The best 20th century PI novels

The Books I Picked & Why

The Big Sleep

By Raymond Chandler

Book cover of The Big Sleep

Why this book?

Raymond Chandler mostly pioneered the modern P.I. novel. He taught us that nothing in life was simple, that one crime leads to another, to another, to another, that maybe all crime is part of one complex plot. Also, to read Chandler is to keep on the lookout for the next outrageous image, metaphor, or wisecrack such as “I don’t mind if you don’t like my manners. They’re pretty bad. I grieve over them during the long winter evenings.” 

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The Maltese Falcon

By Dashiell Hammett

Book cover of The Maltese Falcon

Why this book?

Much like Chandler gave writers of PI novels a standard of wit and intricate plotting to aim for, Dashiell Hammett, with Sam Spade, sets the standard for the profile of the hard-boiled PI. He’s endowed with the flaws all men (or most of us) are heir to, but unlike most of us, he has principles and, quirky and self-defeating though they may be, he’ll hold to them no matter what paycheck, peril, or seductress attempts to lure him away. So many others have called The Maltese Falcon the best PI novel ever published, I won’t bother.

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The Moving Target

By Ross MacDonald

Book cover of The Moving Target

Why this book?

Book One of Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer Series. Mr. Macdonald moved the PI novel into a whole new dimension. He probed the characters, particularly of perpetrator and victim, more deeply than any of his predecessors. When I taught in the English department at the University of Arizona, another prof commented that Ross Macdonald's were the only mysteries he would call literary. But this literary bent in no way lessens the suspense or drama. A reviewer famously commented “Macdonald doesn’t write about crime. He writes about sin.” Often, he shows us how the sins of the fathers and mothers are visited upon future generations.

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Act of Fear: A Dan Fortune Mystery

By Michael Collins

Book cover of Act of Fear: A Dan Fortune Mystery

Why this book?

Book One of the Dan Fortune series. In my opinion, Michael Collins never received the popularity he deserved, most likely because he was determined to write the truth about social and political issues and publishers are a timid gang. I think of Dennis Lynds (aka Michael Collins) as an old-fashioned liberal who leaned socialist whenever socialism was called for. I suspect he would’ve favored Bernie Sanders. And beyond all that, he was a masterful storyteller. What’s more, who can fail to love a one-armed PI?

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Devil in a Blue Dress

By Walter Mosley

Book cover of Devil in a Blue Dress

Why this book?

As a white boy from a mid -20th-century California suburb, I had often wondered how poor black folks endured the conditions of their lives without exploding into rage and violence. In the person of Easy Rawlins, Walter Mosley gave me valuable answers. Devil in a Blue Dress expertly integrates racial, class, and personal struggles. Also, and most importantly, the novel’s every character is truly human.

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