Mystery is a fascinating genre not only for the twisty and thrilling plots but for the discussions of human nature that are often at the heart of the story. The best mystery books of all time offer plenty of both, with novels that are known for their solution but also the thought-provoking observations made along the way.
Because this is a centuries-old genre, this list is not meant to serve as a definitive list of every well-written mystery novel. To claim that would be impossible — or at the very least would take a whole book in itself to compile rather than an article. Instead, this list functions as a round-up of the best mystery books of all time that have defined the genre in meaningful ways.
Looking to immerse yourself even further in the best crime fiction ever written? Visit this deep dive on the top mystery authors of all time — some of whose work, like Natsuo Kirino and Walter Mosley, are featured in this list. For hidden gems within the genre, check out the 20 best mystery novels you’ve never heard of — all of which has less than 1000 reviews on Goodreads. And if you’re in the mood for mystery novels with no graphic descriptions, use this round-up of the best cozy mystery series as your guide.
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (Hercule Poirot #4) by Agatha Christie
Choosing which Agatha Christie novel to pick as her all-time best is a daunting task. Her Miss Marple series strongly influenced the cozy mystery sub-genre that would come later. And Then There Were None is also notable, inspiring the locked-room mystery set in a remote location trope. Murder on the Orient Express is also popular for its twist ending (and of her novels, it’s my personal favorite).
Ultimately I went 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 an author as skilled as Agatha Christie to pull off.
Devil in a Blue Dress (Easy Rawlins #1) by Walter Mosley
This novel is the first in the Easy Rawlins hardboiled detective series. A World War II veteran in need of money, Easy accepts a job from an enigmatic white man to locate 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 lifelong achievements within the mystery genre.
The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Like Agatha Christie, a round-up of the best mystery novels of all time would be incomplete without mentioning Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s work. After all, Sherlock Holmes is one of the most recognizable fictional detectives in pop culture. This novel follows follows Holmes and his faithful chronicler Dr. John Watson as they investigate the apparition of a monstrous dog that is said to have murdered Sir Charles Baskerville.
Cain’s Jawbone by Torquemada (Pseudonym of Edward Powys Mathers)
Cain’s Jawbone is notable in that it’s considered to be 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, prepare yourself to attempt rearranging the out-of-order pages — which can be organized in a variety of 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 mystery novels. It begins with a college group of mystery enthusiasts visit 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 Evanovich
Stephanie Plum is one of the most popular comedic crime series of all time, with novels that have regularly topped the New York Times bestseller list. The first novel follows Stephanie shortly after she loses her job as a lingerie buyer and makes an unexpected career change: bounty hunting.
Out 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 it was translated into English in 2004. After a young mother working a night shift at a Tokyo box lunch company strangles her abusive husband, her co-workers help her conceal the crime. Which, as it turns out, they have a knack for doing. When the yakuza catch wind, they employ these women to dispose the evidence of their own crimes.
Roseanna (Martin Beck #1) by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, Translated by Lois Roth
Roseanna, the first novel in the Martin Beck police procedural series, established many of today’s conventions in the Nordic noir genre. When the body of a woman is discovered in Lake Vattern, Swedish detective Martin Beck is called in to investigate. But not only does Beck need to uncover the killer — he must start with discovering the victim’s identity.
The Notting Hill Mystery by Charles Felix (Pseudonym of Charles Warren Adams)
While short stories like the C. Auguste Dupin series by Edgar Allan Poe came before, The Notting Hill Mystery is considered to be one of the first ever detective novels (even before Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone). Originally serialized and published in one volume later on, this novel follows insurance investigator Ralph Henderson as he solves the suspicious death of the Baron R__’s wife.
Bluebird, Bluebird (Highway 59 #1) by Attica Locke
Considered one of the best mystery-thrillers of all time, Bluebird, Bluebird follows Black Texas Ranger Darren Matthews who returns to his hometown Lark while on suspension and separated from his wife. Here he investigates the recent murders of a man and a woman that, despite what the 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 eccentric millionaire Sam Westing dies, his will reveals that the 16 tenants of the Sunset Towers are named as his potential heirs. But only one of the tenants will inherit his fortune by unraveling the clues Sam Westing left behind.
The Little Death (Henry Rios #1) by Michael Nava
Written in 1986, this novel is the first in the Lambda Award–winning Henry Rios series.
Henry Rios is a gay Latino defense lawyer determined to serve clients that his straight, white colleagues refuse to represent. After falling for a recovering drug addict named Paris, Rios is devastated when his lover is killed in a way that the police call “accidental.” But Rios sees the signs that point to murder as the cause, and he starts his investigation by unraveling the family secrets alluded to by Paris while he was still alive.
Summer of the Big Bachi (Mas Arai #1) by Naomi Hirahara
This thoughtful and character-driven novel is the first in the Edgar-Award winning Mas Arai mystery series. Gardener and widower Mas Arai is visited by a stranger who, like him, is a survivor of the Hiroshima bombing. The bombing and racism towards Japanese American immigrants brings back traumatic memories for Mas. But when the stranger is found dead, Mas must unravel a murder connected to secrets that he himself has fought to keep hidden.
The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco, Translated by William Weaver
Originally called to investigate heresy allegations, medieval monk Brother 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 nobody can be easily trusted. U.S. Marshall Teddy Daniels is called to investigate a disappearance of a patient at the Ashecliffe Hospital for the Criminally Insane, located on the remote Shutter Island, who is convicted for murder. When a hurricane strikes, Teddy is forced to confront not only the trail Rachel Soldano left behind but a dark, disturbing tragedy from his past.
Looking for more mystery novels that will keep you up at night? Check out this list of the best dark mystery-thrillers.