have a hilarious time trying to determine the identities of the people referenced in the poems. The book is great fun in large part because you can tell that the author is having great fun writing it. Crispin doesnt mind if the characters talk directly to the reader or throw out a hint that they know theyre in a murder mystery, making it one of the few books of the era to do so. Sadly only a handful of Crispin book exist as the author struggled with alcoholism
This is what happens when you marry another mystery writer. Margaret Millar was the better known writer of the husband and wife writers for years. She supported her husband for most of their married life with her income. Along comes a couple of Steve McQueen movies and suddenly Ross Mcdonald is a household name and Margaret Millar is shipped off to obscurity. Its a shame, because many critics find her to be the better writer of the pair as well, but she didnt have Steve promoting her works.
When Daisy Harker starts dreaming of finding her own gravestone with a date carved into it, she hires Steve Piata to investigate. Piata finds a similar gravestone to the one Harker saw in her nightmares, but it has the name Carlos Camilla instead of Harkers name. The investigation takes a turn as Piata has to work to find out what Harker did on the specified date and how it fits with Camilla, who Harker claims to know nothing about. Millar ties all of this together into a fantastic plot with characters that stay with you long after the book is over. In one of her hallmarks, the reader only gets to read the complete letter (which explains all) in the last chapter of the book, meaning that the reader gets a surprise in the last few sentences of the book. Definitely a book to pick up next time you want a good read.
The very first African American mystery novel, the book is set in Harlem during the early 1930s. It appeared 30 years before Chester Himes celebrated mystery series about Coffin Ed. Fisher, who was a doctor, wrote about a doctor who is called in to check on the conjure-man, another name for a fortune teller, in the mans office. The doctor finds the man dead, murdered, while a waiting room full of clients are outside.
This group provides a host of witnesses and suspects to the crime. It turns out that the conjure-man (who went by the name of Frimbo) was Harvard educated and an African prince. The detective assigned to the case is Detective Dart, who is also African American, which means that all of the major players in this novel are black. Though murder is always serious, the book has plenty of humor in it. The book has more plot twists than most novels and keeps you guessing until the very last page of the novel. Sadly, this did not become a series, which is one reason why the book is not as well-known as it should be. Fisher passed at in his 30s, leaving only two novels and some short stories. However, he created a new subgenre of mystery that lives on through writers like Walter Mosley.
A lecture doesnt sound like a great mystery, but The Three Coffins is more than just that. This novel is a locked room mystery, meaning that the crime was executed (if you pardon the pun) in a place where its impossible for the murderer to enter or exit. In this case, the murderer shoots Professor Grimaud in the study (Im not sure where that is on the human body, but oh well) and vanishes from the room.
A second man is killed shortly after the first, being shot in a nearby cul-de-sac using the same weapon as before. The police call in Dr. Gideon Fell, who is Carrs main detective, to solve the crime. While hes hinting around that he already knows how the crime was committed, he gives a lecture on all the known ways to kill someone in a locked room.
It boiled down to kill them before theyre locked in, kill them via a mechanism while theyre in the room, or kill them after the door is opened. He embellishes more than I do, but you get the idea. The book is carefully plotted, using all three of the coffins used in the title as the literary form of the novel. Its no surprised that this book has been named the Best Locked Room Novel of All Times.
Anything by Lawrence Block could be on the list or I could have a list of just Block titles. Hes probably the best single best private eye, hard-boiled author writing today, and he still writes a more soft-boiled series as well and a series about a stamp-collecting hit man. In what is likely his best series, Matthew Scudder is a recovering alcoholic and former policeman who sometimes does favors for people in terms of investigating. This system keeps him from having to get a PI license and working a regular job. A prostitute named Kim approaches Scudder about helping her get out of the business.
He agrees to help, talking to her pimp and arranging a deal to release her. However, shortly after that, Kim is murdered, and Scudder feels so guilty that he drinks himself into a stupor that leaves him in the hospital. The book alternates between the investigation into Kims death after the pimp hires Scudder and Scudders own battle against alcohol. The book was made into a forgettable movie. Blocks works have not fared well on the screen. His middle-aged, white burglar in another series was once played by Whoopi Goldberg. Yes, you read that right. Even so, this series is incredible for its story and its characters.
Though shes likely best remember these days for writing the books on which the Nanny McPhee movies are based on, Brand had a much more deadly past. During the 1940s, she was a best-selling mystery author and this, likely her best work, was made into a great movie starring Alistair Sims as her Inspector Cockrill. Later in life, she moved away from mystery novels to short stories and childrens books, making her earlier works harder to find and less memorable to those who should read her.
In Green for Danger, the action takes place at a military hospital during the Blitz of World War II. A patient is killed through the use of anesthesia and then a nurse is murdered, presumably to stop her from telling what she knows. The patients wife suspects it is murder as well. This leaves three doctors and three nurses as suspects who had the means to kill the patient. Not much is known about any of them at the time of the murder and it would appear that none of them have a motive. However, Brand slowly allows the reader to get to know each of the characters. As she does, we learn about the suspects connections to the dead man and the motives for wanting him dead. Cockrill solves the crime and cleans up the mess in the last chapter.
This is one of the few titles on the list that won an Edgar, Mystery Writers of Americas awards for the best books of the year. William DeAndrea won back-to-back Edgars and three in total. DeAndrea was something of a renaissance man in the mystery field. He worked at a mystery bookstore, wrote for a mystery magazine, married another mystery writer, wrote a book on the genre and wrote several series, each of which was set in a different area of the genre. Sadly, he died young and his death led to a lack of recognition of his ability to tell a great story. Still this book packs a wallop, and should not be overlooked as being a masterpiece of the old-fashioned type of mystery which goes best with a snowy weekend and a cup of tea.
The Hog Murders features a great detective, like the old whodunits of the 1930s and 1940s. The puzzle is simple. Six people in Sparta, New York, die in three weekends, all in what seem like accidents. Nicolo Benedetti is the sleuth in this series. Hes a rather old professor who works with a private eye to solve the case. Hes high-handed and rather arrogant, which reminds the reader of Nero Wolfe, who served as a model for DeAndreas character.
Michael Innes is the pen name of John Innes Mackintosh Stewart, an academic who thought of the 50 some mystery novels that he wrote as entertainment. Despite the slight snobbery at his output, the mysteries written by Innes are ingenious and literate. Most of them feature Sir John Appleby, who starts the series as a Detective Inspector for Scotland Yard and ends up as Commissioner. Hamlet, Revenge! is the second novel about Appleby.
Though mostly a whodunit series, this novel also has some vague spyness in it given that it was written two years before the start of World War II. A friend of Applebys is directing an amateur production of Hamlet for the Duke of Horton when the Lord Chancellor, who is playing Polonius, is killed just before the moment where Hamlet stabs the character in the play. Since the victim was involved in the concerns about the gorwing Nazi threat, Appleby is sent to the scene of the crime to learn if its a matter of national security or just someone pissed at the Lord Chancellor. Of course, the book is filled with literary allusions galore and will make you smarter just by reading it. Pick it up today.
Doug Allyn is one of the premiere mystery short story authors of our time. Hes regularly featured in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. His stories are voted fan favorites yearly. Hes written over 80 short stories and garnered a number of awards for his short work. So what happens when he published a novel? Absolutely nothing. His success as a short story writer did not translate into the sales for a long and healthy career as a novelist. Its a shame because hes an author who deserves more recognition for his longer works as well.
Black Water was the second mystery to feature a deep water diver, Mitch Mitchell, who happens to be a woman. Mitch is asked to dive into the deep waters of Huron Harbor to locate the car and corpse of a man whose car had run off the road during a storm. Mitch finds the car but not the dead guy. The discovery make her wonder about the situation and of course, the mystery is off and running from there.
What happens when you take one of the best known bright young detectives and give him a love interest? You change the series for the better. Dorothy L. Sayers had written for a number of years about Lord Peter Wimsey, who was well-known for his ability to talk piffle and solve the most complex crimes; however, when Lord Peter sees Harriet Vane in the dock being tried for the murder of her lover, he falls in love. The light-hearted folderol disappears and a true leading man is born. Its one of the best conversions of character ever to take place in fiction, and sadly, it is mostly forgotten today.
Vane is accused of murdering her lover, whom she lived with, by arsenic. No other person could have killed the lover and she is standing trial for murder when Peter sees her. Of course, Peter, having fallen for the woman, must determine who really killed the lover in order to save his new love. Sayers is one of the best known of the English Crime Queens and Strong Poison is one of her best mysteries for the seamless way that she combines both love story and mystery. Not to be missed by anyone who likes their mystery with a cup of tea.
This is another lost classic that needs to be found and read. Rocksburg is a small, coal town in Western Pennsylvania and the town has a problem. The towns tomatoes are growing and ripening out of season. It doesnt sound like much of an issue unless you dont like tomatoes, but by the end of the book three people have been murdered and a particular nasty case has been solved by Mario Balzic, the towns police chief.
While the titular problem is intriguing, Constantine specialized in characterization. His police chief is a conscientious man who knows everything that goes on in town. Even so, hes something of a genius who recognized the people around him and knows how they will behave in situations. Constantines later works (he wrote close to 20 of the Balzic mysteries in all) nearly forget the mysteries altogether just to study the people in his novels.
This is a case where the author is more of a mystery than the plot. Constantine rarely does appearances or interviews, so speculations and rumors have built up around the man. Its been speculated that hes a former MLB player and that he attended the University of Iowas writing program.
How could the single most obnoxious policeman ever to grace the pages of a book be forgotten? I dont know but Detective Chief Inspector Wilfred Dover is not much read these days. Porters first novel about the over-weight and over-bearing detective has been called the most astonishing debut ever. Its easy to see why. She includes a great plotline along with the lazy detective, who is willing to let others do all the hard work for him. Sergeant MacGregor is his ambitious partner in detection, who wants to go by the book and work diligently to solve the crime. Of course in nearly all the books, its Dover who actually solves the mystery after napping and belching his way through the investigation.
When a young girl disappears, Scotland Yard is called in. Dover quickly discovers that the girl did not leave of her own volition, meaning that someone had kidnapped her or killed her. The cast of characters is so weird in this book that Dover almost appears normal to the reader, which makes him more acceptable than if hes been sent to investigate a crime at a womens social outing. Though not available in eBook format yet, these books are worth the trouble to find them used. Grab a copy, tip your pint, and let your nose hairs grow while you read them.
Catherine Aird is an underrated British mystery author and her only standalone novel is nearly forgotten, despite the fact that its consistently called a fan favorite. When a business man has to retire young due to a heart condition, Tom Hardy and his wife, Dora, buy an old Tudor home in the English countryside. Tom is practically bed-ridden, but they work via handymen on their new home. When an electrician comes to rewire part of the home, Tom deduces another wall behind the plaster and locates a priest hole, one of the tiny rooms hidden in older homes to hide priests during the Reformation of England. This particular priest hole has a second surprise, the skeleton of a man who has been dead more than 150 years.
The police have no interest in a corpse that old and so the retired businessman decides to look into the case himself, despite the warnings of the dangers to his health. Of course, it turns out that the fate of the skeleton is tied to a current-day murder that the police are very interested in. This is a genteel mystery and the only Aird book not to feature CD Sloane as the detective.
What could be more fun than a mystery set in Reno, one of the sin cities of Nevada? A mystery that starts bumping off the soon-to-be divorced wives who are all staying with their rich and spoiled host and hostess. Being a widower is much easier and cheaper than being a divorcee. The murders are done in daring and cunning ways: a poker chip with poison on a small needle in the side, a bad set of brakes.
What makes this book a classic is a solution that will shock you with its audacity as well as its inevitability. Patrick Quentin, who also penned novels as under the names of Q. Patrick and Jonathan Stagge, wrote the Peter and Iris Duluth stories. The couple started as star-crossed lovers, married, and nearly divorced during this series. Sadly, the books only appeared about every two years which is lifetime in mystery fiction. So fans fell by the wayside as time went on. Plus each of the quartet of writers who worked under this pen name had his/her own career. Most famous among them was Hugh Wheeler, the Broadway sensation who wrote the book for Sweeney Todd. While there are no meat pies in this tale, there are enough gruesome murders for any fan of the genre.
Today Ira Levin is known for the many spectacular films made from his books. Everyone has heard of The Stepford Wives and Rosemarys Baby, but its Levins first novel that is the forgotten classic. Its the typical war hero back in society story with a sour twist or seven. Written in 1953, the book is still readable today and doesnt feel dated in the least. The story revolves around Bud Corliss, a World War II vet who gets his first taste of killing during the war. He finds that he likes it and the act does not repulse him at all.
He returns to the states and finds that his father has passed away. Ambitious as he is ruthless, Corliss decides to attend college and quickly begins an affair with Dorothy Kingship, who is the daughter of a wealthy man. The relationship continues to move smoothly towards Corliss dreams until Dorothy announces that she is pregnant. Most guys would take this as the key to Easy Street, but not our hero. Pucker up, baby, because this book is pure noir, so no one ends up happily ever after in this novel. Even though this book has been made into two different film versions, though neither one was a big box office hit.
Ngaio Marsh has long been considered one of the crime queens, despite the fact that no one can pronounce her first name. Geez, I wonder what she did to be saddled with such a name. In any event, Artists in Crime is one of the books in her long-running Roderick Alleyn In this book, Marsh uses her knowledge of painting to bring the story to life.
The book also introduces Alleyns love interest, Agatha Troy. The pair first meet on a ship where their introduction is awkward and seemingly a dead-end. However, the pair are to meet again. Alleyn is asked to investigate the murder at his mothers lodge, only to find out that the lodger is none other than Miss Troy. It seems that Troy had set up a studio session for budding artists to paint a nude figure. In order to position the figure just so, Troy went to the trouble of actually drawing a chalk outline of where the woman was supposed to lay. Incredibly thoughtful of the body to position itself in the chalk outline. Now if we could only get them to perform their own autopsies. Miss Troy ends up accused of murder and Alleyn must prove his new ladylove innocent of the crime.
One of the few titles on this list that occurs in the middle of Manhattan, A Twist of the Knife deals with a police investigation into a series of related crimes. A man pretending to be an addict waits for a dealer carrying a suitcase full of cash. He doesnt need a gun, since he has a grenade, which he uses to threaten the dealer and blow up the building. The crime seems to go as expected. The man escapes, the dealer ends up dead and the suitcase is missing. However, the NYPD is concerned because the thief was carrying a Russian military-grade grenade. Manhattan doesnt appreciate such devices in their midst.
Detective Sergeant Stanley Moodrow is assigned to the case. Though he falls into the category of crusty old cop awaiting his chance for retirement, the book does not follow the easy patterns. The police track the grenade carrying man to a group called the American Red Army and the hunt for the perps grows personal as that group was also responsible for the death of Moodrows girlfriend. A great police procedural novel that fortunately is available again as an eBook. Be sure to check out a sure winner.
The highly original series that featured Wall Street investment banker John Putnam Thatcher (talk about a hero no one wants to root for these days) typically took place in the wilds of Manhattan. However, in Pick-up Sticks, Thatcher and a pal decide to hike the Appalachian Trail (before this became a Republican euphemism for sex with a South American woman.) While on the trail, they locate the body of Steven Lester who died of a hammer to the head. A hammer to the head isnt the only thing that would give Lester a headache.
He has two widows, count them, two. Of course, each one wanted to inherit the estate and each has a doozy of a motive to want to hurry it along. This is one series that needs to be back in print. The books were humorous and each dealt with a particular topic that Thatcher ran across either through his work or his life. Lathen (who was in reality two women) wrote books that dealt with the Olympics, Civil Rights, and of course, the 2000 mile trail that Thatcher decides to hike in this book. Though its hard to find these titles today, you need to go out and read about the last time anyone on Wall Street actually did something nice for someone.
Kaminskys fifth novel about Moscow police detective Inspector PorfiryRostnikov is another winner. Kaminsky wrote other series including private eye Toby Peters who ran a Hollywood agency in the 1940s.
In this book, Rostnikov is sent to Siberia with a challenging assignment. A young girl had been killed in Siberia and a high-ranking Commissar had been sent to the crime scene to investigate. He hadnt gotten far before he was iced literally as he was stabbed in the brain with an icicle. Now Rostnikov is being told to investigate the Commissars murder with one big warning. Under no circumstances is he to look at the murder of the girl, even if the crimes are connected. Rostnikov has a history of not following instructions given to him.
Rostnikov is accompanied by another officer on this trip, with the implicit understanding that he is being watched. Rostnikov had received previous demotions from the Moscow Police Department because he had chosen justice over USSRs law. Another murder takes place after Rostnikov arrives in one of the coldest places in the world. The case takes many turns before arriving at a conclusion that leaves him nearly dead. The book won the Edgar for best novel, which should tell you of its quality.
Leroux is known more today for his tale of the Phantom of the Opera and its musical version. However, most readers dont know that he also wrote a mystery novel in 1907, being compared as the French version of Edgar Allan Poe or Arthur Conan Doyle. This is what happens when Michael Crawford doesnt sing his way through your novel.
Leroux wrote what is typically called the first locked room mystery. When a young girl retires for the night, the rest of the household soon hears sounds of a struggle and the word murder! followed by gun shots and then silence. The father and a faithful servant break down the door and find the girl murdered behind locked doors. The broken door and a barred window are the only ways in or out of the room.
Amateur detective Joseph Rouletabille is tasked with finding the killer. Rouletabille would appear in six other books, but its this, his first endeavor, that remains the masterpiece. Though the story is written that rather overwrought style that marked the era, The Mystery of the Yellow Room is still a top-rated thriller. Whats even better is that the book is in the public domain, meaning that readers can pick this eBook up for the price of nothing.
So what could better than the novel that Elmore Leonard once called the best crime story ever written? Well, being able to find a copy would be nice. This 1971 novel was considered radical at the time it was released and was a huge seller at the time. Its still reprinted from time to time, but without the fanfare that it received 40-some years ago.
Higgins was a low-level federal prosecutor and one of his tasks in that position was to listen to wiretaps and read transcripts of the various criminals, lawyers and police. After a while, the cadence of their speech began to wear off on him and he penned The Friends of Eddie Coyle. Higgins captured the voice of the characters in a way that no one else ever had. The characters spoke in a true and real sense that so often was lacking in crime novels, where even the mafia spoke in perfect English. Its a short book, not even breaking the 200 page mark.
However, its not the story, though the story is compelling that made this the best crime story. At one point, the characters are talk about making a cheese sandwich and no I couldnt possibly make that one up. Eddie is a small-time crook who is being sent back to prison. Before he goes, he sets up one last gun sale and then rats the buyer out to the police, hoping to get a reduced sentence for his good deed. However, the buyer figures out who squealed and the story picks up pace after that.
Fausts novel is a story of love and revenge, which so often seem to go together. The main character is reporter Dan Stark who runs across a woman who survived a shipwreck and a three week ride on a raft. Stark is intrigued by the woman and the story she tells him about how her yacht was carrying a fortune in gems when it sunk. She and Stark set out on a quest to find the jewels and live happily ever after. However, that dream quickly unravels because after she finds the jewels, she leaves Stark stranded on a small reef without supplies. Definitely a case of take the money and run.
Stark manages to escape, finally realizing that this woman was responsible for the yacht owners death and the sinking of the ship before trying to kill him as well. The story picks up steam as Stark locates the woman. Shes getting her jollies now as a drug dealer. Stark decides to get into the business as well and begins his own version of an eye-for-an-eye as the stakes continue to increase as the book goes on. If you like to read a good revenge novel, this is definitely your book. Payback can be a bitch or your true love, tomato tomahto.
DuBois is another writer who is typically known more for his short fiction than his novels, which may be why this book is not more well-known. In the days after 9/11 and the terrorist attack on the United States, the government sets up a new agency, entitled Tiger Seven Team, to handle the most dangerous terrorist threats to the nation.
Of course, the threat comes quickly in this novel. Like the movie Speed, the terrorists have set up a situation where airplanes loaded with anthrax will explode in mid-air if they descend below 3000 feet. Of course, theres a time limit on the situation since the planes do not have an unlimited supply of fuel. The teams work together to find a way to bring down the planes without creating a nationwide health crisis. The plotline rbings out all the fear and insecurity that our nation faced in the days after 9/11 and ups the stakes at the same time.
The Tiger Seven Team, along with NYPD detective Brian Doyle who has to find out who is behind the attack on the nation and find out who on the Tiger Seven Team is responsible for coordinating the efforts to make it happen.
This is probably the first time that a book ever bankrupted its author. Edgar Wallace was a great one for self-promotion and his plan to market The Four Just Men was a doozy. He intended to pay the reader 250 who figured out the solution to the crimes in the book. One thing though, Wallace forgot to advertise that the money went to the FIRST person to come up with the solution. By the time the contest was over, he would have needed to sell at a best-sellers pace for the next 24 months just to break even. He finally had to get a financier to pay off the debt and he declared bankruptcy. Despite this, one of Wallaces publishers once claimed that 25% of all the books read in England one year had been written by Wallace. Quite a claim.
Other than that small mishap, the book tells the story of four vigilantes who murder people who have evaded judicial justice. Each character is well-drawn and distinct and the book was a huge success. Even though the original book appeared in 1905, there were a number of sequels to this bank-busting title. Its been made into two movies and a television series, but its mostly forgotten today.
Van Dine is mostly forgotten today, but in his heyday he was a nationally known best-selling mystery author. Van Dine wrote the Philo Vance mysteries, one of the many series on this list where the author seemed to fall in love with the character, more than a bit of wish fulfillment. In this case, Vance knew everything and had done everything. If there was a case, Vance had the education and background to explain the entire layout to you.
The Bishop Murder Case starts with the shooting of a man, whose name could be turned into Cock Robin and of course, he is shot with a bow and arrow like the nursery rhyme. Other murders begin to occur, each following another nursery rhyme. Van Dine is called in to help determine the psychology of a killer who calls himself The Bishop. Van Dine matches wits with an early serial killer.
Vance isnt as well known today. The latter books in the series did not live up to the earlier titles and people tired of Vance knowing everything. Ogden Nash pointed out that Philo Vance needs a kick in the pance. Even so, the early books in this series are well worth the trouble of searching out.
Our Version of the List
At a Glance
- 1 The Moving Toyshop (Edmund Crispin)
- 2 A Stranger in My Grave (Margaret Millar)
- 3 The Conjure-Man Dies: A Mystery Tale of Dark ...
- 4 Locked Rooms: The Three Coffins; To Wake th...
- 5 Eight Million Ways to Die (Lawrence Block)
- 6 Green for Danger (Christianna Brand)
- 7 The Hog Murders (William L. DeAndrea)
- 8 Hamlet, Revenge! (Michael Innes)
- 9 Black Water (Doug Allyn)
- 10 Strong Poison (Dorothy L. Sayers)
- 11 The Man Who Liked Slow Tomatoes (K. C. Consta...
- 12 Dover One (Joyce Porter)
- 13 A Most Contagious Game (Catherine, Pseud Air...
- 14 Puzzle for Wantons (Patrick Quentin)
- 15 A Kiss Before Dying: A Novel (Ira Levin)
- 16 Artists in Crime (Ngaio Marsh)
- 17 A Twist of the Knife (Peter James)
- 18 Pick Up Sticks (Emma Lathen)
- 19 A Cold Red Sunrise (Stuart M. Kaminsky)
- 20 The Mystery Of The Yellow Room: Extraordinary...
- 21 The Friends of Eddie Coyle: A Novel (George V...
- 22 When She Was Bad (Ron Faust)
- 23 Final Winter (Brendan DuBois)
- 24 JUST MEN SERIES (EDGAR WALLACE)
- 25 The BISHOP MURDER CASE (S. S. Van Dine)
Publicly Ranked Version of the List25 items >>