The 12 best private detectives in crime fiction

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Recently, we brought you The PI Case Files, giving you a peek inside the Crime Fiction Lover filing cabinet at some notes we’ve been compiling on private detectives from across the genre. Now, thanks to some excellent detective work by our own David Prestidge, we’re consolidating those notes into one definitive list and recommending a book for each private eye. Compiling it was no easy task and some excellent characters were on the longlist including Nero Wolfe, Kate Brannigan, Sunny Randall, Jack Irish, Elvis Cole and Cliff Hardy. There are so many great detectives, but here’s the final countdown… please feel free to tell us who you think is best in the comments below. Click on each detective’s name to see our file on them.

lastgoodkiss10012 – CW Sughrue in The Last Good Kiss
For many lovers of hardboiled crime fiction, The Last Good Kiss is simply the best. Written by James Crumley, it features Montana detective CW Sughrue. He’s hired to track down an alcoholic poet by the man’s wife, but during an altercation the poet is shot in the backside so our rough-hewn hero must wait for him to get out of hospital. While he waits, he takes on another case – that of a missing girl. He digs into her past, and even finds her death certificate… but it’s rarely that simple in the world of private eyes, is it?
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motorcityblue10011 – Amos Walker in Motor City Blue
Author Loren D Estelman is a living legend in the world of pulp crime novels, and this is the very first of his Amos Walker mysteries. Years ago Ben Morningstar retired from the mob. But today his past could be catching up with him, because his daughter Maria has gone missing. A pornographic photo of her is just about all Walker has to go on. Detroit might be a hard city, but Walker is even harder and he’s a man who gets things done. This is a brilliant read, whatever your tastes in CriFi are.
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indemnityonly10010 – VI Warshawski in Indemnity Only
Victoria Iphigenia Warshawski is dealt a bum hand from the start by author Sara Paretsky. The PI is called out to meet rich banker John Thayer on hot and steamy Chicago night, and is sent off on the trail of the missing girlfriend of Thayer’s son. When she finds out that the real Thayer is dead the mystery becomes not, ‘Where’s the girl?’ but ‘Who the hell has hired me?’ This tough, female detective was one of the first of her kind in crime fiction and is well worth following.
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Ithejury1009 – Mike Hammer in I, The Jury
See life as it was, in the underbelly of the city, back in 1947. Things seem good for Hammer’s friend Jack Williams. He’s engaged and the former addict he’s due to wed is clean. But then he gets shot in the stomach by an old friend trying to hide he links to a drug-dealing and prostitution ring. Williams bled out through the stomach and when Mike Hammer sees this he vows to catch the killer, and to put the justice system to one side. Author Mickey Spillane wrote 13 Hammer novels during his fantastic career in hardboiled crime. Since Spillane’s death in 2006, Max Allan Collins has completed a further six based on old manuscripts. I, the Jury has twice been made into a film.
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movingtarget1008 – Lew Archer in The Moving Target
Another mindbendingly good trip back to the 1940s, this time with Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer. A far more fleshed-out character than readers of most 30s pulps would have been used to, Archer is hired by the wife of a missing millionaire. As he searches for the man he digs through layers of crime in the fictional city of Santa Teresa, based on Santa Barbara. Three decades later, the city would become the stomping ground of Sue Grafton’s female detective Kinsey Milhone.
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maltesefalcon1007 – Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon
The Maltese Falcon is considered by many to be the original source of the river that’s now called PI crime fiction. In it we have the sharp-tongued, tough-guy detective in the form of Sam Spade. Central to the story is a MacGuffin in the form of the falcon statue that everyone seems to be after. There are dames a-plenty, and it’s a baffling, multi-layered murder mystery to boot. Written in 1930, and serialised in Black Mask magazine, it still seems a shame that Dashiell Hammett didn’t write more stories starring the archetypal PI he created. Perhaps his politics, and subsequent persecution, saw to that…
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godsavethechild1006 – Spenser in God Save the Child
The second Spenser novel by Robert B Parker follows on from The Godwulf Manuscript and sees the detective come into his own as he searches for Kevin, a 15-year-old boy. Two key characters in the series are introduced – Susan Silverman and Lieutenant Healy – and you’ll meet them again throughout the 40-book series. Spenser soon locates the boy hanging out with a Boston bodybuilder. He’s there of his own volition, but something fishy is going on and it involves drugs, prostitution and, surprisingly, Kevin’s family doctor. You’ll enjoy the action as Spenser dukes it out with the musclebound thug. After all, he wouldn’t be hardboiled if he wasn’t handy in a fight.
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devilinabluedress1005 – Easy Rawlins in Devil in a Blue Dress
From the pen of Walter Mosley, Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlins is a demobbed US soldier trying to find his way through life on the mean streets of LA – which ain’t easy for an African American male in 1948. He’s just been fired, and is soothing the blow in a bar, when he’s offered a case by some smart looking white dudes. The money’s good, so off he goes to find Miss Daphne Monet. It’ll be easy for Easy, right? Well, not in this novel, which poetically stirs together a mix of lust, greed, race, politics, violence and – most importantly – mystery. Arriving in 1990, it was followed in 1991 by The Red Death and each subsequent Easy Rawlins book has a theme colour. We reviewed Mosley’s latest here. The great man also agreed to a Crime Fiction Lover interview.
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everythingdead1004 – Charlie Parker in Every Dead Thing
Dark. And. Scary. With his Charlie Parker books Irish author John Connolly isn’t shy of blending in horror and supernatural elements, while keeping to a private eye novel structure that crime fiction lovers will easily recognise. Every Dead Thing is the first in the series and it begins with Parker drinking to overcome guilt. A serial killer dubbed The Travelling Man dissected Parker’s wife and daughter, so to assuage his guilt and anger, the ex-cop takes on private work – a missing persons case that takes him to the dark heart of New Orleans. Be ready for some show-stopping gore as you launch yourself into this excellent series.
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mysteriousaffairatstyles1003 – Hercule Poirot in The Mysterious Affair at Styles
Up until now, though street smart and cynical, the detectives on our list have generally been of the hardboiled, hard-drinking, hard-hitting type. The OCD little Belgian, Hercule Poirot, lives entirely by his intellect, and is introduced here in Agatha Christie’s very first mystery novel. You will read reviews saying that this book contains several genre clichés, written by people who don’t realise that this book is the original which so many subsequent crime novels are mapped upon. There is a big house, with a number of curious inhabitants and visitors, and Emily Inglethorp is murdered after an argument with an unknown somebody. It’s down to Poirot to sort through the motives, the deceit, and the passions involved.
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hound_cover2 – Sherlock Holmes in The Hound of the Baskervilles
Originally serialised through 1901 and 1902, this Sherlock Holmes novel ranks among the best for atmosphere and suspenseful plotting. Holmes and Watson are commissioned by son Henry to find out what killed his father, Sir Charles Baskerville. The young Henry has returned from Canada to take on his birthright, Baskerville Hall. Was his father’s death heart due to a heart attack, brought on by by the appearance of a gigantic hound? Has an ancient family curse been evoked? Or is there a logical explanation for everything and, indeed, could Sir Henry’s life be in danger as well? Everyone should read this book. Everyone.
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bigsleep1 – Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep
Old and disabled, General Sternwood is annoyed. His younger daughter is being blackmailed by a bookshop owner, so he calls in the sharp and cynical detective Philip Marlowe to get to the bottom of it. With both the general’s two hellion daughters loose in Los Angeles, Marlowe’s work is cut out for him. Then he finds the blackmailer’s body and the case becomes far more complex than a simple matter of money and pornographic photos. The complex plot, full of double-crosses and surprises, is one thing, but it’s the dialogue and the subtleties of the character that really take this excellent detective novel straight to the top. The one-liners from the boom are legendary. Will anyone ever write a classic as good as this?
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