The best American historical crime novels

D.E. Johnson Author Of The Detroit Electric Scheme: A Mystery
By D.E. Johnson

Who am I?

I am the author of the Will Anderson Detroit mystery series, which began with The Detroit Electric Scheme. I love vivid novels, those that pull me inside the pages and into the story. My interests balance between crime, historical fiction, and literary fiction. In short, I like a good story, and I don’t much care what label is placed on it. I live in Michigan with my wife and a pair of reasonably friendly cats.


I wrote...

The Detroit Electric Scheme: A Mystery

By D.E. Johnson,

Book cover of The Detroit Electric Scheme: A Mystery

What is my book about?

Will Anderson is a drunk, heartbroken over the breakup with his fiancée, Elizabeth. He's barely kept his job at his father's company—Detroit Electric, 1910's leading electric automobile manufacturer. Late one night, Elizabeth's new fiancé and Will's one-time friend, John Cooper, asks Will to meet him at the car factory. He finds Cooper dead, crushed in a huge hydraulic roof press. Surprised by the police, Will panics and runs, leaving behind his cap and automobile, and buries his blood-spattered clothing in a garbage can.

What follows is a fast-paced, detail-filled ride through early-1900s Detroit. Through it all, Will learns that clearing himself of the crime he was framed for is only the beginning. To survive, and for his loved ones to survive, he must also become a man.

The books I picked & why

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American Tabloid

By James Ellroy,

Book cover of American Tabloid

Why this book?

One of the masters of Los Angeles historical crime (along with Walter Mosely), Ellroy has written numerous outstanding novels, but my favorite is American Tabloid, which I think is Ellroy at the absolute top of his game.

Pete Bondurant, former cop and current freelance enforcer, troubleshooter, and troublemaker, just can’t keep his nose out of trouble. That trouble includes the FBI and the mob, but that’s just the start. The tendrils stretch from Cuba to the White House to the office of Howard Hughes. A sprawling, yet tightly plotted novel, American Tabloid is a masterpiece of crime fiction.

American Tabloid

By James Ellroy,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked American Tabloid as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The first novel in Ellroy's extraordinary Underworld USA Trilogy as featured on BBC Radio 4's A Good Read.

1958. America is about to emerge into a bright new age - an age that will last until the 1000 days of John F Kennedy's presidency.

Three men move beneath the glossy surface of power, men allied to the makers and shakers of the era. Pete Bondurant - Howard Hughes's right-hand man, Jimmy Hoffa's hitman. Kemper Boyd - employed by J Edgar Hoover to infiltrate the Kennedy clan. Ward Littell - a man seeking redemption in Bobby Kennedy's drive against organised crime.…


Billy Bathgate

By E.L. Doctorow,

Book cover of Billy Bathgate

Why this book?

E.L. Doctorow was one of America’s greatest novelists, and Billy Bathgate is one of his best (of many great books). Doctorow is the writer who inspired me to write historical novels, and he was both a wonderful writer and an amazing storyteller.

Billy is a boy from the mean streets who insinuates himself into the dangerous circle of the gangster Dutch Schultz. Billy eagerly plunges into the crime world of Depression-era New York City, participating in everything from gangland killings to three-day parties in West Side brothels. Dutch’s world includes Tammany Hall politicians, bankers, lawyers, and a lot of bad men. As with all Doctorow novels, the story is about the people and the good and the bad that reside in all of us.

Billy Bathgate

By E.L. Doctorow,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Billy Bathgate as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'I was living in even greater circles of gangsterdom than I had dreamed, latitudes and longitudes of gangsterdom'

It's 1930's New York and fifteen-year-old streetkid Billy, who can juggle, somersault and run like the wind, has been taken under the wing of notorious gangster Dutch Schultz. As Billy learns the ways of the mob, he becomes like a son to Schultz - his 'good-luck kid' - and is initiated into a world of glamour, death and danger that will consume him, in this vivid, soaring epic of crime and betrayal.


Devil in a Blue Dress

By Walter Mosley,

Book cover of Devil in a Blue Dress

Why this book?

I could pick any of the Easy Rawlins books as favorites, but Devil in a Blue Dress is where Easy started, and is required reading for any historical crime reader. 

Set in the late 1940s, World War II veteran Easy Rawlins is fired from his job at a defense plant. He’s drinking in a friend’s bar, wondering how he’ll pay the mortgage, when a white man walks in offering to pay Easy to locate Daphne Monet, a beautiful blonde known to frequent Black jazz clubs. Of course, it’s not as easy as that, and no one is who he or she seems, and Easy gets drawn into a mystery that will almost certainly end badly, particularly after his oh-so-violent friend Mouse gets involved.

Devil in a Blue Dress

By Walter Mosley,

Why should I read it?

6 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.

Devil's Garden

By Ace Atkins,

Book cover of Devil's Garden

Why this book?

Ace Atkins has written a number of excellent historical crime novels based on true stories, and Devil’s Garden is my favorite of the bunch. 

The 1921 murder trial of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle created headlines around the world, and Devil’s Garden illustrates the fall from grace of one of Hollywood’s biggest stars. Atkins brings to life Prohibition-era Hollywood, real-life Pinkerton operative Dashiell Hammett who investigates the murder, William Randolph Hearst, actress Marion Davies, and a large cast of grifters, B-girls, politicians, and hangers-on revolving around Fatty’s trial for the murder of actress Virginia Rappe.

Devil's Garden

By Ace Atkins,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Devil's Garden as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.


Whiskey River

By Loren D. Estleman,

Book cover of Whiskey River

Why this book?

Loren Estleman is the quintessential Detroit novelist, with dozens of books under his belt set in the Motor City. The best of the bunch is Whiskey River, part of his Detroit Seven, which includes King of the Corner (another of my faves).

Whiskey River tells the story of reporter Connie Minor in 1928 Detroit, chasing a story that takes him through Detroit’s underworld of gangsters, bootleggers, crooked cops, and cold as ice criminals. This well-researched book includes the who’s who of Detroit Prohibition-era gangsters, like the Purple Gang, the Oakland Sugar House Mob, and the Machines. The question for Connie is whether the story he’s chasing will make him famous—or dead.

Whiskey River

By Loren D. Estleman,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

In Detroit in 1925 prohibition has been in force for a year longer than the rest of the States, police corruption is so rampant no-one notices the stench in City Hall. Into this scene comes Constantine Minor, a young and ambitious reporter. The author has twice won the Shamus Award.

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