Books

The 20 greatest crime novels of all time

Stone-cold killers, complex antiheroes, gritty dramas – the greatest crime novels have it all. Check out our list of the best ones, below.

The greatest crime novels generally share a few common themes: cracking writing, complex protagonists, and nail-biting suspense. It’s a genre that has many subdivisions and has been beloved by the reading public for centuries.

If you’re not sure where to start or are just looking for something fresh and exciting, we’ve got you sorted: below, is a list of the most thrilling, engaging, and mind-bogglingly complex crime novels of all time.

sherlock holmes film
Peter Cook (left) as Sherlock Holmes and Dudley Moore as Dr Watson in a publicity shot for the 1978 film version of Arthur Conan Doyle’s ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles.’ (Photo: © Michael White Productions)

The Hound of the Baskervilles – Arthur Conan Doyle (1902)

Probably the most famous Sherlock Holmes novel, The Hound of the Baskervilles is the third in a series of crime novels that feature the fictional detective, Sherlock Holmes. Selected by “Sherlockians” as the best novel featuring their idiosyncratic protagonist, The Hound of the Baskervilles details the persecution of the Baskerville line, who have been plagued by a mysterious and supernatural black hound.

Ranked amongst the UK’s most beloved books, Arthur Conan Doyle’s crime novel easily claims a spot of the best crime novels of all time, with the Sherlock series being described as: “a remarkable aspect of these stories is that, though some are superior to others, none is very inferior and, above all, there is no noticeable decline in their quality as their author grew tired of his creation. The Hound of the Baskervilles is one of the best of them and a good introduction to the world’s most famous detective.”

penguin sherlock
Photo: Penguin

The Maltese Falcon – Dashiell Hammett (1929)

Most notably being adapted by John Huston in the 1941 film-noir classic The Maltese Falcon, the literary source material has long been considered one of the most iconic American crime stories ever written; it’s widely known to have shaped the hard-boiled fiction genre for countless future generations.

Following the life of Sam Spade, the ruthless, anti-sentimental, and cynical detective, and a range of colourful supporting characters, The Maltese Falcon traces the hunt for the Maltese Falcon, a fabulously valuable 16th-century artifact.

the maltese falcon crime novel
Photo: Amazon

Murder on the Orient Express – Agatha Christie (1934)

In my opinion, Agatha Christie is G.O.A.T. of hard-boiled crime fiction. She’s written over 60 detective novels and ranks amongst the most translated authors in the world. The Orient Express was a luxury, long-distance passenger train that followed a route from Istanbul to Paris in the late 1800s, and Murder on the Orient Express details, well, a murder on the Orient Express.

It stars the “greatest detective in the world” Hercule Poirot, arriving to interrogate all the passengers and solve the mystery before the culprit strikes again. It’s arguably one of the most famous, and one of Christie’s best, crime fiction novels.

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Photo: Lyceum Theatre

The Big Sleep – Raymond Chandler (1939)

Famously adapted into the noir film of the same name, The Big Sleep has evolved into a cornerstone of classic American crime literature. Following the story of detective Philip Marlowe in 1930s Los Angeles, the novel details his life as he gets caught up in an intricately complex and increasingly deadly case that involves the mysterious Sternwood family.

The big sleep crime novel
Photo: Penguin

The Talented Mr. Ripley – Patricia Highsmith (1955)

Darkly funny, The Talented Mr. Ripley is a crime novel — loosely based on Henry James’  The Ambassador — which introduces the titular Mr. Ripley, a suave, alluring con-man with a talent for crime, arriving in Manhattan in the ’50s.

The novel details the encounters which lead him to Italy and inevitably transform him into a full-blown sociopath. One of the most beloved anti-heroes of modern literature, Mr. Ripley is a complex, mysterious character, with the novel widely being considered as one of crime fiction’s most stunning literary achievements.

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Photo: Amazon

In Cold Blood – Truman Capote (1965)

In Cold Blood details the real-life investigation surrounding the murder of four members of the Clutter family in rural Kansas during the late ’50s. While the central crime is based on factual events, many of the most critical plot details of In Cold Blood are fictionalised. A pioneering novel of the genre, Capote has been universally praised for his ingenious use of a triple narrative structure, which alternates between the perspectives of the victims, murderers, and rural community.

penguin in cold blood
Photo: Penguin

The Godfather – Mario Puzo (1969)

Adapted by Francis Ford Coppola into the namesake 1972 film, The Godfather is one of the most iconic mafia crime stories of all time. Following the life of Don Vito Corleone (a.k.a. The Godfather) the novel traces the fictitious mafia Don’s life from childhood to adulthood, as well as detailing the grimy underbelly of mid-twentieth-century New York.

the godfather book
Photo: Amazon

Blanche on the Lam – Barbara Neely (1992)

Blanche on the Lam follows the life of Blanche White is a middle-aged African-American housekeeper who becomes the prime suspect in a murder case. As she stays on the run, while trying to solve the mystery of the case in real-time, Barbara Neely examines stereotypes of the Black body, as well as themes of racism and feminism.

blanche on the lam
Photo: Amazon

Dead Time – Eleanor Taylor Bland (1992)

Dead Time follows the story of African-American police detective Marti MacAlister. Following her move from the bustling city of Chicago, to the small town of Lincoln Prairie, the novel traces her encounter with the case of a homicidal, brutal serial killer, who is out to finish off the last remaining witnesses to his crime: two, young homeless kids.

dead time
Photo: Amazon

The Cutting Season – Attica Locke (2012)

Set on the fictitious Belle Vie plantation, run by a Black woman named Caren Gray. When a brutal murder upends the uneasy quiet of Belle Vie, Caren becomes determined to solve the case — a decision that launches her into a world of unimaginable peril. As reviewed in The Guardian: “Irresistibly reminiscent of Faulkner’s resigned maxim, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past”, The Cutting Season does what the best crime fiction is can do: it illuminates our present in the light of our past and explains us to ourselves.”

the cutting season crime novel
Photo: Amazon

Gone Girl – Gillian Flynn (2012)

Having gained fame for its 2012 film adaptation, Gone Girl is one of those stories that’s etched into cultural history. Gillian Flynn’s psychological thriller uses suspense and unreliable narration to detail the questions surrounding the disappearance of Amy Dunne, and the suspected involvement of her husband, Nick.

Investigating themes of “he-said, she-said,” duplicity, conflicting psychological dimensions, and feminism, the novel enjoyed the #1 position on the New York Times Hardcover Fiction Bestseller list for eight weeks, making it a bonafide critical and commercial success.

gone girl
Photo: Amazon

The Innocent – David Baldacci (2012)

The Innocent introduces Will Robbie, a highly-skilled U.S. government hit-man, as he navigates a clandestine, government-ordered operation gone wrong. With everything on the line, Robbie ends up on the run from the same people that he used to obey without question.

Accompanied by the teenage girl he was ordered to murder, Julie Getty, the pair embark on a journey that reveals the trappings of a corrupt and immensely powerful system. In a review by the Daily Mail, Baldacci has been described as “one of the world’s biggest-selling thriller writers, Baldacci needs no introduction. Brilliant plotting, heart-grabbing action, and characters to die for…” Need we say more?

Photo: David Baldacci

A Brief History of Seven Killings – Marlon James (2014)

Taking out the Booker Prize in 2015, A Brief History of Seven Killings is a sweeping epic that takes in the slums of Kingston, the gangs and the corrupt authorities that vie for power on its streets, and the struggle’s eventual spillover into the distant climes of New York City.

A devastating slice of historical fiction that spans the ’70s and ’80s, its stunning centrepiece is a recount of the real-life attempted assassination of reggae icon Bob Marley that’s been augmented by the imagination of the author. Rich in Jamaican dialect and intricately rendered characters, James’ magnum opus is a thrilling innovation on the form of the novel; a part of the crime genre while simultaneously transcending it.

a brief history of seven killings
Photo: Washington Post

The Girl on the Train – Paula Hawkins (2015)

Having sold millions of copies around the world, and being adapted into a critically-lauded 2016 film, The Girl on the Train is one of the most successful crime fiction novels in recent memory. At the time of publication, it was described as the next “Gone Girl” for its insane global success, and similar use of unreliable narrators.

The novel is narrated by three women: Rachel, Anna, and Megan, whose lives become inextricably intertwined by the murder of the latter. What ensues is a complex narrative of violence, themes of memory, love, and betrayal.

the girl on the train
Photo: Penguin

The Whites – Richard Price (2015)

Written under the pen name Harry Brandt, Richard Price’s crime fiction novel The Whites is a gritty drama detailing the life of Billy Graves, a New York City police detective. A decent family man, Graves is forced to confront his mysterious, dark past as part of the Wild Geese, a tight knight group of vigilante cops who policed one of the roughest precincts in the ’80s.

In a review by the Sydney Morning Herald, the story is described to go as follows: “all five surviving Wild Geese are haunted by crimes they failed to solve; perps they failed to put away. They call them “Whites” – like Herman Melville’s great white whale… It is almost impossible not to become enthralled by the tangled lives of these former compadres, all now so different, but sharing the same memories and fears.”

 

the whites crime novel
Photo: Amazon

Easy Motion Tourist – Leye Adenle (2016)

Leye Adenle’s Easy Motion Tourist is set in contemporary Lagos, Nigeria. It details the narrative of Guy Collins, a Black-British man who becomes a person of interest in the discovery of a woman’s mutilated body on Victoria Island.

As the protagonist becomes increasingly entangled in the dark criminal underworld of Nigeria, Easy Motion Tourist takes readers on a fast-paced, compelling journey of suspense and intrigue as Collins races to make sense of his new world, alongside a range of fascinating, colourful characters.

easy motion tourist
Photo: Amazon

The Dry – Jane Harper (2016)

Written by Australian writer Jane Harper, The Dry follows Federal Police investigator Aaron Falk. As he is called to use his investigative skills to uncover the mystery of a double-murder suicide charge laid on his childhood friend, Luke Hadler. As he digs deeper into the case, he begins to doubt the seemingly straight-froward nature of the crime, and dangerous secrets from his past are unearthed.

the dry
Photo: Amazon

Bluebird, Bluebird – Attica Locke (2017)

Attica Locke’s crime fiction novel Bluebird, Bluebird is the story of Darren Mathews, a Black Texas Ranger, who is called home to investigate a double murder in the small town of Lark, on the precipe of exploding with racial tension and resentment.

In a review by The Guardian, Bluebird, Bluebird is described as ” as much murder mystery as it is a meditation on race and on being loyal to one’s roots. It takes its title from a John Lee Hooker song and reflects the bluesman’s griefs. At the heart of the plot are family entanglements, both illicit and openly exposed like wounds. The pacing is expertly measured – though there are great surprises, they feel warranted and true.”

a&u bluebird
Photo: Allen & Unwin

My Sister, the Serial Killer – Oyinkan Braithwaite (2018)

My Sister, the Serial Killer is written from the perspective of a young Nigerian woman, Korede. Used to cleaning up the “messes” made by her sister Ayoola, who has killed three of her boyfriends in “self-defense,” Korede feels conflicted but always puts her family first. That is, until Ayoola starts dating a doctor from Korede’s work, with whom she’s long been in love. Darkly funny and entertaining, My Sister, the Serial Killer is an exploration of the ties that bond and break families.

my sister the serial killer
Photo: Allen and Unwin

Tell Me Your Secret – Dorothy Koomson (2019)

Ten years ago, journalist Pieta survived a kidnapping by a sadistic serial killer. Fifteen years ago, policewoman Jody made a horrendous mistake that allowed the same serial killer to go free. After Jody discovers Pieta’s secret as one of his living survivors, the pair embark on a journey to capture the criminal, before he gets to Pieta first.

tell me your secret crime novel
Photo: Hachette