20 mysteries you must read before you die?

A link came round on Twitter recently to the writer John Connelly’s website, where he and Declan Hughes have posted a joint list of ’20 mysteries you must read before you die’.

This is it:


2. THE LONG GOODBYE-Raymond Chandler (1953)

3. THE CHILL-Ross Macdonald (1964)

4. DEEP WATER-Patricia Highsmith (1957)

5.THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE-George V.Higgins (1972)

6. THE TIN ROOF BLOWDOWN-James Lee Burke (2007)

7. THE LECTER TRILOGY-Thomas Harris.

8. STRANGER IN MY GRAVE-Margaret Millar (1960)


10. THE MURDER OF ROGER ACKROYD-Agatha Christie (1926)

11. THE NAME OF THE ROSE 1980) by Umberto Eco

12. MORALITY PLAY ( 1995) by Barry Unsworth

13. THE BLACK ECHO (1992) by Michael Connelly

14. THE CRYING OF LOT 49 (1966) by Thomas Pynchon

15. THE BIG BLOWDOWN (1999) by George Pelecanos

16. WHAT THE DEAD KNOW (2007) by Laura Lippman

17. HAWKSMOOR (1985)  by Peter Ackroyd

18. FAST ONE (1932) by Paul Cain

19. MIAMI BLUES (1984) by Charles Willeford

20. THE LAST GOOD KISS (1978) by James Crumley

A few observations:

  • Of the above, I’ve read a grand total of … five. And I consider myself to be a complete crime afficionado, with shelves groaning under the weight of hundreds of crime novels.
  • Does this mean that I’m horribly ignorant? Yes and no. Some of the books on the list I know I should have read (Patricia Highsmith, for example). On the other hand, there are some I’m sure I’ll never want to read, such as the Hannibal Lector trilogy. Cannibalism’s just not my thing. Which is another way of saying that crime fiction is so broad, with so many subgenres, that top 20 lists are bound to vary significantly. For example, I’m not spotting any ‘cat detective’ novels here, which will almost certainly feature on someone’s list.
  • I’d agree with the nomination of the five I’ve read for a top 20 (2, 10, 11, 14, 15). I’m pleased to see Agatha Christie included, as she seems to have fallen out of fashion recently. I still remember the first time I read Roger Ackroyd as a teenager – the twist was a complete and hugely enjoyable surprise. Eco’s The Name of the Rose – absolutely. Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 – a little gem and very underrated. Pelecanos’ The Big Blowdown…blew me away.
  • But – I’d have had more foreign-language fiction. And only four women? Surely there must be more out there that merit inclusion?

So there’s only one thing for it, obviously – I’ll need to draw up a top 20 of my own. Already mulling on it and will report back in due course. Thanks to John and Declan for getting me thinking. Their list is here, and is well worth a look: each text has a little explanation of why it was chosen, and there are also some useful recommendations for further reading.

By the way, this one will definitely be on Mrs. Peabody’s list:


9 thoughts on “20 mysteries you must read before you die?

  1. Well, I consider myself fairly well read in the genre and I’ve only read Roger Ackroyd and The Black Echo. I’d question the title “20 greatest mysteries” though. The Black Echo, while featuring some surprises, I’d class more as a thriller – don’t get me wrong, it’s a good book, but I wouldn’t class it as a mystery. Haven’t read the Hannibal stories, but can’t imagine there’s much mystery there either.

    Maybe I’m just a crusty Golden Ager, but the omission of The Hollow Man by John Dickson Carr is pretty glaring.

    • Hmmm – I wonder how many the average crime fan would have read? There’s quite a wide timespan in terms of publication dates, and maybe that’s the problem – you and I tend to focus on narrower periods of crime? Just looking for consoling theories to explain why we’ve read so few…

      Yes, I agree that it’s a pretty broad application of the term ‘mystery’ – lots of stuff there that probably belongs in other categories.

      Will have to add The Hollow Man to my reading list, which is growing longer by the minute!

  2. I would agree with most of the titles on the list (the only one I haven’t read is the Lippman so I must track it down) but the inclusion and approval of the Pynchon really stunned me as I never, ever considered it to be classifiable as a work that would be included in the genre. But the absence of such giants as Wilkie Collins, Ellery Queen, Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine and Dorothy l. Sayers seem truly inexplicable – and Carr’s THE HOLLOW MAN would come very near the top of my list too frankly. And if somewhat left-field choices such as Pynchon are to be included, then why not Ambler, Deighton and Le Carre from amongst some of the espionage greats – in this context the omission of Grahame Greene seems particularly egregious to me. Great blog Mrs P – you and puzzledoctor and inspired me to create my own – thanks!

  3. Thanks for your comments, cavershamragu. I think you actually point up a fundamental problem with these top 20 lists, which is that there’s simply not enough room for all the best examples of the genre. Perhaps a top 50 would be more realistic and more inclusive.

    Pynchon’s Crying of Lot 49: I had a little twitter debate with Maclehose Press on exactly the same subject. MP too would never have considered it a crime novel. But I was glad to see it there as an example of ‘high literature’ that draws on elements of crime fiction (Oedipa Maas spends the whole novel in detective mode following up signs and symbols that appear to be connected to the mystery of the Inverarity estate … but which may actually not be – a kind of existential crime novel?). Pynchon does the same in Gravity’s Rainbow and V (and spookily, I wrote a dissertation at university precisely on the topic of Pynchon’s use and subversion of detective novel conventions – how weird is that!).

    Another example of a high literature / crime crossover might be Guenter Grass’s The Tin Drum, which is narrated by a self-confessed murderer. I’ve always been interested in this kind of hybrid text, and wonder if it’s the way fiction is presented to us that determines how we see it to a large extent. The Tin Drum is marketed as ‘high culture’ (it’s rightly viewed as one of the greats of German literature), which somehow precludes viewing it as an example of off-beat crime fiction.

    *Respect* for having read all but one on the list – track down the Lippman straight away so that you have a full house! Thanks for the positive feedback on the blog, and hope you enjoy your own – look forward to your posts!

  4. That Pynchon dissertation sounds fascinating! I must admit, I also had never consideres THE TIN DRUM in that light and Pynchon does seem to have more closely to the crime genre with his most recent novel. I agree completely that the idea of genre seems inherently limiting and yet remains such a useful tool that one doesn’t want to dowith out it. Graham Greene and Paul Auster produce very different kinds of books but they clearly engage with the genre and have written ‘entertainment’ as purer examples of it. THE GLASS KEY and THE LONG GOOD-BYE are a great novel after all, irrespective of what genre one wishes to attach them to and they hardly fall out of it because they they seem to have so little to do with the cozier works of Christie or Simon Brett.

    And thanks for the encouraging words!

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