May is Mystery Month—and we are here to celebrate one of our—and your!—favorite genres. The best mystery books take you on an adventure—they provide both a thrill and the satisfaction of puzzling out the clues left by the author. But we don’t want it to be that easy; the mystery books that keep you guessing until the very last page are some of the most thrilling.
From cozy mysteries to classic whodunits, from crime novels to legal thrillers, this list will walk you through some of the most popular mystery subgenres—and recommendations of the best of the best in each. From classic mystery novels to modern reinventions of the mystery genre, you’re sure to find a mystery book—or two or three!—to satisfy your cravings for adventure this Mystery Month, and beyond!
When you think of a classic mystery book, you’re probably thinking of a whodunit. But what does “whodunit” mean? The term is a shortened version of the question at the heart of all murder mysteries: “who [has] done it?” Whodunit books follow a detective as they try to answer that question, gathering clues all the while. Readers usually get the same clues at the same time as the story’s sleuth, so books in the whodunit genre usually contain an opportunity to solve the mystery before the truth is actually revealed.
A Study in Scarlet
The story that introduced the world to Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson sees the dynamic duo on their first case together. When an American man is found dead with the word “rache” spelled in blood on the wall, Scotland Yard has little idea where to start. After another body is found with the same word nearby, Holmes and Watson will have to use all their skills of deduction to track down a killer.
Green for Danger
In a military hospital in the English countryside during World War II, the doctors and nurses find themselves dealing with a lot more than the threat of German bombs when a patient dies before his routine surgery can even begin. When Scotland Yard Detective Inspector Cockrill is sent in, he finds the hospital overflowing with bitterness and lies. Someone among the staff is a murderer, and if Cockrill doesn’t figure out whodunit, they will kill again.
Cozy Mystery Books
Cozy mysteries are one of the most popular murder mystery fiction subgenres today. Cozies usually follow an amateur sleuth taking on the case in a small town with a close-knit community. Any sex and violence that occur in the story happen off-page. While these books are certainly still page-turners, the overall tone of cozy mysteries is more comforting than their hard-boiled counterparts.
A Morbid Taste for Bones
This is the first installment in Ellis Peters’ beloved Brother Cadfael series which has spawned stage, radio, and TV adaptations. In the 12th century, Benedictine monk Brother Cadfael is sent to his native Wales with a group of monks to serve as a translator between them and the people of Gwytherin, where they are going to collect the remains of Saint Winifred. But when the loudest voice for keeping the grave intact is found dead, suspicions run wild. Now it’s up to Brother Cadfael to find a murderer in the midst of this holy mess.
Chocolate Chip Cookie Murder
This first installment in the New York Times-bestselling series follows Minnesota baker-turned amateur sleuth, Hannah Swensen. Hannah lives a pretty normal life baking cookies at her shop, The Cookie Jar, for the people of Lake Eden, Minnesota until the delivery man for the local dairy shop is found murdered behind her bakery. Caught up in the investigation, Hannah sets out to find the real killer, but if she’s not careful, she may wind up their next target.
Locked Room Mysteries
Locked-room mystery books are especially addicting because they deal with seemingly impossible crimes—in fact, they are sometimes also referred to as “impossible crime” mysteries. The setup typically involves a crime committed in such a way that it seems the perpetrator should not have been able to escape without detection—for example, a person who was murdered inside a locked room. Hence, locked-room mysteries! Here are some of our favorites.
The Mysterious Affair at Styles
Does it surprise you to see the Queen of Crime, Dame Agatha Christie, at the top of our list of locked-room mystery suggestions? It shouldn’t! She was the Queen of the Queens for a reason! Not only is The Mysterious Affair at Styles a remarkable locked room mystery book, it’s also the book that started it all! It is the first case for Hercule Peroit—Christie’s now-iconic detective. Why not go back to the very beginning?
Related: 8 Must-Read Classic Crime Books
The Case of the Solid Key
Anthony Boucher was an Edgar Award-winning mystery review and greatly revered editor of the Hugo Award-winning Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction—and he had a deep love of locked room mysteries. In The Case of the Solid Key, theater director Rupert Carruthers recently took out a joint policy on the Curruthers Little Theater with playwright Lewis Jordan. And when Carruthers meets an explosive—and untimely—end behind a locked door, Los Angeles PI Fergus O’Breen is tasked with determining whether there was foul play. The theater is full of secrets—and no one in the troupe seems entirely trustworthy. O’Breen has to get to the bottom of it before someone else is hurt—or worse.
Somewhere in the House
Elizabeth Daly is known as Agatha Christie’s favorite American author—and for good reason. In Somewhere in the House, amateur sleuth Henry Gamadge finds that a locked room in a family mansion holds much more than a dead woman’s life fortune. This exciting locked room mystery novel will keep you guessing until the very end.
Who doesn’t love books about books? If you’re a book lover, you understand the appeal. In general, bookworms love the bookstore aesthetic; mention someone’s favorite bookstore and they’ll be able to tell you exactly how it smells. Book lovers understand that books themselves have a certain mystique—they contain secrets, clues, and adventures. A bibliomystery is a mystery book set in the world of books—bookstores, libraries, rare book dealers, etc. This genre can get Inception-style very quickly: often including a book within a book within a book. Below are some of the best bibliomystery books!
Murder by the Book
Addie Greyborne is just setting up her newly-opened bookshop when someone breaks in and steals a copy of Alice in Wonderland. When her friend Serena—who runs the tea shop next door—is arrested for killing another local merchant, Addie is certain something is amiss. She was hoping for some peace and quiet in her small New England bookstore, but the town has other plans.
The Secret, Book & Scone Society
If you love mystery novels that revolve around books, then you will adore The Secret, Book and Scone Society. Nora Pennington has a special talent: she can choose the exact right book to soothe a person’s deepest pain. She is going to give just the right book to a visiting businessman who came to her for help—but he’s found dead before that can happen. Devastated, Nora forms a secret society—in which members must divulge their darkest secrets. This group of damaged souls longs to redeem themselves by offering kindness to others. These women meet in the cozy bookstore to discuss the businessman’s untimely death—and unravel the web of lies and corruption that untangles before them.
In yet another Elizabeth Daly classic, rare book expert and amateur sleuth Henry Gamadge spends his coastal Maine vacation investigating the strange deaths of a troupe of summer stock actors. A large inheritance, a secret nighttime meeting, and a lot of questions without answers. Gamadge is just the sleuth for the job.
Puzzle Mystery Books
While all mysteries are puzzles in a way, puzzle mystery books always involve a kind of puzzle—such as codes, ciphers, or even crossword puzzles—that leads the sleuth to the answers they’re seeking. The whodunit doesn’t just involve a list of suspects, but a path of clues specifically left by someone that will lead to the culprit.
The Westing Game
After the death of eccentric millionaire Samuel W. Westing, 16 people gather for the reading of his will. Though they should have known that this would never be a normal reading. Each of them are given $10,000 and a set of clues. If they follow them correctly, they will inherit his millions. But as the game goes on, it becomes clear that one of the contestants might be willing to kill to win.
After serving as his editor for many years, Susan Ryeland thinks she knows Alan Conway’s writing style fairly well. But as she reads the bestselling author’s latest manuscript, another story featuring his detective Atticus Pünd as he investigates a murder at Pye Hall, a local manor house, she begins to think there’s something more going on. Susan is beginning to think that a real mystery lies just beneath the surface of Alan’s words, with a very real murder in need of solving.
The Crossword Murder
Nero Blanc is beloved by mystery readers—and with good reason. His books are clever, entertaining, and savored by both mystery-lovers and crossword-puzzle enthusiasts. When crossword editor Thompson C. Briephs is found strangled to death in his bed, the police believe he died from a kinky sex mishap. But PI Rosco Polycrates believes something more nefarious is going on—and he enlists the help of Annabelle Graham, the crossword editor from a rival paper, to help him solve the mystery. The first in a series of crossword puzzle mystery books, The Crossword Murder gives readers a chance to solve both the crime and six crossword puzzles.
Police Procedurals and Detective Mystery Books
Police procedural, as well as detective books, hone in on the investigative procedure a police department or individual private detective utilizes to solve a case. While a personal narrative might be included in the story, the gathering of evidence and other police tactics—like an interrogation—hold the highest importance within the story. Most police procedural novels withhold the perpetrator’s identity until the narrative climax, but this genre also contains inverted detective stories.
A Wicked Snow
When Hannah Griffin was a girl, her life was struck by tragedy—flames consuming snow, bodies, like her mother’s, unearthed by the police, and a killer never found. 20 years later, Hannah works as a Crime Scene Investigator. As she looks into a child abuse case, her past comes in full force with an eerie anonymous message: “Your Mom called.”
Dressed for Death
Donna Leon’s riveting Commissario Brunetti mystery series transports readers to Venice, Italy—where intrigue courses through the narrow streets. In Dressed for Death, Commisario Guido Brunetti finds a body in Marghera so badly beaten the victim is unrecognizable. He must scour Venice for someone who can put a name to the corpse. He’s met with resounding silence—until a contact calls him with the promise of some tempting information. But as night falls, another senseless death is waiting for him.
Dorothy Simpson's Inspector Thanet mystery series is iconic in the world of detective fiction and police procedurals. The superintendent of Sturrenden police station has just retired after 20 years, leaving Det. Inspector Luke Thanet to report to his new chief—an ambitious Cardiff upstart, who brings the chaos of infighting and turf wars. With all the politics flying overhead, it’s almost a relief for Thanet to investigate the suspicious death of powerful businesswoman Marcia Salden.
While the legal thriller subgenre may recognize evidence and police involvement, the meat of the story takes place in a courtroom—rather than out in the investigatory field. The heroes of these stories are the lawyers and judges, fighting for a victim’s justice or to prove the ultimate innocence of the accused. Legal thriller novels are more inclined to tackle social issues, including everything from racial discrimination to a debate on the death penalty.
A Matter of Conviction
In the wake of a New York City, three boys cross into Spanish Harlem with knives in their pockets, spoiling for a fight. After spotting one of their victims, they surround him and slide their weapons into his gut. When the boy dies, panic grips the city, leaving Harlem-born district attorney Hank Bell to keep bloody anarchy from sprouting in his unraveling city.
The Hanging Judge
In Holyoke Massachusetts, a drive-by shooting kills a drug dealer and a hockey mom volunteering at an inner-city clinic. When a rival gang member is arrested, the US attorney shifts the double homicide to federal court so that the death penalty may be pursued. The Honorable David S. Norcross has only been on the bench for two years, and now he’s presiding over the first death penalty case in the state for decades.
Crime fiction books broaden the mystery genre. Crime fiction encompasses not just mystery elements, but thriller elements as well. Opening the door to more than murder, crime books cover heists, drug trafficking, gang activity, kidnapping, and any other serious crime.
19 Purchase Street
In order to avenge the death of a loved one, Drew Gainer joins the money-laundering scheme of an elite suburban Mafia. With the help of a beautiful woman, he plans to steal a billion dollars from the ruthless, WASPish dons.
When Walter Farr’s son is caught trafficking cocaine, he vows to do everything he can to take down the Colombian drug lords who sold it to him. Though Walter has accrued a fortune as a financial advisor, the one thing he could never buy was a relationship with his son. Now he’ll risk everything to aid the FBI and keep his son from going to jail for life.
The Vanishing Point
Val McDermid is a master of "tartan noir." Stephanie Harker is in the process of adopting five-year-old Jimmy Higgins. While she’s getting screened at airport security in an international airport, a man in a TSA uniform leads the young boy away. Stephanie’s panic only makes the security agents suspect her of trouble—while all the while the kidnapper gets away. FBI agent Vivian McKuras and Scotland Yard Detective Nick Nicolaides step in to investigate this case which gets more complicated by the minute.
Many people conflate noir fiction books with hard-boiled fiction, and while the two are closely linked, they aren’t quite the same thing. Both mystery subgenres are dark and gritty, but the difference lies in the morality of the protagonist. Unlike in hard-boiled stories, noir fiction protagonists rarely finish their stories with a clean slate—morally speaking.
The Postman Always Rings Twice
Banned in Boston upon its publication in 1934 for its frank depictions of violence and sex, The Postman Always Rings Twice’s reputation precedes it. It tells the story of Frank Chambers, a drifter who winds up working at a small diner in California. Frank soon starts up an affair with the beautiful diner owner Cora who is in a loveless marriage to the much older Nick. Eventually, Frank and Cora hatch a plan to murder Nick and continue to run the restaurant together.
Graham Greene is a legendary author of suspenseful noir. Brought up in the slums of Brighton, all Pinkie Brown has ever known is violence. When his gang’s escapades leave an informant dead, Pinkie has to act fast to escape detection. He finds an out in Rose, a waitress who he soon marries and who will serve as his alibi. But his perfect plan hits an unexpected snag when he discovers someone else is tracking him.