Lots of mystery novels are just fun, disposable reads, good for a lazy summer afternoon or long flight but lacking the real staying power of other kinds of fiction. Wait a few months after someone has read a mystery novel and ask them to remember whodunit? You’ll get a lot of blank stares.
I’ve read a lot of mysteries and crime novels and the thing that truly separates the wheat from the chaff is often as simple as whether I can remember anything specific at all about the story. I may have mentioned elsewhere that I have read fifty Agatha Christie mysteries, but the details of most of them have receded past my ability for recollection. The ten novels listed below, including a few by Dame Agatha, broke through the conventions of their form, either through innovation or spectacular prose, and have stayed with me through the years.
10. The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain
The dark heart behind Mildred Pierce and Double Indemnity is probably best known for this extremely short work with a really killer metaphorical title. Frank stops at a diner for a meal and winds up getting way more than he bargained for when he falls in love with Cora, the owner’s unhappy wife. Cora ensnares Frank in a plot to kill her husband, and Cain’s spare but unsparing prose captures the horrific evil that men and women can do.
9. The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side by Agatha Christie
This is my favorite Miss Marple novel. I resisted reading the Marple books for a while, until I ran low on Poirot stories. This was out of stupidity and vestigial male arrogance, and I truly am sorry for having doubted the estimable Marple. The novel takes its title from the poem The Lady of Shallot by Alfred, Lord Tennyson and concerns an attempt on the life of an American actress which takes the life of her biggest fan. Without spoiling too much, it has a very ripped from the headlines feel, as the plot is based on a incident in the life of actress Gene Tierney.
8. And Be a Villain… by Rex Stout
Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe detective novels lie at the intersection of British-style Golden Age mysteries ( which featured elegantly structured puzzles for readers to solve, like Christie or Dorothy Sayers novels) and the more American hard-boiled style exemplified by Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. Wolfe himself is a thinker, nearly house-bound due to excessive girth and misanthropy. His employee Archie Goodwin, who serves as narrator for the stories, is a whip-smart man of the streets who’s never caught without a witty comeback. This novel is the first of a trilogy concerning Wolfe’s archenemy, a Moriarity figure named Arnold Zeck. During a radio broadcast a guest is killed when he drinks a poisoned glass of the show’s soft-drink sponsor. Wolfe takes the case and uncovers its connections to Zeck’s criminal empire. It’s a structurally sound mystery, elevated to greatness by the smartness and hilarity of Goodwin’s narration.
7. The Glass Key by Dashiell Hammett
Ned Beaumont serves as a right-hand man for local kingpin Paul Madvig, but the relationship is strained by Madvig’s ill-considered courtship of a senator’s daughter and by her brother’s corpse, which many people assume Madvig is responsible for. Driven by a belief in fair play and principle which earns him a few beatings and a lot of trouble, Beaumont tries to get to the bottom of the murder while keeping an out-of-control Madvig from losing his empire. More than just a traditional mystery, The Glass Key is a novel about the fractured loyalty between two men with drastically different worldviews. The solution is almost secondary, but it is quite ingenious, and the end of the novel is almost heartbreaking.
The Glass Key was also an inspiration for the Coen Brothers’ Miller’s Crossing.
6. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle
It would be ridiculous to make this list without Sherlock Holmes. The character’s immense popularity has lead to innumerable film adaptations and even societies dedicated to preserving his memory. There are even those who still insist he must have been real. I didn’t love any of the novels featuring Holmes, but quite a lot of the short stories are spectacular. Many of the best can be found in this first volume of stories, including “A Scandal in Bohemia” and “The Red-Headed League.”
5. And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie
This certainly meets the standard for memorable-ness. The set-up is a classic, and irresistible. Ten strangers have been lured to an island only to be accused of murder by their absent host. Shortly thereafter the begin dying in succession in seeming tribute to the old nursery rhyme “Ten Little Indians.” But there’s no access to the island due to inclement weather, and it becomes apparent that the murdered must be one of the guests, right? This really is one of the most incredible solutions ever conjured up by a mystery writer, and the novel deserves its standing as the best-selling mystery of all time.
4. Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett
The nameless Continental Op is on assignment in Personville (derisively and more accurately referred to as Poisonville.) His task is to solve a murder, but it seems like that might involve cleaning up the whole town and ridding it of its warring gangster factions. The mystery here is secondary to Hammett’s unflinching portrait of human greed, sin, and susceptibility to evil. It’s not a pretty picture, but it is relentlessly compelling.
3. The Laughing Policeman by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo
This Swedish police procedural captures all sides of a police investigation, as conducted by flawed human beings. A man opens fire on a city bus and kills eight people in a seemingly senseless crime. But one of the dead turns out to be a police officer apparently working on an unsolved crime on his own time. Detective Martin Beck, a sour man in an unhappy marriage who suffers from lack of sleep and chronic stomach pain, leads the investigation through numerous dead-ends and wrong turns. Sjowall and Wahloo’s prose is bleak and gloomy, perfectly capturing the spirit of the occasion.
2. The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler
The plot of this noir novel is so complex that the author himself famously could not explain some parts of it to the people making the film adaptation. Truly, whodunit is not quite the point of The Big Sleep, which follows Marlowe’s investigations on behalf of an elderly general and his misbehaving daughters. No character ever really tells the truth, and the cases and dead bodies keep piling up as a result. Eventually the plot incorporates missing husbands, pornographers, casino owners, and other nefarious types. On top of the complexity, Chandler’s prose is the best I’ve ever read in a mystery writer.
1. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie
Honestly, I can’t explain why this novel takes the top spot over the other deserving candidates on this list without giving away the ending. Let me just state that the solution to the titular murder is still the most controversial ever written. This is the novel that really hooked me on the genre.