Sam Spade appears in a single novel in which Dashiell Hammett defines, perfects and abandons the private eye yarn. [Editor’s note: Sam Spade was the quintessential hard boiled PI — no contest.]
Farewell, My Lovely by Raymond Chandler
Phillip Marlowe was never tougher, funnier or better, and the same is true for Chandler. A vividly compelling PI noir rivaled only by The Maltese Falcon. [Editor’s note: Velma Valento, Marlowe’s ginger-haired ex, is a real pistol and will break any man’s heart or spleen. Gentleman beware!]
One Lonely Night by Mickey Spillane
Mike Hammer, tortured by a judge’s damning words, decides he’s been put on earth to destroy the evil ones. A surreal masterpiece. [Editor’s note: The cover is ridiculous and we can’t help but love it. Also, there’s a book by Susan Kay Law with the same title if you want to branch out into Great Plains romances.]
The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain
Cain spins a deceptively simple blue-collar opera of love and greed among the working class that opened a door for thousands of other writers, including Horace McCoy and especially Jim Thompson.
Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye by Horace McCoy
Possibly the most neglected great crime novel, this is the book that sets the pattern – and the standard – for all novels featuring a psychopathic narrator. The masterpiece Jim Thompson never quite managed to write.
POP. 1280 by Jim Thompson
While essentially a reworking of Thompson’s more famous The Killer Inside Me, this novel has a down-home nastiness that decades later retains all its shocking power, as a narrator seems to be a typical crime novel hero until he reveals himself as a sociopath.
Nightmare Alley by William Lindsey Graham
A masterpiece of sleazy tragedy, Graham’s novel of carnival life and psychic hoaxers made for a movie that gave Tyrone Power the role of a lifetime. The book is even nastier and more downbeat, and essential reading.
High Sierra by W.R. Burnett
Burnett is the great neglected crime writer, the man who brought us everything from the novel Little Caeser to The Asphalt Jungle, and the only top crime fiction writer who had a successful screenwriting career. High Sierra sets the pattern for the thief/gangster hero that Richard Stark (Donald E. Westlake) would make his own.
The Golden Spiders by Rex Stout
Archie Goodwin was one of the great private eyes, but the Nero Wolfe books get mistakenly classified as less than hardboiled when they are the perfect marriage of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Dashiell Hammett. This is one of the toughest and best. Archie’s wry first-person voice predates Phillip Marlowe by five years.
The Case of the Moth-Eaten Mink by Erle Stanley Gardner
I could have chosen any one of several dozen Perry Mason novels for this list, but The Case of the Moth-Eaten Mink was my first Mason and the wonderfully alliterative title still makes me smile. The books are much tougher than given credit for, and the cases always hinge on sex, greed or both. The dialogue crackles and no one ever wrote better courtroom scenes than lawyer Gardner.