I’m offer the following last-minute gift suggestions for mystery fans because I have some small knowledge of the subject of detective fiction. I started reading and collecting detective stories when I was 14. (My life plan was to be the world’s greatest mystery writer.)
A certified collectibles appraiser, I used to lecture annual at the (now defunct) Collector’s Conference on the history of detective fiction as a literary form and collecting obsession. Twentieth century detective fiction is my specialty and every suggestion below comes from that epoch.
Warning: your favorite mystery fan may have actually read some of these stories. Some of these stories are out of print, but should be available at online used bookstores or through interlibrary loan.
“Last Seen Wearing” by Hillary Waugh—A young woman vanishes from a small town college. The police force is so small, the detective bureau consists of one man. A perfect snap shot of New England in the 1950s, this classic police procedural is consistently ranked among the 100 best crime novels of the 20th Century. Many crime novels claim to portray police work realistically. Frankly, this is the only police procedural I would dare recommend to a law enforcement officer.
“Eight Million Ways to Die” by Lawrence Block—Matt Scudder used to be a policeman. Now he’s battling alcoholism and hunting a serial killer.
“And Then There Were None” by Agatha Christie—Ten people who allegedly got away with murder are invited to an island. One by one, they die. Who is the killer?
“Dance Hall of the Dead” by Tony Hillerman—Two 14-year-old Native American boys, one a Navajo, disappear on the big Four Corners Reservation in the Southwest. The Navajo boy went looking for God in a part of the reservation populated by anthropologists, drug smugglers, antiquity thieves and DEA agents. Lt. Joe Leaphorn, of the Navajo Tribal Police, goes looking for the missing Navajo boy—and finds murder, blasphemy and an ambitious college professor.
“Friday the Rabbi Slept Late” by Harry Kemmelman— David Small, a rabbi in a small town, has a few problems. His contract is up for renewal. Some members of the temple board of directors don’t like him. And he has no alibi for the murder of a young woman whose corpse found in the temple parking lot. The only person in town who seems to genuinely respect Rabbi Small is the Catholic police chief who considers him a prime suspect.
“The Burglar in The Closet” by Lawrence Block—Bernie, the best burglar in Manhattan, can pick almost any lock. Alas, that talent does not prevent him from accidentally locking himself in a bedroom closet in an apartment he is burgling. Then the tenant arrives. Bernie waits for her to leave or go to bed. Unfortunately, she’s murdered by another visitor. Just as Bernie gets out of the closet, the police pound on the apartment door. A comic whodunit—one of the most difficult to write.
“The Caves of Steel” by Isaac Asimov—A human police detective is forced to work with a robot police detective who replaced a fellow human investigator. Today, science fiction and fantasy mysteries are common, but this book challenged the assumptions of two genres.
“The Chinese Bell Murders” by Robert van Gulik—In 7th century China, there were no police detectives or lawyers.
There was only a judge and he could only pronounce sentence if the accused confessed. In theory, Judge Dee could use torture to extract confessions—but if the accused died without confessing, Judge Dee could be prosecuted for murder. Judge Dee, in his first adventure, tackles three cases at once and tries to stay on the safe side of both the law and imperial politics.