There are those for whom horror stories are hilarious and fun, and then there are those of us who spent our formative years unable to read even bloodless murder mysteries. Do you have an overactive imagination and can’t stop picturing monsters coming into your room? Is it the inability to stomach gore? Maybe you just prefer your thrillers to end with everyone seated around the parlor drinking tea while a man in fancy dress explains it all. No matter your preference, there are plenty of mysteries for the biggest scardey cats.
The truth is, tons of mysteries and thrillers could fall into this category because, for a long time, literary works with graphically violent horror were routinely banned if they managed to get published at all. That left most of the terrifying stuff to be the type of ghost story now classified as “gothic horror,” jump scares or psychological terror. Even those were few and far between (notable for when they did come along). That means most classic mysteries, from Sherlock Holmes to Hercule Poirot, were tame compared to those published in the 21st century.
Still, there are good mysteries that won’t give you nightmares, and there are great ones. Here are ten of the very best.
Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie
We’ll start with the Queen of British Crime because out of her ~70 odd books, two stand above the rest. Murder on the Orient Express is a classic for a reason, as a man is killed on a train stuck in a snow drift in the middle of nowhere, and somehow, nobody did it. Even if you know the twist ending (and if somehow you don’t, I won’t spoil you), Christie’s touch is so deftly woven, it’s like watching a parlor trick, where you know the sleight of hand, and can’t stop wondering how she did it anyway.
(The other one, by the way, is And Then There Were None. But the psychological horror visited on the characters will give you the willies, if not outright nightmares.)
The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
Neil Gaiman is best known for his fantasy works like American Gods and comics like The Sandman. But he also writes many stand-alone urban fantasy books, including The Ocean at the End of the Lane, a poignant fairy tale. The protagonist returns home for a funeral, only for supernatural horrors to begin. But these horrors have a more significant twist, as the narrator’s memory of events isn’t perhaps the sharpest it could be, and he tries to remember whatever he’s forgotten.
Even though nothing technically bad happens and everyone lives, the cyclical nature of the story and its haunting conclusion put this in the horror genre.
The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
Netflix’s terrifying adaptation aside, Shirley Jackson’s 1959 ghost story, The Haunting of Hill House, is one of the last bloodless scares in the literary world before the cultural shift of the 1960s that brought about novels like A Clockwork Orange. In it, Dr. John Montague rents the titular house for the summer, hoping to find evidence of the supernatural, only for everyone he invites to learn the house is not what it seems.
Despite its less nightmarish passages, The Haunting of Hill House is considered one of the best of the genre ever written, a gripping psychological mystery that even the biggest fraidy-cat can manage.
Like a Sister by Kellye Garrett
Not every modern novel is blood and gore, however. Kellye Garrett’s newest book, Like a Sister, was only just published this year, and it’s perfect for those who get nervous about monsters under the bed. The death of 25-year-old Desiree Pierce, reality star, is written off as drugs and partying by the NYPD, but her nerdy sister Lena knows better and takes the case into her own hands.
Like a Sister is modern in all the ways a 21st-century Bronx mystery story should be. But its intellectual heroine and her search for the truth is every bit as mild when it comes to the scary stuff as Hercule Poirot and other early 20th-century British crime novels.
Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers
Speaking of early 20th century British crime novels, no list of mysteries for scaredy cats is complete without Dorothy L. Sayers and her upper-class detective Lord Peter Wimsey. There are a dozen of these books all told, but the best of the batch is Gaudy Night, the installment when Wimsey takes a back seat to Harriet Vane as she tries to solve a series of unfortunate events at her old Oxford College.
All of the Wimsey books are tame enough for all ages. However, the four with Vane, which trace their odd intellectual romance over murder, are Sayers’ very best, and the Oxford setting of Gaudy Night puts the characters in their element in a way none of the others do.
We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver
School shootings where a teenager massacres his classmates had yet to become an everyday occurrence when We Need to Talk About Kevin was published in 2003. However, the epistolary novel told from the perspective of Eva Khatchadourian, mother to teenage shooter, Kevin, has only become more relevant in the intervening 20 years. Even so, I’d mark this one with a trigger warning—not for scaredy cats, but simply because author Lionel Shriver nails the emotional horror that happens somewhere in this country far too often.
Shiver’s book does manage at least achieve some sense of distance by telling the story through letters and the perspective of a parent who wasn’t there. However, that also adds a twist element of horror as one slowly realizes that she’s not any more reliable a narrator than her son is.
Death in a White Tie by Ngaio Marsh
Another mystery from one of the literary Dames of history, New Zealand author Ngaio Marsh was the woman behind the Inspector Alleyn mystery novels. Death in a White Tie is the seventh in the series, though her books are such that you can start anywhere with no trouble or simply read it as a stand-alone. Death in a White Tie also begins the part of the series where Alleyn meets his match in painter Agatha Troy, and the romance element helps it shine.
But Death in a White Tie isn’t just famous for its romantic entanglements, as this mystery is as puzzling to work out as Christie at her best. The body of a lord found in the back of a taxi is the tip of the iceberg for one of the best-constructed mysteries of this genre ever written.
Dark Matter by Blake Crouch
Most mysteries begin with murder and end with whodunit, but Blake Crouch’s Dark Matter is a different sort of mystery. It’s the kind where a man wakes up one day to a life he does not remember living. Jason’s wife is not the woman he married, and his son no longer exists. But worse, as he struggles to get his bearings, he realizes his new existence as a celebrated genius who created the impossible is what he has to fight to get it back.
Dark Matter is more on the science fiction end of the mystery world, but the fight to unravel how you’ve changed your past to discover your own terrible deeds is as horrifying as any serial killer story.
Defender of the Angels: A Black Policeman in Old Los Angeles by Jesse Kimbrough
Most mystery novels set in the early 20th century are by white authors, but there are a few exceptions. Published in 1969, Jesse Kimbrough’s Defender of the Angels: A Black Policeman in Old Los Angeles is set in California’s famous city during the 1920s, told from the perspective of Strite Hinton, a World War I veteran who was one of L.A.’s first black policemen.
Unlike the other books on this list, this is not a single mystery but a string of cases Hinton is involved in solving, but all of them are rated bloodless enough for any sensitive soul. Readers should be aware that Defender of the Angels is a fictionalized autobiography. (Kimbrough joined the LAPD in 1915.) Then as now, the LAPD was notorious for its lack of racial sensitivity, and the true horror of the tale can be found less in the crimes committed than the open bigotry Hinton handles daily.
Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz
PBS viewers will be aware that Anthony Horowitz’s self-adaptation of Magpie Murders just finished airing on Masterpiece, but the novel is worth seeking out on its own terms. Like the TV series, it’s rated for everybody, but this story about the death of murder mystery writer Alan Conway is no ordinary whodunit. Conway’s editor, Susan Ryeland, is trying to solve the mystery of who killed her best-selling author and find his missing last chapter, which may reveal the real-world murderer.
Magpie Murders’ novel within a novel structure keeps the horror and gore at bay. However, its joy isn’t just in solving the wheels-within-wheels mystery but in the novel’s meta-exploration of why we love to read mysteries and crime fiction in the first place.
Ani Bundel is a TV and movie writer at Elite Daily covering all things peak TV and an Associate Editor at PBS/WETA’s Telly Visions, where she co-hosts a weekly podcast by anglophiles for anglophiles. A self-taught journalist from the school of hard knocks, Ani came up blogging in the fast-turn-around era. Ani’s other regular bylines can be found on NBC News THINK.