I love a good mystery. And I definitely have my favorites. The following writers have confounded and entertained me and inspired me to write suspense novels. It was difficult to rank them, but here goes…
10. Enid Blyton
Enid Blyton, a British children’s writer, earns her spot on my list for her series of books about the Famous Five—four children aged 10 to 12, and a dog, Timothy. (British kids may remember the TV show.) The two boys and two girls are basically ordinary children, but they have cool adventures and solve mysteries, and captured my imagination with their independence and bravery. Blyton was an incredibly prolific writer from the 1940s through 1960s, creating nearly two dozen series (I’ve only read the Famous Five, though my mom grew up on the Adventurous Four) and something like 800 books. Her mysteries are creative and intelligent but not complicated, perfect for young readers eager to devour new stories. My favorite is still “Five Go Off in a Caravan,” silly title but great read.
9. A. A. Milne
I grew up reading and loving the Winnie the Pooh books, but as an adult I’ve come to appreciate A. A. Milne for his wonderfully perceptive articles, essays, plays, novels and one murder mystery, “The Red House Mystery.” I really wish he’d written more, because it’s a true classic. He mixes humor with sharp insight and a compassionate and candid portrayal of human nature. Detective stories this good really don’t come around all that often, I highly recommend checking it out.
8. Gypsy Rose Lee
Another surprising and entertaining mystery writer is the burlesque stripper Gypsy Rose Lee. Anyone who’s seen the musical or movie “Gypsy,” based on her memoir, knows something of her remarkable story, so I won’t go into it. She wrote two mysteries, “The G-String Murders,” based on her experiences working in a burlesque theater in the 1930s (it was so good that people didn’t believe she actually wrote it, which she did) and soon after “Mother Finds a Body,” both of which include herself as a fictionalized main character. They’re clever and hilarious. “The G-String Murders” was made into a 1943 movie starring Barbara Stanwyck, “Lady of Burlesque,” pretty faithful to though not as good as the original book.
7. Agatha Christie
Any mystery writer list, especially one as heavy with British writers as mine clearly is, has to include Agatha Christie. Her mysteries are phenomenal. There’s been so much written about her I really don’t feel like I have anything to add, except that I always enjoy her books more than I expect, and that “Murder on the Orient Express” and “Death on the Nile” are my favorites (I adore Hercule Poirot).
6. Mary Stewart
You won’t find Mary Stewart‘s books in the mystery section, she’s always in general fiction. But her suspenseful stories always include a mystery of some kind, and as I write similar books and call them mysteries I’m going to go ahead and classify Stewart as a mystery writer. Her books, written between the 1950s to 1990s (she’s currently semi-retired), are ingenious, suspenseful and romantic, with incredible attention to detail and rich foreign settings. Does it get any better than “The Moon-Spinners,” or “Nine Coaches Waiting,” or “Airs Above the Ground?” (“Airs” directly inspired the twist in my book “The Missing Tourist.”) The answer is no, it doesn’t.
5. Elizabeth Peters/Barbara Michaels
If I could give any one author credit for inspiring my writing, it would be Barbara Mertz. She’s not only a successful and popular writer of suspense and mystery novels, but also has a Ph.D. in Egyptology. I love her writing. I love her books. I’ve read and reread them more times than I can count. I wish I liked Amelia Peabody better, but that’s my only complaint. I have multiple favorites, but I’ll limit them to “The Copenhagen Connection” and “Shattered Silk.” Nobody does witty, well-researched escapist suspense like Mertz, who has creeped me out as many times as she’s made me laugh.
4. Ngaio Marsh
After having heard the name for years, I only began reading New Zealander Ngaio Marsh‘s mysteries this past summer. I discovered a shelf full of them in my mom’s collection and have been borrowing these jewels of paperbacks by the bagful. I’m mildly in love with Roderick Alleyn, I adore his wife, Troy, I relish the slightly dark tone of each book and the meticulously drawn characters and settings. There’s a reason she’s classed with Christie as one of the definitive mystery writers of the mid-20th century. She’s good. I have the hardest time guessing the villains in her books, they’re that tricky.
3. Patricia Wentworth
Now we’re really getting into my absolute favorites. Patricia Wentworth isn’t nearly as well known, or as dark, as her contemporaries, Christie and Marsh, but she was just as prolific and extremely talented, and if I had to choose I’d pick Wentworth every time. Miss Silver triumphs over Miss Marple in any spinster detective contest—for one thing, she’s actually a highly respected detective by profession, not just a nosy old maid. I have a much-loved collection of just about every Wentworth available and dive back into it regularly. Even though I already know who the murderer is, I continue enjoy the stories, the romances and the delicate unwrapping of clues.
2. Georgette Heyer
If this was a favorite writer list, Georgette Heyer would top it, though not just for her detective fiction. She’s best known for her 30+ delightful and enduring Regency novels—sparking off the popularity of the “Regency romance” with her unique wit, perception and style—and for her historical fiction. However, she also wrote 12 outstanding mysteries, set in the 1930s-40s, including my favorites, “Behold Here’s Poison,” “The Unfinished Clue,” “Why Shoot a Butler?” and “Footsteps in the Dark.” And “Duplicate Death.” Really they’re all awesome, thoroughly enjoyable and well-written. (Side note, “The Quiet Gentleman,” which I consider her very best Regency, doubles as a mystery, as do a few of the others.)
1. Dorothy Sayers
Can it be ANOTHER female British mystery writer from the 1930s-40s? Yes, it’s true. But honestly, Dorothy Sayers is a genre upon herself. This wildly intellectual scholar created two of the most likable and brilliant heroes in all of mystery—Lord Peter Wimsey and his wife, mystery writer Harriet Vane. I love each and every one of her books, from the collections of short stories to the incomprehensibly strange and complicated “Gaudy Night,” which has a mystery but no murder. My favorites are the later ones including Harriet, though “The Nine Tailors” and other early Lord Peter books are equally fascinating and complex. Sayers stopped writing mysteries during the war and focused on a translation of Dante’s “Divine Comedy,” but today her fans are insanely lucky to have new Lord Peter books to read, written with Sayers-worthy intelligence and sensitivity by Jill Paton Walsh.
And there it is, my favorite writers of suspense and mystery. Clearly I have a preference mid-century British women writers, though in spite of a common era, they each have their own unique perspective and style. I wouldn’t claim these are the best mystery writers (except maybe Sayers), or that Sir Arther Conan Doyle isn’t a genius, or that Dashiell Hammett’s Nick and Nora Charles aren’t two of the best characters ever created, not to mention Sam Spade. These are just my personal choices, the ones I read and re-read and never grow tired of.
So tell me, who would make your list?