Tales of murder and mystery have influenced me since I was a kid who read The Great Brain and old issues of Crime SuspenStories comics. But tales of murder and mystery are not the material of genre writers alone, whatever genre even means. Here are my Top Ten stories (at the moment) that involve murder or mystery, several by writers who are not known for these themes but are drawn to them nonetheless.
THE MAN CHILD, James Baldwin
A man who’s down and out after being abandoned by his wife and forced to sell his land to a friend snaps and strangles the young son of that friend. A harrowing tale of a murder from a literary master.
LAMB TO SLAUGHTER, Roald Dahl
Dark, humorous, absurd, classic. A tale of the perfect murder and the woman who gets away with it. She kills her husband with a frozen leg of lamb, then roasts the meat and feeds it to the investigating police officers who unknowingly consume the murder weapon.
TELL THE WOMEN WE’RE GOING, Raymond Carver
Two young married men who have “always been best friends” learn that they never really knew each other. While at an outdoor rec park, the men encounter a pair of young women and, in an abrupt and senseless act, one of the men murders the two women. It’s a shocker that leaves you breathless.
TIME AND AGAIN Breece D’JPancake
This is a less heralded story from author Breece D’J Pancake who killed himself when he was 27, but it is one that plagues me. It is the story of an old rural hog farmer who plows the winter roads and occasionally picks up hitchhikers to kill and feed to his hogs. We follow the killer, whose own son has mysteriously “disappeared,” as he picks up a hitchhiker and is sure to kill him. However, the old man decides not to murder the boy for banal reasons that leave one chilled at the randomness with which one may be killed or be spared.
WHERE ARE YOU GOING, WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN?, Joyce Carol Oates
The classic story of a young girl who’s been testing the waters of rebellion, independence, and sexuality. One evening she sneaks out and encounters a stranger named Friend. The next day, Friend shows up in his convertible while the girl is alone at her parents’ house. She is at first smitten. But soon she sees Friend is not nearly as young as the 18 years he claimed. He’s old. He’s sinister. When she refuses to go for a ride with him, Friend threatens to hurt her family. She gets into the car, and what happens on the ride is left to the reader’s imagination.
THREE-DOT PO, Sara Paretsky
One of the earliest tales to involve ground-breaking character V.I. Warshawski and decidedly more lighthearted than a good deal of others involving her. But it is a devilish, fun romp and investigation that involves a dead body on the beach and a dog named Po who helps break the case and save the day. A reminder that humor plays as steadfast a role in murder and crime as any other element.
THE TWO BOTTLES OF RELISH, Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett
One of the first mystery stories I ever read in an old Alfred Hitchcock’s Fireside Book of Suspense Stories paperback. The last shocking line of this tale stuck with me for weeks. Indeed, it has stuck with me for decades.
HUNTERS IN THE SNOW, Tobias Wolff
Three men go on a day hunting trip together in the snowy landscape of a farm. When one of the friends shoots a dog because he hates it, he turns his rifle on his friends. One friend, afraid he will be shot, shoots the man, wounding him. The wicked twist comes when the two uninjured men bond over what’s happened and take their time driving their wounded friend to get help, so much time that their friend’s life seems unimportant to them and will lead to his death.
THE BREATHING METHOD, Stephen King
Snowy winter nights. A dimly lit gentlemen’s club. A strange, macabre, and wholly fascinating mystery about a tale told by a doctor who helps a young woman give birth to her illegitimate son in the 1930s using the doctor’s new and controversial breathing method. The woman delivers the baby successfully, despite having been decapitated in a wreck on the way to the hospital.
THE COUPLE NEXT DOOR, Margaret Millar
A story that delves masterfully into the themes of deception and greed. All is not well with Mr. Rackham nor, apparently, with his young wife, Alma. A slippery tale about a murder plot that goes awry, and a neighbor whose curiosity helps reveal it to the reader.