Top Ten Classic Mystery Novels of All Time
Time-Honored Tales of Mystery: Which Was First?
What is a reasonable list of the ten most important mystery novels written within the last 3,000 years? Mystery stories really are quite old in origin.
Some sources state that the first mystery ever penned was Edgar Allen Poe's Murders in the Rue Morgue. This story is available around the world and in nearly every book shop in several languages.
Look in your attic—you may find a copy, or several copies of the Poe classic. Bela Lugosi starred as the mad scientist working with the great ape in this story adapted by Universal Films in the black-and-white era of horror and mystery classics.
Other sources insist that it was the murder mystery of Sophocles' Oedipus Rex in the 600s or 700s BC. I think this may be the one. It is ancient and the play is produced yearly by schools and professional community theater.
Other references point to the work of Wilke Collins: The Woman in White. Written in 1859 and published in 1869, its full text and summary of this lengthy creation are available online.
Magistrate Dee Goong An handles many interesting and mysterious cases in it. The novel was first translated into English by an 18th-century Dutch scholar-diplomat named Robert van Gulik, who was fluent in Chinese and well-traveled through China, traveling in the traditional costume of a Mandarin.
Finding no publisher for his translations of Dee, he wrote additional, original mysteries using the Magistrate as a character, and published them all.
I believe that there are still-older tales of mystery in all cultures of several thousands of years past. In the oral traditions of many such cultures, there are haunting, ghostly tales, and riddles. These likely formed longer mystery stories as they were handed down through the generations. Perhaps we will hear of them in the future as we enter into knowledge of ancient cultures more thoroughly all around the world. However, they are not recognized yet.
In 1995, the well known Mystery Writers Association of America chose a list of 100 titles as the "Top 100 Mysteries" for America. They are American and British novels. Their top 10 from the head of the list are interesting, but I would put the four listed above in a "Top 10 List of Time-Honored Tales of Mystery."
Top 10 Longest-Recognized Mystery Stories in America
These top 10 time-honored mystery stories have been recognized in America and some other parts of the world for centuries (at least 2 centuries in the newer cases). Many are English language in the original, with some originating in other languages.
It is interesting that the honored profession of the police and private detective likely began in France just after 1900, followed by England with Scotland Yard in 1829. After this, authors began to write down mystery stories more frequently and published them. Edgar Allen Poe was likely the first in America to do so, in1841.
- Oedipus Rex, written by Sophocles in Ancient Greece.
- Murders in the Rue Morgue (1841) and all of Tales of Mystery and Imagination, the collection of mystery horror by Edgar Allen Poe in America.
- The Woman in White (1859) by Wilkie Collins in England.
- The Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee, written in Chinese in the 1700s and translated, with original English-language stories added.
- The Complete Sherlock Holmes (written in the 19th and 20th centuries) by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle of the UK, with all of the Holmes and Watson stories, especially The Hound of the Baskervilles. Of the pastiche novels based on these characters, two or three collections are also superb, including one written by a man from the old radio tapes and the scripts used by Basil Rathbone as Holmes. The author had listened to those very radio shows as a young boy.
- The Maltese Falcon, written by Dashiell Hammett in America. The film starred Humphrey Bogart, with Peter Lore in a humorous role and the film is still very entertaining as well as mysterious. This book and film are famous all over the world.
- The Birds by Daphne Du Maurier, England. Set in WWII, birds systematically attack people all through Europe during the war. Made into film by the famous mystery producer Alfred Hitchcock, The Birds is a horror mystery classic in many countries.
- Laura by Vera Caspary in the publication America. Caspary was active in the Anti-Nazi group The League fo American Writers. A police detective investigates the murder of a newspaperwoman and falls asleep under her portrait in her home. He awakens to find her standing there before him. The film version co-starred mystery pro Vincent Price.
- The Mystery of Edwin Drood by Charles Dickens, 1870; England. A young man, Edwin Drood, is an orphan that grows up, becomes an engineer and plans to marry. The wedding is called off and he plans to go hiking, but disappears and is found murdered.
- The Mystery in the Yellow Room (1907) and The Phantom of the Opera (1911) by Gaston LeRoux in France. Both were made into successful films.
Other Famous Mysteries
- Emile Gaboriau's The Widow Lerouge (1866, France), featuring detective Monsier LeCoq.
- The Case of the Crooked Candle, by American Erle Stanley Garder in the early decades of 1900s, who helped establish forensics and criminology as useful applied sciences. This book has been recognized by many associations for its scientific and mathematical applications. Part of the Perry Mason series of mystery stories, it is one of a body of literature translated into dozens of language, with three TV series and films.
- Sir John Creasy's early 20th century mystery adventure series of The Toff. A rich young man, Richard Rollison, and his trusted valet Jolly use their brains and resources to help Scotland Yard and the London communities.
- The Old Man in the Corner (turn of the 20th century) by Baroness Emmuska Orczy, England. This detective solved mysteries from a corner of a London tea shop, like Holmes in his apartment. Orczy wrote The Scarlet Pimpernel as well.
- The Ellery Queen Series and magazine of the same name—Begun in 1929 by Americans using pen names of Frederic Dannay and Manfred Bennington Lee. Famous stories around the world.
- The Charlie Chan Series, the famous stories by Earl Derrs Biggers. Also made into film.
Mystery Writer's Association of America
From the Top 100 List, these additional titles are more long-standing than others named, with translations from English to many other languages worldwide.
- The Daughter of Time, Josephine Tey
- Presumed Innocent, Scott Turow
- The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, John le Carr
- The Moonstone, Wilkie Collins
- The Big Sleep, Raymond Chandler
- Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier
- And Then There Were None, Agatha Christie
- Anatomy of a Murder, Robert Traver
- The Long Goodbye, Raymond Chandler
- The Postman Always Rings Twice, James M. Cain
- The Silence of the Lambs, Thomas Harris
- Witness for the Prosecution, Agatha Christie
- The Day of the Jackal, Frederick Forsyth
- Farewell, My Lovely, Raymond Chandler
- The Thirty-Nine Steps, John Buchan
- The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco
- Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoevski
- Eye of the Needle, Ken Follett
- Rumpole of the Bailey, John Mortimer
- The Thin Man, Dashiell Hammett
- Trent’s Last Case, EC Bentley
- Double Indemnity, James M. Cain
- The Circular Staircase, Mary Roberts Rinehart
- Murder on the Orient Express, Agatha Christie
- The Third Man, Graham Greene
- In Cold Blood, Truman Capote
- To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee
- Dracula, Bram Stoker
- Little Caesar, W.R. Burnett
- The Secret Agent, Joseph Conrad
Questions & Answers
© 2008 Patty Inglish MS