Reading list: five detective fiction classics

A good detective story can make for great holiday reading. Here are five classic mysteries that will keep you guessing, including three that take a playfully tongue-in-cheek approach to the genre. The classic detective story is satisfying for many reasons. For a start, there's the reassuringly brilliant detective, who remains calm in the face of the most bizarre situations. Then there are the mysteries themselves; the best ones give you the information you need to figure things out for yourself and yet remain so devious that you can't quite do so.

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The Sign of Four by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle There were detective stories before Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes but it was Holmes came to define the archetypal sleuth. This novel was the second Holmes novel and Conan Doyle was still developing his template. It begins as a detective novel before mutating into an adventure story that seems slightly silly to modern eyes but would probably have been slightly more believable to its Victorian audience.

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The Hollow Man by John Dickson Carr This is one of the great 'locked room' mysteries. A man is murdered in his study but the witnesses right outside the door saw and heard nothing. The study window is too high to jump from and, in any case, the snow on the ground is unbroken. Gideon Fell, the detective gradually pieces the solution together, stopping briefly to explain to his friends the various ways in which a locked room mystery can work. Carr compares the mystery to a magic trick and it's a comparison that seems apt for many detective stories.

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The Continental Op by Dashiell Hammett While the Golden Age of crime fiction was underway in Europe, Hammett and his contemporaries were creating a much grittier version of the genre in America. Hammett's Continental Op stories are classic of hard-boiled detective fiction, filled with guns, dames and double-crosses. However, they're also satisfying mysteries too and Hammett's writing is wonderful.

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Trent's Last Case by E C Bentley More playing with the genre here as Bentley creates a baffling murder mystery and then has his detective fail to solve it. This was a very influential novel and subverted many of the genre's conventions long before the Golden Age.

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The Moving Toyshop by Edmund Crispin Another playful mystery, The Moving Toyshop has as much in common with an Ealing comedy as it does with the typical crime novel. Richard Cadogan, a poet, arrives in Oxford in the early hours of the morning and stumbles across a murder victim in a toyshop. When he brings police to the scene the next day, the entire shop has gone. Crispin has great fun unfolding the mystery.

What would you put on this list? Have you read the ones we’ve selected? Have we selected some that are on your list of books you mean to read?