The Maltese Falcon (1930)
The modern private eye story began in a pulp magazine, Black Mask, in 1920s stories by Carroll John Daly, whose melodrama was just a step up from dime novels. Ex-Pinkerton operative Dashiell Hammett brought his experiences to Black Mask, providing a basis in reality via a hard, lean style more understated than Hemingway. Still, Hammett idealized the detective in his Sam Spade. He defined and perfected the private eye novel: tough detective, loving secretary, femme fatale, adversarial cops, punk gunman, criminal mastermind – all the key players, all the key elements. The first great novel in the genre, never matched.
The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934)
Failed opera singer/successful journalist James M. Cain, inspired by a notorious murder case, wrote this simple love story about a man and a woman plotting to kill the latter’s husband. This swift, short tabloid thriller has lost none of its power to shock and stimulate. The criminal protagonists seem more ordinary than evil, the lust they share as large as their goal is small – to gain a roadside diner. Told in rough-hewn first person by drifter Frank Chambers, Postman is easily the most imitated crime novel ever written… even by its author, in the nearly equally famous Double Indemnity (1936).
The A.B.C. Murders (1936)
This list has plenty of private eyes, and A.B.C. is no exception, though some may be surprised that fussy, eccentric Belgian detective Hercule Poirot shares Sam Spade’s profession. But Poirot is for hire, and his cases are rarely drawing-room affairs – here he tracks a serial killer, in a deftly plotted and typically well-characterized thriller. Poirot and “Watson” Hastings are challenged by the killer to stop him, a plot device borrowed by… everyone. Dame Agatha Christie, the greatest of all mystery writers, is sometimes dismissed as a lack-luster stylist and creator of cardboard characters, apparently by those who have not read her.
Farewell, My Lovely (1940)
After an apprenticeship writing for Black Mask, former oil executive Raymond Chandler created private eye Phillip Marlowe in The Big Sleep (1939). Great as that novel is, Marlowe’s second case – Farewell, My Lovely – is a fine place to start, with Chandler’s noir poetry in full flower and tough-guy Marlowe his modern-day knightly self, caught up in somebody else’s tragic love story. Hammett’s Maltese Falcon is the gold standard, but Chandler was probably even more influential, as his wryly humorous, metaphor-laced first-person narrative remains the most imitated prose style in the genre, from Ross Macdonald to Robert B. Parker and beyond.
I, the Jury (1947)
Comic book writer Mickey Spillane created Mike Hammer, toughest of private eyes, with other WW Two vets in mind. The “buddy” who saved Hammer’s life in combat is murdered, and Hammer swears to kill the killer. From this simple premise arose the most popular mystery series of the 20th Century…and every tough guy from James Bond to Shaft, Dirty Harry to Jack Bauer. Still violent and sexy, I, the Jury is not Hammer’s greatest case (see One Lonely Night) but it’s where to start. After decades of critical contempt, the book is now included on most lists of great mysteries.
Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye (1948)
After leading a knockabout Depression-era life – World War One vet, lettuce picker, bouncer, sports writer, actor – Horace McCoy drifted into screenwriting. Among his occasional novels, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1935) is likely his most famous, due to the Jane Fonda film. But Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye – dizzying in its sometimes stream-of-consciousness first-person – is more influential. Amoral, homicidal Ralph Cutter escapes jail and gets involved with a heist gang; even as he’s cohabiting with a moll, he uses his mysteriously well-educated, well-to-do background to get close to a wealthy respectable girl.
The Golden Spiders (1953)
Failed literary novelist Rex Stout turned to the mystery genre in 1934, creating corpulent armchair detective Nero Wolfe and his private-eye assistant Archie Goodwin in Fer-De-Lance. Stout’s stroke of genius was to team the cerebral detective, represented by now-forgotten Philo Vance and his more successful imitator Ellery Queen, with a hardboiled man of action out of Dashiell Hammett and Black Mask. Archie’s first-person narration rivals Phillip Marlowe’s (and pre-dates it), and the relationship between tough Archie and eccentric Wolfe is both amusing and deep. The Golden Spiders is a fine example of the strengths of Wolfe and Archie… and Stout.
Pop. 1280 (1964)
Jim Thompson is the quintessential mid-Twentieth Century crime fiction writer: unknown, unappreciated (but for a few perceptive critics), toiling in low-end paperback originals. Early novels are indebted to James M. Cain, with whom Thompson shares largely criminal protagonists, from grifters to sociopaths. Pop. 1280 is superficially a reworking of his more famous The Killer Inside Me (1952), and both are strong examples of the unreliable narrator. Deputy Nick Corey (devilish tendencies lurk) seems a genial fool in a book that begins as country-fried farce. To say more would to be to spoil one of the great, nasty rides of crime fiction.
The Hunter aka Point Blank (1961)
Early in his career, Donald E. Westlake – soon to be known for his light, humorous crime fiction – wrote a very lean, tough paperback original about mono-named Parker, a thief of little sentiment and large professionalism. Parker died at the end…until an editor requested a series, running from 1961-1974 and again from 1997 until the writer’s death in 2008. The tough thief as protagonist had been around a long time – The Asphalt Jungle (1949) by W.R. Burnett, for example – but Parker was the hero, getting away with it, as Westlake wrote unapologetically about felony, delivering twisty plots, memorable characters and startling action.
True Detective (1983)
Winner of a Private Eye Writers of America “Shamus” Award for Best Novel, True Detective introduces Nathan Heller, a young, brash, randy, slightly shady private eye. Heller gets caught up in an assassination attempt on Capone successor Frank Nitti, as well as a mob hit on Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak. In subsequent novels, this traditional Spade/Marlowe/Hammer-style P.I. gets embroiled in such famous cases as the Lindbergh kidnapping, the Amelia Earhart disappearance, and the Black Dahlia murder. I wrote this one, and before you cry foul, remember: I put this list together for you. The least you can do is try one of mine.