It is difficult to pinpoint the best murder mystery books because many options exist. Murder mystery novels have always been a popular genre, but they seem to be making a fast comeback. Murder mysteries entertain us, keep us on our toes, and give us a look inside the mystery and crime fiction genres, usually without getting too gritty or gruesome. A good murder mystery book has an interesting mystery and characters that we care about.
This article will discuss some of the best murder mystery books on the market, along with a brief description. Finding a good mystery novel can be difficult and overwhelming if you are just getting into mystery books or the genre. This list of murder mystery books will help you find the perfect book for you.
What Makes a Book a Murder Mystery?
Murder mystery books are many, and when most of us think of the genre, we likely think of Nancy Drew or James Bond, Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot. So what makes a book a true mystery? What separates, say, a thriller from a mystery novel? Or a horror from a mystery?
Certain elements must exist for a novel to be considered a true mystery book. First, you need some sort of detective, or a person acting as a detective would—invested in what happened and determined to solve the case. You also need a victim and suspects. It does not do well to have a murder but no suspects. Usually, this consists of some obvious ne’er-do-wells and some that the reader would never suspect.
There also needs to be clues. Investigators, sleuths, and detectives need something to work on, such as a bloody footprint, a threatening letter, a scandalous affair, a public feud between the victim and an enemy. There must be clues that characters in the book and readers can follow. The setting is also a big part of any book, but especially crucial in a crime or mystery, from the detectives working at Scotland Yard to Los Angeles private investigators, dark forests in Ireland to cobweb-laced mansions that hold secrets.
And finally, there needs to be suspense. That feeling of thinking you may know what lies ahead, but knowing that at any moment, everything could change when you turn the page. It is a lot like feeling your way through a strange house in the dark. You get a feel for a dark empty hallway, but you know it will not go on forever, but you also do not know if the hallway ends at a dead-end or a steep case of stairs. Suspense is what takes a book from a thriller or story to a full-on mystery that grabs the reader’s attention and keeps it going.
The 23 Best Murder Mystery Books Everyone Should Read
The following are some of the best murder mystery books out there. Whether this is your first novel or a seasoned fan of the genre, these are sure to become favorites. From novels based on true stories to books about the psychological profile, these books are sure to inspire you to broaden your horizons in this genre.
1. The Silence of the Lambs (Thomas Harris)
The movie is excellent, and most of us have seen it. Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins do a fantastic job playing Clarice and Hannibal Lecter, respectively. The book, however, makes the movie pale in comparison.
Clarice is sent to interview Hannibal Lecter, a cannibalistic killer held prisoner in a psychiatric hospital setting. She hopes that he can give her the insight to help her identify and catch a serial killer on the loose and hunt down people at an alarming rate. While the two murderers are similar in some ways, they are not directly connected, but that is not what Clarice is interested in. Lecter ends up doing more than giving her insight into the mind and workings of a murderer.
When Clarice realizes that there may be more in common between Lecter and the serial killer she is hunting, the interviews turn into a tense, cat-and-mouse type talk between the criminally insane and the young FBI agent.
2. The Deep Blue Good-By (John D. MacDonald)
MacDonald gives us a mystery novel with a complex plot that is a thrilling tale different from the many murder mysteries you have read in his debut novel. This author’s first 21 novels make up the Travis McGee series. Each title in this series has a color in the title.
Here we meet Travis McGee, a private detective living and working on a houseboat in Florida. He is hired to track down and stop a man who learned about a hidden treasure while in prison. Upon release, the convict turns to violence, then repeated rape, and finally murder, all while trying to find the treasure he is sure exists. McGee cares very little about any treasure and is more focused on stopping this deranged madman from hurting anyone else.
An investigator with a moral compass is the story’s real theme with this book, and for a first novel, MacDonald hits it out of the park. This detective seems to care more about getting dangerous people off the street than he does about any payment or reward. Throughout the entire Travis McGee series, he repeatedly ends up gaining very little personally or monetarily while working hard to stop bad people.
3. Post-Mortem (Patricia Cornwell)
The first in the Scarpetta series, this book follows a medical examiner tasked with identifying many strangulation victims. Called in to help out by a homicide detective with whom she has had a complicated working relationship in the past, Scarpetta arrives on the scene. Together, she and the detective find soap residue, semen, and a lingering smell that they cannot quite place.
Several people end up on the suspect list, with Scarpetta frequently butting heads with her partner over who they each think the most likely killer is. When information is leaked from the medical examiner’s office to the media about the case, it compromises Scarpetta’s job and her integrity.
Deciding that the killer probably depends on his reputation and ego, Scarpetta and her partner leak to the media that the killer has a very distinct odor caused by a disease. This tactic may work in drawing the killer out, but it will also put a target on the back of the medical examiner.
This book series spans 24 books, featuring Dr. Kay Scarpetta, a smart and thorough medical examiner. The rest of the series is great, but this first book really shines.
4. And Then There Were None (Agatha Christie)
To leave Agatha Christie off this list would be a travesty. The only real difficult part of making this list is deciding which fantastic works to include. This favorite of hers was initially published in 1939 but is just as good now as decades ago.
And Then There Were None is an Agatha Christie fan favorite and the bestselling murder mystery book of all time. There is also a graphic novel and board game based on this murder mystery favorite.
The premise of this story is as follows: Eight people receive invitations to an island. They all arrive to find that they do not know each other and do not see the host, who is nowhere to be found. The only structure on the tiny island is a large house, and the only other people on the island are the butler and the maid, who tell the guests that they each have instructions in their room as to what they are truly there for.
A popular rhyme is in everyone’s room, ending in the line, “And then there were none.” No one knows what it means, and they convene in the bar area to talk it over, where one of the ten people on the island promptly dies of poisoning. The rest of the story is full of guests dying in odd ways, lots of finger-pointing, and everyone hoping to figure out who is behind the murders before they end up victims themselves.
5. The Girl on the Train (Paula Hawkins)
It does not get much more twisted than this book. This is the story of three women, their experiences, and how their lives intersect. Rachel, who used to be married to Tom, divorced when infertility resulted in alcoholism that Tom could no longer handle. Anna, Tom’s second wife, has a child and drives Rachel crazy with jealousy. And then there is Megan, the neighbor of Tom.
Even though her drinking causes Rachel to lose her job, Rachel rides the same commuter train every single day out of habit. In doing so, she sees some of the same people every day out the train window. She passes by her ex’s home and the home of his neighbor, Megan. She gives Megan and her husband, neither of whom she knows, names, creates backstories and recent stories for them, and imagines that she is a part of their lives by proxy. This is all an innocent way to pass the time on her commute every day until the unthinkable happens.
One day Rachel witnesses something out the window that changes everything. Megan is kissing another man and having an affair. She not only sees something she feels like she should not have seen but her obsession over what she saw risks her own life when everything quickly spirals out of control. The Girl on the Train is one of those murder mysteries that is hard to put down, as each page makes you want to find out what is lying in wait on the next page.
6. The Detective (Roderick Thorp)
A classic novel, this book tells the story of a widow who hires a private investigator named Joe to get to the bottom of her husband’s death. It turns out that Joe knows the deceased man from having served in World War II together. Joe agrees to take the case.
As Joe looks deeper into the story of his old friend and who his friend was, things start to get more and more tense. Joe starts to realize that things are not what they seem in this story, and he starts to look at his old war buddy differently after learning certain truths about him.
7. Motherless Brooklyn (Jonathan Lethem)
This book won the National Book Award and is a different take on what most of us think of crime novels or murder mysteries. Most PIs and detectives are sophisticated, a little rough around the edges, but still gentlemanly in their mannerisms, intelligent as a tack, and able to push their way through to any witness, perp, or contact they need.
This story is about a detective who has Tourette’s Syndrome and tries to solve a murder. All sorts of complications occur, and emotions are high in this book about a man doing the best he can in a situation where being professional is such an important part of solving cases.
8. The Complete Tales and Poems (Edgar Allen Poe)
If you like short stories that are also riveting murder mysteries and dark as all get out, then Poe is right up your alley. One of the genre’s godfathers, Poe, is known for his gothic work and dark tone that sinks into paranoia. This book includes such favorites as Annabel Lee, The Fall of the House of Usher, The Tell-Tale Heart, The Raven, and The Pit and the Pendulum.
9. 1st to Die (James Patterson)
Patterson is a name known to anyone who reads fiction. This book is the one that kicks off the Women’s Murder Club series. In this book, a female detective is called to a hotel crime scene where the murder victims are newlyweds and are on their honeymoon. Teaming up outside work and off the radar with three other females (an attorney, a medical examiner, and a reporter), the four women put their heads together to solve crimes before the body count gets any higher.
10. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (John le Carre)
This is the story of a retired spy who gets pulled back into the thick of things. He is tasked to find a Soviet mole among the people he used to work with. A true whodunnit, this book uses all sorts of fun spy lingo, keeping you on your toes and guessing right along with the retired spy as he gets led down many paths seeking the truth.
11. The Secret History (Donna Tartt)
Narrated by one of the students affected, this is the murder mystery and its after-effects on a group of friends who the other students largely ostracized at the college they attended. A group that stuck together, until one of them ends up murdered, one of the friends tells the story from the beginning.
12. In Cold Blood (Truman Capote)
This crime novel revolutionized the way the genre is written. This book tells the story of Richard Hickock and Perry Smith, two young ex-cons who, in 1959, enter the farmhouse of a wealthy farmer with the intentions of stealing money from the safe, with no regard to the lives of the Clutter family sleeping inside.
Finding out that there is no safe and the farmer does not carry cash, for reasons that make no sense, Smith kills the farmer, his wife, his daughter, and his son, a young boy who was still school age. In Cold Blood tells the story of the murderers, victims, authorities, attorneys, guards, and the families of the convicted murderers.
Before he wrote this novel, Capote was already a famous writer, but this book propelled his career. A favorite book club book for murder mystery groups and a book that can be read in one sitting due to its exciting writing style and length, this first book that helped define a genre is wonderful to start with if you are interested in true crime.
13. The Hound of the Baskervilles (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle)
Widely regarded as one of the best mystery novels in existence, this is the story of Sherlock Holmes, doing what Holmes does best. Resurrected for yet another mystery, Sherlock Holmes is trying to solve the case of who murdered his friend, Charles Baskerville. Everyone else has decided that death can be nothing but of supernatural causes, but, true to Sherlock Holmes fashion, he refuses to consider anything but a logical answer.
The Holmes mysteries were originally published as separate stories in magazines. It was not until much later that they were compiled into a book of collective work.
14. Gone Girl (Gillian Flynn)
Amy disappears on the day of her fifth wedding anniversary with Nick. Investigating the disappearance, Nick quickly discovers that the woman he married and thought he knew is not the same woman that anyone else knew. This book has a very intricate plot that will leave you guessing the entire time and on the edge of your seat. This is a must-read with a movie adaptation nearly as disturbing and suspenseful as the book.
15. The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie (Alan Bradley)
When her father is accused of murder, eleven-year-old Flavia becomes determined to prove his innocence. From a dead bird that has a clue attached to its beak to a dead man in a garden, this book, set in 1950, is not particularly gruesome or heavy but is a great murder mystery story.
16. Mr. Mercedes (Stephen King)
The first in a series that also spawned several spin-off books and a TV series, Mr. Mercedes is the story of Brady Hartsfield and retired detective Bill Hodges.
During an economic recession, many hopeful people wait in line overnight for a job fair at the City Center. Huddled together in the cold, they make it all too easy for Brady to run them down in a large stolen Mercedes. Bill Hodges is assigned to the case and is haunted by what he sees. The bodies of men, women, and even an infant litter the sidewalk, and the car has been abandoned. Bill thinks of nothing else, believing that he will solve the case, find the killer, and bring him to justice.
Time passes, and Bill retires. His one regret is that he was unable to solve the case of the Mercedes Killer. With suicidal thoughts and many regrets, he has nothing to do but sit and wallow in his failure. Until Brady, the killer, gets bored and starts sending Hodges messages. The hunt is on at that point, and a suspenseful game of cat and mouse ensues.
In this book, not only do you get the viewpoints of Bill Hodges and the people who end up working with him as partners to apprehend Brady, but you also get the viewpoint of the killer, who is incredibly proud of himself and thinks himself superior to most people. This first book in the series is worth a read.
17. The Da Vinci Code (Dan Brown)
If you are a fan of riddles, then this book and its sequels are just the books for you. Lured to Paris, Robert Langdon is given riddles and clues that have to do with famous artists Leonardo Da Vinci. When you think Langdon has it figured out, you realize that he is already falling behind. This fast-paced book pushes you to think and solve the mystery right alongside the protagonist.
18. Murder on the Orient Express (Agatha Christie)
Another of Christie’s works, this one, is riveting in that it is the old “dead body in a locked room with no exit” trope, but perfectly executed.
Hercule Poirot, the Belgian detective featured in numerous books by the author and a fan-favorite character, is on the Orient Express, a train, and many other important, high power, high station people. After an interesting first night aboard the train in which Poirot notes odd behavior by several passengers, the following day brings utter shock and mystery that only someone like Poirot could ever hope to solve.
A passenger has been murdered, and the train has stopped due to a snowstorm. The body is found inside the sleeper compartment of the passenger, locked from the inside. The victim has been stabbed a dozen times, and there are clues such as an open window, a pipe cleaner, a personalized handkerchief, and an oddly shaped match. One by one, Poirot starts to investigate everyone on the train, as someone aboard must have committed the murder.
Made into a movie in 2017 and with an all-star cast: Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Judi Dench, Gal Gadot, Willem Defoe, Josh Gad, Penelope Cruz, and Olivia Colman, the well-received film goes to show that this classic book by Christie is genuinely excellent.
19. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Stieg Larsson)
An old murder, a dysfunctional family, no one admitting to a heinous murder. What else could you ask for in a mystery novel? The Dragon Tattoo series was immediately successful, spawning a successful movie and instant recognition. If you have seen the movie and have never read the books, you should pick up a copy of the novels and read them.
20. In the Woods (Tana French)
French is known for her books that blend harsh lines with police procedural terminology and text. With realistic dialogue and situations due to her real-life detective work, this book is a perfect read for anyone who wants a complex mystery.
This book takes place in Ireland. The body of a little girl is found in a forest. Two detectives are working together to solve the case, but one of the detectives cannot help but be reminded of a very similar case that occurred when he was a child in the same forest.
This is not just a book about a murder. The detectives have a lot of suspects and issues to resolve when they find out that the murdered girl’s family is anything but normal and loving. One of the detectives is also convinced that the murder that occurred decades ago is related to this one.
21. Joyland (Stephen King)
A master storyteller in his own right, King’s Hard Case Crime books are a great example of some of the whodunnits of the past. Joyland is arguably the best of them all.
Joyland, a theme park in New Jersey decades ago, was the scene of a murder. A man that no one could seem to remember or identify took a girl on a ride that featured tunnels and darkness, and at the end of it, the girl was dead, and her date was gone.
Unsolved for years, the ride is now haunted by the murdered girl. A new hire, Devon, and his friends responsible for running the park one summer decide to investigate this murder on their own when one of them is undoubtedly convinced the ghost on the ride is real. They find out that she was not the only victim of this unknown murderer. Vowing to figure it out, the group of friends follow clues and are determined to bring not only the girl who died in the theme park her justice but all of the others.
This book is a little bit of everything. It was written with a rocky personal life that includes his girlfriend dumping him, being taken in at a boarding house by strangers who seem to care, and making new friends. It also includes the theme park owner and meeting a new love interest who has a son with a terminal illness and a strange gift that enables him to dream about the future. Told in the first person, as a memory of a much older and wiser Devon, this book will bring the reader joy, suspense, sadness, and unease.
This is a fun book that is a quick read but will stay with the reader after it has finished.
22. Rebecca (Daphne du Maurier)
This book is an absolute classic, and it has all of the elements that a creepy mystery novel needs. An unnamed protagonist in this story marries a wealthy widow and moves into his mansion. She quickly finds out that even though the first wife of her new husband died, she is not gone. Odd things and then scary things start to happen in the mansion, and the protagonist has to solve the mystery of the mansion before she becomes the second wife who meets her untimely demise.
23. The Big Sleep (Raymond Chandler)
The plot is simple: a private investigator is hired by a wealthy woman to figure out who is blackmailing her. The story, however, is anything but simple.
Raymond Chandler is known for his character-driven novels, and The Big Sleep is a perfect example. When you think that you understand a character, you realize that you do not, and just when you feel that a character’s arc is over with, it is not. Like people in real life, the characters this author creates and throws into simple storylines make the story interesting because they are never flat or one-dimensional. Often twisted and always interesting, Chandler’s characters are what makes his stories genuinely great.