The Classics of Crime

A brilliant detective. A baffling crime. The usual suspects. The timeless motives – love, money, revenge. Dark secrets, desperate opportunities. A thrilling dénouement. These are some of the typical ingredients of the best classic crime books, used by some of our greatest writers across the decades to create matchless stories of murder and misbehaviour, spiced with the supernatural, shaded with noir or sprinkled with the very blackest wit. Take your pick from the best classic crime fiction books below, and learn from the masters of crime.

Ten of the best classic crime books:

A Study in Scarlet by Arthur Conan Doyle
The godfather of great detectives, Sherlock Holmes has recently been Cumberbatched and digitized and is slicker than ever, but return to where it all began with this adventure. Doctor Watson meets Holmes for the first time and is quickly embroiled in a murder mystery that perplexes the police. Amazed by his new friend’s singular powers of observation and deduction, Watson decides to record Holmes’s exploits for posterity. And thank goodness he did.

The Murders in the Rue Morgue by Edgar Allan Poe
Long before the arrival of the capricious, inscrutable and uncommonly acute Sherlock Holmes, the dark Gothic mind of Edgar Allan Poe created C. Auguste Dupin, a man who roams the streets of Paris by night, applying his powerful rational mind to the most fiendish logic puzzles. This is the first ‘locked room’ mystery in our top ten; unlock the door to discover a grisly double-murder and the most surprising killer.

The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins
Tired of blood and gore and murderous intent? Feast your eyes on the moonstone, an incomparable diamond with a sad, strange history. When Rachel Verinder inherits the stone and wears it at her eighteenth birthday party, she sets in motion a series of misfortunes, misunderstandings and mysteries which threaten to divide her forever from the handsome Franklin Blake. Generally considered the first English detective story, this sweeping and romantic tale is perfect for long winter evenings.

The Red House Mystery by A.A. Milne
Most of us know A.A. Milne as the creator of the lovable Winnie the Pooh, but this one-off country house crime caper could have been written especially for fans of Gosford Park or Downtown Abbey. The black sheep of the family returns only to be found shot dead in a locked study. A pair of amateur detectives never rest (except for tea) in their efforts to find the truth, despite secret passageways and suspicious servants.

The Moving Toyshop by Edmund Crispin
A dead body is discovered in a toyshop at midnight, but by morning both the body and the toyshop have disappeared. This startling case could only be solved by the eccentric, irrepressible and utterly charming amateur detective Gervase Fen. If you like your mysteries light, irreverent and ingenious then this is for you.

Hercule Poirot’s Christmas by Agatha Christie
Most read, most adapted, most beloved – Agatha Christie wrote the rule book on classic crime. Her devoted admirers will argue over which detective (are you Team Marple or Team Poirot?) and which books are the best for hours, but this tale of an ingenious murder that very nearly baffles the little Belgian detective is perfect reading material for the festive season.

Watson’s Choice by Gladys Mitchell
In this witty and elaborate tale, Gladys Mitchell’s inimitable detective Mrs Bradley is invited to a country house party thrown by a Sherlock Holmes enthusiast, who insists his guests dress as characters from Conan Doyle’s stories. Unfortunately, very real tensions and secrets surge among the guests, and things are complicated further when the Hound of the Baskervilles shows up. Agatha Christie wasn’t the only queen of crime.

The Beast Must Die by Nicholas Blake
In The Beast Must Die, one of The Observer‘s ‘1000 novels everyone must read’, a crime writer plans to commit the perfect murder, but when his intended victim is found dead the writer insists he’s innocent and someone has beaten him to it. Is this an elaborate double bluff or has an innocent man been framed? One of those perfect crime books that keeps you guessing right to the end.

Laura by Vera Caspary
In the doorway of an elegant New York apartment, blood seeps over silk negligee, over polished wood floors and plush carpet: a beautiful young woman lies dead, her face disfigured by a single gun shot. Even if the silver screen adaptation of Laura was not feted as the first film noir, this gripping thriller would make our list for its hard boiled detective, its catty narrator, Waldo Lydecker, and the most perfect of dramatic plot twists.

Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith
Two desperate men with their minds on murder meet on a train and make a dreadful pact – they will swap victims. But when only one man follows through on the deal, the other is caught in a nightmarish game of psychological cat-and-mouse.

The Spy who Came in from the Cold by John le Carré
This is a dark cold war tale of bluffs and double bluffs that’ll make your head ache. As soon as you finish the book you’ll re-start it in order to figure out all the intricacies, and marvel at le Carré’s plotting all over again.

Which of your favourites would you add to this top 10 classic crime book list? Let us know in the comments below!

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2 Comments

  1. Cynthia E. Hurst says

    Two of my all-time favorites:
    Calamity Town (Ellery Queen) — A wealthy, well-respected family in a typical small New England town is torn apart when a guest is murdered at their New Year’s Eve party. I guarantee you can read this a dozen times and still be surprised when Queen reveals the killer.
    The Doorbell Rang (Rex Stout) — Nero Wolfe and legman Archie Goodwin take on the FBI at the behest of a client. The scene where Wolfe turns the tables on the FBI agents raiding his brownstone is priceless, especially considering this was written at a time when the FBI and J. Edgar Hoover were considered to be untouchable.

    • Debbie V. says

      I’ve never read anything by Ellery Queen – but Calamity Town sounds perfect for my 2018 list.