46 Great 20th Century Crime Novels

Columns: RANK and point values (PTS) explained below; READ year is most recent reading (red color indicates read since August 2011 retirement, “+” indicates at least one earlier reading). See also 113 Great 20th Century Novels (titles italicized here appear on it at number indicated in parenthesis) and 45+ Great 20th Century SciFi/Fantasy Novels.

Current progress: read 33 of 46 novels (71%).

1 18,4,6 2012+ The Big Sleep (17) Raymond Chandler
2 16,5,1 2017 The Murder of Roger Ackroyd Agatha Christie
3 15,5,0 2018 The Three Coffins John Dickson Carr
3 15,5,0 2013+ The Talented Mr. Ripley Patricia Highsmith
3 15,5,0 2017 The Moving Toyshop Edmund Crispin
3 15,5,0 Smallbone Deceased Michael Gilbert
7 14,4,2 2012+ The Maltese Falcon (92) Dashiell Hammett
8 14,2,8 2013+ To Kill a Mockingbird (14) Harper Lee
9 13,5,0 Beast in View Margaret Millar
10 13,4,1 2016 The Postman Always Rings Twice James M. Cain
10 13,4,1 2018 A Coffin for Dimitrios Eric Ambler
12 12,4,2 2015 The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (92) John le Carre
13 12,4,0 2018 The Tiger in the Smoke Margery Allingham
13 12,4,0 2014+ The Nine Tailors Dorothy L. Sayers
13 12,4,0 2016 The Franchise Affair Josephine Tey
13 12,4,0 The Beast Must Die Nicholas Blake
13 12,4,0 2018 Sadie When She Died Ed McBain
13 12,4,0 2018 A Thief of Time Tony Hillerman
19 12,3,3 2017 Rebecca Daphne du Maurier
20 11,3,2 2017 The Thirty-Nine Steps John Buchan
21 10,4,0 2013+ The Long Goodbye Raymond Chandler
22 10,3,1 2014 Red Harvest Dashiell Hammett
23 10,2,4 1997 The Name of the Rose (109) Umberto Eco
24 9,3,0 Trent’s Last Case E.C. Bentley
24 9,3,0 2014 The Glass Key Dashiell Hammett
24 9,3,0 2019 The Friends of Eddie Coyle George V. Higgins
24 9,3,0 2018 The Fabulous Clipjoint Fredric Brown
24 9,3,0 2015 The Daughter of Time Josephine Tey
24 9,3,0 The Circular Staircase Mary Roberts Rinehart
24 9,3,0 Presumed Innocent Scott Turow
24 9,3,0 2012+ Murder Must Advertise Dorothy L. Sayers
24 9,3,0 Last Seen Wearing… Hillary Waugh
24 9,3,0 Hamlet, Revenge! Michael Innes
24 9,3,0 Green for Danger Christianna Brand
24 9,3,0 2011 Farewell, My Lovely Raymond Chandler
24 9,3,0 2019 Devil in a Blue Dress Walter Mosley
24 9,3,0 Crocodile on the Sandbank Elizabeth Peters
24 9,3,0 A Taste for Death P.D. James
24 9,3,0 A Judgement in Stone Ruth Rendell
24 9,3,0 2019 A is for Alibi Sue Grafton
41 9,2,3 2013 Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy John le Carre
42 8,3,1 2018 The Day of the Jackal Frederick Forsyth
43 7,3,0 2015+ The Laughing Policeman Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo
43 7,3,0 Dance Hall of the Dead Tony Hillerman
45 7,2,1 2011 The Killer Inside Me Jim Thompson
45 7,2,1 2014 Brighton Rock Graham Greene


I like to think of this category as the “Mysteries” list, but the genre has come to be known as “Crime fiction.” It makes sense, as many—most?—of the novels represented here are not mysteries in the Sherlockian sense.

There are 38 different authors on the above list. Hammett and Chandler each make the list three times (but Hammett’s The Thin Man does not!). Sayers, Le Carre, Tey and Hillerman each place two books.

This list was compiled similarly to my 113 Great 20th Century Novels. A novel must appear on one of five main source lists (below) to be considered. Three points were awarded for each appearance on these sources. One point was added for each appearance on any of the more general (non-crime-novel-specific) sources used to compile the 113 Great 20th Century Novels list, and one point was added for an Edgar award win.

The points column lists total points accumulated, number of “crime” source list appearances (the inclusion of Edgar Awards make a total of six possible, though no novel appeared on more than five), and lastly, points earned from general source lists.

Interestingly, a couple of books received significant boosts from appearances on the general lists. Chandler’s The Big Sleep vaulted to the number one spot on the strength of six points garnered in this way. Without them, it would have finished in a four-way tie at #9 and there would have been a five-way tie for the top spot. Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, on the other hand, would not have made the list at all without the eight points earned from the general sources. Her novel, in my opinion, doesn’t fit well in the crime genre, but two of the primary source lists include it.

Though I have long considered myself a big fan of mystery novels, I had only read seven of the 46 novels represented here before beginning this exercise. This shouldn’t be too surprising given that there is so much available–of variable quality–in this genre, and tastes vary widely. I have read all (and reread most) of Dorothy Sayers, much of Patricia Highsmith (all of her Ripley novels) and every one of Wahloo and Sjowall’s “Martin Beck” novels. All three novelists are represented here.

I have excluded Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes on the dubious grounds that Holmes is a “19th century character” (two of the novels and many of the short stories were actually published in the 20th century). I have read and reread all of Doyle’s Holmes as well as a considerable selection of the apocrypha.

See also: