07 March 2019

Some All-Time Great Crime Fiction Twists

by Brian Thornton

I recently read an article at Crime Reads with the provocative title: "The Art of the Twist Ending: 15 of the Greatest 'Twist' Endings Ever Written", by British poet and crime fiction writer Sophie Hannah.

I commented on this article in a recent call to friends to come up with a better, more comprehensive list:

"Her list is incredibly disappointing. Had she entitled it '15 of the Greatest Twists Ever Written in Domestic Thrillers and Literary Novels With Unreliable Narrators,' I feel like her list would have been more complete."

I wouldn't have even minded so much if she had made it, "15 of my FAVORITE novels with twist endings," because, as I said, this list is HIGHLY subjective.

I found her list doubly disappointing once I put it together that Ms. Hannah is the author selected by the estate of Agatha Christie to continue the Hercule Poirot series of novels (and not ONE of Christie's novels made her list. Not. ONE.), but it DOES mention The Woman in the Wind by the now-seeming colossal fraud A.J. Finn (Google it if you don't know what I'm talking about).

So I decided to make up my own list and use it as my next rotation post here at the Sleuthsayers blog.  But these wouldn't be my choices (well, not solely). I crowdsourced the question to my friends on Facebook.

The resulting list of titles is below. And while it's more comprehensive than Ms. Hannah's, it is by no means definitive. Also, I can't vouch for all of these titles, as I haven't (YET) read several of them.

That said, I trust the tastes of the friends who suggested this list. and so I offer them as fodder for those of you who love a good literary twist, and might be in the market for something to read.

Only one of Ms. Hannah's choices (Daphne Du Maurier's Rebecca) would come close to cracking my personal list, with another two (Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl and Dennis Lehane's Shutter Island) qualifying based on being mentioned by the aforementioned friends whose collective taste I so trust.

So here they are, in no particular order: 

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie

The Cartel by Don Winslow

Presumed Innocent by Scott Turow

Cutter and Bone by Newton Thornburg

The Yellow Room by Mary Rhinehart

The Chill by Ross MacDonald

The Pick-Up by Charles Willeford

Fingersmith by Sarah Waters

Defending Jacob by William Landay

The Beast in View by Margaret Millar

The Ax by Donald Westlake

The Dramatist by Ken Bruen

And You Will Know Me by Megan Abbott

Miss Pym Disposes by Josephine Tey

In the Best Families by Rex Stout

The Servant's Tale by Margaret Frazer

The ABC Murders by Agatha Christie

The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey

Killing Time by Donald E. Westlake

The Poet by Michael Connelly

A Family Affair by Rex Stout

A Thief of Time by Tony Hillerman

We Were Liars by E. Lockhart

The Glass Key by Dashiell Hammett

Nightmare Alley by William Lindsay Gresham

The Collector by John Fowles

Sunburn by Laura Lippman

Jack's Return Home (Better known as Get Carter) by Ted Lewis

Red Sparrow by Jason Matthews

The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie

And of course no such list would be complete without this suggestion by our own Rob Lopresti. The hilariously titled Bimbos of the Death Sun, by Sharyn McCrumb!

A Heartfelt Thanks (Also in No Particular Order) To Our Contributors: 

James W. Ziskin

Paula Munier

Leslie Budewitz

David Corbett

J. D. Rhoades

Richie Narvaez

Jim Thomsen

Sam Wiebe

Scotti Andrews

Travis Richardson

Catriona MacPherson

Robert Lopresti

Eve Fisher

Kat Richardson

Simon Wood

Donna Moore

Nickolas Furr

Lita Weissman

Fleur Bradley

Steve Hockensmith

Karin Montin


So many books, so little time! Hope you found some new titles to interest you! Thanks for reading, and see you in two weeks!


  1. All great books.
    I think it's very important to read the classics - Christie, Stout, Conan Doyle, etc., so that you know what's come before - and so you can recognize what's genuinely innovative and what's a rehash. Not a mystery, but, for example, a major plot twist in "The World According to Garp" is exactly the same plot twist as in Joseph Heller's "Something Happened".
    And, despite the current craze for unreliable narrators (alcoholic or otherwise), they've been around since the time of Electra's view of her father's murder. It's all in how you do it.

  2. Intriguing list, Brian.

    I agree with Eve that you have to read the classics (although I haven't read all of these by any means) to understand how the genre works and so you don't reinvent the wheel.

    I've read most of Winslow's work, and I don't think the Cartel is really a surprise, but California Fire and Life (My favorite of his works) has a shocker of a twist. Two or three of them, actually.

    I'd also add Jodi Picault's House Rules. I tend to admire Picault's research more than her endings, but this one is terrific.

    Yes, absolutely on Presumed Innocent. And Defending Jacob deserves much more attention than it received.

  3. Such a great list, great idea generally! And sorry I didn't chime in on the call for suggestions—slow on everything these days, but pleased to read through it all here!

  4. Great stuff, Brian. One interesting thing is as I read the list I found myself thinking "huh. Great book. But I wouldn't call that a twist." I'm sure others had the same thought. Depends on the reader, of course.

    One on your list that made me ponder was THE AX, by Westlake. A brilliant piece of work, but a twist? Depends on your assumptions about society and crime fiction, I guess. In other words, what's your CQ (cynicism quotient)?

  5. When I read that title my mind went straight to "Lamb to the Slaughter" by Roald Dahl. Personally I think short stories tend to have better twists then novels :)

  6. Sandra has a point here. There are lots of short stories with great twists. Where would O Henry be without them? "Lamb to the Slaughter is great, and how about Ray Bradbury's "The Whole Town's Sleeping," which was a chapter in Dandelion Wine, as I recall. Maybe my all-time favorite closing line...

  7. Agreed, Sandra. Plus, I also think because of the length of a short story as opposed to a longer piece like a novella or novel, the reader is less likely to feel ripped off by a twist ending in a short story. I'm not saying twists aren't appropriate for novel endings, I'm basically saying it's easier to get right with a shorter form piece.

    I also say this as a writer of short stories who works hard to give the reader exactly this sort of ending ("Suicide Blonde," "Paper Son," "Counting Coup," etc.). That's part of the reason it takes me so long write short stories!

    And as for short stories with a terrific twist ending, if you haven't yet read Dashiell Hammett's "The Scorched Face," and "Dead Yellow Women," those two ought to go to the top of your list!

    (And gee, sounds like we might need to crowd-source a list of short stories with great twist endings!)

  8. Great point about taste being an element in this sort of discussion, Rob. And Westlake's THE AX was one of those stories I listed here on faith, as I've never read it. My Westlake sampling has been limited to about half of his Stark/Parker series and on Dortmunder novel. I liked them all, but you know how it is. So many books...

  9. I'd read The Woman in the Window, but didn't know anything about its author. Now THERE is a twist!

    I love a good twist and I'm pleased Presumed Innocent made your list.

    There are also 'bad twists', in the sense that we come to expect them from some authors, including one of my favorites, Alistair MacLean.

  10. Witness for the Prosecution (short story before being a play or movie) practically defined the legal twist.


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