Mystery is a fascinating genre not only for the twisting and thrilling storylines, but also for the discussions of human nature that are often at the heart of the story. The best mystery books of all time offer a lot of both, with novels known for their solution, but also for the thought-provoking observations made along the way.
Because this is a centuries-old genre, this list is not intended to serve as a definitive list of all well-written crime novels. To claim that would be impossible – or at the very least, it would take an entire book to compile rather than an article. Instead, this list functions as a roundup of the best mystery books of all time that defined the genre in significant ways.
Looking to immerse yourself even more in the best detective fiction ever written? Check out this deep dive into the best mystery writers of all time – some of whose works, like Natsuo Kirino and Walter Mosley, feature in this list. For hidden gems in the genre, check out the 20 Best Mystery Novels You’ve Never Heard Of – all of which have under 1000 reviews on Goodreads. And if you’re craving crime novels without graphic descriptions, use this roundup of the best cozy crime series as a guide.
The murder of Roger Ackroyd (Hercule Poirot #4) by Agatha Christie
Choosing which Agatha Christie novel to choose as her best of all time is a daunting task. Her Miss Marple series heavily influenced the cozy mystery subgenre that would come later. And then there was no more is also remarkable, inspiring the mystery of the locked room in a trope of a distant place. Murder on the Orient Express is also popular for its twisted ending (and of its novels, it’s my favorite).
Finally I left with The murder of Roger Ackroyd because of its ingenious – and somewhat controversial – solution. It was voted Best crime novel of all time in 2013 by the British Crime Writers’ Association, with a twist that takes a writer as talented as Agatha Christie to succeed.
Devil in a Blue Dress (Easy Rawlins #1) through Walter Mosley
This novel is the first in Easy Rawlins’ hardboiled crime series. A cash-strapped World War II veteran, Easy accepts a job from an enigmatic white man to find a missing woman. It’s a thought-provoking mystery that examines racial and social issues in the United States.
In 2016, Walter Mosley was named Grand Master at the Mystery Writers of America’s Edgar Awards to recognize his lifetime achievement in the mystery genre.
The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Like Agatha Christie, a roundup of the best crime novels of all time would be incomplete without mentioning the work of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. After all, Sherlock Holmes is one of pop culture’s most recognizable fictional detectives. This novel follows Holmes and his faithful chronicler, Dr. John Watson, as they investigate the appearance of a monstrous dog who allegedly murdered Sir Charles Baskerville.
Cain’s jawbone by Torquemada (Pseudonym of Edward Powys Mathers)
Cain’s jawbone is notable in that it is considered the most difficult to solve mystery ever written. To date, only four people have solved this nearly 100-year-old literary puzzle. If you try it for yourself, be prepared to try rearranging the messy pages – which can be arranged in different ways, but only one is correct.
The Decagon House Murders by Yukito Ayatsuji, translated by Ho-Ling Wong
This cult classic published in 1987 is considered one of the first shin-honkaku novels, a Japanese movement that revitalized the style of Golden Age detective novels. It begins with a college group of mystery buffs visiting an island where a brutal murder took place years ago. But when they are murdered one by one, the remaining students must use their knowledge of the mystery genre to catch the killer among them.
One for the Money (Stephanie Plum #1) by Janet Evanovitch
Stephanie Plum is one of the most popular comedy crime series of all time, with novels that have consistently topped the New York Times list of bestsellers. The first novel follows Stephanie shortly after she loses her job as a lingerie shopper and makes an unexpected career change: bounty hunting.
Outside by Natsuo Kirino, translated by Stephen Snyder
This mystery thriller received the Best Novel Award from the Mystery Writers of Japan in 1997, and it received an Edgar Award nomination after its English translation in 2004. After a young mother working night shifts at a Tokyo lunchbox company strangled her abusive husband, her colleagues help her cover up the crime. Which it turns out they have a knack for. When the yakuza catch wind, they employ these women to dispose of evidence of their own crimes.
Roseanna (Martin Beck #1) by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, translated by Lois Roth
Roseanna, the first novel in Martin Beck’s police procedural series, established many of today’s conventions in the Nordic noir genre. When a woman’s body is discovered in Lake Vattern, Swedish detective Martin Beck is called in to investigate. But not only does Beck have to uncover the killer, he has to start by uncovering the identity of the victim.
The Notting Hill Mystery by Charles Felix (pseudonym of Charles Warren Adams)
While short stories like Edgar Allan Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin series came before, The Notting Hill Mystery is considered one of the very first detective novels (even before that of Wilkie Collins moon stone). Originally serialized and published as a later volume, this novel follows insurance investigator Ralph Henderson as he solves the suspicious death of Baron R__’s wife.
Bluebird, Bluebird (Highway 59 #1) by Attica Locke
Considered one of the best crime thrillers of all time, Bluebird, Bluebird follows Black Texas Ranger Darren Matthews who returns to his hometown Lark while suspended and separated from his wife. Here, he investigates the recent murders of a man and a woman who, despite what local authorities say, he knows were racially motivated.
The Westing game by Ellen Raskin
Newbery Award-winning novel The Westing game is notable for engaging many children in the mystery genre from its publication in 1978 to the present day. After the death of eccentric millionaire Sam Westing, his will reveals that the 16 tenants of Sunset Towers are named as his potential heirs. But only one of the tenants will inherit his fortune by unraveling the clues left by Sam Westing.
The Little Death (Henry Rios #1) by Michel Nava
Written in 1986, this novel is the first in the Lambda Award-winning Henry Rios series.
Henry Rios is a Latino gay defense attorney determined to serve clients his white and straight colleagues refuse to represent. After falling in love with a recovering drug addict named Paris, Rios is devastated when his lover is killed in a way police say was “accidental”. But Rios sees the signs that point to the murder as the cause, and he begins his investigation by unraveling the family secrets that Paris alludes to while he was still alive.
The summer of the Grand Bachi (Mas Arai #1) by Naomi Hirahara
This thoughtful, character-driven novel is the first in the Edgar Award-winning Mas Arai mystery series. The gardener and widower Mas Arai is visited by a stranger who, like him, is a survivor of the Hiroshima attack. The bombings and racism towards Japanese American immigrants bring up traumatic memories for Mas. But when the stranger is found dead, Mas must unravel a murder tied to secrets he himself fought to keep hidden.
The name of the rose by Umberto Eco, translated by William Weaver
Originally called in to investigate allegations of heresy, medieval monk Friar William of Baskerville soon finds himself entangled in a serial murder case. It’s up to Brother William, with his philosophical knowledge and logical mindset, to catch the killer himself in this award-winning historical mystery.
shutter island by Dennis Lehane
This chilling mystery thriller is a novel where no one can easily be trusted. U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels is called in to investigate the disappearance of a patient at Ashecliffe Hospital for the Criminally Insane, located on remote Shutter Island, who is convicted of murder. When a hurricane hits, Teddy is forced to confront not just the trail left by Rachel Soldano, but a dark and disturbing tragedy from her past.
Looking for more mystery novels that will keep you up at night? Check out this list of the best dark thrillers.