How We Chose the 100 Best Mystery and Thriller Books of All Time

5 minute read

A dead body is found at the bottom of the stairs. A child is kidnapped. A wife vanishes without a trace. What happened? Who did it? And, perhaps most importantly, why? These are the questions that guide mystery and thriller books—and it’s the process of uncovering the answers that makes the genre so engaging. These are the novels that invite readers to investigate alongside hard-boiled detectives, aspiring sleuths, and hapless husbands, among others. In this world, anyone can be a hero or a villain. 

Which is why TIME set out to create a definitive list of the English language’s 100 Best Mystery and Thriller Books of All Time. We began in early 2023 by recruiting leading authors to sit on our panel: Megan Abbott, Harlan Coben, S.A. Cosby, Gillian Flynn, Tana French, Rachel Howzell Hall, and Sujata Massey. This group joined TIME staff in nominating the top books of the genre and rating more than 250 nominees on a scale. (Panelists did not put forward their own work.) Using the responses, TIME editors created a ranking, then evaluated each finalist, as well as additional titles, based on key factors including plot payoff, suspense, ambition, originality, critical and popular reception, and influence on the mystery and thriller genre and literature more broadly.

The resulting list features books that came out as long ago as 1860 and as recently as 2022, were originally published in 15 different countries, and are written by 100 distinct authors—no single writer’s work appears more than once. Taken together, the list celebrates books that offer a chance to escape, but also to interrogate the darkest parts of humanity—to become engrossed in these stories is to enter worlds both familiar and foreign, to put together the pieces of a perplexing plot, to think critically about what it means to be good and what it takes to be bad, and all that exists in the messy in-between.

In her introduction to the project, panelist and best-selling author Tana French reminds us of the genre’s impact, especially in increasingly turbulent times. “In a world that can often be chaotic and reasonless, we need these stories,” she writes. “We need to believe that sometimes things can fit together and make sense, even when that seems impossible; that someday our crisis will end and we’ll be able to leave it behind.”

Read More: Why Mystery Books Are So Satisfying

To catalog the best mystery and thriller books of all time means considering the history and evolution of the genre. The invention of the modern mystery is widely attributed to Edgar Allen Poe, who established many of the conventions we associate with detective stories—from the genius, amateur sleuth to the friendly narrator—when he published the 1841 short story “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.” Crime and suspense were present in fiction before Poe, but it was his series of tales featuring eccentric investigator C. Auguste Dupin that originally emphasized solving a mystery by gathering evidence. Since Poe primarily wrote short stories and poems, none of his titles are included on this list of novels. But his influence on the development of the literary mystery is evident in every selection. 

In 1860, Wilkie Collins published what is considered the first mystery novel, The Woman in White. The genre took off from there, progressing from the early detective stories of the 19th century (in which a sleuth solved a crime using logic and reason), to the so-called golden age of detective fiction of the interwar era (in which the “whodunnit” subgenre gained popularity), to the hardboiled crime heyday of the 1930s to the 1950s (featuring protagonists with especially steely exteriors), and beyond. Each of these periods saw the rise of their own respective mystery masters, from Arthur Conan Doyle to Agatha Christie to Raymond Chandler.

For the purposes of this list, TIME defined mysteries and thrillers as books that center on an unsolved crime or threatening circumstance, and the person or people determined to solve or prevent it. With those guidelines in mind, we also contended with the fact that the genre is wide-ranging, covering everything from classic noir to police procedural to cozy mystery to modern thriller—a subset whose notable rise is reflected in its strong presence on this list. 

The origins of the literary thriller can be traced back to ancient texts like The Odyssey, The Epic of Gilgamesh, and The Arabian Nights, while 19th-century works like James Fenimore Cooper’s 1821 Revolutionary War novel The Spy and Alexandre Dumas’ 1844 revenge classic The Count of Monte Cristo laid the groundwork for the modern form. Contemporary, domestic thrillers became especially popular in the 2010s with Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, a masterclass in the art of unreliable narration which followed the dissolution of a seemingly perfect marriage and set off a wave of copycats.

While working to create a list that reflects trends throughout this history, we also strove to contend with the stories that have been less represented in mainstream publishing. Throughout the 20th century and into the 21st, mystery books have long been dominated by white authors telling stories that center white characters. The genre, like the rest of the industry, has become more inclusive in recent years, but as panelist and best-selling author Rachel Howzell Hall argues in her essay for this project, there’s still a long way to go. “Publishing and marketing more diverse writers will help the world of books become richer, fuller,” she writes. “If you agree, pull up a chair. We got a bunch of stories to tell.”

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