20 mystery books to read before dying

 Over at the Mrs Peabody Investigates blog there is a discussion on the list of 20 great crime and mystery novels generated by John Connelly and Declan Hughes. Listmaking is one of life’s great joys, as is the opportunity to attempt to counter and redact other people’s lists – so here is my reposte.

In strict chronological order, here’s my score of today and I’m glad to say that keeping it to only 20 was just impossible … so it’s really 26! I’ve kept more recent titles to a minimum to give posterity a chance to percolate, although Stieg Larsson and his pulpy entertainments were never going to make it here.

  1. The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins
  2. The Adventures of Sherlock Homes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
  3. The Innocence of Father Brown by GK Chesterton
  4. The Glass Key by Dashiell Hammett
  5. The ABC Murders by Agatha Christie
  6. The Nine Tailors by Dorothy l. Sayers
  7. The Hollow Man by John Dickson Carr
  8. Brighton Rock by Graham Greene
  9. Phantom Lady by William Irish (aka Cornell Woolrich)
  10. The Moving Toyshop by Edmund Crispin
  11. The Little Sister by Raymond Chandler
  12. Cat of Many Tails by Ellery Queen
  13. The Tiger in the Smoke by Margery Allingham
  14. The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester
  15. A Kiss Before Dying by Ira Levin
  16. The Screaming Mimi by Fredric Brown
  17. A Stranger in My Grave by Margaret Millar
  18. The Chill by Ross Macdonald
  19. The Abominable Man by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo
  20. Mirror, Mirror by Stanley Ellin
  21. Berlin Game by Len Deighton
  22. A Dark-Adapted Eye by Barbara Vine (aka Ruth Rendell)
  23. A Taste for Death by PD James
  24. A Closed Book by Gilbert Adair
  25. The Constant Gardner by John le Carre
  26. Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell
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10 Responses to 20 mystery books to read before dying

  1. puzzledoctor says:

    I agree with most of the ones that I’ve read (although I think your reading list puts me to shame) but I wouldn’t put Cat of Many Tails in as Ellery Queen’s contribution – personally I was most impressed with The French Powder Mystery and the reveal of the murderer, presenting all of the reasons as to why they were guilty before saying who it is, and still surprising me with the revelation.

  2. I love Queen’s books, not least because they were such a big part of my reading routine when I was growing up – CAT OF MANY TAILS along with TEN DAY’S WONDER is a novel I find I re-read as much for the characterisation and atmosphere as the amazing plot, which I find to be less true of some of the utterly dazzling early novels and so I place it higher – of those earlier novels I would probably have to single out THE GREEK COFFIN MYSTERY as being perhaps their most extraordinary performance, but the summing up of FRENCH POWDER is truly amazing as you say – I find it bears a fascinating comparison with the construction of Queen’s final novel, A FINE AND PRIVATE PLACE but shall say no more as it is too easy a book to spoil.

  3. Mrs P. says:

    Well, I’ve done a little better this time (have read a grand total of 10, hooray). What’s becoming clear to me is that I need to catch up on some classics – my reading tends to be more contemporary and there are big gaps. Very glad to see John le Carre’s The Constant Gardener on the list – remains an outstanding read for me.

    What’s going on with the Steig Larsson backlash at the moment, though?! I gather from your comment that you’re not overly fond of the trilogy (and am seeing similar sentiments elsewhere – Mankell said in a Times of India article that he doesn’t think they’ll be remembered in 20 years). But…what’s not to like?

    By the way, I’m still mulling on my list… 😀

    • I have to put my hands up and admit to not being as enamoured of the Millennium books as most of my friends and family seem to be, so not only do I accept my minority status but thought I should make it clear upfront. I found them entertaining but quite poorly written in terms of style and all of them seem insanely overlong and far too detailed. I don’t mind a ‘journalistic style per se (Ian Fleming was a great practioner of that art it seems to me) but I did find the level of minutiare tedious after a while. There’s a lot to enjoy in the novels but Blomquvist seems to be a fairly ridiculous projection of the author into fiction, one on par with the way Leon Uris imagines himself in herois terms in QB VII for instance, and so lacked credibility while the plots, while hifgly entertaining, were also quite silly especially in the second book which has the heroine shot in the head and buried alive but still coming on like the Terminator – to me that was when the series ‘jumped the shark’ and unrecoverably so for my tastes.

      Also, I noticed a comment on Connolly’s blog about the absence of the Larsson series and they are so recent that it seems to me ridiculous to have to even think of including them in a top 20 list without a little more time to pass by before passing that kind of judgement (without taking it too seriously obviously). In that sense I probably wouldn’t have included the le Carre and Woodrell books were they not part of a trajectory from authors who have been writing for decades so that a reasonable assessment of their worth is viable in any kind of serious sense. It’s only a matter of personal taste, but I would trade even the weakest of the Martin Beck series for any of the Larsson books.

      You have clearly great expertise whenit comes to Scandinavian crime – could you complile a top 20 of those available in traslation?

  4. Mrs P. says:

    I enjoyed the Millenium trilogy hugely myself – though I do agree with your assessment of Blomquist’s characterisation: it’s the one big weakness of the novels (a great big dollop of authorial wish-fulfilment as you say). I didn’t mind the length, although it took me a bit of time to get into the first book. But then I was hooked!

    For me it was the characterisation of Salander that was the best thing about the novels, as well as, via her, the examination of violence against women / outsiders in society. And I wonder if there is a difference between the way that female and male readers respond to her (and by extension to the books)?

    Agree with your point about needing to let some time pass before an objective judgement can be made about books for top 20 lists. But how long to wait? This is all more complex than I’d thought!

    Not sure I’m as much as an expert on Scandinavian crime as you think… The easy – and cheeky – answer to your request for a list would be to recommend the Sjowall/Wahloo novels + the Mankell novels. But will give this some proper consideration and see what I can come up with (if you let me include Icelandic crime as well 🙂 ).

  5. Salander is without question a great contribution to the genre and while I suspect responses are bound to be led by gender given the root subject of the series, it does seem in this case perhaps to come back to what you were saying before as to whether works that function best as genre entertainments (that is to say, fantastical storylines that entertain but that seriously strain credulity with villains that feel no pain as if they just walked out of a Bond movie etc.) can be sturdy enough to support such important themes. The debate is inevitably central to critical thinking with this kind of novel, without taking anything away from the power of the emotions that a popular genre can do to inform and enlighten. What does it matter that the heroes and villain seem at times equally indestructable if we absolutely feel compelled to share the protagonist’s suffering and encourage people to engage with difficult subjects?

  6. Pingback: F is for … Fredric Brown | Tipping My Fedora

  7. Tim Symonds says:

    If you like Holmes ‘Classic’… Sherlock Holmes And The Dead Boer At Scotney Castle
    Never before had Holmes and Watson come up against a brotherhood like the Kipling League. Dedicated to their Patron Rudyard Kipling, the Poet of Empire, the League’s sole allegiance was to England’s civilising mission. Its members would allow nothing to get in their way. Holmes and Watson take the train to address the mysterious Kipling League at Crick’s End, a Jacobean mansion in deepest Sussex. A body is found in a wagon pond at nearby Scotney Castle – but why the wagon pond and not the moat? And why unclad? What is the meaning of the pair of shiny dark glasses clutched in one hand? And that hatband – could it really be from the skin of a yellow and brown spiny snake?
    Also at Foyle’s Online http://www.foyles.co.uk/item/Fiction-Poetry/Sherlock-Holmes-and-the-Dead-Boer-at-Scotney-Castle,Tim-Symonds-9781780920917
    North America http://www.mxpublishing.com/brand/Tim+Symonds
    Review copies – Steven Emecz mxpublishing@btinternet.com

  8. Steven A Oerkfitz says:

    Couldn’t finish Cat of Nine Tails. Thought it poorly written with terrible dialogue, esp from the mouth of Ellery Queen.

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