Everyone loves a good mystery. The genre is one of the most popular and overflowing with choices. How do you decide which ones are worthy of your time?
Why not read what mystery writers read? Yes, even writers who write mysteries are constantly honing their craft, learning from the best in the field. New stars are constantly emerging—Michael Connelly, Jeffrey Deaver, Sue Grafton—yet the masters from the past still have a lot to teach would-be writers and provide a better than average read for mystery fans.
At a recent meeting of the Mystery Writers of America’s New York Chapter, Barry T. Zeman, who has studied the genre with the expertise of an historian, selected seven mysteries every mystery writer must read. Of course writers are reading these books—multiple times in some cases—to learn about plotting, character development, setting the scene, and creating suspense. And every writer hopes she will be the one to break new ground, to create a new sub-genre or deliver something never seen before that will be on everyone’s must read list.
As a reader, your needs are more basic. You just want to curl up with a good whodunit, try to decide whether the butler did it, and whether the murderer will outwit the book’s hero detective. Zeman’s list is interesting because all the books are classics and even the most avid mystery read may have overlooked them or, at least, not read them in many years.
So here are the mysteries that are on every mystery writer’s list and should be on yours:
The Valley of Fear, Arthur Conan Doyle, 1914. Think terrorists are a recent invention? No way. This Sherlock Holme’s novel sends the famous detective and Dr. Watson to a country retreat where, in addition to finding the murderer, they work to uncover a terrorist cult. This is the last Holmes novel Doyle wrote and one of the best. You may have to start from the beginning (A Study in Scarlet) and continue.
The Innocence of Father Brown, G. K. Chesterton, 1911. This collection of short stories has been called most interesting because it features an unlikely detective, a priest who is able to outwit the most cunning criminals. If you enjoy short stories, this one is for you.
The Maltese Falcon, Dashiell Hammett, 1930. The best ever detective novel, hands down, made into a memorable move with Humphrey Bogart. If you’ve seen the movie but never read the book, this is your chance. Hammett is a master and demonstrates his versatility with The Thin Man series, made into popular movies with William Powell and Myrna Loy.
Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier, 1938. This novel has it all—passion, suspense, and a story of psychological intrigue that unfolds slowly building tension with every page that is turned. The book has, perhaps, one of the best opening lines ever, “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” That estate is as much a character as the humans in the book.
The Daughter of Time, Josephine Tey, 1954. This historical mystery is interesting to writers because it is written in the third person subjunctive point of view. You will be more interested in the story of a wounded detective stuck in a hospital bed who travels back through time to solve a five hundred year-old mystery: did Richard III kill his two nephews and have them buried in the Tower of London in order to eliminate all possible contenders for the throne? Stick around for the conclusion.
The Long Goodbye, Raymond Chandler, 1954. No list would be complete without a Chandler mystery and this is one of his best. Featuring Chandler’s famous detective, Philip Marlowe, this novel won the 1955 Edgar Award, the Mystery Writer’s equivalent to the Oscars, and was also made into a Robert Altman movie. Chandler’s novels have first rate writing, deft plotting, and characters that grow on you with each book. Also try The Lady in the Lake.
In Cold Blood, Truman Capote, 1966. Capote spent six years working on this book which broke new ground as a work of true crime. After a quadruple murder in Kansas, Capote spent time interviewing the two men convicted of the crime. Writing the book took its toll on Capote and many criticized his sympathetic portrayal of the killers. Philip Seymour Hoffman won an Academy Award for his portrayal of Capote.
You may have other books you would like to add to his list: And Then There Were None, Agatha Christie, anything by Ruth Rendell, Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, and Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon, followed by The Silence of the Lambs. Every writer dreams of turning out a mystery that will not only zoom to the top of the best seller’s list but also stand the test of time. Who knows? You may not only enjoy these books, but be inspired to write one of your own. Elementary, indeed.