As usual, it’s been a while since I’ve participated in a Top Ten Tuesday topic, but I couldn’t resist this back-to-school freebie! The topic asks for anything school-related, so my list is going to be the top 10 books I’d put on the syllabus for a “Mystery Novel 101” course, in (roughly) chronological order:
1. Edgar Allan Poe, “The Purloined Letter” and “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” — Technically these are short stories, but Poe is, according to the Poe Museum website, “widely acknowledged as the inventor of the modern detective story.” Both of these stories are notable for their surprise endings, although the solution to “Rue Morgue” would be considered insulting by most contemporary mystery lovers!
2. Wilkie Collins, The Moonstone — This one is remarkable for its use of mutliple points of view to describe the crime, the theft of a valuable jewel. It also exemplifies the sensationalism (and, unfortunately, Orientalism) typical of some 19th-century British literature, but it’s still a very compelling and suspenseful story.
3. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes — Obviously this list wouldn’t be complete without some Holmes and Watson on it! I picked Memoirs, even though it’s not the first collection of Sherlock stories, because it contains some of the canon’s most notable moments, including the introduction of Mycroft (“The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter”) and the dramatic confrontation with Moriarty (“The Final Problem”).
4-5. Agatha Christie, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and Murder on the Orient Express — I may be a bit biased because I fell in love with Dame Agatha’s novels at an impressionable age, but I couldn’t resist including two of her most famous novels! Both of them have twist endings, and while they may not be very shocking now, that’s only because so many other authors have followed in her footsteps! Also, “30 Rock” did an amazing homage to Orient Express in episode 515, “It’s Never Too Late for Now.”
6. Anthony Berkeley, The Poisoned Chocolates Case — I don’t remember how I first came across this book, but I do remember my utter delight upon finishing it! This novel is a perfect example (and send-up) of the mystery tropes and conventions that, in 1929, had already become popular enough to satirize. Six armchair detectives each propose a solution to a murder, and each of them is amazingly plausible and clever (although, of course, only one is correct)!
7. Vera Caspary, Laura — I had to include a noir crime novel on the list, and while I could have gone with The Maltese Falcon or The Thin Man, I decided on Laura for the purely subjective reason that I really love the movie! But the novel is quite clever as well, and it uses the Wilkie Collins-esque technique of multiple narrators, some of whom are not exactly reliable.
8. Something by John Dickson Carr — Here I must admit with shame that I actually haven’t read anything by John Dickson Carr, despite his prolific career spanning the 1930s to the 1970s. But he is generally acknowledged to be the master of the “locked room” or impossible crime, a genre that has proved to be both popular and long-lasting.
9. Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, The Laughing Policeman — Scandi-crime has become popular in recent years, but in the 1960s, Sjöwall and Wahlöö were among the first Scandinavian mystery writers to gain fame in the US. This novel, an installment in the Martin Beck series, deals with a mass shooting on a public bus where one of the victims is a policeman. It’s a wonderful procedural that realistically describes the routines, the tedium, and the false starts that plague real-life criminal investigations.
10. Luis Fernando Verissimo, Borges and the Eternal Orangutans — Possibly the strangest book on the list, this novel is an homage to Edgar Allan Poe by way of Jorge Luis Borges. It’s hard to describe without giving too much away, but it’s very clever and a very quick read!