Crime Classics?
January 15, 2011 12:49 PM   Subscribe

This year I'd like to read 12 classic crime and mystery books. What should I read?
posted by wyn to Writing & Language (65 answers total) 66 users marked this as a favorite
Any of the "Magrite" books by Georges Simenon!

he's the best there is!
posted by The_Auditor at 12:52 PM on January 15, 2011

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

(Not so much a novel as a collection of stories, but they're fantastic.)
posted by phunniemee at 12:52 PM on January 15, 2011 [4 favorites]

"The Murders in the Rue Morgue," arguably the first detective story. Not book-length, but you could throw some more Edgar Allen Poe in there as well -- "The Cask of Amontillado," "The Tell-Tale Heart," ""The Purloined Letter," etc.
posted by Karlos the Jackal at 12:55 PM on January 15, 2011

It's non-fiction but both a classic and a crime book: In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote
posted by hepta at 12:56 PM on January 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None is one of the most famous - although you'll definitely want to pick up a modern edition.
posted by Paragon at 12:58 PM on January 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

I vote for "The Murder of Roger Ackroyd" by Agatha Christie. It's my favorite of the lot.
posted by Shohn at 12:59 PM on January 15, 2011

Seconding Capote's In Cold Blood
posted by sharks don't eat potatoes at 1:00 PM on January 15, 2011

How about The Bat by Mary Roberts Rhinehart? There is some racism in the book that was OK for it's time - I found it a little cringe-worthy - but overall it's quite a good read and I usually don't like mysteries.
posted by Calzephyr at 1:03 PM on January 15, 2011

Dashiell Hammett - The Maltese Falcon
You have to do a Raymond Chandler - I'd suggest the big sleep
One of Ed McBain's 87th Precinct novels - Cop Hater or The Mugger would be my choice
Agatha Christie - Murder on the Orient Express

Depending on what you call "Classic" I'd suggest the New York Trilogy by Paul Auster - specifically City of Glass if you think a trilogy is cheating. And if you're going to modern books, you should read an Ian Rankin (my favourite is The Naming of the Dead).
posted by handee at 1:05 PM on January 15, 2011

Dang! It's Rinehart, and "its time". It seems to be a mystery where my word power went to :-)
posted by Calzephyr at 1:08 PM on January 15, 2011

Something by Raymond Chandler (the Big Sleep maybe) and something by Dorothy L Sayers (maybe Murder Must Advertise)
posted by singingfish at 1:08 PM on January 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

Anything by John le Carre, Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammet. Also I rather like Frederick Forsythe's Day of the Jackal despite my distaste for his portrayal of gay men.
posted by elizardbits at 1:08 PM on January 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

The Talented Mr. Ripley, Patricia Highsmith
posted by scody at 1:12 PM on January 15, 2011

Ross MacDonald. The most overlooked of the great mystery novelists.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 1:14 PM on January 15, 2011 [2 favorites]

Agreed that the Maltese Falcon and at least one Chandler are a must. I would suggest "Farewell, My Lovely" for the Chandler, but they're all good.

Also, either or both of the James Cain classics, "Double Indemnity" and "The Postman Always Rings Twice." (Both were made into good movies too.)

I am on the last of the ten-book Martin Beck series, a very influential set of police procedurals from the '60s and '70s, and I really loved it. My favorite is "the Abominable Man." I'm not sure I would start at the beginning with this series, because I think the writing gets better with each installment.

I think the first comment was referring to Maigret, not Magritte. I've read a few of these and I agree, they're really good. There are so many of them, though, that it's hard to know where to start. I think my favorite of the ones I read was "The Friend of Madame Maigret."

I haven't read Ed McBain or Jim Thompson but they're next on my list.
posted by pete_22 at 1:15 PM on January 15, 2011

If supernatural crime and mystery is OK then I'd recommend "Carnacki the Ghost Finder" by William Hope Hodgson: Edwardian gentleman ghost detective.
posted by BinaryApe at 1:18 PM on January 15, 2011

A Wilkie Collins "The Moonstone", or for something more obscure, "The Law and the Lady"; a Chandler of course, and a Dorothy Sayers.. I'd go for "Have His Carcass".
posted by Erasmouse at 1:20 PM on January 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

Josephine Tey's The Daughter of Time, in which an English detective stuck in a hospital bed tries to solve the murder of the princes in the Tower of London, definitely belongs on a list of classic mysteries.

Also, there should be at least one Ngaio Marsh on your list. (I like Light Thickens, her last one, best, but they're all good.)

And a Dorothy Sayers. The first, The Nine Tailors, is very famous.
posted by tully_monster at 1:22 PM on January 15, 2011 [5 favorites]

I'd also recommend "The Murder of Roger Ackroyd" as the Agatha Christie to read. It's a classic of its genre.
posted by carter at 1:26 PM on January 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

The Laughing Policeman by Sjöwall and Wahlöö.

The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson.

(In both cases: you must avoid movie versions)
posted by ovvl at 1:29 PM on January 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

Dorothy Sayers! Gaudy Night is my favorite (and one of my favorite books of all time), but it's not really a traditional murder mystery - more a love story and a musing on the academic life. Murder Must Advertise and The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club are both fantastic, more traditional mysteries.
posted by you're a kitty! at 1:29 PM on January 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

Dick Francis, Whip Hand.
posted by jenkinsEar at 1:29 PM on January 15, 2011

For a post-golden age British mystery that seems to really exemplify the genre, Michael Gilbert's 1950 Smallbone Deceased is quite charming, and widely hailed.

Mid-century Japan? Try Seicho Matsumoto's Inspector Imanishi Investigates.

In a different vein, I think Robert van Gulik's 13th c. Chinese Judge Dee mysteries are great.

If you're reading Sherlock Holmes, then you might consider contrasting it with some A.J. Raffles short stories. Both are well into the public domain, so readily Guternbergable. I cannot, however, recommend J.K. Bangs' Raffles Homes books at all.

And yes, you should read at least one Dorothy Sayers, though if you can stop at one, you're made of stronger stuff than I.
posted by mumkin at 1:34 PM on January 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

If my Dad was reading this he would recommend any of the Nero Wolfe series by Rex Stout. Actually maybe he would be able to recommend a few of the classic titles as there are over 30. Fer-De-Lance is the first and seems as good a starting point as any.
posted by Fred Wesley at 1:45 PM on January 15, 2011 [2 favorites]

Death on the Nile by Agatha Christie. Murder on the Orient Express is her most famous Eastern, travel-type mystery, but in my opinion Death on the Nile is far more readable, interesting, and devious.
posted by martianna at 1:46 PM on January 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

The Hound of the Baskervilles.
posted by dougrayrankin at 1:49 PM on January 15, 2011

+1 For Chandler and The Big Sleep. Just don't watch the 70s remake.
posted by jeffamaphone at 1:50 PM on January 15, 2011

Ruth Rendell writes among very best mysteries in English. Ross MacDonald follows the Hammett/Chandler tradition and improves upon it, deepens it. Michael Connelly follows him. Early John D. MacDonald novels--before he invented Travis McGee--are classic pulp mysteries and suspense novels in the same category as James M. Cain and Jim Thompson. Jonathan Kellerman is one of today's very best mystery/suspense novelists, as is James Lee Burke (a bit lush and purple but vividly violent and knowledgeable of street life). Tony Hillerman wrote tight, vivid novels featuring Navajo policemen in the SW, dense with a sense of place and imaginative plots. And Donna Leon writes of an Italian police detective in Venice, also with vivid sense of place and lovely insight into the, um, ambiguities of Italian life. Lee Child's current Jack Reacher series is crisp and smart and violent in the way of Donald Westlake's Stark series. Robert Wilson wrote a series of mysteries set in West Africa (and also the terrific suspense novel ("A Small Death in Lisbon"). Don't get me started! Happy reading.
Vincent Bugliosi has written some good gripping crime non-fiction, starting with "Helter Skelter," his book about the Manson murders, which he prosecuted.
posted by fivesavagepalms at 1:53 PM on January 15, 2011

I'll suggest that Red Harvest is more important than The Maltese Falcon if you're only reading one Hammett (but there's only five! read those and The Thin Man too).

Melville's The Confidence-Man

Jim Thompson's Pop. 1280

James Crumley's The Last Good Kiss

John D. MacDonald's The Deep Blue Goodbye

Lawrence Block's Eight Million Ways to Die

Donald Westlake's (as Richard Stark) The Hunter or The Outfit

Lee Child's Killing Floor

Gregory MacDonald's Fletch
posted by nicwolff at 1:53 PM on January 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

• Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep: my top recommendation. Lovely story.
The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins.
• Just for something different, try Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, good Swedish mystery authors.
posted by theredpen at 2:03 PM on January 15, 2011

Seconding Wilkie Collins' "The Moonstone". Arguably the book that gave birth to the genre.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 2:03 PM on January 15, 2011

John D. MacDonald if you need some swinging 60s Florida crime in the mix. (Deep Blue Goodbye as nicwolff sez.)
posted by pantarei70 at 2:24 PM on January 15, 2011

+1 for Ross MacDonald (his Lew Archer books in particular) and another +1 for Josephine Tey's The Daughter of Time.
posted by christopherious at 2:24 PM on January 15, 2011

Crime and Punishment by Dostoeskvy. Don't think any of the Agatha Christie recommendations have included a Miss Marple - how about the The Body in the Library or a Murder is Announced?
posted by janecr at 2:27 PM on January 15, 2011

Dorothy Sayers: The Documents in the Case, The Nine Tailors

Friedrich Dürrenmatt: Der Richter und sein Henker, Der Verdacht, Das Versprechen (especially the first). Titles in English: The Judge and His Hangman, Suspicion, The Pledge
posted by Namlit at 2:30 PM on January 15, 2011

G.K. Chesterton's Father Brown stories.
posted by miss patrish at 2:59 PM on January 15, 2011

Previous suggestions seem to have most of the big-names covered, but I think if you want to focus on American classics, Rex Stout has to be on the list. I'd probably suggest "The Doorbell Rang," or "Some Buried Caesar," or "The League of Frightened Men." I really enjoy "The Black Mountain" but that one is best read after getting to know the charactes a bit better.

Mickey Spillane would also likely be on the list of American classics, although as I'm less familiar with his work, I'm hestitant to suggest the best single title.
posted by sardonyx at 3:31 PM on January 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

le morte de bea arthur: "Seconding Wilkie Collins' "The Moonstone". Arguably the book that gave birth to the genre."

Oops, I think that was what I mean to say instead of The Woman in White, although they are both excellent books. Sorry. :) Everything else I say is totally valid, of course.
posted by theredpen at 3:32 PM on January 15, 2011

Sorry Fred, I missed your suggestion upthread about Rex Stout.

While Fer de Lance is an interesting introduction to Archie and Nero, I personally think some of the later books have Archie's and Nero's characters a bit more fully developed and realized, but pretty much any of them are worth reading.
posted by sardonyx at 3:36 PM on January 15, 2011

It's less than ten years old, but it's already pretty close to achieving classic status: The Night Gardener by George Pelecanos (who's most famous work has been writing for The Wire). I'd recommend Ian Rankin and Henning Mankell, but they're best enjoyed if you read their series, each one of which is more than ten books long.
posted by Kattullus at 4:16 PM on January 15, 2011

Josephine Tey - The Franchise Affair
Agatha Christie - The Man In The Brown Suit
Georgette Heyer also wrote some crime stories
posted by latch24 at 4:21 PM on January 15, 2011

There are a lot of Christies mentioned here. The important thing to take away from this is not which particular Christie to read, but that you need to make one of your twelve a Christie.

If it were me, I would choose And Then There Were None. I read it in 7th grade, so it's not a very mentally challenging novel, but it is well-written and intriguing. And after we read it in class, I read nearly every Christie in my local library in a fit of fanaticism.
posted by Night_owl at 4:41 PM on January 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

sardonyx, I should read some of those ones you have mentioned. My Dad has a fairly complete set I think and is often trying to get me to read some.
posted by Fred Wesley at 5:14 PM on January 15, 2011

sardonyx, I should read some of those ones you have mentioned. My Dad has a fairly complete set I think and is often trying to get me to read some.
posted by Fred Wesley at 5:14 PM on January 15 [+] [!]

Stout falls into four categories:

1) non-Wolfe stories
2) Wolfe short stories (novellas)
3) Wolfe-at-home stories
4) Wolfe-out-of-his-element (on the road) stories

For this discussion, ignore the first category for the moment.

The second category is fun for fans or for casual readers, but I wouldn't recommend the novellas to somebody wanting to read the classic, American, crime-fiction novel. I think they'd feel a bit short-changed.

Most people would say if you want to get the full sense of Stout (or Wolfe) at his best read the Wolfe-at-home stories, as this is where the main character is fully in his element, and having Wolfe in his element is what the stories are all about.

After you've read a few of the third group, selections from the Wolfe-on-the-move group add a bit of variety for the reader. It's fun to watch Nero and Archie struggle to find their equilibrium when the the settings change.

Of the ones I mentioned, Doorbell Rang and Frightened Men are Wolfe-at-home stories. Caesar and Black Mountain are Wolfe-on-the-move stories. It's easier to appreciate them once you get a sense of why they are the exception-to-the-rule type stories.

Out of the bunch, I still think I'd say if you had to read one, read Doorbell Rang, as I think it best typifies what people like about the books (the plotting, the writing, the fullness of the main characters), without brining in extra elements (such as Wolfe's major re-occurring nemesis or characters from earlier books who come to play major roles later).
posted by sardonyx at 5:42 PM on January 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

How about a new classic?
Margaret Maron's The Bootlegger's Daughter won the Edgar, Anthony, Agatha, and Macavity awards in 1992.
posted by jaimystery at 7:29 PM on January 15, 2011

Seconded, John D. MacDonald!

I have read the Travis McGee series numerous times.....
posted by raildr at 7:51 PM on January 15, 2011

Haven't seen it above, so: George V. Higgins' The Friends of Eddie Coyle.
posted by 5Q7 at 7:56 PM on January 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm surprised no one's mentioned the books of P.D. James. A bit more modern but surely classics.
posted by vicambulist at 12:10 AM on January 16, 2011

These have all been said above, but if I were doing a series of crime classics, I would do:

Crime And Punishment by Dostoevsky
The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett (ESSENTIAL - this MUST be on your list)
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
I'd choose a Raymond Chandler and an Agatha Christie
something Sherlock Holmes
The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith
Arsene Lupin, Gentleman Thief by Maurice Leblanc
I'd also look for some inspiration from The Penguin Book of Gaslight Crime: Con Artists, Burglars, Rogues, and Scoundrels from the Time of Sherlock Holmes as well as considering reading the authors of some of my favorite film noirs.
posted by Mael Oui at 1:16 AM on January 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

Seconding nicwolff: The Maltese Falcon is good, but Red Harvest is Hammett's best, hands down, and if you're only reading one, it should be the latter.
posted by saladin at 5:34 AM on January 16, 2011

In addition to the above: A kiss before dying by Ira Levin and The mask of Dimitrios by Eric Ambler. Other authors to consider: Edgar Wallace, Dick Francis, Elizabeth George, Colin Dexter.
posted by rjs at 6:19 AM on January 16, 2011

G.K. Chesterton's Father Brown series was mentioned earlier, but I'd like to add The man who was Thursday to the list.
posted by rjs at 6:27 AM on January 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

If you want a modern choice that is an interesting counterpoint to some of the more traditional hard-boiled stuff, consider adding Walter Mosely to your list. His Easy Rawlins books are set in the same time period as Raymond Chandler's, but feature an African-American detective and World War II vet living in LA.
posted by missjenny at 6:32 AM on January 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

Theodor Dreiser, An American Tragedy
Joseph Conrad, The Secret Agent
posted by Paris Elk at 6:41 AM on January 16, 2011

Oedipus the King is a really wonderful mystery.

Ruth Rendell is interesting. She's one of my favorite contemporary novelists, but her best books aren't really mysteries in the traditional sense. For a classic mystery, I'd suggest her very first, From Doon with Death. But even in the early books, she is somewhat perfunctory about the whodunit aspect. You'll be expected to discount a possible suspect more or less because the detective says so, stuff like that. Although she does not backload information like some of the earlier classic writers.

Definitely seconding Highsmith.
posted by BibiRose at 7:44 AM on January 16, 2011

How about The Name of the Rose for something different?
posted by dzot at 9:19 AM on January 16, 2011

Norbert Davis' books featuring Doan and Carstairs.

(Wittgenstein's favorites! (not me the Mefite -- the real Wittgenstein!))

The 2nd, 3rd, and 4th book at that link are the books I'm talking about.
posted by wittgenstein at 10:29 AM on January 16, 2011

For a Hammett I prefer The Thin Man over The Maltese Falcon.
And as far as Chandler goes, The Big Sleep is very good, although the movie is really confusing.
posted by radioamy at 11:18 AM on January 16, 2011

Argh! I think I was insane when I wrote my first post. I like The Big Sleep a lot, but I meant to recommend Chandler's The Long Goodbye. Sheesh. I need a fact checker.
posted by theredpen at 11:37 AM on January 16, 2011

E.C. Bentley's Trent's Last Case is another 'important to the history of the genre' possibility, and a good read. It's kind of a rejoinder to Sherlock Holmes. P.D. James's Talking About Detective Fiction is a nice brisk history of the genre if you'd like to get context for your selections.
posted by yarrow at 12:08 PM on January 16, 2011

A few years ago, I aggregated this list of the best mystery novels from a number of best lists. Here are the most best-ed:
  1. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (Christie)
  2. The Hound of the Baskervilles (Doyle)
  3. The Maltese Falcon (Hammett)
  4. The Moving Toyshop (Crispin)
  5. The Talented Mr. Ripley (Highsmith)
  6. The Moonstone (Collins)
  7. Trent's Last Case (Bentley)
  8. Red Harvest (Hammett)
  9. Strong Poison (Sayers)
  10. The Postman Always Rings Twice (Cain)
  11. And, although he appears lower on the list because his several excellent books split his votes, the research for this list turned me on to G.K. Chesterton, who is now one of my very favorite writers.

posted by paulg at 4:34 AM on January 17, 2011

I *strongly* recommend any book in the Dave Robicheaux series by James Lee Burke. If you haven't read anything by him, I'd start with the first in the series (The Neon Rain) and just keep reading from there.

Also Margery Allingham.

Nthing Dorothy Sayers, P.D. James, Ross MacDonald, Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, Rex Stout, and all the others mentioned above.
posted by Amy NM at 10:33 AM on January 17, 2011

I like lots of the ideas posted above...just to throw out a curve ball, there are really great mystery/crime novelists that don't write in English. I'm hesitant to read books that have been translated from the native language, but these are often excellent.

The Shape of Water (Inspector Montalbano, Sicily)

Inspector Imanishi Investigates (Inspector Imanishi, Tokyo)

I think when you say "classic" you may want something older than this, but I consider both of these classics.
posted by mcstayinskool at 11:27 AM on January 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

Seconding The Friends of Eddie Coyle and A Kiss Before Dying.
posted by nicwolff at 11:35 AM on January 17, 2011

Millionthing The Big Sleep and The Postman Always Rings Twice. So fantastic.

A couple of non-novel suggestions if you get going on a crime fiction kick - The Spirit comics by Will Eisner are incredible, and The Shadow either in facsimile form or (my favorite) the old radio show.
posted by moons in june at 1:41 AM on January 18, 2011

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