Top Five Literary Mystery Novels

All too often, people assert that so-called “genre” fiction (a class that includes mystery fiction) is separate from “literary” fiction. 

I think not.

Why should literary fiction and mystery fiction be mutually exclusive categories? Who makes such distinctions?

If literary fiction is driven by plot, complex characters, serious tone, and elegant narration, then the subsequent authors rightly deserve their place in this canon. (It has been suggested that slow pace is a characteristic of literary fiction, but I think that’s been discounted over time). That being said, let the games begin!

My Top Five List of Literary Mystery Novels.

1. Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers

“Placetne, Magistra? Placet.”

With these final words Lord Peter Wimsey and mystery novelist, Harriet Vane, commit to one of the greatest love unions in modern literature. It’s as though Shakespeare wrote his sonnet on the meeting of true minds just for them.

But, wait! you cry. You started at the end, and the fun of Sayers is getting there.

Mea culpa.

Gaudy Night is the story of Harriet Vane, called back to her alma mater, Oxford, to investigate a series of poison-pen letters and ends up embroiled in a dangerous game of cat-and-mouse. She’s ably assisted in her endeavors by Lord Peter Death Bredon Wimsey; criminologist, detective, cricketer, gourmand, and wit.

On its face, Gaudy Night is a mystery novel… a detective story.

But it’s so much more. It’s a study of gender roles, academia, moral principles and the subversion thereof, passion, intellect, and loyalty. It’s a suspense novel, a thriller and a romance. Sayers gives us scrumptious descriptions (who could forget that exquisite chess set and its shattering destruction, or the effigy hanging in the quad), and crafts a plot that drives the work without overshadowing the brilliant narrative. Sayers’s work is both dramatic and understated; erotic and elegant; lyrical and intellectual, and it deserves its rightful place among the masterpieces of literature.

2. The Murders in the Rue Morgue by Edgar Allan Poe

Poe used the term ratiocination in describing his work, which means the application of thought or reasoning that is exact, valid and rational. It’s the same technique used by Conan Doyle and later, Christie. (But where ARE Conan Doyle and Christie?, you yell at the screen. Patience, mystery heathens.)

Murders in the Rue Morgue involves the double murder of Madame L’Espanaye and her daughter in the Rue Morgue, a fictional street in Paris. The mother’s throat had been sliced open and her daughter had been strangled and stuffed up the chimney. It’s a locked door mystery, and the inestimable C. Auguste Dupin arrives to solve the crime.

This is THE detective story. The alpha and omega. It provides so much still in use today: the virtuoso detective, the misguided police, and the careful and thought-provoking analysis of the crime. The staying power of this invention, the sheer magnitude of works derived from it, the obsession it’s created for a certain type of plotline; all these speak to Poe’s reputation as a master storyteller. The term “detective” didn’t exist before Poe, thus making him the Father of the Modern Detective Novel. Or perhaps the Father of the Modern Literary Mystery Novel?

3. The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey

What? Josephine Tey is at No. 3!!! Are you crazed? Someone stop her, she’s abusing what she seeks to exalt.

Just wait, I can explain.

First, the “Daughter of Time” comes from the work of Sir Francis Bacon: “Truth is the daughter of time, not of authority.”

Huh? Whosa-whatsit?

What Bacon (delicious name) is telling us is that if authority and antiquity deprive us of free thought, we are unable to develop our own understanding of events. Tey interprets this to mean that if we accept and adopt artificial historical constructs without objective evidence we become slaves to mythology, or “Tonypandy” (a term Tey coined).

Thus starts Inspector Alan Grant’s study of King Richard III while he is hospitalized for a broken leg. A friend suggests he research an historical mystery and brings him photographs of famous faces. Grant chooses a portrait of King Richard III, a portrait that shows him as patient and wise, like a judge, not a cold-blooded killer of little princes as history suggests. Grant begins his exploration by looking at historical writing itself and its purpose and role in Tudor life. He starts with children’s history and moves on to more “recent” (and bone-chillingly boring tomes) such as Thomas More’s History of King Richard III. Grant concludes that Richard III was innocent, a victim of mythology and Tudor beliefs. The book continues to raise debate to this day, and what better measure of success can be said of a Literary Mystery Novel?

4. A Study in Scarlet by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Finally, you say. She’s getting something right (although this should’ve been No. 1, 2, 3…etc.).

I know it’s not politically correct, but I believe Sherlock became less interesting after he stopped using cocaine. If you look at Doyle’s work after Sherlock gave up his “hobby” you see an appreciable decline in investigative skills.

But I’m starting at the end, again. (You know my methods, Watson.)

221B Baker Street. Who hasn’t imagined being in that infamous study, nervously confronting the irascible genius as he saws violently at a violin? If you haven’t, you have no soul. Or an uninspired one, which is worse. A Study in Scarlet introduced us to Sherlock Holmes and his sidekick, Dr. John Watson.

And our world has never been the same.

What is it about this work that has enthralled nations? 

Elementary. It’s Sherlock Holmes, of course; part mad-scientist, part botanist, geologist, astronomer, and philosopher. He’s egocentric, arrogant, and completely unforgettable. The incredible chemistry between Holmes and Watson (brilliantly portrayed in the new BBC series) is the perfect backdrop for solving crimes and A Study in Scarlet introduces us to techniques that have become as familiar as a deerstalker cap. The magnifying glass, scientific measurements, observations of the scene of the crime: word writen in blood, small feet, cigar, long fingernails… clues. The very word gives me a thrill. Doyle is the ultimate clue master and puppeteer extraordinaire. He handles his creation with artful, almost gleeful grace.

Sherlock lives.

He’s alive, right now. If you go to 221B Baker Street he’ll be there waiting. That’s the genius… the mastery… the gift. Sherlock has broken the mortal bonds of genre fiction. He beckons others to follow his lead.

5. The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith

If you’re rolling your eyes right now, it’s either because: a) you’ve just realized your favorite is not listed and you’ve already dropped down to leave scathing comments on my excremental taste; or b) you’ve never read this series.

If it’s the former, take pity, my mom might read this (and I was close to including Agatha Christie, very, very close). If it’s the latter…

Let’s take a little trip. I want you to close your eyes (figuratively—keep reading) and imagine a warm night in Africa (pretty far from Baker Street, yes?). You can feel the dry, hot breeze sweeping off the desert and smell the wildflowers growing off the porch. You open your eyes, and an arm extends to offer you a cup of bush tea. The voice gently inquires why you need the services of The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency.

Meet Mma Precious Ramotswe, a detective like no other. (Mma is a Botswana title of respect; more significant than Mrs.) Precious is a portly (size 22), beautiful African woman who solves crimes with a subtle, deceptively simple persistence. She’s a complex and deeply textured character whose backstory emerges slowly in the expert hands of McCall Smith, and in creating Precious, he has crafted one of the most memorable characters since Sherlock Holmes. And the secondary characters? Unparalleled. Mma Grace Makutsi. Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni. Mr. Polopetsi. Phuti Radiphuti. Each is a little masterpiece. The joy of these stories is seeing these finely crafted people come together

These books are moving, elegant, and expertly crafted, everything I look for in my literary fiction. McCall Smith is opening up worlds previously unknown to readers, which, in my world, makes the list.

There, I’m done.  I’ve imposed my opinions on you long enough.

Now, it’s your turn. 

Where did I go So. Very. Wrong? 

Stephanie McCarthy is a mystery reader and writer living in Peoria, Illinois. Her new novel, Murder Actually, is being released January 31, 2013, and will be available via Attica Books.


  1. Deborah Lacy

    I love all five of these books. I would add Elizabeth George’s Great Deliverance and Wilkie Collins, The Moonstone to your most excellent list.

  2. Carmen Pinzon

    While I love Agatha Christie, I wouldn’t call her work literature. She’s a great story teller but not a great writer, imo.

    I would have liked to see Nero Wolf included on the list, though. Rex Stout was a great story teller and a great writer. I can’t pick one of his novels, but feel that several deserve to be included in a list of top literary mystery novels.

  3. flipsockgrrl

    “Gaudy Night” is at the top of my list, too. It’s almost perfect in its range of themes, its characters, its evocation of place and time… Jill Paton-Walsh tries hard in her versions of Sayers’ stories, but she never approaches the depth or subtlety of the original.

    As for the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series — to me, it’s as if Jane Austen were reincarnated in southern Africa. McCall Smith’s stories are charming, funny, ironic, insightful about human nature, and never mean-spirited. What a treasure in these challenging times.

    As I’m commenting on Australia Day (26 January), I feel I must mention that Peter Temple’s “Truth” won the Miles Franklin Literary Award, Australia’s top literary prize, in 2010. This was not the first time he’d been accused of literature: another book in the Jack Irish series, “The Broken Shore,” was longlisted for the Miles in 2006.

  4. hbhay1960

    James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux novels are full of complex characters, intricate plots, and richly detailed settings

  5. Brian Greene

    Good article. I would probably throw in one of Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer books, which are both fine crime novels and dense works of literary fiction. Say, The Zebra-Striped Hearse or The Wycherly Woman.

  6. Eleanor (Ellie) Miller

    I can’t fault your thinking nor disagree with all but McCall of your choices for the winners’ circle. Hey (apropos since I live in the Vegas area) that’s what makes horse races! However, if we ‘scratch’ the above, heading for my personal finish line: Win: Daphne Du Maurier’s “Rebecca”; Place: Mary Roberts Rinehart’s “The Great Mistake”; Show: Agatha Christie’s “And Then There Were None” and to make up five: Ellery Queen’s “Halfway House” and Helen McCloy’s “Through a Glass Darkly”. Is my age showing? Probably…LOL.

  7. James Devlin

    That’s Edgar ALLAN Poe, please.



  9. AnitaPage

    I agree that crime and literary fiction aren’t mutally exclusive, as the National Book Foundation recognized this year when they gave Elmore Leonard their Lifetime Achievement Award.
    Gaudy Night would make my list too. That last exchange between Peter and Harriet has to be the classiest ending in all crime fiction.

  10. MaryC

    Great list – I love Josephine Tey.

  11. George Snyder

    I’d include at least one Donald Weslake/Richard Stark ‘Parker’ novel.

  12. Eleanor

    I totally agree with the post although my list might have looked a little different.

  13. Sinan

    While I enjoy the BBC Sherlock series, it’s not the be-all and end-all of Sherlockian adaptations, and it’s certainly not very canonical, if canonical is what one would judge by. In fact, the series has grown worse as it’s gone along (the third series was the weakest yet) and is really like someone took a buzzsaw to the canon and applied a veneer of fanservice to it (it’s far too self-servingly clever for its own good). If you named it something besides “Sherlock,” it would be better, because it was pretty far from being Sherlock Holmes when it began, and it’s even further away now. The Guy Ritchie movies and Elementary are closer to the heart of what Sherlock Holmes is – about an exceptionally gifted man who is devoted to justice.

  14. HD

    I’m dying to find some literary detective fiction, something I can respect–I want so much to like the genre, but nearly everything I’ve read seems so trite, cliched, and well, boring. I suppose I define literary fiction as dealing with at least moderately intellectual concepts (ie the human condition) combined with deep emotional realism. In a genre in any way reliant on Dashell Hammett as a pillar, I don’t have much hope, but I am giving it the good old college try.

    I’m sorry to say that I find the ladies detective agency stuff to be unbearable pap–completely unbelievable characters, trite interactions, no deep emotional realism. Ramotswe in particular seems to me like an overacted character in a vaudville show.

    Holmes and Dupin are ok, but somewhat ‘little boys adventure-novel’ ish, complete with bumbling cops and nefarious foreigners added liberally and uncomplicatedly for spice. Even Conan Doyle didn’t consider Holmes to be in any way literary. He wrote it as a newspaper serial, the Dick Tracy of its day.

    I want a detective novel like Dostoyevsky’s Crime & Punishment, by far my favorite detective novel. Other stuff I’ve liked have been The Name of the Rose by Eco and the brilliant Swiss detective novel (anti-detective novel) The Pledge.

    Beacuse of the holes-dupin-mccall suggestions, I probably won’t try the others, but I thank you deeply for offering your opinions as to literary mystery. We simply define the term differently, it seems. And onward I go in my search!

  15. Eleanor (Ellie) Miller

    HD…hard for me to believe that this thread is still alive…naetheless. That you found Eco enjoyable makes me think I might have some possibles for you other than the ones I listed above. NB: And no…I don’t think you’d enjoy my choices either, although I defy you to call either the Du Maurier or Christie ones “pap”. I happen to LIKE my detective novels spiced with a bit of romance hence the Rinehart and McCloy. Ellery Queen is a different breed of cat. I still think you might want to give him a try. If not “Halfway House” possibly “The French Powder Mystery”; “The Roman Hat Mystery”; or “The Greek Coffin Mystery”. In an even far more intellectual vein, I would suggest two ‘possibles’: S.S. Van Dine (Willard Huntington Wright) <wry g> offers not a smidgeon of romance: murder as an intellectual puzzle is his forte; I would suggest “The Greene Murder Case” as a starter novel. I am also addicted to John Dickson Carr: ‘Master’ of the locked room puzzle. And I’m at a loss to tell you where to start because (like E. Phillips Oppenheim) toward the end of his life, he wrote some real pot-boilers. His earlier Gideon Fell mysteries are brilliant. Maybe “The Problem of the Wire Cage”; “The Constant Suicides”; “The Arabian Nights Murder”. ALL of these writers are ‘Golden Agers’ and NONE of them follow Hammett or Chandler into the hard-boiled aspects of the genre. Should I note at this point that I’m a retired professor, pushing eighty (hard) and have been a voracious reader and a mystery devotee for at least seventy of them. Keep trying… there really is “a game afoot” if you’re willing to dig around a bit.

    • Gerry Slater

      A most excellent post. Thank you.

  16. Mark S. Bacon

    I won’t argue with your selections. I especially like Tey. I second the nomination of George and Macdonald. But you should give serious consideration, however, to William Kent Krueger’s “Ordinary Grace,” a mystery, a coming of age story, a series of crafted profiles and a literary novel all in one. He makes me envious, very envious.

  17. Pnut67

    All good selections, although I am a cozy mystery fan, & that means my list would include Lillian Jackson Braun (The Cat Who… mysteries), Sue Grafton (The Alphabet Series starting Kinsey Milhone), & Murder She Wrote by Donald Blain & Jessica Fletcher [spoiler alert: Jessica Fletcher is Donald Blain’s wife]). Sad but ironic, all 3 of these authors are now residing at the ETERNAL 221 B Baker St address….R.I.P.

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