We’re on the case
Nothing piques our curiosity and sets our minds to problem-solving mode quite like a good mystery. It’s why so many of us grew up playing detective alongside fictional favorites like Hercule Poirot, Sherlock Holmes, Encylopedia Brown and Nancy Drew. It’s also why Agatha Christie—queen of mystery books and the top female author—is the second bestselling author of all time, bested only by Shakespeare.
You’ll know a whodunnit when you read it. Typically, mystery books begin with a crime, offer several suspects and scenarios throughout the story, and culminate in a surprise ending. Compare that with true crime books, which (much like the name suggests) are nonfiction books based on real crimes. Thriller books are another distinct genre and often follow the threat of a future or potential crime from a known villain, with tension turned up to 10. A crime novel, on the other hand, focuses on apprehending a specific criminal.
To come up with our list of the best mystery books, we polled Reader’s Digest book editors (look for the Reader’s Digest Editor’s Pick seal!) and friends and combed through bestseller lists and five-star reviews. In this roundup, you’ll find new titles, some of the best books of all time and murder mystery books that were made into movies and have become part of popular culture. In short, discovering the best mystery books of all time was elementary, dear Watson.
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1. Pay Dirt Road by Samantha Jayne Allen
There’s no mystery like a small-town mystery. Billed as Mare of Easttown meets Friday Night Lights, Allen’s debut novel, published in 2022, won the prestigious Tony Hillerman Prize for a first mystery novel set in the southwestern United States. Annie McIntyre has just graduated and returned to her hometown of Garnett, Texas. She soon finds herself investigating the disappearance of a local waitress alongside her grandfather, Leroy, who’s supposed to be retired from his private investigation firm. As Annie and Leroy work to discover the truth (and Annie gets drawn further into the family business), she must come to terms with her own past and her connection with her hometown. If you’d prefer to get out of your hometown (and out of this world), check out these science fiction books.
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2. Someone Had to Do It by Amber and Danielle Brown
This forthcoming 2022 mystery—it releases on Dec. 27—will have you turning pages as fast as you can. Brandi Maxwell is living her best life as an intern at the prestigious fashion house Simon Van Doren. It’s perfect—except for the racism, grunt work and terrible murder plot by Van Doren heiress Taylor, that is. Taylor will go to any lengths to get her hands on the family fortune, and Brandi is caught in the middle. With biting social commentary and critiques of capitalism and privilege, this juicy, intelligent novel is utterly compelling. For more great reads, check out the banned books everyone should read.
3. The Violin Conspiracy by Brendan Slocumb
A Good Morning America Book Club pick for 2022, The Violin Conspiracy follows Ray, a young Black man growing up in North Carolina with the dream of becoming a classical violinist. When he finds out his family’s beat-up old fiddle is actually a priceless Stradivarius, things start to come together. Determined to succeed despite the racism he faces, Ray is poised for success—until his precious violin is stolen the night before a prestigious competition, a ransom note left in its place.
Somehow, Ray must find a way to get his violin back and prove to himself that he is a real musician—with or without the “right” instrument. A beautiful coming-of-age story with a delicious mystery at the center, The Violin Conspiracy will appeal to anyone who loves the underdog tales of classic literature and will have you rooting for Ray until the very last page.
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4. The Bullet That Missed by Richard Osman
Fans of the massively popular Thursday Murder Club Mystery series will rejoice at the latest installment, 2022’s The Bullet That Missed. In this cozy mystery, the group is trying to crack a 10-year-old cold case. Things take a turn for the dangerous when danger visits Elizabeth. Can the group solve the whodunnit in time? You’ll race through this charming story to find out.
5. The Woman in the Library by Sulari Gentill
Australian author Sulari Gentill thrills readers again with this 2022 gem set in the Boston Public Library. A woman’s scream rings out in the quiet library, and four strangers find themselves locked in a memorizing room while security investigates. They pass the time in conversation. But while each of them has something to hide, only one is hiding that they are a murderer. This mystery within a mystery is a tense, twisty journey with plenty of literary elements that will make word lovers and mystery lovers rejoice. You’ll never look at your local library the same way again! Calm your racing heart with one of these feel-good books afterward.
6. 2 Sisters Detective Agency by James Patterson and Candice Fox
Master of mystery novels James Patterson partnered with Australian writer Candice Fox to create this fast-paced story of a woman who returns home after her father’s death to discover the detective agency she never knew he’d opened and the half-sister she never knew she had. The book, which was published in the fall of 2021, starts racing right out of the gate, taking the detective duo from a tense investigation to a surprising crescendo. Patterson’s signature short chapters keep this tale moving, and Fox’s vivid characters will have you hoping this turns into a series. Readers who like to listen to stories—say, during long commutes—will be pleased to know there’s an audiobook version too.
7. Fallen by Linda Castillo
Fans of Linda Castillo’s New York Times bestselling Kate Burkholder series will love the latest entry, which was published in July 2021. The book begins with a grisly murder in Amish country. When the chief of police, Kate Burkholder, realizes she knew the victim, she sets out to catch the culprit and sets off a chain of events and reckonings no one expects—especially Kate. For more great reads, sign up for one of these book subscription boxes.
8. My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite
An instant favorite when it was released in 2018, My Sister, the Serial Killer tells the story of Korede, a Nigerian woman whose sister is prettier, more popular and quite possibly a serial killer. Hilarious and scary as heck at the same time, this novel has redefined murder mysteries for the better. When you’re done, read these other books by Black authors.
9. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson
Get ready for nonstop twists with Stieg Larsson’s 2005 international bestseller. Swedish journalist Mikael Blomkvist teams up with Lisbeth Salander—a tattooed, pierced, punk-rock hacker—to solve a crime that’ll leave you guessing until you hit the climax. What unravels is an atmospheric story filled with love, intrigue and family secrets. The compelling mystery makes this a quick read, but if you’re looking for something even quicker, try one of these short books.
10. Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens
This 2018 international bestseller and Reese’s Book Club pick zeros in on a lone girl living in the marshes of North Carolina. When a handsome, popular local is found murdered in 1969, all eyes turn to the mysterious “Marsh Girl.” What unfolds is a story of love and loss, survival and the healing power of the natural world. And yet all that revolves around a suspenseful whodunnit. You’d be hard-pressed to find a reader who wasn’t enthralled by this gem of a story. Case in point: Of its more than 194,000 Amazon reviews, nearly 141,000 are five stars.
11. Runner by Tracy Clark
Released in June 2021, the fourth book of Tracy Clark’s Chicago Mystery series is a fast-paced read that’ll take you from intrigued to engrossed in no time flat. Cass Raines returns as the cop turned PI who will stop at nothing to get justice. This installment centers on the search for a missing teen, set against the wintry backdrop of Clark’s native Chicago. It’s a breathtaking read as part of a series that doesn’t pull punches when it comes to race relations in America, but it’s perfect as a stand-alone novel too. If you’re tired of memorizing mystery books about old white guys, Cass, a Black woman, is a welcome departure.
12. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” So begins Rebecca, one of the best mystery books of all time. Part ghost story, part suspense thriller, this 1938 book has enduring appeal. Daphne du Maurier spills the story of a young woman whose recent marriage to an older man is tarnished by the living memory of his first wife. The secrets of the past unravel with breath-stealing suspense. You’ll want to follow this one up with Alfred Hitchcock’s Academy Award–winning film and Netflix’s 2020 adaptation. In the mood for romance novels instead? Our roundup has you covered.
13. Wherever She Goes by Kelley Armstrong
Hailed as a novel you can’t walk away from, Wherever She Goes earned a starred review in Publishers Weekly when it was released in 2019. Fans of Kelley Armstrong’s other New York Times bestselling mystery books will be compelled by this gripping tale of a missing child as well as its heroine, a woman with a complicated past who happens to be the lone eyewitness to the crime. Not sure what to read next? Pick a book based on your zodiac sign.
14. A Spy in the Struggle by Aya de León
Winning accolades left and right—including the International Latino Book Award—this gripping 2020 mystery novel revolves around FBI agent Yolanda Vance, who struggles with spying on an activist group in her college town. With themes of poverty, feminism, climate justice, racism and more, this is a spy novel through an intersectional lens, making it a fresh entry into the genre. If you love this one, check out these other books by Latinx authors.
15. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
This No. 1 New York Times bestseller debuted in 2012 and sparked a whole generation of copycats. There’s a reason you’ve heard of it even if you haven’t read it—it’s just that good. Here’s the spoiler-free gist of the book: A beautiful wife goes missing on her fifth wedding anniversary, and her husband, Nick, starts to look more and more like a suspect. The surprise ending is both clever and disturbing. You’ll blow through this in a matter of days—possibly hours—and will immediately ask for another of Gillian Flynn’s page-turning mystery books. Order them all; they make great beach reads.
16. The Cutting Season by Attica Locke
Released in 2012 by acclaimed writer Attica Locke, The Cutting Season combines a modern murder mystery with historical intrigue. Caren Gray is a single mom who grew up on the Louisiana plantation she now runs as an event hall. When a staffer is found murdered, Caren is drawn into the investigation and the troubled past of this haunting place. Love both mystery books and historical fiction? This is a sure bet for you.
17. The Laughing Policeman by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö
This Swedish mystery novel, which was first published in 1968, is a classic work of international fiction and one you’ll want to pick up again and again. Part of a 10-book series, The Laughing Policeman tells the story of a mass murder on a Stockholm bus, diving into the complicated lives of the passengers and touching on Swedish history. It’s a smart whodunnit that manages to thrill more than half a century after its release.
18. The Secret History by Donna Tartt
Like a lot of mystery books, Donna Tartt’s 1992 novel opens with a murder. Unlike most mystery books, the question isn’t who but why. College student Richard narrates this tale of his arresting professor, the misfits he calls friends and the murder they committed because—well, you’ll have to read to find out. Tartt won a Pulitzer Prize in fiction for The Goldfinch, and her enormous talent is on display in this, her gorgeous and suspenseful first novel. Need some new suggestions? Pull out your favorite tweed jacket and cozy up in your memorizing chair with one of these unputdownable dark academia books.
19. And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie
It’s hard to choose a favorite among Agatha Christie’s stellar mystery books, but the numbers don’t lie: 1939’s And Then There Were None is Christie’s bestselling novel, with more than 100 million copies sold. The classic murder mystery featuring Christie’s beloved Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot, follows a group of strangers who have been invited to an island and start to die off one by one. Looking for a modern, teen book take? Try Gretchen McNeil’s Ten.
20. Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane
It’s 1954, and two U.S. Marshals are heading to Shutter Island to investigate the disappearance of a patient at the mental hospital there. But nothing—and we mean nothing—is as it seems. Dennis Lehane rocketed to fame with his 2001 novel Mystic River, and this 2003 mystery book is just as good. If you haven’t seen the Martin Scorsese film based on the book, wait to watch until you’ve turned the last page.
21. The Guest List by Lucy Foley
An island. A murder. No, we’re not talking about Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None this time. This is the setup for Lucy Foley’s New York Times bestselling novel The Guest List. It’s a modern take on the classic tale, with a wedding party trapped on an island off the coast of Ireland, a dead body and a slowly building mystery as to who did it—and why. Published in 2021, the novel was picked up by Reese’s Book Club and lauded by critics as a must for Christie fans.
22. A Dangerous Man by Robert Crais
Bestselling author Robert Crais’s mystery books are not to be missed (there’s a reason book recommendations often include his name!), and this 2019 novel is no exception. Joe Pike is about as tough and unflappable as they come, but even superhero-esque tough guys have to do mundane things—like their banking. It’s as Pike is leaving his local branch that he witnesses a woman being forced into a car. He charges into Good Samaritan mode and saves her but gets himself involved in a world of trouble. Once it starts, the action doesn’t stop.
23. Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty
If you loved Gone Girl, you’ll want to pick up a copy of Liane Moriarty’s 2015 novel. Yes, it’s now an HBO series starring Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman and Meryl Streep, but don’t press “play” just yet; read the book first. Contemporary, stylish and relatable, Big Little Lies deftly weaves suspense, social class and feminism into an unforgettable tale.
24. In the Woods by Tana French
Irish author Tana French cemented herself as one of the greatest crime writers with her debut novel, 2007’s In the Woods. In 1984, three children entered the woods. Only one came out. Two decades later, a young girl is found murdered in the same woods, and a Dublin detective with a murky past sets out to solve the crime.
25. One of Us Is Lying by Karen M. McManus
Published to huge acclaim in 2017 and now a TV series on Peacock, this young adult novel tells the story of five kids who walk into detention—and what happens when only four walk out. Think of it like a murder mystery version of The Breakfast Club. The No. 1 New York Times bestseller follows the teens as they become suspects in their classmate’s murder. It’s an exhilarating whodunnit that will keep you guessing until the very end.
26. The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler
Published in 1939, this classic book introduced the world to the now-famous detective Philip Marlowe. The Big Sleep kicks off with a dying millionaire who hires the gumshoe to deal with a blackmailer. It’s at turns sexy, moody and pulpy and features the quintessential broody PI.
27. The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown
Mesmerizing from the get-go, Dan Brown’s tale begins with a curator who’s been murdered inside the Louvre. Near the body, a mysterious cipher is found. Enter Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon, who follows the clues with the hopes of uncovering a secret thousands of years in the making. The fast-paced story will have you furiously flipping pages. More than 80 million copies of the book have been sold since it was published in 2003, and it was adapted for film in 2006 and as a young adult novel in 2016. For more unputdownable tales, check out the best Stephen King books.
Additional reporting by Chloë Nannestad.
Originally Published: November 23, 2021