Top 20 detective novels reviewed

One of the top 20 of 200 detective novels reviewed.The 20 detective novels listed below may not be the 20 “best” detective novels, even by my uniquely idiosyncratic criteria. I’d read a lot of work in the genre even before I began writing these reviews in January 2010—and there are tens, maybe hundreds of thousands of detective novels I’ve never read. For what it’s worth, I gave every one of these 20 books a rating of @@@@@ (5 out of 5).

In this list of the top 20, I’ve arbitrarily limited myself to one book per author, which is significant because several of the authors might easily appear here multiple times. Below, I’ve listed more than 200 other excellent detective novels reviewed here. I’ve assigned nearly all of them either a 4- or 5-@ rating. In other words, you’ll find here only the best of those I’ve read and reviewed here to date. As you can see, many authors appear numerous times. When I find a series of novels that I like, I usually try to read them all from the first book to the latest.

In both lists, books are listed alphabetically by the authors’ last names.

Keep in mind that every one of these 200+ suspenseful detective novels is linked to the review I posted on this site.

The 20 top detective novels reviewed here

A Conspiracy of Faith (Department Q #3), by Jussi Adler-Olsen

In the third novel in Adler-Olsen’s extraordinary Department Q series, the three misfits of the Copenhagen Police’s cold case department wrestle with fiendishly complex investigations involving a message in a bottle, religious fanaticism, kidnapping, serial murder, arson, and gang warfare. Carl Mørck heads the team. He is assisted by Hafez el-Asaad, a brilliant Syrian refugee with a mysterious past, and a schizophrenic “secretary” named Rose who rarely follows orders. It sounds foolishly complicated and more than a little silly, but it works beautifully.

A Stained White Radiance (Dave Robicheaux #5), by James Lee Burke

James Lee Burke is hands down the most accomplished literary stylist in the crime genre. His series of novels featuring Detective Dave Robicheaux of the New Iberia Parish (Louisiana) Sheriff’s Department evokes the rural South in all its lyrical beauty and suppressed violence. A Stained White Radiance, the fifth book in the series, involves Klansmen, Nazis, and Mafia wiseguys. Dave takes on the bad guys with the support of his loving family and of his former partner on the New Orleans Police Department, Cletus Purcell.

The Crossing (Harry Bosch #18), by Michael Connelly

In one of the most recent entries in Michael Connelly’s bestselling series featuring LAPD Detective Harry Bosch, the now-retired investigator teams up with his half-brother, Mickey Haller, the protagonist of another of Connelly’s long-running series of crime novels. In this hybrid work—a police procedural and a courtroom drama rolled into one—Harry has “crossed over” to the defense to work with Mickey on a fascinating capital murder case.

And Justice There is None (Duncan Kincaid & Gemma James #8), by Deborah Crombie

Detective Inspector Gemma James and her former partner and current lover, Superintendent Duncan Kincaid, make the big move into a home together in Deborah Crombie’s excellent murder mystery series chronicling their rise through the ranks in the Metropolitan Police. In this entry in the series, the mystery unfolds against the backdrop of the London antiques trade.

A Banquet of Consequences (Inspector Lynley #19), by Elizabeth George

The aristocratic Inspector Thomas Lynley and his brilliant but exasperating partner at New Scotland Yard, Detective Barbara Havers, become embroiled in a murder mystery involving a famous feminist author. Meanwhile, Lynley and Havers wrestle with their personal demons. On the surface, this is a simple whodunit, but the psychological depth of George’s character development lifts this (and other novels she’s written) far out of the realm of detective fiction.

IQ (IQ #1), by Joe Ide

This is the only debut novel among the 15 books listed here. Japanese-American screenwriter Joe Ide writes about a brilliant, self-taught young man in East Long Beach, California, who puts to work his unique deductive skills to solve crimes involving poor people in African-American and Latino neighborhoods. IQ is Isaiah Quintabe. In this, the first book of a series, IQ shows up the police by solving a case forced on him by a wealthy rap star whose life has been threatened. All the while, he pursues the identity of the person who killed his older brother while IQ was in high school.

A Man Without Breath (Bernie Gunther #9), by Philip Kerr

Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther novels are all grounded in the history of Nazi Germany. They frequently feature historical figures, many of them famous. In the ninth book of the series, Bernie conducts a wartime investigation for the German military about the 1940 massacre of 22,000 Polish officers by Josef Stalin’s NKVD. The event entered into history as the Katyn Forest Massacre. The cast of characters includes Field Marshall Günther von Kluge, Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, as well as Josef Goebbels and a host of lesser-known, real-world officials in World War II Germany. Even Adolf Hitler lurks behind the curtain, stage right, in a critical episode in the novel.

How It Happened, by Michael Koryta

As this standalone novel opens, a young woman named Kimberly (Kimmy) Crepeaux is confessing to taking part in a pair of gruesome murders. Rob Barrett, the FBI agent sent to Maine to interview her, has finally found his patience paying off. Now, after two months of interrogating Kimmy, he understands at last what happened. Or does he? When Rob and his local partner, Lieutenant Don Johansson of the Maine State Police, go to a nearby pond to uncover the bodies, there are no bodies to be found.

The Preacher (Fjällbacka #2), by Camilla Läckberg

Camilla Läckberg writes about the partnership between Detective Patrik Hedström and real-crime writer Ericka Falck in the Swedish seaside town of Fjällbacka. In The Preacher, Patrik is drawn into a seemingly unsolvable case involving the murder of three teenage girls decades apart. His efforts are frustrated by two older, incompetent police officers and a boss of limited intelligence who claims every success as his own. Meanwhile, Ericka is struggling through a difficult pregnancy. The preacher of the title is a Bible-thumping fundamentalist who plays a major role in the story. Läckberg is reported to be the most successful native author in Swedish history.

Bluebird Bluebird by Attica Locke

Two bodies have turned up in quick succession in a small town in hardscrabble East Texas. The sheriff is inclined to treat them as unconnected. But not so Darren Matthews, a Texas Ranger who has come to town at the urging of a friend in the FBI who suspects larger forces at work there. An African-American, Darren fears a connection with the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas (ABT), a violent racist gang enriched by drug smuggling.

The Double Comfort Safari Club (#1 Ladies Detective Agency #11) by Alexander McCall Smith

For any reader looking for respite from the unrelenting violence of the world we live in, The Double Comfort Safari Club is a worthy antidote. The characters in this novel “. . . talked about all sorts of things . . .: about weddings and children and money. About cattle. About jealousy and envy and love. About cakes. About friends and enemies and people they remembered who had gone away, or changed, or even died. About everything, really.” About everything, indeed. The #1 Ladies Detective Agency Series is less a collection of detective stories than a continuing portrait of a fascinating worldview unfamiliar to most North Americans.

The Leopard (Harry Hole #8), by Jo Nesbø

Detective Harry Hole of the Oslo Police Department is the protagonist of a long and ongoing series of bestselling novels by Jo Nesbø. Harry is an alcoholic who frequently descends into deep depression, sometimes over his difficult personal life, sometimes over the mysteries he is investigating. The Leopard portrays the conflicted homicide cop in the depth of his complexity, pursuing a fiendish serial killer from Norway to the Congo.

The Ghosts of Belfast (Belfast #1) by Stuart Neville

You may never have read a murder mystery like this one. The protagonist, Gerry Fegan, is a former hit man for the IRA responsible for the deaths of twelve people (the “ghosts” of the title), and it’s never much of a mystery when he begins killing again. The mystery lies deeper, somewhere in the vicinity of his stunted family life and the treacherous relationships among the others in his violence-prone faction. As Fegan reflects, “You can’t choose where you belong, and where you don’t. But what if the place you don’t belong is the only place you have left?”

Brush Back (V. I. Warshawski #17), by Sara Paretsky

Sara Paretsky’s excellent series of V.I. Warshawski detective novels revolves around the widespread political corruption in her hometown, Chicago. Though by no means a superhero, V.I. is sometimes referred to as “Chicago’s best investigator.” In Brush Back, she investigates an alleged murder committed by her much-revered cousin, the late Bernard “Boom-Boom” Warshawski, a legendary star on the Chicago Blackhawks hockey team. As V.I. pursues the case in the face of a painful media storm, she comes up against the powers-that-be in her old neighborhood—and their connections to much higher places in the firmament of Chicago politics.

The Black Book (Inspector Rebus #5) by Ian Rankin

Read any one of the 21 novels published to date in the Inspector Rebus series, and you will have no doubt that Ian Rankin, is a native Scotsman, and proud of it. You’ll rush to the dictionary from time to time to look up strange words known only to the inhabitants of that cold and rainy land. And you’ll read about people actually eating haggis—willingly! (They even ask for it in restaurants!) This is all evident in The Black Book, the fifth entry in the series, a more mature effort than the four novels that precede it. John Rebus seems to have grown into his skin.

Rough Country (Virgil Flowers #3) by John Sandford

Virgil Flowers is one of the most interesting characters in detective fiction today. He’s the top investigator in the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension. His boss, Lucas Davenport, gives him only the toughest cases. But he is in no way a stereotype. For one thing, he doesn’t like guns, and he hates shooting people. Rough Country, the third book in the Virgil Flowers series, opens with the murder of Erica McDill, a partner in a prominent Minneapolis advertising agency at a resort for women-only in the state’s lake country.

Triptych (Will Trent #1), by Karin Slaughter

Karin Slaughter’s ongoing series features Agent Will Trent of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. A functional illiterate due to profound dyslexia, Will has nonetheless acquired both a college degree and a doctorate in criminology. He is regarded as one of the bureau’s finest investigators. Triptych is the first novel in a series that now includes ten novels with an eleventh on the way. In collaboration with his on-again, off-again wife, Angie Polaski, and two local cops, Will heads an investigation into serial rape and murder.

Victory Square (Yalta Boulevard #5), by Olen Steinhauer

Espionage novelist Olen Steinhauer earlier wrote a cycle of five detective novels set in a fictional Communist Central European country. The cycle spans the years from 1948, when the Soviet Empire consolidated its hold on the nations directly to its West, until 1990, when the USSR and the Warsaw Pact collapsed. Victory Square is the final novel in the cycle. The events in the book are based on the fall of Nicolae Ceausescu’s brutal dictatorial regime in Romania. An aging homicide cop, Emil Brod, now Chief of the Militia, is just days from retirement. A new case forces him to contend with an unraveling government, a series of shocking murders, and a best friend engaged at the very center of the revolutionary movement.

The Crow Girl, by Erik Axl Sund

If you favor mysteries and thrillers full of surprises, you’ll love The Crow Girl by the Swedish writing team that publishes under the name Erik Axl Sund. No matter how shrewd and analytical you might be, I predict that you won’t figure out who’s who and what’s what until at least close to the end of this staggeringly complex novel. And, unless you read at a blistering pace, this is not a book you’ll finish at one sitting: the hardcover edition runs to 784 pages. To say that I enjoyed this novel would be misleading. At times it’s gruesome beyond belief. And I found the constant use of long Swedish place names distracting. Yet the writing is devilishly clever. It’s difficult to put the book down. In fact, I found it impossible.

Among the Mad (Maisie Dobbs #6), by Jacqueline Winspear

Jacqueline Winspear’s unusual historical detective novels feature the “psychologist and investigator” Maisie Dobbs, who operates as an “inquiry agent” in England during the 1930s. In Among the Mad, Maisie and her sidekick, Billy Beale, are pressed into service by New Scotland Yard’s secretive Special Branch, charged with finding a man who has threatened the Prime Minister himself. The action unfolds over the last week of 1931 and the first month of 1932, a time when Britain was experiencing the worst of the Great Depression. As its title suggests, one of the book’s overarching themes is the primitive care of mental illness in that era. The persistent impacts of World War I loom large, most immediately in the thousands of veterans suffering from what today we would call PTSD.

200+ other excellent detective novels reviewed here

The list below includes several examples of series in which you’ll find many titles. Some are continuous. In others, one or more numbers in the series are missing. Possible reasons include that I read and assigned a rating lower than @@@@ or @@@@@, I’ve listed the title in the top 20, or I haven’t yet gotten around to reading the book.

Jussi Adler-Olsen’s Department Q Series

The John Madden series by Rennie Airth

Case Histories (Jackson Brodie #1) by Kate Atkinson

The Dark Lake, by Sarah Bailey

Disciple of the Dog by R. Scott Bakker

The Black-Eyed Blonde: A Philip Marlowe Novel by Benjamin Black (John Banville)

A Tap on the Window by Linwood Barclay

The Second Rider (Inspector Emmerich #1) by Alex Beer

The Long and Faraway Gone by Lou Berney

Cara Black’s Aimee Leduc Novels

The Last Six Million Seconds by John Burdett

James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux Series

The Big Sleep (Philip Marlowe #1) by Raymond Chandler

Hidden Moon (Inspector O #2) by James Church

Where It Hurts (Gus Murphy #1) by Reed Farrel Coleman

Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch Series

The Late Show, by Michael Connelly

Dark Sacred Night (Renee Ballard and Harry Bosch #1) by Michael Connelly

The Night Fire (Renee Ballard and Harry Bosch #2) by Michael Connelly

The Monkey’s Raincoat (Elvis Cole and Joe Pike #1) by Robert Crais

Deborah Crombie’s Duncan Kincaid & Gemma James novels

A Credible Threat (Jeri Howard #6) by Janet Dawson

Old Bones (Gideon Oliver #4) by Aaron Elkins

Curses! (Gideon Oliver #5) by Aaron Elkins

The Black Dahlia by James Ellroy

Seven Days Dead (Storm Murders Trilogy #2) by John Farrow

The Laws of Murder (Charles Lenox #8) by Charles Finch

The Nick Heller novels by Joseph Finder

The Zero Hour by Joseph Finder

Faithful Place (Dublin Murder Squad #3), by Tana French

Broken Harbor (Dublin Murder Squad #4) by Tana French

Crash and Burn by Lisa Gardner

Elizabeth George’s Inspector Lynley Series

The Groucho Marx Mysteries by Ron Goulart

Last Looks, by Howard Michael Gould

Tarquin Hall’s Vish Puri series

Red Harvest (Continental Op #1) by Dashiell Hammett

The Governor’s Wife (Michael Kelly #5) by Michael Harvey

Bad Monkey by Carl Hiaasen

Dance Hall of the Dead (Leaphorn and Chee #2), by Tony Hillerman

The Bitter Season (Kovac and Liska #5) by Tami Hoag

The IQ novels by Joe Ide

Stan Jones’ Nathan Active novels

Death of a Dissident (Inspector Porfiry Rostnikov #1) by Stuart M. Kaminsky

The Peter Decker and Rina Lazarus series from Faye Kellerman

Jonathan Kellerman’s Alex Delaware series

The Dime, by Kathleen Kent

The Fire Witness (Joona Linna #3) by Lars Kepler

The Bernie Gunther series by Philip Kerr

Camilla Läckberg’s Fjallbacka novels

Chameleon People (K2 and Patricia #4) by Hans Olav Lahlum

Japantown (Jim Brodie #1) by Barry Lancet

Death in Shanghai (Inspector Danilov #1) by M. J. Lee

Save Me from Dangerous Men (Nikki Griffin #1) by S. A. Lelchuk

The Commissario Brunetti series by Donna Leon

Damage (Abe Glitsky #3) by John Lescroart

Peter Lovesey’s Peter Diamond novels

The Troubled Man (Kurt Wallender #13) by Henning Mankell

The Pyramid and Four Other Kurt Wallender Mysteries by Henning Mankell

The Lewis Trilogy by Peter May

Alexander McCall Smith on the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency

Abir Mukherjee’s Wyndham and Banerjee’s novels

Lover Man (Artie Deemer #1) by Dallas Murphy

The Harry Hole series by Jo Nesbø

Collusion (Belfast #2), by Stuart Neville

Nairobi Heat by Mukoma Wa Ngugi

Sara Paretsky’s V. I. Warshawski series

The Godwulf Manuscript (Spenser #1) by Robert B. Parker

The Cut (Spero Lucas #1) by George Pelecanos

The Armand Gamache novels by Louise Penny

The Cadfael Chronicles by Ellis Peters

The Missing American (Emma Djan #1) by Kwei Quartey

Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus novels

Murder Under the Bridge: A Palestine Mysteryby Kate Jessica Raphael

The Collaborator of Bethlehem (Omar Yussef #1) by Matt Rees

The Cormoran Strike series by Robert Galbraith (J. K. Rowling)

The Captain Alexei Korolev novels by William Ryan

John Sandford’s Prey series

John Sandford’s Virgil Flowers series

Dead Watch by John Sandford

The Martin Beck novels by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö

From Karin Slaughter, the Will Trent series

Martin Cruz Smith’s Arkady Renko novels

Agent 6 (Leo Demidov #3), by Tom Rob Smith

Olen Steinhauer’s Yalta Boulevard Cycle

The Land of Dreams (Minnesota Trilogy #1), by Vidar Sundstøl

The Second Girl by David Swinson

Briarpatch by Ross Thomas

A Test of Wills (Inspector Ian Rutledge #1) by Charles Todd           

The Chinese Maze Murders (Judge Dee #1) by Robert van Gulik

The Maisie Dobbs novels by Jacqueline Winspear

For additional reading

You might also enjoy my posts:

And if you’re looking for exciting historical novels, check out Top 10 historical mysteries and thrillers reviewed here (plus 100 others).

To check out all 100 of the reading lists posted here, go to Your handy guide to the grouped reviews on this site. Also, you can always find my most popular reviews, and the most recent ones, plus a guide to this whole site, on the Home Page.

Spread The Word!