25 classic mysteries everyone should read

I promised lists of favorite things on my blog, and this is the first one: basic, essential reading for mystery fans. The list is roughly chronological, and my cutoff date for “classics” is 1960.

  1. Edgar Allan Poe — THE COMPLETE WORKS
  2. Wilkie Collins — THE WOMAN IN WHITE
  3. Wilkie Collins — THE MOONSTONE
  4. Arthur Conan Doyle — SHERLOCK HOLMES (the complete works)
  5. Mary Roberts Rinehart — THE CIRCULAR STAIRCASE*
  6. John Buchan — THE THIRTY-NINE STEPS
  7. Agatha Christie — THE MURDER OF ROGER ACKROYD**
  8. Dashiell Hammett — THE THIN MAN
  9. Dashiell Hammett — RED HARVEST
  10. Dashiell Hammett — THE MALTESE FALCON
  11. Agatha Christie — MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS
  13. Dorothy L. Sayers — STRONG POISON
  15. Daphne du Maurier — REBECCA
  16. Cornell Woolrich — THE BRIDE WORE BLACK
  17. Agatha Christie — AND THEN THERE WERE NONE
  18. Josephine Tey — THE FRANCHISE AFFAIR***
  19. Georges Simenon — MY FRIEND MAIGRET
  20. Jim Thompson — THE KILLER INSIDE ME****
  21. Patricia Highsmith — THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY
  22. Margaret Millar — BEAST IN VIEW*****
  23. Raymond Chandler — THE LONG GOODBYE
  24. Ian Fleming — FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE
  25. Robert Traver — ANATOMY OF A MURDER

*Every author in America has 2 reasons to celebrate Mary Roberts Rinehart: she was a terrific writer, and she made history by changing the way authors are paid. Until she came along (in 1908) and became the bestselling author in America, all writers were paid a lump sum in advance for their books. Rinehart decided that wasn’t good enough. The Circular Staircase sold so many copies, she reasoned–correctly–that she was entitled to some of the back-door action. She put her foot down, and the publisher capitulated. Thanks to this book and this woman, American authors now receive royalties in addition to advances. Let’s hear it for Mary Roberts Rinehart!

**This 1925 masterpiece is one of the biggest reasons that mysteries became such a popular modern genre. An immediate hit, it became a worldwide bestseller and secured its author’s place at the very top of the list of 20th century crime writers. It was just after this book was published that Christie famously vanished from the face of the earth for 11 days, an incident that has never been satisfactorily explained. The double-whammy headlines caused by her bizarre excursion and the book’s controversial “cheat” of an ending are still talked about today. Roger Ackroyd is a genuine milestone in the publishing industry, and in the history of crime fiction. It broke all the rules, and then rewrote them.

***I’m going to get an argument here, but this is my blog and these are my opinions. Tey only wrote 8 books, and you should read all of them, but I chose the splendid Franchise Affair over her more famous The Daughter of Time because I don’t really care for The Daughter of Time. I think it’s a dull, static read. The Franchise Affair, based on an actual notorious case in England, is much more interesting, IMO. Sue me.

****I know it’s 60+ years old, but this early first-person narrative of a sociopathic serial killer still manages to shock and disturb me more than just about anything else this side of Thomas Harris (who will be on my next list). On a personal note, it inspired my novel, Valentine.

*****One of my great inspirations. (My very first published short story, “One of Us,” was a tribute to Beast in View.) Mrs. Millar was the wife of Kenneth Millar, better known to mystery buffs as “Ross MacDonald” (who will be on my next list, too). Her stories are astonishing in their psychological depth, and this creepy 1953 novel actually changed the rules, as Christie’s Murder of Roger Ackroyd (see above) once did. It was also the second mystery ever to win the Edgar® Award for Best Novel from the Mystery Writers of America. If you like Patricia Highsmith, Ruth Rendell, or Minette Walters, check her out!

That’s my inaugural list. It’s a solid overview of American, British, and French (Simenon!) mystery up to 1960, and you got a couple of fun facts, to boot. Of course, I could easily have named 225 classics everyone should read, but we have to draw the line somewhere. Authors who made the list more than once—Collins, Christie, Hammett—did so because they richly deserve it. If I missed a major author of the period, please remember that this is my personal taste.

G. K. Chesterton, Edmund Crispin, S. S. Van Dine, Christianna Brand, Robert Von Gulik, David Goodis, Arthur Upfield, Ngaio Marsh? Yeah, they’re excellent, but not faves of mine. Ellery Queen, John Dickson Carr, and Erle Stanley Gardner were solid craftsmen, but not great writers. Graham Greene—The Third Man and A Gun For Sale notwithstanding—is a mainstream author, not a genre author. Ditto for Dostoyevsky. And Margery Allingham puts me to sleep.

Future lists will include 50 (OKAY, 51) MODERN MYSTERIES EVERYONE SHOULD READ (1961-the present). Watch this space.