50 (okay, 51) modern mysteries everyone should read


Here’s the second list in my continuing series of recommendations. We covered classic mysteries (Poe–1960) on the first list, and this one goes from 1961–2001 (with a final choice, #51, from this last decade). Here it is:

1. Mary Stewart — THE IVY TREE*
2. John D. MacDonald — THE DEEP BLUE GOOD-BY
3. John le Carré — THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD**
4. John Ball — IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT
5. Dick Francis — ODDS AGAINST
6. Helen MacInnes — THE SALZBURG CONNECTION
7. Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö — THE LAUGHING POLICEMAN***
8. Joseph Hansen — FADEOUT****
9. Donald E. Westlake — THE HOT ROCK
10. P. D. James — AN UNSUITABLE JOB FOR A WOMAN****
*
11. Tony Hillerman — DANCE HALL OF THE DEAD
12. William Goldman — MARATHON MAN
13. Colin Dexter — LAST BUS TO WOODSTOCK
14. Joseph Wambaugh — THE CHOIRBOYS
15. Mary Higgins Clark — WHERE ARE THE CHILDREN?
16. Ross MacDonald — THE BLUE HAMMER
17. James Crumley — THE LAST GOOD KISS
18. Ruth Rendell — A JUDGMENT IN STONE
19. Ross Thomas — CHINAMAN’S CHANCE
20. Robert Ludlum — THE BOURNE IDENTITY
21. Umberto Eco — THE NAME OF THE ROSE******
22. Jonathan Kellerman — WHEN THE BOUGH BREAKS
23. Sue Grafton — “A” IS FOR ALIBI
24. Sara Paretsky — INDEMNITY ONLY
25. Ed McBain — ICE
26. Martha Grimes — JERUSALEM INN
27. Robert B. Parker — EARLY AUTUMN
28. Lawrence Block — 8 MILLION WAYS TO DIE
29. Thomas Harris — RED DRAGON*******
30. Elmore Leonard — LA BRAVA
31. Faye Kellerman — THE RITUAL BATH
32. P. D. James — A TASTE FOR DEATH
33. Barbara Vine (Ruth Rendell) — A DARK-ADAPTED EYE
34. James Lee Burke — THE NEON RAIN
35. James Ellroy — THE BLACK DAHLIA
36. Scott Turow — PRESUMED INNOCENT********
37. Elizabeth George — A GREAT DELIVERANCE
38. Patricia Cornwell — POSTMORTEM*********
39. Walter Mosley — DEVIL IN A BLUE DRESS**********
40. Henning Mankell — FACELESS KILLERS
41. Donna Leon — DEATH AT LA FENICÉ
42. Margaret Maron — BOOTLEGGER’S DAUGHTER
43. Peter Høeg — SMILLA’S SENSE OF SNOW
44. Minette Walters — THE ICE HOUSE
45. Caleb Carr — THE ALIENIST
46. S. J. Rozan — CONCOURSE***********
47. Alexander McCall Smith — THE NO. 1 LADIES’ DETECTIVE AGENCY
48. Peter Robinson — IN A DRY SEASON
49. Val McDermid — A PLACE OF EXECUTION
50. Dennis Lehane — MYSTIC RIVER
and
51. Stieg Larsson — THE MILLENNIUM TRILOGY************

*Lady Stewart is mainly known now for her wonderful books about Merlin and King Arthur (THE CRYSTAL CAVE, etc.), but before that she wrote a dozen of the best romantic suspense novels ever. They all feature delightful British heroines, exciting plots, and exotic locales described in gorgeous, graceful prose. She is truly one of our finest writers. This one (now back in print!) is my favorite.

**Le Carré basically invented the modern spy novel with a deliberately unglamorous, downbeat portrait of a little man caught up in big international doings, as far from James Bond as you could possibly get. This grim dose of realism changed the way we read–and write–espionage.

***This common-law husband/wife team began the Scandinavian takeover of the mystery genre…in the 1960s! (My 40th and 51st choices were big fans of theirs, too, for obvious reasons.) They pioneered the use of politics (in their case, Marxism) in crime novels, and not a moment too soon. Mr. Wahlöö died in 1975. As a bookseller at Murder Ink®, I became “phone friends” with Ms. Sjöwall, and she’s fascinating. She’s in her late 70s now, and she no longer travels, so unless I make it to her farm outside Amsterdam, I doubt I’ll ever get to meet her face to face. But I can dream, can’t I?

****In 1970, Hansen introduced Dave Brandstetter, the first openly homosexual private eye in the mystery world. But don’t call him “gay”–Dave (and his creator) disapproved of that term. This series began a long-overdue sub-genre that still isn’t as prominent as it could be.

*****This 1972 novel gave us Cordelia Grey, the very first modern, professional, female private investigator. 1972?!! Why the heck did it take so long?

******I don’t usually include “mainstream” authors in these lists (I excluded Dostoyevsky, Graham Greene, and Truman Capote, among others), but this 1980 bestseller breaks every rule. Eco’s only venture into the crime genre brings life in a medieval monastery into vivid focus with a series of crimes–and a detective–like no other. And a motive that even the prolific Agatha Christie never considered. This is a major novel and a major mystery novel.

*******Thank you, Mr. Harris, for writing what is, to this day, the scariest novel I’ve ever read. (THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS is very good, too.) You owe me many nights’ sleep. And a new set of fingernails.

********As John le Carré reinvented the spy story, Scott Turow reinvigorated the courtroom procedural with this, one of the bestselling crime novels of all time. Thanks to him, we now have a whole new sub-genre.

*********Cornwell arrived to great fanfare. This novel swept the American, British, and international mystery writing awards in the year of its publication. The book that introduced the world to medical examiner Kay Scarpetta holds the record for the number of prizes bestowed on a début crime novel. If you want to know what all the fuss was about, just read it.

**********John Ball (#4) gave us Chicago cop Virgil (“They call me Mister Tibbs!”) Tibbs, a powerhouse African-American character, in 1965–but Ball himself was Caucasian. This marvelous 1991 novel introduced Ezekiel (“Easy”) Rawlins, a black private eye in 1948 L. A., whose creator knows the terrain firsthand. Mosley trumps John Ball, and even Chester Himes (whose protagonists were mostly petty criminals), by giving us a truly heroic man of color, written by a man of color, in a very successful crime series. As I said about P. D. James’s female gumshoe (see above), why the heck did it take so long?!!

***********Rozan has pioneered a terrific new idea: two detectives, a Chinese-American woman (Lydia Chin) and a Caucasian man (Bill Smith), who alternate as first-person narrators of their NYC-based cases. This 1995 novel is the first from Bill’s point of view. For Lydia’s side of things, start with 1994’s CHINA TRADE. This series is a real literary coup–two distinctive voices, one female and one male, from one (female) author.

************Larsson died in 2004, before his amazing bestsellers were published. As much as I love these three books, I always feel sad when I think that he never got to enjoy his richly-deserved celebrity. But we have the books, and we have Lisbeth Salander, the most vivid detective in many a year. Bravo!

That’s my second list. It was supposed to be 25 Modern Mysteries, but I got a little carried away. When you live to read mysteries as I do, it’s hard to whittle things down to just 25. So, 50 (okay, 51). Again, a couple of authors (James, Rendell) made the list twice, and if you want to know why, just read their books. If I missed any of your personal faves, I apologize, but this is my list, remember. If you read everything here, you’ll be reading a lot of very, very good mysteries. Trust me. The best “Fun Fact” about my lists: They include 3 real-life couples–Margaret and Kenneth (Ross MacDonald) Millar (she’s on the first list), Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, and Faye and Jonathan Kellerman. How cool is that?!!

Next up: a birthday tribute to Alfred Hitchcock, and soon I’ll tackle 25 (or maybe more) classic mystery films everybody should see. Until then…