The 15 detective novels listed below may not be the 18 “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. This list consists exclusively of those I’ve selected from among the more than 200 that I’ve read and reviewed here. I gave every one of these books a rating of @@@@ (4 out of 5) or @@@@@ (5 out of 5). They’re listed alphabetically by the authors’ last names.
I’ve arbitrarily limited myself to one book per author, which is significant because three authors made my preliminary list multiple times. (I’d included six by James Lee Burke, four by Michael Connelly, and three by Philip Kerr, but chose only one of each.) Notably, four of the 18 authors are Scandinavian and five represent the British Isles. Seven are American. (For the record: I’ve also read, or tried to read, detective novels from France, Italy, The Netherlands, Russia, China, and India. None of them warranted a 5-@ rating. In my opinion, of course.)
There was a total of 44 books on the preliminary list. You’ll find the 26 runners-up separately below, also arranged in alphabetical order by the authors’ last names.
This wasn’t easy.
The top 15 suspenseful detective novels
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.
Elegy for April (Quirke #3), by Benjamin Black (John Banville)
Dr. Quirke is Dublin’s alcoholic chief coroner. Together with his friend in the Garda, Detective Hackett, Quirke involves himself in a perilous investigation that exposes the tight grip of the Catholic Church on Irish society and the crimes committed in her name. This is the third novel in the Quirke series. The books are set in the 1950s. The pseudonymous author is the Booker Prize-winning Irish writer John Banville, who claims that he writes these mysteries solely for fun and profit.
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.
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: A Novel, 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 what I hope is just 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.
Death of a Nightingale (Nina Borg #3), by Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis
The four novels in the series written by this Danish duo feature Red Cross nurse Nina Borg. Her life is a tangled mess. She suffers from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder; her two children live with her ex-husband; and she has a disturbing tendency to become involved in cases that the Copenhagen police attempt to keep her out of. Every one of the Nina Borg novels shifts time and place from Denmark to another country, and from the present to the past. In Death of a Nightingale, the roots of the story lie in the Ukraine in 1934-35 during the depths of the famine brought on by Stalin’s collectivization of agriculture.
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 appear on the scene. Even Adolf Hitler lurks behind the curtain, stage right, in a critical episode in the novel.
The Preacher (Fjällbacka #2), by Camilla Läckberg
Camilla Läckberg writes about the partnership between Detective Patrik Lindstrom 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 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.
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.
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 lover, 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.
Briarpatch, by Ross Thomas
Award-winning author Ross Thomas wrote superb novels about espionage and political corruption from 1967 until his death in 1995. Briarpatch, published midway through this period, somewhat departs from Thomas’ pattern to tell the story of a murder investigation that brings police corruption to light in a major city in the American West. Some readers consider Briarpatch to be Thomas’ best book. I prefer his debut novel, The Cold War Swap, which is a spy story, but Briarpatch is brilliant as well.
Among the Mad (Maisie Dobbs #6), by Jacqueline Winspear
Jacqueline Winspear’s unusual 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.
The runners-up: 26 other suspenseful detective novels
The Keeper of Lost Causes (Department Q #1), by Jussi Adler-Olsen
The Reckoning (John Madden #4), by Rennie Airth
The Dark Lake by Sarah Bailey
Even the Dead (Quirke #7), by Benjamin Black (John Banville)
Murder on the Quai (Aimee Leduc #16), by Cara Black
Burning Angel (Dave Robicheaux #8), by James Lee Burke
Dixie City Jam (Dave Robicheaux #7), by James Lee Burke
A Morning for Flamingos (Dave Robicheaux #4), by James Lee Burke
Heaven’s Prisoners (Dave Robicheaux #2), by James Lee Burke
The Neon Rain (Dave Robicheaux #1), by James Lee Burke
Where It Hurts (Gus Murphy #1) by Reed Farrel Coleman
The Wrong Side of Goodbye (Harry Bosch #19), by Michael Connelly
The Burning Room (Harry Bosch #17), by Michael Connelly
The Drop (Harry Bosch #15), by Michael Connelly
And Justice There is None (Duncan Kincaid & Gemma James #8), by Deborah Crombie
Faithful Place (Dublin Murder Squad #3), by Tana French
Invisible Murder (Nina Borg #2), by Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis
The Dime by Kathleen Kent
The Lady from Zagreb (Bernie Gunther #10), by Philip Kerr
Prague Fatale (Bernie Gunther #8), by Philip Kerr
Death in a Strange Country (Commissario Brunetti #2), by Donna Leon
Diamond Solitaire (Peter Diamond #2), by Peter Lovesey
The Devil’s Star (Harry Hole #5), by Jo Nesbø
Still Life (Inspector Armand Gamache #1), by Louise Penny
The Darkening Field (Captain Alexei Dimitrevich Korolev #2), by William Ryan
Agent 6 (Leo Demidov #3), by Tom Rob Smith