I’m a firm believer that there’s no right way to do anything—especially when it comes to mystery novels. Some authors create a ghostly ambiance that consumes readers with dread. Others weave a sophisticated web of characters and conspiracies that leaves the audience dumbfounded when the perpetrator is revealed. And then you have the warped minds, the Lars Von Trier’s of literature, who squeeze every ounce of graphic detail out of a murder scene. In my opinion, no style is preferable to another. And sometimes, you’ll stumble upon a mystery novel that fires on all cylinders. With that in mind, piecing together a definitive list of mystery novels that will blow your mind was not an easy task. You could quite literally fill a library with only mysteries—my choices were endless. However, I attempted to curate a collection of books based on three criteria.
Criterium 1: Unconventional Storytelling
First, I assessed whether the novel presented a unique take on the genre. Too many contributions to this genre follow a linear plotline that feels like “Law & Order,” and rarely make a deeper connection between the crime and humanity. I was interested in mystery novels that turned convention on its head through unique storytelling that contemplates society, morality, and other reflective topics.
Criterium 2: Impact on Modern Mysteries
Second, I looked for mystery novels that had an indelible impact on the genre today. I paid respect to a few of the classic mystery authors, such as Agatha Christie and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Had it not been for the Kings and Queens of mystery, the genre wouldn’t be what it is today.
Criterium 3: A Well-Rounded List
Finally, I wanted to ensure that the various approaches to writing a mystery novel (as mentioned above) were well-represented. This means intimate settings, complex narratives and disturbing portraits of violence. Without further adieu, here are 10 mystery novels that will blow your mind.
1. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson
If you’re anything like me—a reader with a strange appreciation for depraved storytelling—“The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” is the ultimate mystery novel. This is the first of Swedish author Stieg Larsson’s posthumously published series, “Millenium.” All three of Larsson’s novels, as well as the follow-up stories written by David Lagercrantz, combine family conspiracies with high-octane adventure.
The first edition of the “Millenium” series finds disgraced journalist Mikael Blomkvist working with an exotic yet brilliant private investigator, Lisbeth Salander. Together, the unique tag team is hired by Henrik Vanger, a billionaire industrialist, to investigate the disappearance of his niece many years ago. What they discover is a sick and twisted family saga that makes this one of the most disturbing mystery novels that will blow your mind.
2. Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
Mystery novels with dead bodies and red herrings are a dime a dozen. They merely scratch the surface and fail to uncover any connection to the human condition. But “Everything I Never Told You”, from the author of “Little Fires Everywhere,” is no ordinary mystery. In fact, Celeste Ng uses the death of Marylin and James Lee’s daughter, Lydia, to examine how family members struggle to understand one another.
Set in small-town Ohio during the 1970s, a Chinese-American family is torn apart when Lydia’s body is found floating in a local lake. As the truth surrounding her death is unveiled, it becomes abundantly clear that Lydia wasn’t the person her parents thought she was. In a tale of love, loss and family secrets, Celeste Ng confronts readers with a sobering reality—do we ever truly know the people we love?
3. And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie
I would be remiss not to include the late, great Agatha Christie in a conversation about mystery novels. In particular, her haunting masterpiece, “And Then There Were None.” My grandmother enjoyed reading Agatha Christie, so years after her death I decided to give this nailbiter a shot. Within the first chapter, it made complete sense to me why this mystery novel sold over 100 million copies.
“And Then There Were None” places eight strangers on an island off the coast of England. Each of them was invited to the island on false pretenses, and at the end of the first night, they listen to a recording that accuses each of them of a specific murder. As tensions mount and guests begin mysteriously dropping dead, Agatha Christie brings readers to the edge of their seats for an unforgettable literary experience. Christie’s masterpiece is without a doubt one of the most profound mystery novels that will blow your mind.
4. Anatomy of a Murder by Robert Traver
“Anatomy of a Murder” is best known for its big-screen adaptation starring Jimmy Stewart, which remains one of the greatest courtroom dramas to date. But, as suggested with most movies, you should definitely read the book first. Penned under the pseudonym Robert Traver, a prominent lawyer and Michigan Supreme Court Justice John D. Voelker drew from his own courtroom experience to create this staple in American literature.
The story follows Paul Biegler, a former district attorney who takes on a case defending an Army veteran accused of murder. Over the course of the tumultuous trial, Biegler dissects the murder in an attempt to get his client acquitted. Through heated dialogue and explosive epiphanies in the courtroom, “Anatomy of a Murder” has earned its reputation as one of the quintessential mystery novels.
5. The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
It would be downright offensive not to mention the poster boy of the mystery genre, Sherlock Holmes—as well as his ingenious creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. I’ve always been a major proponent of Sherlock Holmes because I love the character. He’s a chain-smoking drug user who’s entirely helpless without his accomplice, Dr. Watson, yet he’s a profound genius. Combine that dynamic with an unsolved case, and you’ve got some of the best mystery novels ever written.
The third edition of the Sherlock Holmes series, “The Hound of the Baskervilles,” is arguably Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s best novel. It finds Holmes and Watson investigating the murder of Sir Charles Baskervilles, which is feared to be the work of a supernatural hound that haunts the grounds of Baskerville Hall. After a sequence of bizarre events and frightening discoveries, the duo uncovers a tale of family, greed and deception.
6. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
Full disclosure, I experienced a twisted sense of pleasure watching Ben Affleck lose his grip on reality in the cinematic retelling of “Gone Girl.” However, the real magic—the epitome of suspense—is found between the pages of Gillian Flynn’s bestselling novel.
When Nick Dunne’s wife goes missing on the anniversary of their wedding, he becomes the prime suspect in her disappearance. Without revealing too much information, Nick becomes the center of a media frenzy that turns his life upside down. But, that’s nothing compared to the series of nefarious events that occur behind closed doors. In this compelling page-turner, Gillian Flynn depicts the ultimate sociopath and leaves readers in a suspended state of shock.
7. Case Histories by Kate Atkinson
The most talented authors can seamlessly weave multiple plotlines into one cohesive story. This is exactly what Kate Atkinson achieves in “Case Histories,” a 2005 novel that was touted as “the best mystery of the decade” by the one and only, Stephen King.
In the first edition of the Jackson Brodie series, a private investigator is on the trail of three separate family mysteries in Cambridge, England. The cases appear to be unconnected, but decades after the first crime Detective Brodie discovers troubling parallels between the cases. If you’re a fan of intricate narratives and good old-fashioned noir, I highly suggest diving headfirst into “Case Histories.”
8. The Alienist by Caleb Carr
If you’re a fan of historical fiction and sophisticated whodunits, then you’ll love “The Alienist.” A best-selling novel, this is the first edition of Caleb Carr’s Kreizler series, which centers around esteemed psychologist, Lazlo Kreizler, in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Kreizler, of course, is the “alienist,” which was another term for a psychologist at the time.
In the wake of Theodore Roosevelt’s death in 1919, John Moore (the narrator) meets with Kreizler to reminisce about their late acquaintance. Throughout their conversation, Moore recounts a gruesome murder the pair investigated with Roosevelt in 1896. In light of this, the story is told retrospectively, which makes for a unique narrative experience. As readers delve deeper into the story, they’re confronted with a unique mystery that involves major players in society.
9. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon
The title of Mark Haddon’s award-winning novel is a nod to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, which references an observation made by Sherlock Holmes in “The Adventure of Silver Blaze.” It’s a calculated decision as Christopher, a 15-year-old with autism, attempts to solve the murder of his neighbor’s dog in the vein of his favorite detective, Sherlock Holmes. Along the way, reader’s also explore the highs and lows of raising a child on the spectrum.
In all honesty, this was the first “summer reading” book I actually finished or started for that matter. But, that in itself is a testament to just how gripping this novel is. “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” also eroded my ignorant misconceptions about autism. This, ultimately, is what separates Haddon’s work from the long tradition of mystery novels.
10. In the Woods by Tana French
Tana French’s debut novel, “In The Woods,” was a hit in the crime genre that garnered rave reviews for its intricate plot and spot-on depiction of modern Ireland. But that’s not why I first picked up the book. In fact, I had read varying reviews about the ending of the novel. Some people claimed it was the perfect ending, while others were disappointed. So, naturally, I had to see what all the fuss was about.
Rob Ryan, the protagonist, escaped a brutal murder while playing in the woods as a child. Unfortunately, two of his friends weren’t so lucky. Decades later, he sets out to find the killer when a girl is murdered in the same area. The plot weaves in and out of strange theories involving human sacrifice and a series of bizarre characters. I won’t reveal how the story comes to a wrap, but it’s one of the ultimate mystery novels that will blow your mind.