There’s very few things more satisfying than a good mystery novel; in fact, we’d venture to say no genre has captivated the imaginations of readers worldwide quite like the crime genre, as we recently argued in our list of 11 Greatest Crime Films of All Time. We had so much fun researching the films and themes in that article that we thought we’d stick with the same genre, but shift the medium a little and bring our readers 10 classic detective novels that’ll have you itching to solve crimes. Whether you’ve got a taste for hardboiled detective fiction or you’ve got a soft spot for a classic whodunit, we’ve got a little something for everyone here and we’re real excited to let you guys in on the mystery.
10. Get Shorty (Elmore Leonard)
There are few people who write dialogue as well as the late Elmore Leonard; his characters are often vividly realized and they truly jump off the page. This is very true in his novel Get Shorty, the title of which many readers will recognize from the Barry Sonnefield directed movie of the same name (that film starred John Travolta, Gene Hackman and Danny DeVito). Get Shorty follows small time loanshark Ernest “Chili” Palmer as he attempts to navigate the treacherous web of organized crime in Miami. Originally published in 1991, Get Shorty is often cited alongside Jackie Brown as some of Leonard’s finest work, and the late author remains one of the most underrated writers of his generation (he’s an American treasure, and we’ll hear nothing of it).
9. Murder on the Orient Express (Agatha Christie)
It’s tough picking just one Agatha Christie novel to put on a list like this; the extremely prolific author (she published 66 novels in her lifetime, amongst other things) gave the mystery/crime/detective genre many of its most interesting titles, with others like And Then There Were None, The Mysterious Affair at Styles and The Murder of Roger Ackroyd consistently cited among the best. It’s Murder on the Orient Express, however, that we here at Goliath have chosen to include on our list; we’ve done that because we can think of no better place for a “bottle” (all-in-one setting) story than a speeding luxury locomotive. Originally published in 1934 and featuring Christie’s signature detective, Hercule Poirot, The Murder on the Orient Express remains one of the best received novels in Christie’s creative oeuvre, along with one of her most shocking endings.
8. Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World (Haruki Murakami)
This one might come way out of left field, but we wanted to include something different on this list for those eager to explore detective fiction, but who are uninterested in your standard, hardboiled fare. Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World is a surreal, neo-noir detective tale by Japanese author Haruki Murakami; first published in 1985 and translated to English in 1991, it remains one of the author’s more celebrated texts. A strange novel which oscillates between two absurd and dreamlike worlds (those being the “hard boiled wonderland” and the “end of the world” detailed in the title), Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World is a must-read for Murakami fans and a gleefully unique experience for those readers who have never had the good pleasure of reading this prolific and much-loved author. Modelled after the works of the famous Raymond Chandler (more on him later), this novel draws much inspiration from the detective stories of old, but transforms those trappings into something new entirely.
7. Moonraker (Ian Fleming)
We had to sneak a James Bond novel in here somewhere, but deciding which novel to put on this list was quite a chore. While the character is best known for the series of insanely popular movies he’s been featured in, many folks often forget that James Bond was originally a literary invention of author Ian Fleming, with Moonraker existing as the third novel published by the author. Significantly different from the Roger Moore adaptation of the same name, Moonraker sees the ever suave Bond trying to save London from industrialist Hugo Drax, whose master plan revolves around nuking the city with a recently acquired warhead. It’s quintessential Cold War fiction that plays heavily on many of the fears and paranoia of the period, but it works; it gives Bond an apt enemy to face off against and raises the stakes by making London (Bond’s home) the central point of attack.
6. The New York Trilogy (Paul Auster)
Originally published as a trilogy of novels titled City of Glass, Ghosts and The Locked Room, The New York Trilogy has since been anthologized into one volume which tells a magnificent detective story with deep, philosophical undercurrents. Written by Paul Auster and originally published in the mid 1980s, The New York Trilogy has often been classified as a postmodern detective novel, with examinations of identity, reality and genre (the novel plays fast and loose with the stereotypes, and Auster clearly enjoys playing with what the audience assumes based on the text’s genre) central to the trilogy’s overarching narrative. A nifty little series which was adapted into the graphic novel format in 1994 (also a highly recommended read, as it’s one of the most critically acclaimed graphic novels ever released), The New York Trilogy is a mind-bender that we’re betting you’ll find impossible to put down.
5. In Cold Blood (Truman Capote)
First published in 1966, Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood holds the distinction of being one of the greatest true crime novels ever written. While not explicitly a detective story (although some might argue otherwise there, as Capote himself often acts in the same manner and with an obsessive attitude towards the gruesome crimes in question), In Cold Blood does detail the grisly murder of the Clutter family in Holcomb, Kansas, with alarming detail and significant intrigue. Also looking at the investigation of the crime, In Cold Blood is often rightly cited as contemporary masterpiece and one of the truly adept looks into the complex mind of a killer. Capote spent six years writing the novel, during which time he compiled massive amounts of research, interviews, etc. Although it failed to win a Pulitzer Prize (a fact with which Capote was often disappointed), In Cold Blood is a fundamental read for anyone looking to explore the upper echelon of the true crime genre.
4. Our Man in Havana (Graham Greene)
Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana is an excellent spy novel, however, it’s very different from many of the other texts you’ll find on this list. First and foremost a comedy, Greene uses the crime/thriller format as a vehicle for satire as he pokes fun at the spy world and all those who take part in it. Published in 1958 and set in Havana, Cuba, the novel predates the Russian Missile Crisis yet seems strangely in tune with the historical events from the era, even going so far as to accurately predict some of the social and political ramifications that grew out of the strife of the period and place. Greene, who is often cited as one of the most accomplished and prolific authors of his generation, actually spent time working as a counter intelligence agent for MI6 in the 1940s; this real world experience lends an authenticity to his voice as he lampoons everything from racial stereotypes to the absurdity of spy to spy conversations. An engaging and often hilarious read, Our Man in Havana is a necessary read for those looking to venture into the crime genre.
3. The Spy Who Came In From the Cold (John Le Carre)
John Le Carre has penned several of the novels commonly cited as foundational in the spy/crime genre; while most of our readers may be familiar with his novel Tinker Tailor Solider Spy, which was adapted into a film starring Gary Oldman, Benedict Cumberbatch and Tom Hardy, we wanted to take a minute and highlight Le Carre’s most acclaimed novel, The Spy Who Came In From the Cold. First published in 1963 and taking place at the height of Cold War tensions between the United States and Russia, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold is frequently cited as one of the greatest spy novels ever written; its deft prose, natural dialogue and poignant musings on the ways in which the ends of espionage often fail to justify the means have rendered the text a contemporary classic.
2. The Big Sleep (Raymond Chandler)
If there’s one name to remember when it comes to detective fiction, it’s Raymond Chandler. The legendary author who practically invented the contemporary understanding of the genre with his hardboiled, rough around the edges character of Philip Marlowe, Private Eye, Raymond Chandler has penned some of the most famous detective stories in the history of literature; it should come as no surprise, then, that his best work, The Big Sleep, rates so highly on this list. Following the always entertaining Marlowe as he deals with reclusive billionaires, shady pornography smugglers, murderers, femme fatales and a nasty drinking problem, The Big Sleep is an iconic text that was adapted into a famous film of the same name, featuring none other than Humphrey Bogart and his real life dame, Lauren Bacall. While the movie’s undoubtedly worth a watch, make sure you read the book first, as it’s absolutely riveting stuff.
1. The Hound of the Baskervilles (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle)
There’s really no other way this could’ve ended, right? Sherlock Holmes remains the most iconic detective of all time, and, as such, we wouldn’t feel right putting any other crime solver at the top of this list. While Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous detective is best known for what he’s accomplished in short stories or serialized works, there are several Sherlock Holmes novels, the best of which is most assuredly The Hound of the Baskervilles. The book follows Holmes and the trusty Doctor Watson as they investigate a murder allegedly committed by an infamous hound of potentially supernatural origins. The Hound of the Baskervilles is commonly cited as the finest of the Holmes novels, and it also holds the distinction of being the first Holmes story told after the character’s supposed death in “The Final Problem;” as such, this novel acts as a revival of the character in a way. It’s as classic a detective novel as you’ll find out there, and it’s #1 on our list for good reason.