Writers need to read. Extensively. Across genres and styles, preferably, and absolutely within the genres in which they write.
Each genre owns its identifiable classics. In mystery fiction, great examples abound. Let’s look at seven that should be on everyone’s reading list.
1. “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” (1841) by Edgar Allan Poe
This is the only short story in the list, but it rates at least as importantly as the novels, for the simple reason that it launched mystery as a thing. Poe, known mostly for his tales of the macabre, took a different turn and wrote a murder tale requiring a sleuth of exceptional powers to enter and solve it. Poe’s detective, M. Auguste Dupin, provides the template for fictional detectives to follow. As an added bonus, Poe invents with this story the “locked room” mystery.
2. The Hound of the Baskervilles (1901), by Arthur Conan Doyle
Doyle penned fifty-something Sherlock Holmes short stories and four novels. This one wasn’t the first of the novels, but it was the best. Holmes scours the windswept moors to investigate a death, a family curse, and a gigantic ghostly hound. Writers will learn how Doyle builds atmosphere and makes it essential to the story, how sheer inventiveness propels a plot, and how “ancillary” viewpoint—that of a character (Dr. Watson) who is not the main character—succeeds.
3. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1925), by Agatha Christie
Christie mastered the whodunit with minimal blood. In this novel, she performs a sleight of hand, using viewpoint. Writers need to learn this strategy. And although Christie wasn’t big on character development and psychological underpinnings, the finest modern practitioners still employ her stealthy viewpoint trickery to give their novels psychological edginess.
4. The Maltese Falcon (1929), by Dashiell Hammett
Hammett drafts the blueprint for the hardboiled school. Private detective Sam Spade goes hard on the trail of the murderer of his partner, not because he liked the guy, but because it’s the right thing to do. And therein lies the heart of hardboiled mystery. Couple that with a rogue’s gallery of characters and you have a winner. Writers should pay attention to Hammett’s concise dialogue, sharp as the bark of a .38 (clearly, hardboiled is easy to parody, but when done right it entertains the heck out of you), his getting to the point, and his tying up of loose ends into a satisfying ending.
5. Malice Aforethought (1931), by Francis Isles
In the traditional whodunit, you learn the killer’s identity at the end. In Malice Aforethought, you learn it on the first page. In the first sentence. Isles turns the whodunit upside down, and the howdunit takes center stage. Suspense builds because we need to see if Doctor Bickleigh gets away with it. Have a detestable character you want to write? Isles makes detestable his main viewpoint character’s defining trait.
6. Rebecca (1938), by Daphne du Maurier
In her reinvention of the Gothic, du Maurier builds psychological suspense as the second Mrs. de Winter slowly learns the truth of the first one, the exquisite Rebecca de Winter. Writers should pay close attention to the pacing, the use of setting, and the overlap of genres. And mostly, to the second Mrs. de Winter’s state of mind as narrated in the first-person.
7. The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955), by Patricia Highsmith
Ripley, short on cash, long on talent, goes to Italy to fetch back to America the wayward playboy son of a wealthy man. Plans change, and Ripley instead becomes the wayward playboy. Unlike nasty little Doctor Bickleigh of Malice Aforethought, you actually want nasty little Ripley to succeed. A sign of great writing, that. Writers learn from the remarkable character development, and the self-justifiable workings of the sociopathic mind.
There you go, seven good novels and lessons from the masters. By chronology alone, you see the evolution of the genre. Plenty more lurk out there, but these few sum up much of what works in mystery fiction. Got more recommendations? I’m writing a book about the evolution of genres and would love to hear them!