To craft a list of the 101 best mysteries of all time, the first thing you must do is define “mystery,” a genre we believe puts its emphasis on solving a puzzling event—often a crime or murder but not always. If it’s set in London and there’s fog and a man named Sherlock, you’re on solid ground. Otherwise, the line between the best mystery book and the best thriller, suspense or spy novel is a murky one indeed.
You’ll find classic locked-room mysteries, amateur detectives, cops on the beat and a few curve balls to keep you on your toes. Oh, and we’re sticking to one title per author, so you won’t find five Agatha Christies or Ruth Rendells here—just one legendary book that stands in for their body of work.
To help us narrow down the list to the absolute best mystery novels, we reached out to acclaimed and bestselling authors, bookstores around the country that love murder mystery, critics who review detective novels and the like. We’ve even scoured crowd-sourcing sites like Goodreads to see what you’ve loved the most.
Whether you’re looking for the perfect murder mystery set in your vacation destination, a classic to recommend to a book club or a great spooky series to dive into, it’s all here. Grab your magnifying glass, your library card and a pen and paper—you’ll want to take notes! Leave a comment telling us which books on here you love, which you’re dying to read and which ones you are astonished to find missing.
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Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie
Of course, the Queen of Crime would top the list. (Not that it’s in any particular order!) But which Christie to choose? On Goodreads, the various rankings of best mystery books feature more of her titles than the body of a gangster-turned-rat has bullet holes. Should we choose The Murder At The Vicarage, her amusing introduction of Miss Marple? Christie’s groundbreaking The Murder Of Roger Ackroyd? Heck, her stand-alone puzzler And Then There Were None is probably the bestselling mystery of all time, with more than 100 million copies sold. But we chose Hercule Poirot’s Murder On The Orient Express. The solution to the crime is so elegant, so simple and so audacious we imagine every other mystery writer alive that read it smacked their foreheads and said, “Why didn’t I think of that?”
Devil in a Blue Dress by Walter Mosley
When it comes to a series, we gravitate to the first title because, well, if a series is great, that’s where you want to start. No series is greater than the Easy Rawlins books, launched in 1990 about an African-American private investigator and WWII vet. The series has it all: great mysteries, a great and complex hero and—as the books unfold and document decades in L.A.—a great history of life in America as rich and ambitious as the U.S.A. trilogy by John Dos Passos or August Wilson’s Century Cycle. At its core is this mystery: How does a Black man survive in America with his dignity intact?
The Bat by Jo Nesbø
Nordic noir, where have you been all our lives? The flood of marvelous mystery and suspense books from chilly Oslo and its sister cities is one of the great joys for fans of the best mystery books around, whatever their accent. Nesbø’s Harry Hole is the latest in a long line of sleuths who are train wrecks in their personal (and often professional) lives. Ironically, in this first Hole story, the Oslo inspector is consulting in Sydney, Australia. Not to fear: Australia has its fair share of serial killers and deep-dark secrets. Yes, this could just as easily be in thrillers, but watching Hole track down his prey by worrying about every stray clue like a dog with a bone is very satisfying.
The Last Good Kiss by James Crumley
“Possibly the most influential crime novel of the past half-century, and probably the best private eye novel ever written—in a world blessed with Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett,” says Otto Penzler, proprietor of The Mysterious Bookshop. The poetry of the prose, he says, transcends the complex plot in which C.W. Sughrue (pronounced ’Shug’ as in sugar, honey, and ‘rue’ as in rue the goddamned day”), is hired to find a missing author but winds up searching for a girl who’s been missing from Haight-Ashbury for a decade. “Best line? There are a dozen, including the best opening line since Rebecca. But my favorite is ‘Nobody lives forever, nobody stays young long enough.’”
Death at La Fenice by Donna Leon
Down below on this list, author Leon offers pithy praise for the legendary Ruth Rendell’s classic Judgement In Stone. She needn’t toot her own horn because so many others will do it for her. Leon’s bestselling Commissario Brunetti books will have you falling in love with the city of Venice and her decent, redoubtable hero. The 31st book came out in 2022, but Leon nailed her cultured, thoughtful and usually successful protagonist right at the start: “His clothing marked him as Italian. The cadence of his speech announced he was Venetian. His eyes were all policeman.” Grab an espresso, sit down and savor.
The Seven-Per-Cent Solution by John H. Watson M.D. (as edited by Nicholas Meyer)
We could make a list of the 100 best mystery novels about Sherlock Holmes not written by Arthur Conan Doyle and it would be shockingly good. Indeed, you’ll find a few of them on here, including this one, The Seven-Per-Cent Solution. It’s the granddaddy of them all. There’s the frank treatment of drug addiction alluded to in the canon and the clever weaving of real-world figures like Sigmund Freud. Pure joy for fans who never imagined they would learn more about the world’s most famous private investigator.
Postmortem by Patricia Cornwell
Do you love TV shows like C.S.I.? You can thank Cornwell and her greatest creation: Medical examiner Kay Scarpetta, who’s a bit like Jack Klugman’s Dr. Quincy of TV fame, just turbocharged with the latest tech. Twenty-five books and counting feature Scarpetta tracking down killers, cutting through office politics and dealing with a cranky but brilliant niece, not always in that order. On the side, Cornwell also spent years researching Jack the Ripper and delivered her own solution to the coldest case of them all. Scarpetta means “little shoe,” but Cornwell is leaving a big imprint on the genre.
The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett
Why not The Maltese Falcon or Red Harvest or a number of other Hammett classics? Because none of his other books spawned a cottage industry quite like the irresistible husband-and-wife team of Nick and Nora Charles. They drink, they banter, they drink, they outwit criminals and the police, they drink some more and when the bottle runs dry, they reluctantly get around to solving the murder. The book led to the classic films starring WilliamPowell and Myrna Loy and that led to everything from the TV shows Hart To Hart and Moonlighting to charming copycat mysteries featuring Mr. and Mrs. North and far too many more to mention.
Link to the rest at Parade
PG notes that the author of the OP was careful to say that she was not attempting to rank the best mysteries from 1 to 101.