Classic Mystery Books

There are many classic mystery books to choose from that continue to fascinate readers today. Some don’t age as well as others – particularly where racism and bigotry are concerned – and yet others are spoken of fondly and re-read time and time again.

These are the books that pass from generation to generation, yellowing pages curling at the corners, spines cracked and cover artwork fading, or reprinted by publishers in the knowledge that these mysteries will appeal to new readers and continue to sell hundreds of copies, if not thousands, every year.

I have a few of those faded and well-thumbed mystery books on my shelves, so I thought I’d share some of my favourite classic mystery reads with you here.

Agatha Christie, And Then There Were None

(pub date: 1939)

From the publisher:

Ten strangers, apparently with little in common, are lured to an island mansion off the coast of Devon by a mysterious host.

They sit down for dinner and a record begins to play. The voice of their host accuses each person of hiding a guilty secret. By the end of the night one of them will be dead.

Stranded by a violent storm, they begin to die – one by one.

Each of them is guilty. But who is the killer?

Rachel’s thoughts:

Despite being set on a remote island, Christie’s classic is regarded as one of the best locked room mysteries of all time – and I’m not going to dispute that.

With chilling suspense, Christie dispatches each character in a methodical and ingenious way while the survivors first panic and then become more and more paranoid with each murder.

And Then There Were None is a study in how to write a masterpiece while remaining one of the best page-turning mystery reads for fans of the genre.

Highly recommended.

John Gardner, The Dancing Dodo

(pub date 1978)

From the publisher:

June, 1976.

The wreckage of World War Two plane The Dancing Dodo is found in remote British marshland.

Inside are the remains of six bodies.

When Wing Commander David Dobson is called in to investigate, he thinks it will just be a routine case, with some dull paperwork to complete.

But things soon start to take a sinister turn when it emerges there is no record of the Dodo having gone missing - and the men apparently identified inside are all still alive.

Dobson teams up with Colonel Bud Hackstead, the American officer in charge of the investigation, yet things only get more baffling.

Just what was Dodo’s original mission?

Why are the bodies it has hidden for so many years not who they say they are?

Why do so many people Dobson and Hackstead talk to end up dead?

When Dobson’s search for answers starts to turn up top secret letters from The Third Reich, he begins to suspect the mystery runs much deeper than he originally suspected...

Is The Dancing Dodo Hitler’s final weapon?

Rachel’s thoughts:

This is a book that lived on my parents’ bookshelf when I was growing up, and one that my dad and I both re-read every few years.

I’m including The Dancing Dodo in my Classic Mystery Reads list because although it’s not as old as the others, it’s still over 40 years old and so – by classic car standards here in the UK – it fits right in here 🙂

The opening scene where a group of schoolboys discover the half-buried shattered cockpit of the WWII Marauder in the Kentish marshes is reminiscent of Dickens’ Great Expectations, the same bleak and foreboding atmosphere gripping the reader from the first page.

As Dobson’s investigation gets closer to the truth, he realises that someone will do anything to stop him.

The Dancing Dodo is a chilling mystery, the narrative pulling you in while slowly revealing the shocking secrets behind a deadly mission.

Highly recommended.

Daphne du Maurier, Rebecca

(pub date: 1938)

From the publisher:

'Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again . . .'

Working as a lady's companion, our heroine's outlook is bleak until, on a trip to the south of France, she meets a handsome widower whose proposal takes her by surprise.

She accepts but, whisked from glamorous Monte Carlo to brooding Manderley, the new Mrs de Winter finds Max a changed man.

And the memory of his dead wife Rebecca is for ever kept alive by the forbidding housekeeper Mrs Danvers . . .

Rachel’s thoughts:

Often compared with the gothic undertones of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, du Maurier’s Rebecca is a novel that, once read, is never forgotten.

As the (unnamed) protagonist settles in at her new husband’s stately home as the second Mrs de Winter she begins to uncover irregularities within his life and that of the previous incumbent.

Delving deeper into his past, her dreams of a happy marriage are gradually chipped away until the shocking denouement in the final pages.

Atmospheric, chilling, and utterly addictive, Rebecca is a classic mystery to get lost in and highly recommended.

Highly recommended.

PD James, An Unsuitable Job for a Woman

(pub date: 1972)

From the publisher:

Meet Cordelia Gray: twenty-two, tough, intelligent and now sole inheritor of the Pryde Detective Agency.

Her first assignment finds her hired by Sir Ronald Callender to investigate the death of his son Mark, a young Cambridge student found hanged in mysterious circumstances.

Cordelia is required to delve into the hidden secrets of the Callender family and soon realises it is not a case of suicide, and that the truth is entirely more sinister.

Rachel’s thoughts:

Cordelia is a no-nonsense, practical woman whose life changes forever when she finds her employer dead and inherits his detective agency.

On the precipice of sinking under the considerable debt left with it, her fortune improves when a woman approaches her on behalf of a renowned microbiologist who wants to find out if his son was murdered.

What follows is a classic PI story, with the 1970s Cambridge setting a light touch that adds to the charm of this classic murder mystery novel.

Yes, the ending is contrived and although parts of this mystery book haven’t aged well, the overall story of An Unsuitable Job for a Woman make for an easy read, and James’s turn of phrase is as sharp and witty as ever.

Highly recommended.

Josephine Tey, The Daughter of Time

(pub date: 1951)

From the publisher:

Richard III reigned for only two years, and for centuries he was villified as the hunch-backed wicked uncle, murderer of the princes in the Tower.

Josephine Tey's novel The Daughter of Time is an investigation into the real facts behind the last Plantagenet king's reign, and an attempt to right what many believe to be the terrible injustice done to him by the Tudor dynasty.

Inspector Alan Grant of Scotland Yard, recuperating from a broken leg, becomes fascinated with a contemporary portrait of Richard III that bears no resemblance to the Wicked Uncle of history.

Could such a sensitive, noble face actually belong to one of the world's most heinous villains - a venomous hunchback who may have killed his brother's children to make his crown secure? Or could Richard have been the victim, turned into a monster by the Tudors?

Grant determines to find out once and for all, with the help of the British Museum and an American scholar, what kind of man Richard III really was and who killed the Princes in the Tower.

Rachel’s thoughts:

I grew up with this book on my parents’ bookshelves, alongside The Dancing Dodo mentioned elsewhere here, and it is a popular choice amongst mystery fiction fans.

When a bedridden detective is challenged to solve a historical mystery, he finds himself intrigued by a painting of Richard III – the notorious king who was accused of killing his two nephews in the Tower of London.

For the painting doesn’t depict a murderer to Inspector Alan Grant’s practiced eye.

Grant’s analytical mind is soon intrigued by the evidence to hand, which consists of plays, novels, and non-fiction academical books. As he tries to glean the truth from the pages, it soon transpires that much of the material he reads is based on hearsay, something that as a detective he abhors.

When Grant realises that Sir Thomas More’s account of the alleged murder was written several decades after the princes’ murders, and at the request of Henry VII – possibly to tarnish Richard III’s reputation once and for all and consign him to the history books as a killer – Grant’s interest is piqued further.

Grant wants the truth and enlists the help of a young American academic researcher from the British Museum, Brent Carradine to do the “leg-work” normally assigned to a junior detective in a murder investigation.

What follows is an intriguing cold case mystery – one that will have you turning the pages into the late hours.

Highly recommended.

Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose

(pub date: 1980)

From the publisher:

The year is 1327. Franciscans in a wealthy Italian abbey are suspected of heresy, and Brother William of Baskerville arrives to investigate. When his delicate mission is suddenly overshadowed by seven bizarre deaths, Brother William turns detective.

William collects evidence, deciphers secret symbols and coded manuscripts, and digs into the eerie labyrinth of the abbey where extraordinary things are happening under the cover of night. A spectacular popular and critical success, The Name of the Rose is not only a narrative of a murder investigation but an astonishing chronicle of the Middle Ages.

Rachel’s thoughts:

Intelligent and twisty with a solid mystery at the heart of this story, The Name of the Rose was a book that transported me back to the Middle Ages in England and held me there until the last page.

The settings and dialogue are a masterpiece of fiction, and if you’re after a cracking mystery read while learning some history at the same time, I highly recommend this.

Highly recommended.