Carefully weaving plots, motives, settings, and characters, crime writers create incredible adventures and puzzles for us to get lost in. A great crime author can be dark, gritty, and morbid, or funny and lighthearted. Whatever the tone, the best crime authors keep you turning the pages till the very end.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Arguably the most famous detective crime novels of all time, we owe Sherlock Holmes and all of his franchises to the illustrious Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Although Doyle ultimately grew to resent his eponymous character, even killing him off in one book only to revive him in another, the beloved detective has since taken on a life of his own with spin-offs, TV series, and many movie adaptations.
But if you only know Sherlock Holmes as Robert Downey, Jr. or Benedict Cumberbatch, you're still missing out: while there are some great Sherlock quotes out there, Doyle's original writing is rich, with exciting characters and even more exciting mysteries.
James Patterson is one of the most prolific crime authors of our age—or any age, for that matter. He has written more than 55 books, mostly crime, thrillers, and true crime. His crime thrillers are fast-paced, detailed, and completely gripping.
Plus, Patterson has written so many books that you're always guaranteed to have an excited new novel to dive into.
Mary Higgins Clark
Mary Higgins Clark boasts a prolific 51 novels in her writing career. Even more impressive, many of these best-sellers were written while raising five children alone after the sudden death of her husband. And, even more impressive, a significant proportion of her novels went on to become best-selling and award-winning crime books. Clark still writes as many as three books a year—an incredible number for any other—at the impressive age of 90 years.
Clark's success lies in her ability to craft intricate, thrilling narratives without losing the reader, as well as her ability to write relatable, intelligent heroines you can't help but root for.
John Le Carré
If fast-paced thrillers are your thing, John Le Carré is a must-read. His 1974 novel Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy recently saw a revival of fame with the production of the movie of the same name.
Le Carré's novels will suck you into the thrilling worlds of spies, betrayals, power struggles and crime. You'll love, hate, and fear for every character, while the plot keeps your heart pounding and your eyes glued to the page. But be warned—these aren't books you're likely to be able to put down until you've finished.
Lovers of Law & Order will adore John Grisham. His legalistically-oriented crime thrillers are smart and engaging, but never boring. His books are well-researched and down-to-earth, while maintaining all the excitement of a good thriller. Grisham's success lies in his ability to balance—he balances page-turning plot twists with honest realism, the excitement of fiction with the honesties of the real world, and the intrigue of well-researched information with the intrigue of exciting drama. Basically, Grisham does it all—and does it well.
Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon became an award-winning movie for good reason. This is the book that introduces the world to the beloved Sam Spade, a hard-boiled, passionate detective who inspired decades of gritty crime authors—many of whom make an appearance on this list, as well.
Though Detective Spade is most famous for his role in The Maltese Falcon, the character also appears in a number of Hammett's other short stories, and various adaptations of the novel and spinoffs.
With a biting intelligence and careful plotting, Stieg Larsson's The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and its sequels will stick in your memory for years. He piles on the intrigue and mystery, but doesn't shy away from the realities of life and society. Though it can be hard to read the brutal, detailed crimes that his characters commit, Larsson writes with biting openness about the acts of heinous people, keeping the stakes high and the plot motivated.
Though Larsson had only three books published before his untimely death in 2004, a mostly-finished manuscript of a fourth installment in the Millennium series was posthumously finished and published. Rumors are also circulating that the outlines for a number of other books exist, and may be finished by his partner, Eva Gabrielsson.
Agatha Christie is perhaps the gold standard of the colloquially-dubbed 'whodunnit' genre. As with most of the best murder mystery novels, the book draw you in with enough clues to keep you guessing, and enough possibilities to keep you on your toes. Her beloved crime-solvers, like the witty and incisive Hercule Poirot, provide a conduit to the crime, bringing the reader in and letting him play the detective as well. But her mysteries are never easy to solve, with intricate plots and scheming characters that will ultimately have you suspecting everyone.
Another of the enviably prolific crime authors of our age, Harlan Coben's books have all the intrigue and ambiance of his genre, while adding extra layers of modernity and incisiveness. The author doesn't shy away from the realities of modern society, leading to insightful, though often grim, tales. His novels largely take place in idyllic, suburban settings, where gritty crime is something bored soccer moms and boring accountant husbands only read about in the headlines—until it happens there.
These settings provide a contrast of appearance and reality, and force the reader to confront the frightening potential of mankind.
P.D. James is the grittier, gorier younger sister of Agatha Christie. She similarly invokes the style and elegance of old British ways, while exposing the dark details of the modern world. James' style is polished and elegant, but dives fully into the grim worlds in which her characters live.
Her novel Death Comes to Pemberley takes a thrilling spin on Jane Austen's romantic characters of Pride and Prejudice, exploring a world in which brutal crime strikes the happy lives of Elizabeth, Darcy, and the rest of their family.
Ellroy's early noir-influenced style of writing has developed in recent years to a modern politically-driven style, though he has kept all of the grit and brutality of his former style. Something of a public enigma, Ellroy is famous for expressing strong political views, but later denying them as "willful misrepresentations." But eccentricities aside, Ellroy's tales are sharp, intelligent, and insightful in the modern age.
The best crime authors tend to create lasting characters that their fans can grow to know and love. With an infectious dry wit and a particular brand of British exuberance, Ngaio Marsh's Inpector Roderick Alleyn is impossible not to love. The young, relatable inspector is a bright, entertaining man with a sharp wit and a depth that defies his attitude. But he is also imminently human, making him a character you just can't dislike.
As for her mysteries, Ngaio Marsh is a master of plot. You'll suspect each and every character in turn, but never feel duped or led on by the author's depiction of the crime.
Strongly influenced by his predecessor Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler further developed the genre of hard-boiled detective novels, making him an important fixture of the crime genre. In fact, his Detective Philip Marlowe was played by Humphrey Bogart in an early film adaptation, just like Hammett's Sam Spade. This style of noir fiction invokes the gritty streets of 1920s and '30s America, with daring private detectives and bloodthirsty criminal gangs—a vibe that readers around the world still can't get enough of. This timeless, archetypal character has influenced generations of crime authors, as well as producers and screenwriters, making Chandler's influence on modern culture incalculable.