As year-end approaches, best 10 lists are showing up everywhere. So I am humbly offering mine, but I’m not restricting myself to 2009. Below are my ten favorite -- not best, favorite -- mysteries of all time. One caveat: I have not included any books published in the last decade. To get on my favorite list a novel has to age like a good cabernet. Feel free to comment with or without insults aimed at my taste and intelligence. The books are listed in chronological order. They are all still in print. Happy holidays!
The Maltese Falcon, Dashiell Hammett, 1930: The ur-text of all modern detective fiction. Sam Spade, the main character, might appear to have questionable ethics, but when it comes to justice, he always does the right thing. I’ve heard the story that John Huston got a first draft of his movie screenplay by having his secretary type all the dialogue out of the book while he went out drinking.
Murder Must Advertise, Dorothy Sayers, 1933: What a romp! A duke’s younger brother, always ready with a quip, infiltrates an ad agency – under the alias of Death Bredon! – to find a murderer. Sayers knew her way around interwar advertising. Funnily enough, Sayers herself disliked the novel.
Farewell, My Lovely, Raymond Chandler, 1940: Others will chose The Big Sleep or The Long Goodbye, but for me this is the one where Chandler hit his stride. The characters of Moose Malloy (“He was a big man, but not much more than six feet five inches tall and not wider than a beer truck.”) and Velma Valento (“A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window.”) were never bettered. And Philip Marlowe’s knowing cynicism infuses the book. (“I needed a drink, I needed a lot of life insurance, I needed a vacation, I needed a home in the country. What I had was a coat, a hat and a gun. I put them on and went out of the room.”)
The Drowning Pool, Ross Macdonald, 1950: Like Chandler, Macdonald hit his stride in the second book in a long-running series. Who better than Southern California’s Lew Archer to delve into a rich family’s secrets and found how they lead to murder?
Time and Again, Jack Finney, 1970: Simon Morley has a mystery to solve in 1882 New York City. One problem: he lives in 1969. How he gets there and what he finds out is compelling reading. The best book ever for Manhattan-philes.
Briarpatch, Ross Thomas, 1984: I myself write books about ordinary people thrown into extraordinary circumstances. There’s no better example of the genre than this one. Benjamin Dill is just a dull guy until he gets the call that his homicide detective sister is murdered. Tracking down what happens changes him profoundly in a way that even scares the woman who loves him.
Devil in a Blue Dress, Walter Mosley, 1990: I’m not sure anyone has ever recreated a place long gone better than Mosley in this book. You feel you’re right there with Easy Rawlins in post-war African-American LA.
Booked to Die, John Dunning, 1992: How can you go wrong with a hero who’s both a book collector and a cop? There's a murder and a beautiful widow. The ending haunts me still.
The Beekeeper's Apprentice, Laurie King, 1994: What if a 15-year old girl ran into the retired Sherlock Holmes beekeeping on the Sussex Downs? What if she were his intellectual equal? A tour de force.
River of Darkness, Rennie Airth, 1999: I’m no fan of serial killer mysteries, but this one about a psychopath and the quiet, decent cop who tracks him down is about as good as it gets. Airth brings the violence of the World War I battlefield home to a quiet English village.
A version of this posting also appeared on the Inkspot blog.