The best books about what it’s like – and what it takes – to be a real-life private eye

Why am I passionate about this?

I’m a private eye. No, I don’t carry a gun. Or trail around after cheating spouses. In fact, the job is way more interesting than that, in a truth-is-stranger-than-fiction way. So it’s a pleasure to recommend these books that tell private eye life as it really is. One is written by a private eye, three others are written about us, and one more is a remarkable investigation itself, but they all ring true about the mystery that is private detective work. On days when even I can’t believe my job, I turn to these books for inspiration, information, and reality checks too. I hope you enjoy them as I do.


I wrote...

Two Truths and a Lie: A Murder, a Private Investigator, and Her Search for Justice

By Ellen McGarrahan,

Book cover of Two Truths and a Lie: A Murder, a Private Investigator, and Her Search for Justice

What is my book about?

As a young journalist, Ellen McGarrahan witnessed the botched execution of Jesse Tafero – flames, smoke, three fiery jolts of the electric chair. When stories began to circulate that another person committed the brutal murders Tafero died for, McGarrahan found herself haunted. Had she had witnessed the execution of an innocent man?

Decades later, McGarrahan is a private investigator at the top of her profession, but still carries this mystery at the center of her own life. To find peace, she decides she must investigate Tafero’s case herself. Her search will take her around the world and deep into her own heart, where a buried secret awaits. Rare and vivid, Two Truths and a Lie is ultimately a profound meditation on truth, complicity, and justice.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Big Sleep

Ellen McGarrahan Why did I love this book?

The week I started working as a private investigator, a friend gave me The Big Sleep. I fell in love – with Raymond Chandler. To me, as a new PI, every word rang true. The book is set in Los Angeles, starring detective Philip Marlowe – “I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it” – and I read it in Los Angeles, too, amid the sunstruck tangle of ambition and envy and deception and longing that makes the city such an easy place, I was learning, to be a private eye. Marlowe’s droll observations and his exquisite detachment were a fascinating introduction to PI life, and every so often now I read it again just to remember the thrill of when my world was new. 

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 A Suitable Job for a Woman: Inside the World of Private Eyes

Ellen McGarrahan Why did I love this book?

Fictional lady detectives are sexy and fascinating, we can all agree. But what about real life? That’s the question asked and answered in this non-fiction book by brilliant crime writer Val McDermid, who lavishes her attention and experience over nearly 300 interview-packed pages to explore all the ways in which private investigation is – thank you – a very suitable job for a woman indeed. “Smart, strong and sure of themselves, they walk the mean streets to their own beat,” Val concludes. When I think of my friends who, like me, are real-life women PIs, I have to say Val McDermid has done her detective work because that sounds exactly right.

By Val McDermid,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked A Suitable Job for a Woman as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

""But down these mean streets must go a man who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished or afraid."" When Raymond Chandler wrote these words in his classic The Simple Art of Murder, he drew a blueprint for the male private eyes who descend from Philip Marlowe to populate the world of crime fiction.
But what if the private eye is a woman? And what if she is not a character in a novel but a real, working investigator testing not only the meanness but the absurdity of life on seamy streets? Who will tell her story?


Enter Manchester's…


Book cover of Cool Hand Luke

Ellen McGarrahan Why did I love this book?

When I was investigating the heartless murders that are the central mystery of my book, I discovered that the author of Cool Hand Luke had worked as a private investigator on the case back in 1976. The next afternoon I was on his doorstep. Donn Pearce was kind with his time and his advice. Asked for the key to his success as a PI, Donn said, simply: “I absorb.” Every detail, every moment, observed, evaluated, accounted for. It’s as true a description of detective work as you’ll ever find – and of Cool Hand Luke too. The book is not a detective story but it is a detective’s masterpiece, a harrowing prison saga told from the inside out in spare and beautiful sentences. Every word feels deeply lived, and so alive.

By Donn Pearce,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Cool Hand Luke as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A very good plus copy in like dust wrapper. Moderate rubbing to covers. Tight, Square and clean. Not price clipped.


Book cover of I'll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman's Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer

Ellen McGarrahan Why did I love this book?

Obsession. It’s a hazard of the PI profession. I know a little bit about that, but no book will ever be as heartbreaking on this subject as I’ll Be Gone in the Dark. Although Michelle McNamara was not a private eye when she started on the trail of the Golden State Killer, her clue-by-clue work to solve the case is an astounding portrayal of tenacious investigation – and of the toll obsession exacts. At times this book was so painful for me to read that it felt like picking through broken glass, but Michelle’s courage, her humanity, and her determination to find the truth shone through on every page.  

By Michelle McNamara,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked I'll Be Gone in the Dark as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

THE BASIS FOR THE MAJOR 6-PART HBO® DOCUMENTARY SERIES

#1 NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER

A BEST BOOK OF THE YEAR:

Washington Post | Maureen Corrigan, NPR | Paste | Seattle Times | Entertainment Weekly | Esquire | Slate | Buzzfeed | Jezebel | Philadelphia Inquirer | Publishers Weekly | Kirkus Reviews | Library Journal | Bustle 

Winner of the Goodreads Choice Awards for Nonfiction | Anthony Award Winner | SCIBA Book Award Winner | Finalist for the Edgar Award for Best Fact Crime | Longlisted for the Carnegie Medal for Excellence

The haunting true story of the elusive serial rapist…


Book cover of Saint with a Gun: The Unlawful American Private Eye

Ellen McGarrahan Why did I love this book?

This provocative work of investigatory scholarship takes a dim view of private eyes, but that’s fair enough – as a detective (definitely not a saint) who has never carried a gun myself, I share the author’s dismay at the violent anti-heroes of mythic American lore. Ruehlmann’s question in this book is also my own: why are people so interested in private eyes? Answering it, he traces the idea of an omniscient private eye back to the outlaw vigilantes of the Old West, draws a distinction between intellectual English detectives and the musclemen of American noir, and includes an overview of modern masters of detective fiction along with a history of the profession starting in 18th-century France. Who knew? None of it is flattering, which makes it even more fun to read. 

By William Ruehlmann,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Saint with a Gun as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Examines the history and works representative of American detective fiction, providing psychological insight into popular opinions on violence, crime, revenge, and justice. Bibliogs


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Death on a Shetland Longship: The Shetland Sailing Mysteries

By Marsali Taylor,

Book cover of Death on a Shetland Longship: The Shetland Sailing Mysteries

Marsali Taylor Author Of Death on a Shetland Longship: The Shetland Sailing Mysteries

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

Author Sailor Women’s historian Cat-lover Temporarily limping But determinedly recovering

Marsali's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

Liveaboard sailor Cass Lynch thinks her big break has finally arrived when she blags her way into skippering a Viking longship for a Hollywood film. However, this means returning to the Shetland Islands, the place she fled as a teenager. When a corpse unexpectedly appears onboard the longship, she can run from the past no longer: Cass and her family come under intense scrutiny from the disturbingly shrewd Detective Inspector Gavin Macrae.

Even if Cass’s local knowledge and sailing wisdom help to clear the Lynch family of suspicion, they may not be enough to stay ahead of the murderer’s game... and avoid becoming the next victim.

Death on a Shetland Longship: The Shetland Sailing Mysteries

By Marsali Taylor,

What is this book about?

When she wangles the job of skippering a Viking longship for a film, Cass Lynch thinks her big break has finally arrived - even though it means returning home to the Shetland Islands, which she ran away from as a teenager. Then the `accidents' begin - and when a dead woman turns up on the boat's deck, Cass realises that she, her family and her past are under suspicion from the disturbingly shrewd Detective Inspector Macrae. Cass must call on all her local knowledge, the wisdom she didn't realise she'd gained from sailing and her glamorous, French opera singer mother…


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