The best books on hard-boiled PIs

Neal W. Fandek Author Of Peter Pike and the Lincoln Love Letters
By Neal W. Fandek

Who am I?

I’m the author of the Peter Pike private eye series. Detective, PI, and mystery fiction have come a long way since Poe’s Dupin and Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes. The genre allows you to explore almost any theme you want. What is Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment if not crime/detective fiction? My passion is history and the evolution of societies, and writing in this genre lets me explore the huge, sophisticated ancient Indian civilizations that were here before the white invasion. The ugly history of the Mormons, not taught in school. Lincoln’s murky sexuality. The Russian Revolution, Lenin and Stalin, the downfall of the Romanovs. Nazis and war dogs. The U.S.-Soviet space race. The -- well, you get the idea. 


I wrote...

Peter Pike and the Lincoln Love Letters

By Neal W. Fandek,

Book cover of Peter Pike and the Lincoln Love Letters

What is my book about?

Scandal! Explosive Lincoln love letters have disappeared from the University of Illinois Library – and with them, the last person to see the letters, erratic adjunct poetry instructor Danny Ejderhan. His fiancé Dani hires once-homeless private eye Peter Pike (he sleeps in his office now) to find Dan. To find Dan, Pike must navigate a world of fluid sexuality, political correctness, race riots, musty archives, and inconvenient truths. On top of that, Pike is falling in love with Greta, a librarian with some secrets herself. 

Why all the excitement? Because these documents will upend history. The letters to and from Lincoln are not correspondence with Mary Todd or even a woman at all. His crush is on ... John Wilkes Booth. The book asks the eternal question: What price love?

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The books I picked & why

The Maltese Falcon

By Dashiell Hammett,

Book cover of The Maltese Falcon

Why did I love this book?

This might be the easiest No. 1 in the history of No. 1s. Falcon is the gold standard of hardboiled detective fiction, the blueprint mystery-PI writers have faithfully followed for damn near a century now. Falcon lets PI Sam Spade careen into the world, a new kind of tough-guy anti-hero hero, tight-lipped, wisecracking, violent, street-smart, with devastatingly sexy femme fatales, cheerfully amoral and very witty bad guys. The best part? Sure, the novel is better than the movie. It usually is. No, it’s the prose: Minimal, evocative, more so than even Hemingway. Hammett lets the story play out through the dialogue and action, not internal dialogue or literary devices, and still manages to create distinct characters. Spade’s lines can also be funny as hell, which Hemingway’s never were.

By Dashiell Hammett,

Why should I read it?

7 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…


The Dain Curse

By Dashiell Hammett,

Book cover of The Dain Curse

Why did I love this book?

What, more Hammett? Sure. My apologies to those expecting Raymond Chandler, but it’s hard to beat the master. Even in this sometimes almost incoherent thrill ride through the occult, drugs, the misdeeds of the rich, and amoral 1920s America. It ain’t called the Roaring 20s for nothing. This is the second in the Continental Op series and maybe Hammett’s most ambitious PI work, which follows a sharp-witted insurance investigator in Hammett’s trademark snappy prose. Sam Spade-like? Uh, no. The Op is short, fat, forty, and nameless, very far from a tough guy. He gets beaten up all the time in this, I admit it, quite convoluted novel. Fortunately for the mystery-challenged, the backstory is presented at the end of each of three parts, along with the Op’s wry takes on the case.

Is Curse a satire? A literary work? Some kind of skewed horror story? Yes to all the above.

By Dashiell Hammett,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Dain Curse as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Miss Gabriel Dain Leggett is young and wealthy, with a penchant for morphine and religious cults. She also has an unfortunate effect on the people around her. They die - violently. Is she the victim of a family curse? The short, squat, utterly unsentimental Continental Op, the best private detective around, has his doubts and finds himself confronting something infinitely more dangerous. This is the Continental Op's most bizarre case.


The Deep Blue Good-By

By John D. MacDonald,

Book cover of The Deep Blue Good-By

Why did I love this book?

The first novel in the 21-novel Travis McGee series introduces a kinder and gentler PI, a lazy beach bum who lives on a houseboat called the Busted Flush in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and drives a Rolls Royce converted to a pickup (don’t ask me, I’m just the list writer). McGee is another knight errant with a strict moral code -- that excludes babes in bikinis, of course -- who's wary of credit cards, retirement benefits, political parties, mortgages, television. He only works when his cash runs out and his rule is simple: he'll help you find whatever was taken from you as long as he can keep half, in this case European gems smuggled in after World War II. The bad guy here is very bad indeed, a sadist who enjoys torturing women. McGee takes care of that, and recovers the loot, too, but both he and the client pay a heavy price.

This kind of morally ambiguous ending maybe didn't start with McDonald, but he perfected it and it’s now almost standard in PI fiction.

By John D. MacDonald,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked The Deep Blue Good-By as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Travis McGee, beach bum and 'salvage expert' (he'll retrieve what you've lost for 50 per cent), lives on a houseboat in Fort Lauderdale.Instead of taking retirement at sixty, he takes it in chunks as he goes along. If he likes you he'll help you, and he likes Cathy Kerr, who has been robbed of everything but her dignity ...the first in the series establishes the fast-talking, wisecracking standard MacDonald maintained for over 20 years.


Bright Orange for the Shroud

By John D. MacDonald,

Book cover of Bright Orange for the Shroud

Why did I love this book?

I could list almost any of the color-coded McGee series, but this one stands out: McGee helps an old buddy bankrupted by a real estate swindle. Vicious bad guys, rapists, killers, a tense stand-off and truly grisly ending for the bad guy -- yay! What makes this one special is Mac’s evocation of a rural Florida being devoured by greedy developers, a theme even more developed in Pale Gray for Guilt, 1968, where a buddy has been murdered because he refused to sell his waterfront property and … but that’s enough McDonald. If there is such a thing.

By John D. MacDonald,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Bright Orange for the Shroud as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

From a beloved master of crime fiction, Bright Orange for the Shroud is one of many classic novels featuring Travis McGee, the hard-boiled detective who lives on a houseboat.
 
Travis McGee is looking forward to a “slob summer,” spending his days as far away from danger as possible. But trouble has a way of finding him, no matter where he hides. An old friend, conned out of his life savings by his ex-wife, has tracked him down and is desperate for help. To get the money back and earn his usual fee, McGee will have to penetrate the Everglades—and the…


Book cover of The Murders in the Rue Morgue

Why did I love this book?

I know, this is a short story and hence cheating, but how can you make lists of detective stories without including the granddaddy of them all? Poe’s short story preceded Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes by four decades and has all the main ingredients. You have an ice-cold supremely rational detective, C. Auguste Dupin. You have a loyal sidekick. You have a bumbling cop. You have two extremely gory murders. You have a locked room. You have conflicting witnesses. You have a bizarre conclusion. You know what? Don’t read my No. 1. Read the Master first.

By Edgar Allan Poe,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Murders in the Rue Morgue as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Edited and with an Introduction by Matthew Pearl
Includes “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt,” and “The Purloined Letter”
 
Between 1841 and 1844, Edgar Allan Poe invented the genre of detective fiction with three mesmerizing stories of a young French eccentric named C. Auguste Dupin. Introducing to literature the concept of applying reason to solving crime, these tales brought Poe fame and fortune. Years later, Dorothy Sayers would describe “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” as “almost a complete manual of detective theory and practice.” Indeed, Poe’s short mysteries inspired the creation of countless literary…


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