Countdown to the MysteryPeople Top 100: Scott Montgomery’s Top 20 Mysteries

We’ve posted just about every Top 20 list from the contributors of our Top 100 Crime & Suspense Fiction List. We’ve seen just as many takes on the genre as we’ve received lists. To paraphrase an old adage, it’s difficult to define a great detective novel, but you know it when you see it.  Tomorrow morning, we’ll put up the link to the full list, but until then, it’s only fair to put up each of our lists. Scott Montgomery’s list is below.

Scott Montgomery’s Top 20 Mysteries

Scott Montgomery is BookPeople’s Crime Fiction Coordinator and the founder of MysteryPeople, Bookpeople’s mystery bookstore-within-a-bookstore. MysteryPeople includes author events, workshops, book clubs, online content, and skilled recommendations. 

  1. The Continental Op Stories by Dashiell Hammett Based on his Hammett’s own experiences as a Pinkerton detective, these early stories featuring a nameless operative for a national agency established the private eye as working class hero. They are spare, tough, and subtle in their social commentary. The heart of all things hard boiled lie in these tales.
  2. The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler Chandler gave the PI poetry and no more than in this melancholy meditation on friendship, writing, life in the postwar world, and who his series hero, Phillip Marlowe really is. A book of beautiful hard boiled heart break.
  3. The Last Good Kiss by James Crumley What Sam Pekinpah and Hunter S Thompson did with their medium in the Seventies, so did James Crumley with the PI novel. His masterpiece introduced his Montana detective CW Suhgrue, looked at the modern west, post Vietnam and Watergate America, and delivered one of the most quoted opening lines in crime fiction.
  4. The Friends Of Eddie Coyle by George V Higgins One of the most influential books in modern crime fiction. Told mainly through dialogue, Higgins follows the drudgery and politics on both sides of the law. Funny, realistic, and cynical with some of the best crime fiction dialogue ever.
  5. Freaky Deaky by Elmore Leonard Leonard working at his peak in this tale of a cop caught between a group of former Sixties radicals. Freaky Deaky delivers a great crime romp as well as social satire. A strong, shifting plot, self assured pace, sharply written characters, and Leonard’s wonderful dialogue make this a fine argument for why Leonard will always be one of the most praised authors in the medium.
  6. The Way Some People Die by Ross MacDonald A gem of an example of early MacDonald. With a labyrinth of a plot, PI Lew Archer’s search for missing woman gets him mixed up with mousers and a lot of murders. The novel moves at a perfect pace with vivid supporting characters, sharp concise phrasing, and at the end pathos.
  7. L.A. Confidential by James Ellroy Noir as epic. Three different cops with thier own demons and feuds with each other get drawn into a case involving secrets of The City Of Angels rich and powerful. Ellroy developed his staccato style for his dive into the shadow history of bad men.
  8. Dare Me by Megan Abbott Megan Abbott proves that noir can exist anywhere, even a high school cheer leading squad, blending a style and psychology that hasn’t had me this scared of teenage girls since I was a teenage boy. Pushes the subgenre to new ideas and heights.
  9. Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell The gold standard for rural crime fiction. A teenage girl’s search for her meth-cooker father through a drug and poverty stricken  Ozark community is full of poetic prose and shows that the country can be as dangerous as the city and the worse adversary to go up against is family.
  10. Walking The Perfect Square by Reed Farrel Coleman A beautiful start to one of the best PI series in the last twenty years. Coleman taps into the melancholy attitude that permeates the genre with a prose poetry style that gets us living under his his hero’s emotional skin. It also has the most heinous villain I’ve ever encountered in a book.
  11. The Cold Dish by Craig Johnson If Larry McMurtry wrote a mystery series it might be something like Johnson’s featuring Walt Longmire. This book introduces us to the put upon Wyoming sheriff and his colorful town. Craig’s humor, humanity, and authentic western tone shine through in what is still probably his best plotted mystery.
  12. The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson Thompson uses point of view with a dark brilliance, taking us into the mind of Lou Ford, a West Texas sheriff’s deputy and psychopath. Thompson balances getting under the skin of his narrator with the society that  surrounds him for one of the most chilling books ever written.
  13. Devil In A Blue Dress by Walter Mosley  Our introduction to Easy Rawlins, a black WW2 vet entering the PI world when he’s hired to find a white woman who travels in his segregated world of Central Avenue, Los Angeles. Mosley’s jazz prose has a special effect on his look at the postwar life of people who created their own culture when being excluded from the mainstream one.
  14. The Power Of The Dog by Don Winslow A chronicle of the first two decades of our war on drugs, following a DEA agent, Irish American hitman, high class call girl, and Mexican priest caught up in the cartel wars. with well drawn characters, a clean writing style, and some fantastic shoot outs, this book entertains and enrages.
  15. When The Sacred Ginmill Closes by Lawrence Block A standout novel in a standout series. Recovering alcoholic and unlicensed PI Matthew Scudder looks back at a case in his drinking days. Deftly written with a subtle sense of drinkers wistfulness, it becomes an interesting meditation on morality, New York, and the justice we take when there are no other options.
  16. The Score by Richard Stark A heist novel with half a dozen heists. When crime fictions coolest bad-ass, Parker, survives another hit from The Syndicate, he tells his fellow crooks to hit them, since the jobs will be blamed on him. Stark’s diamond hard prose style style perfectly reflects his cool ant-heroes.
  17. The Night Gardener by George Pelecanos A violent crimes investigator and two former DC cops are brought together when the MO of a serial killer who disappeared 20 years ago appears. Pelecanos delves into the lives of these men and their streets for one of the most haunting crime novels.
  18. In A Lonely Place by Dorothy B Hughes A woman’s response to the postwar femme fatale with a good looking air force vet prone to killing women. Hughes’ Los Angeles and her skilled use of point of view make this a one of a kind novel.
  19. One Lonely Night by Mickey Spillane The Mike Hammer novels still contain some of the most visceral writing around. Here, Spillane shoots back at his critics about his violent hero. Red meat in book form.
  20. Dance Hall Of The Dead by Tony Hillerman With his first Joe Leaphorn novel, Tony Hillerman gave us a detailed look at the Navajo and the modern American West. He also introduced the concept of using the mystery as a study of a society or subculture.

You can find copies of the books listed above on our shelves and via bookpeople.com. Come by the store Saturday, November 7th – that’s tomorrow! – at 3 PM for MysteryPeople’s Fifth Anniversary Party!

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