I have written numerous times about how I first started reading mysteries -- with Nancy Drew and The Secret of Shadow Ranch. That led me to reading many of the juvenile mystery series that were available all those years ago, like Trixie Belden, the Hardy Boys, the Dana Girls, Judy Bolton, and numerous others. Later on, in college and grad school, I expanded my reading to English detective stories -- Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, and Margery Allingham -- and a few Americans, like Sue Grafton, Rex Stout, and Elizabeth Daly.
When I started working part-time at Murder by the Book in Houston in 1984, I suddenly had at my fingertips a whole new world of mysteries. I began soaking up all the information I could about mysteries and their history. The more I read, the more my interest in the history of the genre grew. Perhaps that was to be expected, since in those days I was working on a Ph.D. in medieval history. I've always loved history, and I loved mysteries, so it seemed natural to dig further into the development of mystery fiction.
That digging consisted not only of reading non-fiction about mysteries but also reading the mysteries themselves -- books by writers who had somehow fallen into obscurity, or nearly so, although they were once hugely popular. Writers like Anna Katharine Green, Mary Elizabeth Braddon, R. Austin Freeman, E.C.R. Lorac, and Catherine Louisa Pirkis, for example. I found many good books along the way and discovered that the mystery genre is rich with variety. Many readers -- and writers -- of mysteries know the big names, like Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Raymond Chandler, and Dashiell Hammett, and these writers deserve to be remembered as cornerstones of the genre. But there are so many other writers, far less well-known these days, who are worth reading and worth remembering for their entertaining work.
I could easily list several hundred books that I think any mystery devoté should read, but for those interested in exploring the history of the mystery novel and how it evolved, here's a list of my essentials.
- The Woman in White and The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins
- Lady Audley's Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon
- The Leavenworth Case and That Affair Next Door by Anna Katharine Green
- The Red Thumb Mark by R. Austin Freeman
- The Circular Staircase by Mary Roberts Rinehart
- The Patient in Room 18 by Mignon G. Eberhart
- Thou Shell of Death by Nicholas Blake
- Seven Suspects (apa Death at the President's Lodging) by Michael Innes
- The Poisoned Chocolates Case by Anthony Berkeley
- Malice Aforethought by Francis Iles
- Murders in Volume 2 by Elizabeth Daly
- Fer-de-Lance by Rex Stout
- Death of a Ghost and Police at the Funeral by Margery Allingham
- The House Without a Key by Earl Derr Biggers
- The Cask by Freeman Wills Crofts
- Death in the Tunnel by Miles Burton
- Vegetable Duck by John Rhode
- Murder by Matchlight by E.C.R. Lorac
- The Franchise Affair by Josephine Tey
- Beast in View and The Listening Walls by Margaret Millar
- Rising of the Moon by Gladys Mitchell
- The Turquoise Shop by Frances Crane
- The Norths Meet Murder by Frances and Richard Lockridge
- The Kahuna Killer by Juanita Sheridan
- The Moving Toyshop by Edmund Crispin
I could keep adding titles and authors, but this is a good start. Some may quibble with certain authors and titles on this list, but if you read them all, you'll discover an interesting array of styles, characters, plots, and settings. I have not listed books by the best known writers of yesteryear, instead focusing on writers who don't seem to be as well known these days. It's eclectic, but each of the books is, I think, still highly readable today.