Friday, May 06, 2011
My Top Ten Private Eye Novels
Okay, here's my first run at a top ten PI novel list. This is off the top of my head, which is usually the best way to get a list of favorites. The things that jump to your mind are the ones that stay with you. Keep in mind, this is a list of favorites, not bests. Just My Opinion here, folks. However I have read a couple of thousand PI novels so I have a lot of experience.
The Long Goodbye- Raymond Chandler
I know a lot of folks prefer the more famous Chandler novel, The Big Sleep, but for me it's The Long Goodbye. To me this is Chandler's masterpiece.
Eight Million Ways to Die- Lawrence Block
Look up world-weary in the dictionary and there's probably a picture of Matt Scudder there. This is just an amazing book. Scudder's odyssey across the underbelly of New York was never more vivid and Scudder's quest for redemption never more poignant.
The Maltese Falcon- Dashiell Hammett
You not only get some of the best hardboiled snappy dialog ever written, but a nifty plot, unforgettable characters, and Hammett's worldview neatly handed to you in a little, seemingly offhand story about a guy named Flitcraft. Beams are falling, kids.
I, The Jury- Mickey Spillane
Spillane's first tale of the hardest of the hardboiled, Mike Hammer. People in the 1950s didn't quite know what to think about Spillane, but they sure bought a lot of his books. Even by today's standards Hammer is the tough guy's tough guy. Read The Girl Hunters and watch for the scene with the hammer and nails.
Early Autumn- Robert B. Parker
In this one, Parker's pet obsessions about love, honor, parenthood, obligation, and autonomy all came together in just the right mix, along with some terrific action sequences. To my mind he never quite got things to work as well again.
The Sleeping Beauty- Ross MacDonald
Just about all of Ross MacDonald's books have the same plot, but it doesn't matter. It's the Gothic proceedings that carry MacDonald's stories. This one has a concept though that really impressed me. The titular sleeping beauty is a missing girl who stole a bottle of sleeping pills when she ran away. Does Lew Archer find her before she becomes the eternally sleeping beauty? That would be telling.
A is for Alibi- Sue Grafton
I read the first ten or so of Grafton's Kinsey Millhouse mysteries just as fast as I could get my hands on them. Grafton wasn't the first female writer to write about a female private eye, but she certainly is the most popular. The books are very much in the Ross MacDonald mode, so much that Wold Newton enthusiasts have speculated that Kinsey might be Lew Archer's daughter.
The Last Good Kiss- James Crumley
As a friend once said, "pure hardboiled poetry."
The Deep Blue Goodbye- John D. MacDonald
Travis McGee wasn't really a PI, more of an urban mercenary, but he usually functioned in the same role as a PI. McGee offered people in trouble a simple deal. If you'd lost something that you couldn't go to the authorities about, McGee would get it back for you but he got to keep half of what the item was valued at. The Deep Blue Goodbye was the first McGee book and contains one of MacDonald's most memorable sociopaths, Junior Allen.
True Detective- Max Allan Collins
Collins' Nate Heller books brought a new wrinkle to the Private Eye genre. Where other authors had set their mysteries in the past before, Collins' books were "true" historical mysteries, using real figures from the past and dealing with real unsolved crimes. Collins offered solutions to many unsolved mysteries from history, all seen through the eyes of hardboiled PI Nathan Heller.
Now, the problem with any top 10 list is that there are usually some leftover candidates that hold equal status with some of the chosen, but hey, you had to pick ten. I would liked to have gotten a Nero Wolfe book in there somewhere. I would like to have found a spot for Andrew Vachss' Blue Belle of Joe R. Lansdale's Mucho Mojo or Ed Gorman's The Night Remembers of Bill Pronzini's Shackles or Robert Crais' L.A. Requiem, and on another day any of those might have replaced Grafton or Crumley. But I'll let this stand for now.