The books you read in your high School English class are not necessarily the best novels ever written. What makes for great literature, anyway? Some could argue that all your book needs in order to be considered “great” is leather-bound packaging and microscopic print, but the truth is, you really can’t judge a book by its cover.
Instead, you have to judge it by what’s written inside. Is the story meaningful, honest, moving? Does it transport you to another time or place? When it comes to ranking the best novels ever written, we had to look for all of these things…and just because you love a certain book doesn’t mean it made our list.
20. Lolita: One of the most controversial novels ever written, Lolita, written by Russian-American author Vladimir Nabokov, tells the story of a middle-aged professor who lusts after his young step-daughter. Despite the subject matter, the 1955 novel was an instant classic.
19. The Lord of the Rings: In terms of literary contributions, J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy series is incredibly significant. In fact, it transcends “series” altogether; The Lord of the Rings is just one of a trilogy of novels that dared readers to enter another world entirely.
The Lord of the Rings/New Line Cinema
18. The Picture of Dorian Gray: It definitely wasn’t an immediate success upon its 1890 publication, but Oscar Wilde’s gothic novel has since become a classic. The book’s homosexual undertones, which once garnered criticism, are now considered revolutionary.
The Picture of Dorian Gray/Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
17. The Color Purple: Author Alice Walker was the first black woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1983, and it’s because of the heart-wrenching story of her novel’s protagonist, Celie, which stretches over decades in rural 1900s-era Georgia.
The Color Purple/Harcourt Brace Jovanovich
16. Brave New World: Dystopian novels are a dime a dozen nowadays, but back in the 1930s, Aldous Huxley’s novel was a real game-changer. It anticipated a highly technological world with a “hive” mind, a theory that has become a dystopian standard.
Brave New World/Leslie Holland
15. Jane Eyre: You have Currer Bell — AKA, Charlotte Brontë — to thank for novels that utilize a first-person narrative. This element is what makes Jane Eyre one of the most enduring romance novels of all time.
Jane Eyre/Universal Pictures/Focus Features
14. The Grapes of Wrath: This John Steinbeck novel puts the Great Depression on stark display, and with one stunning result: A classic story that relates to millions of people. It won Steinbeck a National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
The Grapes of Wrath/20th Century Fox
13. Nineteen Eighty-Four: Another dystopian novel, this George Orwell classic focuses on a world that has succumbed to fear, violence, and perpetual surveillance. It shocked readers in 1949, and the ways some details have come true shocks readers today.
12. Things Fall Apart: One of the greatest works to come from Africa, this novel deals with the effects of imperialism in 1890s-era Nigeria. Chinua Achebe’s 1958 novel has become mainstream despite worldwide bias, and it’s because of his captivating story of an overlooked group.
Things Fall Apart/Chinua Achebe/William Heinemann Ltd.
11. Beloved: The most recently published novel on this list, Toni Morrison’s haunting novel Beloved is considered one of the greatest of the 20th century. It tells the story of escaped slave Sethe and her mysterious daughter, Beloved. It won the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
Beloved/Buena Vista Pictures
10. The Catcher in the Rye: J.D. Salinger’s novel inspired a generation with its pessimistic but eventually hopeful outlook on life. Its protagonist, Holden Caulfield, has become a symbol of teen angst and one of the most enduring figures in literature.
The Catcher in the Rye/J.D. Salinger/E. Michael Mitchell
9. The Old Man and the Sea: For a short novel, The Old Man and the Sea reinvigorated Hemingway’s career before he died. The book, which follows an aging Cuban fisherman in pursuit of a giant marlin, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
The Old Man and the Sea/Ernest Hemingway/Charles Scribner’s Sons
8. Les Misérables: There’s a reason this novel has been adapted for so many other audiences. Victor Hugo’s sweeping historical novel about revolutionary-era France and protagonist Jean Valjean is considered one of the best of the 19th century.
Victor Hugo/Emile Bayard
7. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: One of the first American novels written in “vernacular English,” Mark Twain’s classic novel about Huckleberry Finn and his journey with escaped slave Jim down the Mississippi has been garnering praise and criticism since 1884.
Mark Twain/Walter Trier
6. One Hundred Years of Solitude: This 1967 novel blends myth and folktale with Latin American culture, and eventually won Colombian author Gabriel García Márquez the 1982 Nobel Prize for Literature. It’s one of the most important books written by a Latin American author.
5. The Great Gatsby: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel about the futility of the American Dream only sold 20,000 copies when it first came out, but it was revived during World War II and hasn’t died down since. It’s among the few “Great American Novels.”
The Great Gatsby/F. Scott Fitzgerald/Francis Cugat
4. Moby-Dick: Once called “the greatest book of the sea ever written,” Moby-Dick didn’t become a success until the 20th century, way after author Herman Melville passed away. The story of Ahab and his obsession with his white whale is another Great American Novel.
3. To Kill a Mockingbird: Harper Lee’s novel about two children and their moralistic father in depression-era Alabama defined a generation. It’s considered one of the most influential novels ever written, and it garnered Lee a Pulitzer Prize and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
To Kill a Mockingbird/Universal Pictures
2. Don Quixote: Widely considered the most influential book of Spanish literature, Don Quixote follows Alonso Quixano who, after losing his mind, believes he’s a knight. Miguel de Cervantes’ novel is often called the “first modern novel.”
Don Quixote de la Mancha and Sancho Panza/Miguel de Cervantes/Gustave Doré
1. Anna Karenina: Published in 1878, Leo Tolstoy’s gigantic novel about Imperial Russian Society is considered by many scholars to be the greatest work of literature ever. Tolstoy’s novel revolutionized the way books — particularly books about women — were written. But another author really changed the game for women in literature.
Anna Karenina/20th Century Fox
That was Agatha Christie, who became the most widely published author ever. But there’s a lot more to this writer than just her impressive sales. In 1926, the dame of mysteries shocked her loyal readers by becoming one herself.
The 36-year-old Christie lived with her husband, Col. Archibald Christie, and their young daughter in Sunningdale, a suburb outside London. From the outside, everything seemed perfectly normal in the Christie household. But on one cold December night, that all changed.
December 4th, 1926, officially marked day one of the Agatha Christie mystery. Her disappearance paraded the headlines all across the world. The most famous mystery writer mysteriously vanishes? It was irresistible.
Search teams were immediately deployed to look for the leading novelist. However, it wasn’t until December 6th, two whole days after Christie drove off into the darkness, that police found their first clue.
Nearly 30 minutes from her home in a town called Guildford, authorities found a car on the edge of a quarry. Literally. With its front two wheels over a steep cliff, Christie’s Morris Cowley hung just the way she liked it — precariously in suspense.
New York Times
The whole abandoned car scene looked worrisome, to say the least. But days later on December 8th, a new lead suddenly came forward that stopped the investigation right in its tracks.
Apparently, Christie’s brother-in-law received a letter from her stating that she was on her way to a spa for a little rest and relaxation. An alibi directly from the source should be enough to close the case, right? Not quite.
Police weren’t so convinced. Leaving for a spa in the middle of the night and only notifying your brother-in-law through a letter? Something smelled fishy.
And perhaps that scent is exactly what lured police to Silent Pool. According to local legend, the small lake was rumored to be bottomless and the optimal sight for an abrupt end. But cops had cause to suspect suicide.
Papers began publishing statements Christie purportedly made to friends bemoaning her circumstances in Sunningdale. “If I do not leave Sunningdale soon, Sunningdale will be the end of me.”
The Christie Archive
December 11th marked one week since anyone saw Christie. Police were so stumped they even dragged the novelist’s dog into the investigation to try to pick up her scent. It is reported he only “whined pitifully.”
But just as things were looking cold, a new development surfaced from another “silent pool” — her husband. Apparently, her brother-in-law wasn’t the only one to receive a letter from Christie after her disappearance.
In fact, Christie penned three letters in total. One to her brother-in-law, another to her secretary proving to be almost entirely scheduling hum-de-dums, and a mysterious third to her husband. The only problem was, he refused to show the letter to the police.
This suspicious behavior would lead most people to doubt Mr. Christie’s clean hands in the case, but apparently, it wasn’t enough for the estimated 15 thousand people involved in the investigation. By December 12th, everyone was getting desperate.
Police, convinced that she was still in the countryside, began hiring amateur sleuths, not to mention, “six trained bloodhounds, a crate load of Airedale terriers, many retrievers and Alsatian police dogs, and even the services of common mongrels.”
Rumors that this whole thing was an elaborate publicity stunt broke out. Friends of Christie were outraged. It took her loyal secretary to quash this hogwash by reminding the world that Agatha Christie was too much a lady to stoop so low.
The case was certainly a page-turner! Detectives, perhaps too faithful to Christie’s writing, even started to look to her unfinished manuscript, The Blue Train, for clues.
At some point, a theory arose that she likely fled to London where she was dressed as a man. There was also supposedly a sealed note left behind that should only be opened if and when they found her body.
A séance was held at the quarry where the Morris Cowley was discovered. Mediums reported that their mystic session led them to believe that Christie met with some foul play. Unfortunately, no further insight was divined.
As the two-week mark closed in, the investigation was looking drier than a British beefeater. Detectives began to suspect that Christie had no plan of returning home. What else did they have to go by? She was simply gone.
Yet, on December 15th, Christie’s body was suddenly discovered. Prostrate, pampered and exfoliated, Agatha Christie was lying quite comfortably at a Yorkshire spa, exactly as she had said she would be.
Why, then, was she so hard to locate? Well, it turns out Christie had checked in under the false name Mrs. Tressa Neele. When her husband was questioned about this, he simply said she had lost her mind.
Harrogate Hydro, the spa where Christie was found. Hulton Archive
If Christie’s mind was at all lost, it was nowhere too far from home, as it was revealed that Mrs. Tressa Neele was the name of her husband’s mistress. However, fearing ill repute, Archibald Christie still dutifully went to fetch his wife at the spa.
Hundreds showed up to watch Archibald as he was “welcomed by her with a stony stare.” The world loved Agatha Christie’s mysteries, and this real-life drama riddled with shame, betrayal, and defiance was far too good to turn away from.
Crowds at King’s Cross station hope to catch a glimpse of Christie. Hulton Archive
Fifteen months after Christie made her spectacularly spectated return home from the spa, she sued her husband for divorce. It was poetic justice if ever there were any…even if two years later Archibald went on to marry the infamous Tressa Neele.
The English Riviera
In all her years since, Christie never really commented on those mysterious two weeks. In her autobiography, she simply summed up the whole of her marriage by saying, “there’s no need to dwell on it.”
If you are a fan of the true-crime genre, then you can probably recite many tales about brutal murders and the perpetrators who were eventually arrested for them. However, as Christie has proven, not every case ends with a tidy bow on it.
While many criminals are apprehended by authorities, some cases are simply never solved — just see any episode of Unsolved Mysteries for proof. The details of these ghastly cases have haunted authorities and the families of those victims for years.
Jack the Ripper: His killing spree began in 1888. During this time, Jack the Ripper (as he came to be known) terrorized the London neighborhood of Whitechapel, murdering prostitutes. He deliberately baited the police by doing things like sending them the preserved organs of his victims.
The Freeway Phantom: In the 1970s, dozens of African American women between the ages of 10 and 18 were all murdered by an unknown killer. Brenda Woodward, one of his victims, was actually forced to dictate a message from the killer where he gave himself the name “The Freeway Phantom.”
Gary Grant Jr.: In 1984 on a day off from school, Gary Grant Jr., who was just seven years old, told his mother he had a “secret appointment” at 2:30 p.m. He ran outside to play and his murdered body was later found in a warehouse. The killer was never captured, though a man claiming to be responsible called the police confessing and goading them by saying, “You will never catch me.”
Tracey Ann Patient: In 1975, 13-year-old Tracey Ann Patient was out at a friend’s house. She was due to be home by 9:30 p.m., but she never appeared. The next day, her body was found; she had been strangled to death with her own pantyhose. The killer called the police and dropped several clues in the mail, including Tracey’s ring and a random series of numbers. He was never caught.
Blair Adams: In 1996, construction worker Blair Adams removed his savings from his bank in British Columbia and traveled to Knoxville, Tennessee. He’d been acting strangely, telling his mother he believed someone was going to kill him. His body was found in the parking lot of a hotel in Knoxville. He was wearing a torn shirt and socks, but no pants. To this day, no one knows what happened.
Mary Ann Holmes: In 1995, a four-year-old girl ran naked and screaming into her neighbor’s home, telling them that her mother had been murdered. Her mother, Mary Ann Holmes, was found bound, nude, and slain. The killer had made the girl watch the whole thing, but she was so traumatized that all she could say was that a lion was responsible for the crime. Phillip Turley, pictured, was one of the prime suspects, though the case is still cold.
Sam Lottery: In 1997, 18-year-old Sam Lottery was living in London, Ontario. His family went to church one Sunday, and in the pew where they usually sat, they found an envelope containing a photograph Sam kept in his wallet—along with a letter saying his body had been dumped in a river. His body was never found in the river, though a bone from one of his arms was recovered years later.
Gregory Villemin: For years, the Villemin family of France was terrorized by a figure who would only call himself “the Crow.” This figure would send them threatening letters and harass them with phone calls. The violence escalated and eventually “the Crow” took credit for the murder of the family’s youngest son, Gregory. He was never caught.
Kelly Cook: In 1981, Kelly Cook loved to make money after school and on the weekends by working as a babysitter. She received a call from a man who called himself “Bill Christianson” asking her to sit for his children one night. He offered to pick her up, and Kelly accepted his offer. She never came home and was later found dead in an irrigation canal.
The Setegaya murders: Mikio and Yasuko Miyazawa, along with their two children, were all stabbed to death in their home in 2000. The police found evidence that the killer had done the deed, then sat down to enjoy ice cream and a good’s night sleep in his victim’s home. He was never found.
Glacia Ramsey and Peaches Christburg: In 2013, Glacia and Peaches were being watched by a babysitter when a man broke into the house. He forced the babysitter into a closet and set the house on fire. The babysitter survived, but the children did not. The killer was never found.
The Saxton murders: In 1874, Fritz Strelzriede answered his door one evening and was greeted with an axe to the face. The unknown killer murdered Fritz and the rest of his family. There were rumors that Fritz had a stash of hidden gold; he didn’t, though, and his killer was never found.
JonBenét Ramsey: When she was just six years old, this little pageant princess was murdered in her home on Christmas night in 1996. The killer hid her body in the basement and left a ransom note on the back steps. Her killer has never been found, and conspiracies and rumors still surround the case.
Shannan Gilbert: In 2010, Shannan Gilbert, an escort, fled a home in terror saying that the people there had tried to kill her. No one listened to her, and Shannan mysteriously disappeared. Just weeks later, the remains of 10 bodies were found on a beach. Shannan’s remains also appeared on the beach. Her killer has since been dubbed the Long Island Serial Killer and he has not yet been found.
The Atlanta Ripper: In 1911, a man terrorized the streets of Atlanta at night, slitting the throats of dozens of African American women. He was inactive for a few years; then, in 1914, signs started appearing from the ripper making threats against even more women. He never acted on this again and was never captured.
The Be-Lo Murders: In 1993, in a small town in North Carolina, a man entered a Be-Lo grocery store at closing and forced the six employees into the back room at gunpoint. He bound them and threw them into a pile. He shot at their bodies until there were no bullets left. Three employees died and he was never caught despite the $30,000 reward that was offered for information on him.
The Family Murders: In Australia in the 1980s, a total of five men were discovered killed in exactly the same fashion. The police called them the Family Murders because they theorized that the murders were all committed by a group of adult men who trusted each other like family.
Amber Hagerman: In 1996, nine-year-old Amber Hagerman disappeared from her front yard and was later found dead with her throat slit, face down in a local pond. Her killer was never found. Her unsolved murder prompted the beginning of the AMBER Alert, a program meant to help spread the word about missing children quickly.
Yleen and Lillie Kennedy: In 1984, sisters Yleen and Lillie were brutally killed. Yleen was shot in the head while Lillie was beaten, strangled, stabbed, and raped to death. A neighbor saw a man with a duffel bag leaving their house, but he was never found. Their murders remain unsolved.
The Bible John murders: In the 1960s in Glasgow, Scotland, a man nicknamed “Bible John” murdered three different women who all were seen dancing at the same club on the same night. John was spotted angrily quoting Bible verses at the club and was described as slim and red-haired. Even with this information, he was never caught.
Nicole Lee Hattamer: In 1989, 10-month-old Nicole was fast asleep in bed with her teenage mother. The next morning her mother awoke and found her gone. She didn’t have to look far: Nicole was lying dead in the front yard. Someone had dropped her and injured her chest, stopping her breathing. No charges were ever filed.
Georgia Jane Crews: In April of 1980, 12-year-old Georgia left her house to go play with some friends—and her parents never saw her again. Her body was eventually found in a dumpster behind a K-Mart. All her clothes were on, and she had been killed by a single stab wound to the back.
The Grand Prairie Killings: In 1918, this small town was populated by fur trappers. When the Snyder house went up in flames, the police discovered Joseph Snyder and his son, Stanley, dead, but it wasn’t fire or smoke that killed them. The men had been shot and the fire had been set to cover up the crime. Initially, a neighbor was charged, but he was acquitted and the real killer has never been found.
John Hill: John Hill was shot and killed at a local laundromat in Iowa in 1976. The killer stole hundreds of dollars from his pockets and scrawled the words “BLACK” and “OLDER” at the scene. The police could never make sense of it all and his killer was never caught.
Jaime Santos: In 1991, Jaime Santos, a 27-year-old exotic dancer, called in sick to her job saying she felt under the weather. The next day, someone placed an anonymous call that Jaime was having trouble breathing. When the police and paramedics arrived, they discovered that Jaime had been suffocated to death with a pillow. Her killer is likely the person who placed that 9-1-1 call.
Maoma Ridings: A member of the women’s Army Corps in 1934, Maoma Ridings was also President Roosevelt’s personal trainer. She was found naked and beaten death in a hotel room. A bellboy reported having entered the room earlier that day to see a woman dressed all in black sitting on the edge of the bed. The woman was never found.
The Grimes Sisters: Teenager Barbara and Patricia Grimes were diehard fans of Elvis Presley, and in 1956, they begged their mother to let them travel alone by bus to see his latest movie. The women never made it home. Their bodies were found in a ditch on the bus route and the case remains unsolved.
The Wax Head Woman: In 1981, the police in Yorkshire, England, received word that there was a dead body in the local woods. Sure enough, police found the woman’s remains—save for her head. They had a sculptor make a wax likeness of her head, but it wasn’t enough to help them solve the crime.
The Gatton murders: In 1898, Michael Murphy and his sisters, Nora and Ellen, were traveling home from a dance hall to their residence located in Gatton, Australia. Somewhere along the line the trio was captured, robbed, and killed. The ghastly crime is still well-remembered in the small town.
The Original Night Stalker: In California, an unknown killer called the Original Night Stalker has been held accountable for 20 burglaries, 45 rapes, and 12 deaths in Sacramento and Orange County, California. He ravaged the state from 1976 to 1986, and while he hasn’t been active since, the police are still looking for him.
Eugene Izzi: In 1996, a writer named Eugene Izzi was found hanging from a noose in his apartment. The police deemed it a suicide, but other people just weren’t convinced. Why? Because at the time of his death, Eugene was wearing a bulletproof vest and carrying pepper spray on his person. If there was more to this story, it is still unknown.