The best mystery books keep us guessing. They unfurl like infernal machines, devious in their internal logic. No magic or deus ex machina will send the plot off in an entirely unexpected direction. When the twist arrives, the best mystery books make us think back to the foreshadowing of ten chapters previously and think “I should have seen that coming!”
The best mystery book readers sometimes do see it coming. If you love mystery novels, you may almost feel like a detective yourself, trying to stay one step ahead of the intrepid protagonist as he or she attempts to piece the puzzle together. If you beat them to the big reveal—good for you! The best mystery books, however, turn the tables on us and leave us floored by a reveal we never anticipated.
Ready to put your private investigator hat on and sharpen your skills of deductive reasoning? Here are our picks for the 18 best mystery books to read in 2020.
1- The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins
Collins invented the detective novel with The Moonstone, one of the best mystery books of all time, first published in 1868 as a serial in Charles Dickens’ magazine All the Year Round. As Bram Stoker would do with Dracula 30 years later, Collins makes excellent use of the epistolary technique—crafting a twisty narrative about a stolen diamond and the hunt for the perpetrator from the letters and diary entries of his fictitious characters.
A century before George R.R. Martin, this allowed Collins to unfurl the narrative from the perspective of multiple main characters. Even better, because they are characters in the story, they are all unreliable witnesses, with no omniscient narrator to dull the suspense with a unifying perspective.
The Moonstone has nothing but delights for lovers of Victorian literature—an heiress who inherits a stone that mirrors the period’s fascination with baubles like the Hope Diamond and the Koh-i-Noor. When the diamond goes missing at a drawing room party and detectives fail her, Rachel embarks on a year-long quest, with the help of her love interest Franklin, through the laudanum-high streets of nineteenth-century London.
2- The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett
Whereas The Moonstone lives in the minds and pens of its letter-writing main characters, Hammett uses the opposite technique in The Maltese Falcon—and, incredibly, it works just as well. We never get a glimpse of the interior thoughts of Sam Spade, Miles Archer, Effie Perine, and Miss Wonderlay.
Instead, Hammett holds us at arm’s length from his characters, with third-person narration throughout, never letting us into their interior life, never revealing a thought in their heads that isn’t spoken out loud. It’s creepy and alienating, creating a mystery not only in the outward circumstances of the detective story, but makes a mystery of each character—who are they? What are their motives? What are they capable of?
Hammett is, of course, one of the granddaddies of film noir with the 1941 movie adaptation of The Maltese Falcon, and that plays out on the page in the story of the private gumshoes who are approached by a mysterious femme fatale to track down a priceless artifact—the bejeweled “falcon” of the title. Spade finds himself in a race with a whole cast of dangerous characters on a scavenger hunt littered with red herrings and dead ends, cast in one of the best mystery books of all time.
3- Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
For lovers of gothic mystery, Rebecca is the go-to classic, one of the best mystery books in the gothic tradition. Published in 1938, it pulls out all the stops—a fish-out-of-water protagonist drawn into the life of a lonely widower in a rambling, decaying castle haunted by memories–and sinister forces keeping those memories alive.
The entire novel unfolds from the perspective of a naive woman, the paid companion of a wealthy American woman, who is never identified by name. Through her eyes, we see her fall in love with a wealthy, melancholy English widower and move into a house that is, well, like something out of a gothic mystery. We meet the creepy Mrs. Danvers, who gaslights the new wife and rhapsodizes about the deceased first wife, Rebecca.
There’s a costume ball, a recovered shipwreck, and emerging hints that Rebecca may not have been everything she was made out to be. It all unfurls before the unnamed narrator’s eyes as she realizes she has leapt into the deep end of a mystery with no life vest.
4- Killer’s Payoff by Ed McBain
Of the 55 books in McBain’s sprawling 87th Precinct series, Killer’s Payoff has to be the best in the series and one of the best murder mystery books. The sixth book in the series, it expands the role of tall, handsome dandy detective Cotton Hawes, who transferred from the upscale 30th Precinct to the much grittier central 87th Precinct of Isola, a metropolis that stands in as a very-lightly-fictionalized version of New York City.
In Killer’s Payoff, Hawes joins Detective Steve Carella, the street-smart and conscientious 87th Precinct gumshoe who acts as the series protagonist, as he investigates a mysterious drive-by shooting that recalls the gangland executions of the Prohibition era–but it’s the 1950s (Killer’s Payoff dropped in 1958) and all is not as it seems as Carella and Hawes narrow down this whodunit to an unlikely lineup of suspects—including a wealthy soda pop manufacturer, one of the victim’s hunting buddies, and a wealthy underground pinup queen.
5- The Deep Blue Good-by by John D. MacDonald
The Deep Blue Good-by was the first book in a 21-book series that introduced the mystery-reading world to “salvage consultant” and sometimes-private dick Travis McGee, who lives and works in Fort Lauderdale on a houseboat called the Busted Flush (he won her thanks to a great run of luck at poker). A war vet and a practitioner of Tai Chi, McGee is physically imposing and honorable, the perfect anchor for a swampy mystery.
Kicking off a trend of including a color in the title of the Travis McGee novels, The Deep Blue Good-By introduces us to McGee and launches us into a race with the psychotic war-vet-turned-murderer Junior Allen—a race to recover a treasure of gemstones smuggled back to the US after WWII.
6- The Detective by Roderick Thorp
After decades of noir sensationalism, Thorp set out to write an unsentimental detective story that cast the life of a P.I. as it “really was,” without the usual genre hoopla. He did it while weaving one of the twistiest and thorniest mystery stories of the era, involving a wrongful execution and a web of intrigue that upends everything the protagonist thought he understood about his life.
That protagonist, private investigator Joe Leland, is hired to investigate the death by suicide of a WWII vet, whose wife suspects foul play and who claims that her dead husband had mentioned Leland as a war acquaintance. Leland has no idea who the victim is, but the rabbit hole the investigation leads him down—one of marital infidelity and murder—will shake him to the core.
7- Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John le Carré
This Cold War classic has remained a staple of the detective genre since its 1974 publication, but has its roots in real life. KGB moles known as the Cambridge Five had been unmasked in Britain throughout the 1950s and ‘60s, and the threat of Soviet spies in their midst felt very real to the western world, especially to a former British intelligence officer like author le Carré.
The twisted, international story concerns George Smiley, a disgraced and retired former secret agent who gets pulled into the orbit of a former colleague suspected to have defected to the U.S.S.R., who is living in hiding and attempting to expose a real mole at the highest levels of British intelligence–if he can be trusted. It’s the one of the best mystery books set in the Cold War—no sensationalism, everyone a suspect, no one either trustworthy or heroic.
8- True Confessions by John Gregory Dunne
In True Confessions, Dunne cast a bleak retro-noir story in a 1977 book, inspired by the 1947 “Black Dahlia” incident, wherein a young woman was found brutally murdered in a park in Los Angeles in a case that was never solved.
As in the Black Dahlia case, True Confessions kicks off with the discovery of a young woman cut in two and left in a park. In Dunne’s book, the victim gets a much more inflammatory moniker—”The Virgin Tramp”—as well as an antiheroic pair of investigators in the Spellacy brothers.
One a crooked detective, the other a ladder-climbing priest, the Spellacy brothers are ciphers for the rough-and-tumble culture of post-War Irish Americans. They work in a seedy underbelly of racism, bigotry, and corruption where there is no real justice, even when a killer gets caught. It’s a rough read, but also one of the best murder mystery books every written.
9- Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco
One of the best-selling novels and best mystery books of all time, Eco’s debut sets a murder mystery in a 14th-century monastery. Like a better-written Da Vinci Code, Name of the Rose rewards big thought by weaving Biblical analysis, literary theory, and semiotics into its version of a monastic whodunit.
Visiting a monastery in northern Italy for a theological conference over the legitimacy of the Franciscan order, Benedictine monk William of Baskerville is roped into the role of detective when one of the monastery’s popular illuminators turns up murdered. An intrigue of disappearances, illicit sex, forbidden literature, and more murder unfurls before William, as he tracks down a conspiracy that may be linked to prophecies of the apocalypse and the coming of the Antichrist.
Lurid, surprising, and rich with subtext, it’s no wonder that a book about monks caught the global imagination and went down as one of the era’s best murder mystery books–considering it was this book.
10- The Secrets of Harry Bright by Joseph Wambaugh
A former LAPD detective, Wambaugh made his reputation writing sensationalist detective stories steeped in the hedonism, starstruck wonderland of Hollywood. As such, his novels are riddled with irony and populated by crazies as shocking for their naivete as for their casual, self-centered barbarism.
The plot concerns a mysterious murder discovered in Palm Springs, the LA suburb known for having been a playground of the stars in Hollywood’s golden age. Divorced homicide detective Sid Blackpool, plagued by bad dreams and reeling from the death of his teenaged son, must peel away layers of the mystery until it becomes clear that the evidence might point in the direction of a fellow officer as the killer in one of the most twisted and best murder mystery books.
11- Double Whammy by Carl Hiaasen
Double Whammy builds its unlikely premise on a PI hired by a champion bass fisherman to expose a rival bass fisherman as a cheat. The private dick, R.J. Decker, dutifully obliges, only to find himself drawn into a murder mystery where the victim may have been hired to undermine his investigation.
The plot twists and turns across the marshes of Florida, clashing Decker with a televangelist, a swamp hermit, and a glib reporter, on a trail that leads deep into the bigoted heart of Florida’s upper class.
12- The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris
The film adaptation of The Silence of the Lambs, which swept the 1991 Oscars and featured the classic Anthony Hopkins performance as Hannibal Lecter, casts a long shadow over the Thomas Harris novel. Grisly and tense, it was lauded as the first “horror film” to win the Best Picture Oscar. Its “horror” bona-fides are debatable, but it was definitely horrifying.
As the film fades into history for all but film buffs and horror aficionados, Harris’ book deserves a renaissance, especially if the twist ending isn’t spoiled by movie viewings. But The Silence of the Lambs is well worth the read, not only for the murder mystery at its heart but for its psychological interrogation of the protagonist, FBI cadet Clarice Starling, a woman with something to prove and a dark past. It’s also worth it for the introduction of “Hannibal the Cannibal” himself—not the story antagonist, but an adversarial diversion whose dialogue with Starling crackles with penetrating intensity.
13- A Morbid Taste for Bones by Ellis Peters
Set in 12th-century England and Wales, against the backdrop of pre-Reformation church ritual and herbology, A Morbid Taste for Bones is a feast for lovers of historical fiction set in the mists of the deep past. It’s also one of the best murder mystery books set in the past.
The central plot starts as a quest for a monastery to claim the bones of long-dead St. Winifred as relics to enhance the power and healing capabilities of the clerics.
Brother Cadfael is dispatched, with a sketchy company of monks, to the Welsh resting place of the saint, where they clash with the local burgess over their right to exhume the remains. Next thing you know, the burgess is murdered under strange circumstances, leaving the monks to sort through a whodunit before they can claim their sacred bones from a cloud of medieval scandal
14- Maximum Bob by Elmore Leonard
Funny and full of twists, Elmore Leonard centers this rolicking mystery around an indelible would-be victim that could just as easily be the villain—Judge Bob Gibbs, aka “Maximum Bob,” a Florida justice of the peace so named for his tendency to hand out maximum sentences.
When an attempt is made on the heavy-handed judge’s list, the problem facing probation officer Kathy Baker is not a lack of suspects, but a surplus of them. A lengthy cast of ex-con petty criminals would just love to see Maximum Bob put in his place, and as Maximum Bob throws his weight around as a petty tyrant and lecherous seducer, it’s hard to blame him.
15- The Drifter by Nicholas Petrie
Nicholas Petrie took the Iraq War era by storm with this explosive novel about the consequences and intrigues of men returning from a deadly foreign debacle. It’s also the first novel to star Petrie’s recurring protagonist Peter Ash, a veteran on the run from the demons of his foreign service, only to find those demons chasing him back home. Ash is stricken by a PTSD symptom he calls “white static”—a constant, claustrophobic anxiety that reflects the reported experience of many veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan.
Returned from war to live a remote life off the grid, Ash is summoned to investigate the suicide of one of his wartime comrades in arms, only to discover a duffel full of explosives and cash, and a mystery even thornier than the ones he left behind in the sand.
16- The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler
With The Big Sleep, Chandler introduced the world to Phillip Marlowe, a hard-boiled detective and noir staple across a series of books and films. In his inaugural outing, Marlowe is hired by a wealthy family to find a blackmailer. The trail leads Marlowe to an underground pornographic bookseller and the scene of a murder, kicking off a riot of double-crosses and exposes in one of the twistiest mystery novels of all time.
The title comes from a euphemism of death, on which, in Chandler’s rhapsodic prose, Marlowe muses in the final chapter of the book. It won’t be the last time Marlowe faces death.
17- The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey
Repeatedly voted one of the best mystery books of all time, The Daughter of Time offers an intriguing twist on the detective genre. A Scotland Yard inspector and his actress friend set out to investigate not a crime of the present, but a crime of the past—one of the most vexing crimes in England’s history, allegedly perpetrated by its most vexing king.
The protagonists attempt to solve the mystery of the “Princes in the Tower.” The two boys, rightful heirs to the British throne, disappeared under mysterious circumstances, paving the way for their uncle to become King Richard III, Shakespeare’s famous hunchback. A complicated figure, Richard III has nevertheless always been implicated in the disappearance of the princes, since the cunning king most directly benefited from it. As Inspector Grant and Marta Holland dig deeper, however, they come closer and closer to the lie at the heart of one of England’s greatest scandals.
18- And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie
And Then There Were None has stumbled down the generations with several repositionings due to an original title that reflected the casual racism of its day. But Christie’s 1939 mystery novel (which doesn’t feature her famous detective protagonist Hercule Poirot and rather acts as a standalone story) endures because it is one of the best mystery books of all time. It boasts a fascinating setup, including an unforgettable cast of characters and remote mansion setting that would inspire not only countless imitators, but also the board game Clue. It practically invented the popcorn shout “The butler! It was the butler who did it!” (Or was it …?)
The book kicks off with ten characters invited to a country chateau in Devon—including a war hero, a rich dandy, a pious spinster, a hired gun, a kindly doctor, a girl’s school teacher, and more. They are here at the invitation of Mr. and Mrs. U.N. Owen (get it), but the hosts are mysteriously a no-show … and then people start dropping dead. The dinner becomes a frantic episode, as the surviving guests struggle to identify the killer in their midst before he (or she?) finishes the job.
Ten Little Indians remains powerful for its claustrophobia, snappy dialogue, gloomy outlook, and startling epilogue—ending the book with a shocking confession.