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Top 10 Classic Mystery Novels of All Time

Ms. Inglish has been a professional writer and critic of films, books, music and theater for over 20 years.

It was a dark and stormy night . . .

It was a dark and stormy night . . .

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) 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 theaters.

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.

Timeless Classics

Still others maintain that it is The Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee, from the Tang Dynasty of China.

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 learn more of ancient cultures 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.

  1. Oedipus Rex, written by Sophocles in Ancient Greece.
  2. 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.
  3. The Woman in White (1859) by Wilkie Collins in England.
  4. The Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee, written in Chinese in the 1700s and translated, with original English-language stories added.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. The Birds by Daphne Du Maurier, England. Set in WWII, birds systematically attack people all through Europe during the war. Made into a film by Alfred Hitchcock, The Birds is a horror mystery classic in many countries.
  8. Laura by Vera Caspary in the publication America. Caspary was active in the Anti-Nazi group The League of 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 Vincent Price.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.
Floor Plan: The Mystery of the Yellow Room

Floor Plan: The Mystery of the Yellow Room

Other Famous Mysteries

  • Emile Gaboriau's The Widow Lerouge (1866, France), featuring detective Monsieur LeCoq.
  • The Case of the Crooked Candle, by American Erle Stanley Garder in the early decades of the 1900s, 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 languages, 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—Began in 1929 by Americans using the 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 a film.
"The Case of the Crooked Candle"

"The Case of the Crooked Candle"

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

© 2008 Patty Inglish MS


Patty Inglish MS (author) from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation on March 25, 2015:

Mysteries are fun and thought provoking, if written well. I know an author that writes new Sherlock Holmes novels and those are very good - Stephen Seitz. A new line of Hercule Poirot books has begun and Poirot is not quite the same, but interesting.

UndercoverAgent19 on March 25, 2015:

This is quite a comprehensive list. I am not well-read in the mystery genre, and your hub gave me several great titles to start with. I was very surprised that Oedipus Rex is considered one of the earliest examples of murder mysteries in literature. Thanks so much for sharing your knowledge!

Patty Inglish MS (author) from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation on March 21, 2015:

Hi aesta1! I think that mysteries and sci-fi are my favorite genres and sometimes they can be combined. I like mystery in historical pieces as well. The Case of the Crooked Candle and the Judge Dee mysteries are pretty good.

Mary Norton from Ontario, Canada on March 21, 2015:

I like mystery so This list is really useful to me when I choose my next read. I like reading mystery in between some of the heavy history I read.

Patty Inglish MS (author) from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation on January 14, 2015:

Mystery and science fiction are my favorites. Hope you like the books you find and read from this list.

Ethan Digby-New on January 14, 2015:

Great list, it was very informative. Mysteries are some of my favorite books, so I'll make sure to check some of these out.

Patty Inglish MS (author) from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation on June 12, 2011:

Thanks! Mysteries are a favorite of mine. Glad you like them too.

FloraBreenRobison on June 12, 2011:

Hi, Patty.

I've read about half of the top ten longest mysteries, and about three quarters of the earlier mysteries you've added onto the Top 100 mysteries from the Mystery Writers Association of America. I love this hub.

Mohan Kumar from UK on December 03, 2010:

Excellent hub, as a lover of mysteries I fully appreciate the listings and the history of the msytery novel. Well compiled and useful.

DLSavage on November 18, 2010:

A great list. I've read several on it. I had gotten away from reading mysteries, having just recently returned to the genre. Thanks for taking the time to do this list.

Huntgoddess from Midwest U.S.A. on September 20, 2010:

Wow, awesome hub. Thanks for this great info/anthology.

stars439 from Louisiana, The Magnolia and Pelican State. on September 01, 2010:

Interesting hub. Thank You.

Patty Inglish MS (author) from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation on August 04, 2010:

I've been reading the Poirot novels during the last couple of years and have grown to like them very much, but also like Margery Allingham's Campion, Allingham being Christie's favorite mystery writer. "Ackroyd" is indeed very good.

"Thursday" reminds me a bit of The Shadow of Reichenbach Falls by JR King; for its supernatural/thriller/mystery content.

oldbooklover on August 04, 2010:

Thanks for all this great information. I love old mysteries.

If I could I would add an Agatha Christie to the Top 100, probably 'The Murder of Roger Ackroyd'. She popularized the genre and shamelessly adapted fragments of Sherlock Holmes and Father Brown. I feel sure she had fun writing her mysteries.

I'd like to add G K Chesterton too, for his wonderfully colorful descriptions. Is 'The Man Who was Thursday: A Nightmare' a mystery in your use of the word?

Sweet Chococarrie from My Heart To Yours on May 13, 2010:

i always love the OEDIPUS REX, thank you for featuring this very beautiful hub, i just love it !!!!

kaja_mel from Saraland, AL on May 03, 2010:

Reading is my favorite past time. I really ejoyed this hub. Thanks.

Rosa Berger on November 17, 2009:

thanks for the list. I have put some of those on my reading list in the hope to find the time to read those in the near future. Somehow, murder mysteries continue to fascinate me, although I have already so many of them.

I hope the Alafair Tucker mysteries will eventually enjoy the list. They combine history and mystery and are an easy way to learn about Oklahoma.

Patty Inglish MS (author) from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation on October 24, 2008:

Hi lakeerieartists! - I really enjoy art and Lake Erie and need to visit Cleveland again soon. Thanks so much for reading and enjoying this article. reading every day is part of my life :)

Paula Atwell from Cleveland, OH on October 23, 2008:

Excellent hub!

Patty Inglish MS (author) from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation on October 18, 2008:

The Birds is one that I will never forget, either - terrified us when we saw it during lunchtime at the junior high years ago. I am so glad you enjoyed this Hub!

Susan Kaul from Michiagn, USA on October 17, 2008:

Very interesting hub, filled with information. I loved the original ending to The Birds. My favorite movie of all time. Excellent.