(Compiling a list of the top ten mystery novels was not an easy feat, I’d rather have compiled a list of the top 50 mystery novels and even then I’d be forced to leave out some great novels.)
I know. You’ve probably seen it hundreds of times on cable television or you saw it when you were a kid and now it’s just slipped into popular culture and has become the white noise of days past, but give it another chance. The book is unbeatable when it comes to atmosphere and it holds up better than most classics.
Like most of Dame Christie’s books, this one relied on formula but, as any apothecary or pharmacist will tell you, not all formulas are built the same way. True, you have Poirot for the umpteenth time using his intelligence to figure out whodunit, but you also have the wonderful atmosphere of an exotic locale and a twist for the ages. Before you raise Cain on me for including only one Christie book in our list of the top ten mystery novels if you click here you’ll find a list of the top ten Agatha Christie novels—happy?
When he started out, Cain’s prose was the type where you’d read 40 pages without even realizing it and sadly the books he wrote later in his career could never measure well with works such as Double Indemnity (1943) and Mildred Pierce (1941). But, let’s accentuate the positive, when you read the book, you’ll feel as if some desperate guy were telling you a story about how a femme fatale led him into knocking off her husband and how it all turned into a major fiasco! This noir tale was filmed with Lana Turner and John Garfield in 1946, but unlike the original book Hollywood turned the meaning of why the postman always rang twice into a pro-death penalty message. You know how things were in the old days: tobacco, bacon, and the death penalty were kind of good for society!
You can’t come up with a list of the top ten mystery novels without having a Raymond Chandler book, but I know this one is an upset—you were expecting The Big Sleep or Farewell, My Lovely—but this novel by Chandler is my favorite. We have creepy elderly widows, a gambling debt that sparks off a nasty chain of events, priceless coins, and a wisecracking Philip Marlowe. Who can ask for anything more?
The Moonstone also almost made the cut, but it lacked The Woman in White’s super villain, Isidor Ottavio Baldassare Fosco, known throughout the book as Count Fosco. The Woman in White does have its share of melodrama and drama, but this is not one of those romances that you’ll read and toss away. The central point of the novel is that, when pushed to a breaking point, all of us good folks—who recycle and take care of the kids—are capable of anything, and you need to be if you find yourself matching wits with a Napoleonic villain who has pets his mice while they’re going in and out of his pockets!
Not for the faint-hearted; in fact, nothing Thompson wrote was for those who cringe at how murder is described so matter-of-factly. Yeah, you can hear those believers in psychology who will say that Thompson, being an alcoholic, got a lot of his angry drunken hostility while writing and they could be right; fortunately, I never knew the man. But when I read his works, especially The Grifters, money and power are as corrupting and addictive as that desperate guy at a bar during closing time asking for “one last drink.” In this story, a young grifter faces all sorts of enemies including the law and a mom you’d never want your date to meet!
When watching all those old, old, old movies, it can be frustrating to know that every bad guy in the end is going to get captured and spend eternity in jail or sit on the hot seat (for you kids who don’t know, that’s the electric chair). In Highsmith’s villain Tom Ripley, you have a sociopath and murderer who is functioning as a family man* and will stop at nothing to accomplish his goals (sort of like a politician—just kidding!). I’d read all the Ripley books for their plots, humor, and that nasty Tom and his understanding wife, Heloise, who realizes that trying to change a man has been known to destroy scores of marriages.
We all have seen the film Rebecca with Joan Fontaine and Larry Olivier (I didn’t know him but Larry sounds less pretentious than Laurence) and we all think that the book is a going to be a high-octane melodrama. However, I’m going to say something that is going to earn me letters and emails from irate scholars: I think Daphne (I know I’m into calling people by their first names) was a great author and her prose was seamless. Reading the lyrical prose and description of a man who can never get over the dark shadow of his deceased wife may be an old theme that goes as far back as Jane Eyre; coming from the typewriter of Daphne, it’s is a different matter! Also, please read the underrated Scapegoat.
This was a tough one because Greene wrote so many books that could make this list. Brighton Rock has a villain name Pinky, a teenager who won’t hesitate to cut, brutalize, or kill anyone who gets in his way. More than that, Greene was painting a story of how organized crime can spoil a society and a seaside town, how amidst the beauty, there’s a decay of a once innocent human being that in turn creates destruction all around. I know Mr. Greene would be surprised that one of his books made the top ten mystery novels, after all he is known as one of the greatest novelists of the 20th century and that title can well spell…boring!
The funny thing is that Bentley wrote this book as a satire of sorts on the genre and instead it has proven to be one of the most highly rated detective novels. The witty, intelligent detective in question, Philip Trent, falls in love with a suspect, and despite his best efforts, finds that he’s always coming to the wrong conclusions—a warning to would-be armchair detectives to call the police rather than try confront a killer on your own!
Note that spy novels were not included in this list and, like all lists, this one is subjective!
*In Talented Mr. Ripley, Tom is a bachelor, he becomes a family man later in the series. I thought it would add a nice touch to include an asterisk.
(As I said, coming up with a list of the top ten mystery novels was not easy, so we’ll come up with a top 100 and then maybe I’ll be happy.)