The 10 Best Mystery Books
This wiki has been updated 22 times since it was first published in March of 2018. Most people are familiar with Sherlock Holmes, but it's a special breed who likes nothing better than to curl up with a worn paperback and spend a few hundred pages guessing who the killer might be as a quirky detective pieces together clues. These mystery books are for those who enjoy multiple twists, turns, and false reveals on the way to a shocking climax you never saw coming. When users buy our independently chosen editorial choices, we may earn commissions to help fund the Wiki. If you'd like to contribute your own research to the Wiki, please get started by reviewing this introductory video.
April 25, 2019:
Added Liane Moriarty's "Big Little Lies" due in part to the massive response to the TV series, but the book is every bit the show's equal. Removed Agatha Christie's "Crooked House" as a result; it's certainly a classic, but also one that fans of the genre are likely familiar with by this point.
Many readers have complained that Brad Meltzer's "The Escape Artist" strains credulity in places, so while it's an engaging tale, we included Teresa Driscoll's "I Am Watching You" instead. It's much more grounded in reality, while still being incredibly satisfying.
There are several selections here, such as J.D. Robb's "Brotherhood in Death," that are installments in larger series. Readers who have followed those series from the beginning will obviously get more out of these books than those starting fresh, but they're nevertheless easy for newbies to lose themselves in without being up-to-date on all the backstory.
Mystery Writers For Today's Readers
Although she passed away in 2017, her Kinsey Millhone Alphabet Series, introduced in 1982, remains popular to this day.
Authors have a rich tradition to draw on when it comes to the art of mystery writing, stretching all the way back to what is generally accepted to be the first true mystery story, "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," by Edgar Allan Poe, published in 1841. Contemporary writers pay homage to this tradition while reinventing the genre to keep readers returning for tale after tale. If you're a reader who's interested in trying a great mystery story, there are a few names we think you should know.
First, Sue Grafton. Although she passed away in 2017, her Kinsey Millhone Alphabet Series, introduced in 1982, remains popular to this day. Starting with "A" is for Alibi, the series follows private detective Millhone, a tough female investigator in a genre traditionally populated by male leads. Grafton published 25 total volumes in the series, ending with "Y" is for Yesterday. Her death means that Z will go unwritten, as her family has indicated that they will not hire a ghostwriter.
Next up: James Patterson – if you've ever been in an airport bookshop, you're probably familiar with the name. Known for his wildly popular Alex Cross Series, he's far from a one-trick pony, as he's penned non-fiction, romance, and even children's books. In fact, he was the top-earning author in the U.S. in 2018 and has spent ample time on best-seller lists — not to mention all the awards he's won.
And then there's Melinda Leigh, who started out in banking, but began writing after she had children. A relative newcomer first published in 2011, she's perhaps most famous for her Morgan Dane Series, which deftly captures a family dynamic rather than the typical lone wolf of many hard-boiled detective novels. Fans also love the Midnight Novels, the She Can Series, and the Rogue Novellas, the latter of which is coauthored with Kendra Elliot.
Finally, a word about Stephen King. He's the undisputed current king of horror, but he has "dabbled" in the realm of mystery, thriller, and suspense from time to time. The most famous of these works is probably his Mr. Mercedes Series, which follows retired detective Bill Hodges and keeps the reader furiously turning pages until the end.
Just as there is no shortage of amazing authors, there are plenty of subgenres within mystery, too. Some readers love them all, while others are choosier, and you'll probably need to read books from each to determine which is your favorite.
But not all mystery is so down-to-earth, as the supernatural subgenre proves, since the nefarious element is usually not of this world.
For most readers, it's likely Sherlock Holmes who springs to mind when thinking of mystery books. Stories featuring Holmes belong in the "classic detective" or "old-fashioned detective" category, but don't let these names fool you into thinking these stories must be outmoded. A recent example comes from the Cormoran Strike Series by J. K. Rowling (writing as Robert Galbraith), which is set in modern London.
Another popular subgenre is the inverted or "howdunit." Here, it's not so much who gets caught, because the reader already knows the identity of the criminal from the outset. Rather, it's how they are nabbed that makes up the bulk of the story. You can give this genre a try by picking up The Secret History by Donna Tartt or by watching some Law & Order, which frequently uses this format.
But not all mystery is so down-to-earth, as the supernatural subgenre proves, since the nefarious element is usually not of this world. If you loved True Blood, then this subgenre may be for you. In fact, you might try the series upon which the show is based, The Southern Vampire Mysteries by Charlaine Harris.
For something lighter, there's the category of "furry sleuth." No, it's not about hirsute gumshoes, but animals, who are thrust into the spotlight as crime solvers. Many will be familiar with this type of story from The Cat Who Series from Lilian Jackson Braun. Although this does indeed have a human investigator, his cats play a large role in the story and in solving each mystery.
Why Do We Love Mystery?
A good mystery book can sell millions of copies, which has led some readers to wonder — why? What is it about mystery stories that drive their seemingly unending popularity? The answer is somewhat enigmatic, as are many things related to personal tastes, but there are a few factors that can help explain the appeal.
Finally, don't discount what may be simplest reason of all: pure escapism.
A big one is the human love of solving puzzles. Think about the popularity of game shows, sudoku, and the Rubik's cube. People love to be perplexed and enjoy the payoff of resolving that perplexity, and a well written mystery book helps you tap into the thrill and joy of problem solving, as you attempt to solve the whodunit. This enjoyment may even be wired in, as humans have always needed to find and understand patterns in the world around them to survive.
There's also the way that a mystery novel lets you explore the unsavory parts of society and human nature in a way that's safe. From the security of your couch, you can traverse the fascinating yet frightening world of sketchy motives, greed, misplaced trust, deception, and so much more. And, because the good guy usually catches the bad guy and brings him or her to justice, there's a payoff that can be psychologically fulfilling.
And speaking of bad and good guys, mystery novels often feature strong protagonists and antagonists who are somehow both relatable and entirely outside our experiences. Holmes, for example, is single-minded and intense in ways we're familiar with, but he has a quality of brilliance that most of us don't encounter in our day-to-day lives.
Finally, don't discount what may be simplest reason of all: pure escapism. Bored on a rainy afternoon? Jump into a mystery and follow investigators and criminals as they chase each other around the world. Such a diversion is approachable, unlike some highbrow literature (Ulysses, anyone?), and will take you out of your surroundings from cover to cover.