Without the classic novelists, our mystery books just wouldn’t have evolved the way they have. Whether in standalone mysteries or mystery series books, the stories contemporary authors write about, the way they solve the crimes in the books, along with the current writing styles follow in the footsteps of the early giants. There are tons of classic mystery novels that inspired us all – writers and readers – over the years and shaped what is the modern mystery genre of today.
But who exactly are the “classics” anyway and what are considered best classic mysteries in literature?
Ask anyone on the street and they’ll give you their version of what they consider classic mystery stories, but one thing everyone agrees: in a classic murder mystery, the crime has already been committed, and a hard-boiled detective, police officer or PI is set to solve the crime and find the guilty party. Some folks might say “you know, those whodunnit types of mystery’. Names like Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen, P.D. James, Arthur Conan Doyle with his Sherlock Holmes series, Erle Stanley Gardner with his Perry Mason series, Dashiell Hammett, Ngaio Marsh, Rex Stout, Raymond Chandler will pop up pretty much all the time – more authors of the past, than authors of the present.
Back in the day when I started to read books and I got drawn into reading mystery novels, my favorite authors were indeed some of the ones mentioned above, including Agatha Christie, A.C. Doyle, and Raymond Chandler. I’ve read every book on my mom’s huge wall shelf filled with mystery and crime novels. At some point, I started to visit the local library (we didn’t have internet back in the day) in searching for more mystery gems to discover. And so my love for mystery fiction became a true love
Here you will find some of the best classic mysteries that inspired me not to write fiction, but to never stop reading it. I know many of us, mystery lovers, share this love for the same for classic murder mystery books that shaped this genre into what it has become over time.
Dashiell Hammett – The Maltese Falcon
I’m not sure that this is the first book I’ve read as a child, but it’s one that has always stayed with me ever since. The author has written several mystery books, including The Continental Op, The Thin Man and Red Harvest, but The Maltese Falcon remained my favorite ever since.
First published in 1930, It is a great detective mystery, and it’s really well written. Some critics call this book the culmination of noir literature. Sam Spade, the main character in the book is one of the most popular fiction detectives, surpassed only by Sherlock Holmes.
Btw if you haven’t read the book, you might know the movie with Humphrey Bogart made from the book.
Raymond Chandlers – The Big Sleep
I don’t know if this is the best book by Raymond Chandler, but I loved it the most – it is the first novel in the Philip Marlowe detective mystery published in 1939, and it really had the most impact on me.
The author has written 8 novels, with the last on finished after his death by Robert B. Parker. He also wrote a few short stories before The Big Sleep, all related to Marlowe.
The story is about a sick millionaire who asks Philip Marlowe, a private investigator, to deal with the issue of one of his daughters being blackmailed. Little did he know that he’d be involved in so much more than just a simple case of blackmail.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – The Hound of the Baskervilles
I’ve read all 4 crime novels (and all the published short stories) written by Arthur Conan Doyle about Sherlock Holmes and his partner Dr. John Watson, and somehow this particular book (first published back in 1901) stayed with me more than any of the other ones. Maybe because it involves a fearful creature, which reading about gave me the willies back in the day.
Of course, the fact that it has been serialized more than once on TV kept my interested in the story all along.
The latest British TV series, Sherlock Holmes had also one of the episodes focusing entirely on this particular creepy-like story. I truly enjoyed the spin on it!
Erle Stanley Gardner – The Case of the Velvet Claws
The author has written several novels with various main characters, however, he is best known for his famous Perry Mason books, which have been turned into a successful TV series with Raymond Burr. I really don’t have a favorite, I loved all the books I’ve read as a teen, so if you haven’t read any of his classic mystery books, it’s best to start with the very first one: The Case of the Velvet Claws, published in 1933.
The book follows Perry Mason solving his first case. His writing sounds a bit old fashioned with strange phrases that not everyone will understand right away (although from the context it’s easy), and the use of the drugstore payphones will leave some youngsters wondering what those are in the first place. If there is a book that fits the classic genre to perfection, this one it is. I love the character of Perry Mason!
Agatha Christie – Murder on the Orient Express
Where do I start… Agatha Christie is the queen of classic murder mystery novels. Her stories about Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple have long been made into popular feature movies and TV series. If any of the other classic authors are less known, not so Agatha Christie. Everyone knows her and her two main crime solving characters. I think there has been no more copied author than “the queen of crime”.
I’ve read every book written by her over the years and I’m still not sure which is my favorite one. Maybe Murder on the Orient Express (the 10th Hercule Poirot book), because after first reading it, it did take me a while to fall asleep. The whole story takes place on the train and as usual, before they end their journey, Poirot finds out the culprit (or the culprits, to be more exact). This book really stayed with me for a long time, and after seeing several years later various versions of the movie, I truly couldn’t get it out of my mind. Many people, however, find The Murder of Roger Ackroyd to be their favorite.
In addition to these 5 popular classic mystery novels and authors, there are several others that stayed with me over the years.
Ellery Queen with his Ellery Queen detective series (the pen name belongs to two cousins, both authors, Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee.
John Dickson Carr with his Gideon Fell mystery series and his Henri Bencolin series
Dorothy L. Sayers with her Lord Peter Wimsey mystery series
Rex Stout with his Nero Wolf series
Patricia Wentworth with her Miss Silver mystery series
Wilkie Collins who by many is considered the first mystery writer with his books The Moonstone and The Woman in White
Ross Macdonald with his private detective Lew Archer series
Ngaio Marsh with her Inspector Roderick Alleyn mystery series
Daphne du Maurier with her famous gothic mystery novel Rebecca
P. D. James with her Inspector Adam Dalgliesh and Cordelia Gray British mystery series
These are just some of the most popular classic mystery authors/books that I know everyone who enjoys the genre have found pleasure in reading. They’re also some of my favorites as well.
What are your favorite classic mystery novels and authors?