Selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
It’s impossible to boil down such a rich and fertile genre as detective fiction to just ten definitive classic novels, so the following list should not be viewed as the ten best detective novels ever written so much as ten classic detective novels to act as great ‘ways in’ to this popular genre of fiction. We’ve tried to allow due coverage to the golden age of detective fiction in the early- to mid-twentieth century, but have also thrown in some earlier, formative classics as well. We’ve avoided spoilers in the summaries of the novels we’ve provided, and have instead chosen to focus on the most curious or interesting aspects of those novels.
1. Wilkie Collins, The Moonstone.
T. S. Eliot called Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone (1868) the first and greatest of the detective novels. It wasn’t technically the first – that honour should probably go to Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s The Trail of the Serpent (1860) – but The Moonstone, which focuses on the theft of the titular gemstone, was one of the most popular and influential detective novels of the Victorian era. All of the ingredients are there: the country house, the handful of likely suspects, the seeming impossibility of the crime, and the sleuth in search of the answer (Sergeant Cuff, although the actual investigation of the crime is something of a team effort).
2. Fergus Hume, The Mystery of a Hansom Cab.
Published the same year as Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (which is part detective story and part Gothic horror novel), and a year before the first Sherlock Holmes novel, The Mystery of a Hansom Cab was a runaway bestseller upon its publication in 1886. After a body is discovered in a cab in Melbourne, Detective Gorby sets out to solve the mystery of the corpse, and who murdered the victim. The book was a huge bestseller, selling 300,000 copies in its first six months in Britain alone.
Recommended edition: Mystery of a Hansom Cab (Dover Mystery Classics)
Although Sherlock Holmes featured in over 50 short stories, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle only ever wrote four full-length novels starring the sleuth. The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902) is the most famous of these novels, and was written during the ten-year period when Holmes was effectively killed off by Doyle (he would bring him back from the dead the year later; this novel is sold as an old case Holmes took on before his encounter with Professor Moriarty on Reichenbach Falls). Is there really a giant hound with supernatural properties terrorising people on Dartmoor? Journey to the fantastically named Grimpen Mire to find out…
Recommended edition: The Hound of the Baskervilles (Oxford World’s Classics)
4. Agatha Christie, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.
No list of the best detective novels would be complete, perhaps, without something from one of the most prolific and popular authors in the genre (in this case, it’s a Hercule Poirot novel). But The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926) is noteworthy because it breaks all the rules and has a remarkable twist ending, which we won’t say anything more about here because it would be the king of spoilers. Suffice to say, this novel is widely regarded as one of Christie’s best novels.
Recommended edition: The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (Poirot) (Hercule Poirot Series Book 4)
5. Dorothy L. Sayers, Strong Poison.
Although others may opt for Gaudy Night or Murder Must Advertise (inspired by Sayers’ own time working in advertising), we recommend this fifth novel featuring her best-known creation, the sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey, published in 1930. The mystery author Harriet Vane is on trial for the murder of her husband, whom she is suspected of poisoning. But Wimsey believes she is innocent and so sets out to prove it.
Recommended edition: Strong Poison (Lord Peter Wimsey Mysteries)
6. Michael Innes, Hamlet, Revenge!
Its plot like something out of an episode of Inspector Morse or Lewis, this 1937 classic centres on the murder of a Lord Chancellor of England during a stage production of Shakespeare’s play Hamlet (hence the novel’s title). Innes’ detective, John Appleby, appeared in numerous novels and short stories, but this is probably the finest detective novel Innes wrote.
Recommended edition: Hamlet, Revenge! (Inspector Appleby)
7. Edmund Crispin, The Moving Toyshop.
Before Inspector Morse, there were several Oxford-based detectives who enjoyed considerably popularity. Although the novels of Edmund Crispin are not much read now, half a dozen of them are available in very attractive Vintage reprints, including this one, from 1946. Edmund Crispin was the pseudonym used by Bruce Montgomery, who was at the University of Oxford at the same time as Philip Larkin; Larkin even helped Montgomery to write parts of The Moving Toyshop.
The novel, like Crispin’s other detective novels, focuses on the English lecturer-cum-amateur-sleuth Gervase Fen. Like the other Gervase Fen novels, it’s huge fun with its literary in-jokes and knockabout humour. P. D. James chose it as one of the five most riveting crime novels in 2006, and the book inspired the merry-go-round sequence from Alfred Hitchcock’s film Strangers on a Train.
Recommended edition: The Moving Toyshop (A Gervase Fen Mystery)
8. Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep.
There’s a funny story about the famous 1946 film adaptation of this 1939 book, one of Chandler’s Philip Marlowe novels. William Faulkner co-wrote the critically screenplay, and during the production of the film, Faulkner and his fellow writers wished to seek Chandler’s advice on an unresolved plot detail, so Howard Hawks, the director of the film, sent a telegram to Chandler asking him who killed the chauffer Owen Taylor in the story. Chandler’s response was brief, even by the standards of the telegram: ‘NO IDEA.’
Chandler’s private eye character, Marlowe, is renowned for his unusual similes, which are sometimes known as Chandlerisms: ‘His smile was as stiff as a frozen fish’, ‘From ten feet away she looked like something made up to be seen from thirty feet away’, ‘A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window’. The novel itself is a classic example of the hardboiled detective novel genre, associated also with Dashiell Hammett and Mickey Spillane.
Recommended edition: The Big Sleep (Phillip Marlowe)
9. Josephine Tey, The Daughter of Time.
This 1951 novel is the only one on this list of the greatest classic detective novels to take the form of a historical mystery: Tey’s 1950s policeman investigates a 15th-century crime, or rather crimes, as he looks into the life of King Richard III and his alleged guilt over the murder of the Princes in the Tower. The novel took the number one spot in the British Crime Writers’ Association’s 1990 list of The Top 100 Crime Novels of All Time. The novel’s title is derived from the old proverb, ‘truth is the daughter of time’.
Recommended edition: The Daughter Of Time
10. Colin Dexter, The Dead of Jericho.
Dexter was possibly inspired by Tey’s The Daughter of Time for his 1998 novel The Wench is Dead, which also involves a modern-day detective solving an historical crime. In many ways, Colin Dexter’s 13 Inspector Morse novels hark back to the golden age of English detective fiction: set in apparently cosy and idyllic Oxford, with a highly literate loner as the main detective, the novels – and the hugely successful ITV adaptations made in 1987-2000 – evoke sunny afternoons in English pub gardens, in-fighting among the cloisters of the University of Oxford, and well-heeled upper-middle-class people in beautiful country houses harbouring dreaded secrets.
This 1981 novel was the one that convinced ITV to make a TV series, although Morse and Lewis are very different characters in the early Dexter novels, and are of a similar age. Dexter named Morse after Jeremy Morse, a banker who was one of Dexter’s arch-rivals in the world of crossword-setting. (Fittingly, Dexter discovered that Inspector Morse’s first name, Endeavour, was printed on Jeremy Morse’s car, in the form of an Endeavour Garage sticker on its rear windscreen.)
Recommended edition: The Dead of Jericho (Inspector Morse Series Book 5)
If you’d like to learn more about the history of detective fiction, you might enjoy our discussion of this forgotten detective novel from the genre’s golden age, our review of the Max Carrados mysteries, our pick of the best Sherlock Holmes stories, and these classic detective stories from the ‘age of Sherlock’. For more book recommendations, see our selection of the best Gothic horror novels and our pick of the greatest classic science fiction novels.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.