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The Top 50 Mysteries . . . and No Apologies

November 23, 1990|PAUL PIAZZA | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES: Piazza reviews mystery novels. This article originally appeared in Washingtonian

You've got to have a body or two, a detective of sorts and a sense of place as unmistakable as a knife in the back.

Like happy families, mystery novels are all alike, yet we devour them by the hundreds of thousands every year. We read them for intellectual sport and diversion. We read them because they offer adventurous escape.

Mysteries offer the illusion of an ordered world. They follow rules as stern as any parochial-school handbook, yet the best mystery writers keep to the rules without seeming to. In the end we read them because they give pleasure; because they make us laugh, make us cry, make us wait.

What are the greatest mysteries ever written? Buffs will argue the question until rigor mortis sets in and the corpse in the next room decomposes, but this list is presented with no apologies. Each fulfills the quintessential requirement of fiction: It is a good read. It begins well and ends better.

Here then are the 50 best mysteries, in chronological order.

* "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," Edgar Allan Poe (1841). No clues--only a room in "wildest disorder," a blood-besmeared razor, a body shoved up a chimney and all the doors and windows locked. This is the Adam of mysteries, the seed that fathered all the rest.

* "The Moonstone," Wilkie Collins (1868). A diamond as big as the Ritz, a crotchety butler, multiple narratives. Even T.S. Eliot, who harbored reservations about "Hamlet," called this "the first and greatest of English detective novels."

* "Adventures of Sherlock Holmes," Arthur Conan Doyle (1892). "Scandal in Bohemia," "The Red-Headed League," "The Five Orange Pips," "The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle," "The Adventure of the Speckled Band"--these tales are among the best by Doyle or anybody else.

* "The Hound of the Baskervilles," Arthur Conan Doyle (1902). Supernatural terror--the fog-bound moors, a hellish hound--gets demystified by the unmuddled rationalism of fiction's greatest detective.

* "Trent's Last Case," E.C. Bentley (1913). The victim is Sigsbee Manderson, a Wall Street Colossus whose death panics the market and piques the curiosity of Philip Trent, ace reporter.

* "The Thirty-Nine Steps," John Buchan (1915). Richard Hannay, a British Everyman bored by England and ready to return to South Africa, discovers a corpse and a cryptic notebook in his sitting room.

* "Inspector French's Greatest Case," Freedman Wills Croft (1924). A locked-room murder with assumed identities, a secret code, trains and timetables, and all sorts of underhanded tomfooleries deciphered by the suave inspector.

* "The Benson Murder Case," S.S. Van Dine (1926). The flippant and cynical Philo Vance, working from nothing more than two cigarette butts, solves the murder of a Wall Street broker.

* "The Murder of Roger Ackroyd," Agatha Christie (1926). The most controversial mystery Christie or anyone else has ever contrived.

* "The Maltese Falcon," Dashiell Hammett (1930). A watershed mystery, first of the hard-boiled genre: hard, ironic, stinted. Sam Spade can talk tough, fall for a phony "broad" and punch out a punk all in the time it takes to roll a Bull Durham.

* "The Murder at the Vicarage," Agatha Christie (1930). Miss Marple makes her brilliant debut in a "teapot" of an English village.

* "Mystery Mile," Margery Allingham (1930). A droll mystery filled with a seeming hodgepodge of clues: a red chess piece, a suitcase of children's books, an unexpected suicide, a garden maze.

* "Maigret Stonewalled," Georges Simenone (1931). Intuitive and cerebral, a Napoleon of detectives, Maigret solves two mysteries: the identity of the victim and of the murderer.

* "Malice Aforethought," Francis Iles (1931). "It was not until several weeks after he had decided to murder his wife that Dr. Bickleigh took any active steps in the matter." We know who done it; the trick is to catch him.

* "The Chinese Orange Mystery," Ellery Queen (1934). Queen finds a locked room with the corpse and furnishings bizarrely turned backward.

* "The Nine Tailors," Dorothy Sayers (1934). Foppish Lord Peter Wimsey solves an anonymous murder in the English fen country.

* "The Thin Man," Dashiell Hammett (1934). Nick and Nora Charles are not the Hollywood cream puffs played by William Powell and Myrna Loy, but the best and hardest-drinking husband and wife duo in crime.

* "The Amazing Adventures of Father Brown," Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1935). Father Brown is a Thomistic sleuth who trusts reason just as far as it can reach. Evil, ultimately, lies beyond reason's ken.

* "Gaudy Night," Dorothy Sayers (1936). Harriet Vane returns to Shrewsberry College--Sayers' Oxford--only to encounter unpleasantness about professional women and the ethics of scholarship.

* "Hamlet, Revenge!" Michael Innes (1937). Another Oxford tale in which J.I.M. Stewart gracefully mixes scholarship and sleuthing. John Appleby, of Scotland Yard, is erudite and affected without being priggish.

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