This list was originally compiled by Howard Haycraft, who published the classic Murder for Pleasure in 1941 to celebrate the first centennary of what he called "detective stories." (Other commentators, such as Julian Symons, were to prefer the phrase "crime stories," for reasons which are discussed in the web pages that accompany this site.)
Murder for Pleasure was the first book-length treatment of the history of detective fiction. Before (and after) that, several anthologies had been compiled by such literary luminaries as Dorothy Sayers, E.M. Wrong, Willard Huntington Wright, Ellery Queen, Carolyn Wells, and others. Some of these anthologies included insightful introductions that have themselves become classic. (A number of these introductions were collected by Howard Haycraft and published in his The Art of Murder, which also included other essays by classic detective story writers, who often wrote their own "rules" for writing detective stories. It is fun to compare these because they often conflict!)
A few years after Haycraft published Murder for Pleasure, Ellery Queen approached him and suggested he update it. So much of importance had been added to the detective story genre in a very short five or six years that an updated edition was warranted. Queen also wanted to amend the list of cornerstone mystery and detective stories that Haycraft composed. Queen's additions to the list are signified by the asterisks in the table below (see the third column). The list was originally called "A Reader's List of Detective Story Cornerstones." I refer to the amended list as "The Haycraft-Queen Definitive Library of Detective-Crime-Mystery Fiction."
When I first discovered a reprinted copy of Murder for Pleasure, I used this list to begin my own collection. The collection has inevitably outgrown the house and then some! (Alas, much of my archives is in storage at the time of this writing!)
Murder for Pleasure went out of print for a time. When it reappeared, I purchased another copy as a gift for a good friend of mine. When I visited him a number of months later (he lived in another state and I was unable to visit often) I observed that he now had developed a collection rivaling my own!
As an experiment, I repeated this the next time I found the book in print again -- I bought another copy and gave it to another friend. When I next visited him he, too, had begun to develop an impressive library of classic detective, crime, and mystery books.
So! The book is addicting! For me, it has led to a lifelong passion in pursuit of finding, acquiring, reading, and often rereading many, many favorites. Sometimes the writing is stilted and seems old-fashioned -- but not often. Most of these books still have great power to absorb the reader. The storytelling is superb, and well worth reading today. Many of the books on this list have made an enormous impact on the development of the form itself, often leading to entire new "schools" of detective fiction.
It is because the books are so well-written that many remain in print. Others go out of print for a time, then are reprinted on occasion. Within the pages of this website, I've even included some free selections, stories, and samples in the Reading Room so you can read a number of these and see for yourself which ones you may have a penchant for.
The pages that accompany this website also include a more fully developed discussion of the history of the detective story. As I develop this site, I intend to include articles on the stories, information about the authors, and debate among various critics and reviewers about the form. I will include information about films, television, and radio dramatizations. Separate pages are devoted to individual series. (So if you find you like Lord Peter Wimsey, Miss Jane Marple, or Philo Vance and want to read more books about them, there will be -- you guessed it -- web sites for each that include more discussion and a complete list of the appropriate works.)
Eventually, more contemporary authors and their detectives may well be included on these pages -- Ian Fleming's James Bond, Sue Grafton's Kinsey Millhone, Ed McBain's 87th Precinct, Sara Paretsky's V.I. Warshawski, Robert B. Parker's Spenser -- but just for the moment let us dwell in the archives of those important classics that gave life itself to the form that has become beloved by many people the world over.
Perhaps Philip Guedalla said it best: " The detective-story is the normal recreation of noble minds." So let us stroll arm-in-arm along gaslit Baker Street, or venture across the fog-enshrouded moors of Devonshire, or tread lightly through the Rue Morgue. Let us acquire the wisdom of the master detectives as we accompany them on their investigations -- men and women like Dr. John Evelyn Thorndyke, Sherlock Holmes, Ellery Queen, Father Brown, Nero Wolfe, Lord Peter Wimsey, Dr. Gideon Fell, Sir Henry Merrivale, Hercule Poirot, Miss Jane Marple, Monsieur Lecoq, the Chevalier C. Auguste Dupin, Nero Wolfe, Colonel March, Philo Vance, Max Carrados, Martin Hewitt, and others.
In the table names enclosed in brackets are pseudonyms of authors listed just above them. (For example, [Francis Iles] is the pseudonym of Anthony Berkeley, and [Barnaby Ross] is the pseudonym of Ellery Queen.)
The asterisks signify titles that were added by Ellery Queen.