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8 Classic Detective Novels That Will Keep You Guessing

Detective fiction is a subgenre of mystery fiction that centers on one or more professional investigators or amateur sleuths, often with distinctive personalities or investigative styles, who unravel the clues to solve a crime. Traditional detective stories emphasize logical deduction, evidence analysis, and the relentless pursuit of justice. Credited as the first detective story, Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841) introduced readers to fictional detective C. Auguste Dupin and established a foundation for the genre.

The allure of a good detective story lies in its ability to captivate readers, keeping them on their toes and engaging them in the mystery-solving process alongside the protagonist. These eight classic detective novels offer readers suspenseful narratives, intriguing plot twists, memorable detectives, and clever, quotable dialogue.

“The Moonstone” by Wilkie Collins

Every human institution (Justice included) will stretch a little, if you only pull it the right way.

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Serialized and published in 1868, this classic mystery is considered to be one of the first detective novels published in the English language. At the center of the mystery is a large and priceless diamond stolen from India by a British army officer and later bequeathed to his niece, Rachel Verinder.

When the diamond goes missing on the night of Rachel’s 18th birthday party, famed detective Sergeant Cuff is commissioned to locate the gem and identify the thief. In a series of narratives written in the form of letters, the cast of characters try to determine who stole the precious (and presumably cursed) diamond.

“The Hound of the Baskervilles” by Arthur Conan Doyle

The world is full of obvious things which nobody by any chance ever observes.

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Arthur Conan Doyle took inspiration from Edgar Allan Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin when he created Sherlock Holmes. Published in 1902, The Hound of the Baskervilles wasn’t Holmes’ first appearance — the famous fictional detective had already appeared in numerous short stories and two previous novels — but it remains one of his most memorable adventures. This investigation follows Holmes and his partner, Dr. John Watson, as they attempt to uncover the truth about a mysterious death, a family curse, and an eerie legend about a demonic dog.

“Whose Body?” by Dorothy L. Sayers

I always think that the franker you are with people, the more you’re likely to deceive ’em; so unused is the modern world to the open hand and the guileless heart.

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Dorothy L. Sayers’s 1923 debut novel introduced readers to Lord Peter Wimsey, an English gentleman turned amateur sleuth. With the help of his trusted valet and friend, Mervyn Bunter, Wimsey navigates the world of high society to gather clues and solve crimes. In Whose Body?, after an unidentified corpse is discovered in a bathtub and a financier goes missing, Wimsey becomes convinced that the two incidents are somehow connected. Finding the link, however, challenges his intellect and ingenuity.

“Murder on the Orient Express” by Agatha Christie

The impossible cannot have happened, therefore the impossible must be possible in spite of appearances.

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For this 1934 classic, considered to be one of Agatha Christie’s greatest accomplishments, the author drew inspiration from two real-life events: a 1929 blizzard that marooned the Orient Express for six days, and the 1932 Lindbergh baby kidnapping. In Christie’s novel, millionaire Samuel Ratchett is found murdered aboard the opulent Orient Express shortly after the train is stranded in a snowdrift. Among the passengers is legendary Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, who sets out to solve the murder and catch the elusive killer still in their midst.

“The Big Sleep” by Raymond Chandler

Neither of the two people in the room paid any attention to the way I came in, although only one of them was dead.

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Published in 1939, this hard-boiled classic introduced readers to tough-talking, hard-drinking private investigator Philip Marlowe. Summoned by the elderly General Sternwood, Marlowe learns the wealthy man is being blackmailed over his daughter’s gambling debts. Tasked with finding the blackmailer, Marlowe becomes embroiled in a complex web of corruption and criminal activity and discovers there’s more to the Sternwood family than he’s been told.

“The Tokyo Zodiac Murders” by Soji Shimada

The deeper the pain you have, the more you hide it. I am sure I am not the only one who has suffered. The bitter truth is often covered with fake smiles.

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Soji Shimada’s 1981 debut is a traditional Japanese locked-room mystery that centers on a bizarre series of unsolved murders. Wealthy eccentric painter Heikichi Umezawa was killed 40 years prior to the story’s start, and then his stepdaughter was found dead in what was presumed to be a robbery. Those two deaths were followed by the ritualistic murders of other young women in Heikichi’s family.

The crimes remained a puzzle for decades, but astrologer and amateur sleuth Kiyoshi Mitarai takes an interest in the case and sets out to solve it. Shimada invites readers to try to solve the crime before the solution is revealed; the book itself includes notes, maps, illustrations, and clues for an interactive and immersive reading experience.

“‘A’ Is for Alibi” by Sue Grafton

You try to keep life simple but it never works, and in the end all you have left is yourself.

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In 1982, Sue Grafton broke new ground in the male-dominated detective genre when she introduced readers to a young, divorced female private investigator named Kinsey Millhone. In “A” Is for Alibi, Nikki Fife is out on parole after serving eight years in prison for the murder of her husband, Laurence. Now she’s hired Kinsey to find out who really killed the ruthless divorce attorney. Grafton died in December 2017, just a few months after the release of what would be the last book in her “Alphabet” series, “Y” Is for Yesterday.

“Devil in a Blue Dress” by Walter Mosley

I often think of how so many people have walked into my life for just a few minutes and kicked up some dust, then they’re gone away.

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Set in the community of Watts, Los Angeles, in the late 1940s, Devil in a Blue Dress is a gritty tale that serves as the origin story for private investigator Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins. As the book begins, the World War II veteran has just been fired from his job at a defense plant and is wondering how he’s going to pay his bills when a man in a white linen suit makes him an irresistible offer.

All Easy has to do is find Daphne Monet, a beautiful blonde who’s been known to frequent jazz clubs. Easy’s search for the missing woman forces him into a dangerous world, and when people connected to Daphne start dying, Easy wonders if he might be next.

Featured image credit: Sam Oaksey/ Alamy Stock Photo

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About the Author
Kristina Wright
Kristina is a coffee-fueled writer living happily ever after with her family in the suburbs of Richmond, Virginia.
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