John Verdon is the author of an internationally bestselling series of mystery-thrillers featuring retired NYPD homicide detective Dave Gurney. The latest installment in the series is Wolf Lake, in which Gurney is presented with a bizarre conundrum: How could four people have the same dream—and why would they all commit suicide after having it? Verdon picks his 10 favorite whodunits.
Having been asked to put together a “10 Best Whodunits” list, I must make a confession. There are so many criteria for evaluating excellence in mystery writing and so many ways of prioritizing those criteria that I can’t quite get my head around the concept of “best.”
So I’ve taken a simpler route and put together a list of ten remarkable works, each of which has a special appeal to my whodunit mentality.
I could have created a more coherent list—consisting, for example, of ten novels by Ross Macdonald. He’s that good. But right now I’m leaning toward diversity.
So here goes.
1. Oedipus Rex by Sophocles
When one thinks of whodunits, this may not be the first work that springs to mind. And yet it seems to me a wonderful example of the genre in its deepest, darkest sense. It features a powerful protagonist hell-bent to discover the truth, despite the objections and obstacles in his path. It involves a devastating secret and arguably literature’s most sensationally dysfunctional family. And for lovers of brutal irony, the end of the protagonist’s quest—the devastating truth his detective work finally uncovers—has few equals.
2. Hamlet by William Shakespeare
Perhaps another odd choice, but to me an appropriate one. Like Oedipus, Hamlet is in pursuit of a dreadful hidden truth. As happens in the detective stories I most admire, the manner in which he pursues that truth directly reflects the complexities of his character. His conflicted soul and the choices that flow from those conflicts shape the outcome—a bloody climax in which the truth is revealed and the crime is avenged at a dreadful cost. The play’s sublime language, imagery, and psychological insights aside, I’m in awe of its dramatic rhythm as it winds toward a resolution that seems both shocking and inevitable. All whodunits should end as satisfyingly.
3. The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle
From my first reading of Arthur Conan Doyle’s masterpiece, I had the sense that he’d done everything right—that this lean little novel had all the right ingredients in just the right proportions. It is beautifully constructed, wonderfully atmospheric, excitingly paced, and an illustration of what I believe detective novels are all about. It begins with a baffling problem—an eerie situation, seemingly inexplicable by any rational means. Then Holmes begins sifting through it—questioning, observing, connecting the dots, and emerging finally with a perfectly rational solution. It’s the archetypal process of detection—a step-by-step dance from disorder to order, from deception to truth—without a single wasted sentence.
4. The Galton Case by Ross Macdonald
A friend told me that that she found the novels of Ross Macdonald so similar to one another she had a hard time telling them apart. They do, in fact, delve into similar forms of duplicity and disorder in similar Southern California families. But personally I have never grown tired of this apparent repetition. Why not? Because Macdonald is a marvellous writer. His sense of place is vivid, his plots ingenious, his insights acute, his empathy touching, his voice addictive. And few crime writers can match his ability to nail a moment, a character, a mood in one perfect phrase. All these strengths are on display in The Galton Case, a complex search not only for an individual’s identity but for the meaning of identity itself.
I have a special fondness for Reginald Hill’s Dalziel-Pascoe novels. They’re exemplars of how much life can be injected into a detective series through a deft pairing of contrasting protagonists—in this case the restrained, determinedly logical Peter Pascoe and his irrepressibly vulgar but brilliantly intuitive boss, Andy Dalziel. It’s the sort of partnership that in lesser hands could be grating and predictable, but Hill’s intelligence and wit raise it to another level. His unfailing literary grace is the icing on the cake. I chose On Beulah Height for this list because it’s an ideal showcase for Hill’s talents, but it could be replaced by virtually any other in the series.
6. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John le Carré
Often said to “transcend his genre,” John le Carré is a fine novelist who happens to write about the murderous deceptions of the spy business. Many of his characters are cynical, sophisticated Brits with Oxbridge pedigrees. His depictions of their ambitions, alliances, and rivalries are subtle yet vivid, edgy, and always believable. George Smiley, laconic master spy and complicated human being, is one of le Carré’s great creations. Set in the slippery world of espionage, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is a classic tale of detection—and it’s a pleasure to follow Smiley’s low-key, high-stakes pursuit of the truth.
7. Gorky Park by Martin Cruz Smith
A lively sense of place captivates me. Martin Cruz Smith’s Gorky Park gave me a visceral experience not only of the weather and geography of Moscow but of the corrupt culture, tricky politics, and dangerous pressures of life there in the waning days of the Soviet Union. Insert into that twisted environment an honest, relentless detective pursuing against all odds a truth that seemingly no one in power wants him to discover, and the result is a deeply absorbing thriller.
8. Red Dragon by Thomas Harris
This is the book Thomas Harris wrote before he wrote The Silence of the Lambs. I found it remarkable for its inventive serial-killer plot, for its vivid and believable portrayal of the psychopath at the heart of it, and for Harris’s ability to paint pictures you’re not likely to forget. It’s also the book in which Dr. Hannibal Lecter, the iconic Harris monster, first appears.
In the Scandinavian crime fiction I like best there is a grim understatement in the process of detection, as well as a refusal to exaggerate the strengths or minimize the defects of the detective. It’s a characteristic element of Hypothermia by the Icelandic writer, Arnaldur Indridason. His detective-protagonist, Erlendur, is a morose, guilt-ridden man whose memories, preoccupations, and family problems are as much a part of this series as the troubled lives he investigates and the crimes he solves. Sometimes the combination can be very dark, but there’s something persistently real and moving about it as well.
I’ve always enjoyed Michael Connelly’s detail-filled police procedurals. Harry Bosch is a complex protagonist with a sound moral compass, plenty of smarts, and a ton of determination. But Connelly never glamorizes him, never makes him anything other than a very believable human being doing a dangerous job and leading a sometimes difficult life. I picked The Crossing for this list because it’s good in all the ways the Bosch series is good … plus, it ratchets up the tension by having Harry take on a case that alienates him from the police world that always sustained him … plus, it involves Connelly’s other major series character, defense attorney Mickey Haller. All in all, quite a feast.