The best 20th century PI novels

Why am I passionate about this?

I admit to, and beg pardon for, bias on behalf of hardboiled male private detectives. Also for leaning west coast. That’s where I grew up and still live, on a hill overlooking Mexico. I consider myself something of an expert on 20th-century crime novels, having written and published a dozen of them, most featuring PI Tom Hickey, and having read hundreds of all sorts, western, eastern, hardboiled, noir, legal, male, female, and even a few cozies. My current challenge is trying to learn calculus since my youngest daughter is a math whiz and I want to understand why.


I wrote...

The Biggest Liar in Los Angeles

By Ken Kuhlken,

Book cover of The Biggest Liar in Los Angeles

What is my book about?

The Biggest Liar in Los Angeles tells a gripping story about memorable characters and resurrects a time and place that, perhaps more than any, created the modern world. Unless a famous evangelist will take agnostic Tom Hickey into her confidence, he may never learn if the Ku Klux Klan lynched his friend.  San Diego Book Awards Best Mystery. 

“Kuhlken mixes historical and fictional characters with an ease that will remind many of Max Allan Collins’s Nate Heller series (True Crime, etc.). He’s equally adept at melding the murder inquiry with Hickey’s personal struggles.”​ - Publishers’ Weekly​

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Big Sleep

Ken Kuhlken Why did I love 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.” 

By Raymond Chandler,

Why should I read it?

18 authors picked The Big Sleep as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Raymond Chandler's first three novels, published here in one volume, established his reputation as an unsurpassed master of hard-boiled detective fiction.

The Big Sleep, Chandler's first novel, introduces Philip Marlowe, a private detective inhabiting the seamy side of Los Angeles in the 1930s, as he takes on a case involving a paralysed California millionaire, two psychotic daughters, blackmail and murder.

In Farewell, My Lovely, Marlowe deals with the gambling circuit, a murder he stumbles upon, and three very beautiful but potentially deadly women.

In The High Window, Marlowe searches the California underworld for a priceless gold coin and finds himself…


Book cover of The Maltese Falcon

Ken Kuhlken Why did I love 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.

By Dashiell Hammett,

Why should I read it?

9 authors picked The Maltese Falcon as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

One of the greatest crime novels of the 20th century.

'His name remains one of the most important and recognisable in the crime fiction genre. Hammett set the standard for much of the work that would follow' Independent

Sam Spade is hired by the fragrant Miss Wonderley to track down her sister, who has eloped with a louse called Floyd Thursby. But Miss Wonderley is in fact the beautiful and treacherous Brigid O'Shaughnessy, and when Spade's partner Miles Archer is shot while on Thursby's trail, Spade finds himself both hunter and hunted: can he track down the jewel-encrusted bird, a…


Book cover of The Moving Target

Ken Kuhlken Why did I love 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.

By Ross Macdonald,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Moving Target as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The first book in Ross Macdonald's acclaimed Lew Archer series introduces the detective who redefined the role of the American private eye and gave the crime novel a psychological depth and moral complexity only hinted at before.

Like many Southern California millionaires, Ralph Sampson keeps odd company. There's the sun-worshipping holy man whom Sampson once gave his very own mountain; the fading actress with sidelines in astrology and S&M. Now one of Sampson's friends may have arranged his kidnapping.

As Lew Archer follows the clues from the canyon sanctuaries of the megarich to jazz joints where you get beaten up…


Book cover of Act of Fear: A Dan Fortune Mystery

Ken Kuhlken Why did I love 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?

By Michael Collins,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Act of Fear as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Since fate forced him to go straight, he has become the resident private eye of this run-down part of Manhattan, chiseling out a career of divorce work and subpoena delivery. But a big case is coming his way. A beat cop is mugged in broad daylight and the only possible witness disappears the next morning. Unsure if he's looking for a witness or a perp, Fortune hunts for the kid, unearthing ugly secrets in a neighborhood he thought he knew well.


Book cover of Devil in a Blue Dress

Ken Kuhlken Why did I love 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.

By Walter Mosley,

Why should I read it?

9 authors picked Devil in a Blue Dress as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Devil in a Blue Dress honors the tradition of the classic American detective novel by bestowing on it a vivid social canvas and the freshest new voice in crime writing in years, mixing the hard-boiled poetry of Raymond Chandler with the racial realism of Richard Wright to explosive effect.


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The Blue Prussian

By Eve Penrose,

Book cover of The Blue Prussian

Eve Penrose

New book alert!

What is my book about?

The Blue Prussian is a spellbinding story told by Blake O’Brien, a beautiful, young executive with a globetrotting career. Blake returns to her native Manhattan from San Francisco after escaping—or so she thinks—her marriage to a dashing man who turned out to be a prince of darkness. She had been hoping for a fresh start but learns that she has been poisoned with thallium—a deadly neurotoxin referred to as the poisoner’s poison.

Blake is treated with the only known antidote—Prussian blue—the same synthetic pigment with the deeply saturated hue used in dazzling masterpieces like The Starry Night and The Great…

The Blue Prussian

By Eve Penrose,

What is this book about?

"A modern-day Gaslight"

The Blue Prussian is a spellbinding story told by Blake O'Brien, a beautiful, young executive with a globetrotting career. Blake returns to her native Manhattan from San Francisco after escaping—or so she thinks—her marriage to a dashing man who turned out to be a prince of darkness. She had been hoping for a fresh start but learns that she has been poisoned with thallium—a deadly neurotoxin referred to as the poisoner's poison.

Blake is treated with the only known antidote—Prussian blue—the same synthetic pigment with the deeply saturated hue used in dazzling masterpieces like The Starry Night…


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