The 12 best private detectives in crime fiction

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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  1. Max Everhart Reply

    I love the list, but I wanted to add a more recent one: Conway Sax from the novel Purgatory Chasm by Steve Ulfelder. A part-time mechanic, part-time PI, Sax does “favors” for fellow recovering alcoholics. This character is fresh take on the classic noir private dick. There are three Sax books available thus far: Purgatory Chasm, The Whole Lie, and Shotgun Lullaby (in that order.) Cheers.

  2. Terry Zobeck Reply

    Interesting list. Of course it invites outcries of “How could you leave off . . .” So here’s mine:

    Surely Lawrence Block’s Matt Scudder deserves to be on the list. I’d recommend Eight Million Ways to Die or When the Sacred Ginmill Closes.

    And how can Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Milhone not be on it? F Is for Fugitive is a good representative of the series.

    I’d also recommend Jeremiah Healy’s John Francis Cuddy. Rescue is among my favorites of his; the first 80 or so pages are incredibly intense.

    As someone else mentioned, any list of great P.I. novels has to include Bill Pronzini’s nameless (in recent years we get his first name, Bill, further proof that he is the author’s alter ego). My favorite is Shackles.

    Dennis Lynds’ (writing as Michael Collins) Dan Fortune novels are tremendous. As the series evolved Dennis experimented with style, developing shifting point of view that has become widely adopted today. Blue Death is terrific.

    And how can we overlook John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee? Sure, he’s not a licensed PI, but in every other respect he’s a PI. Recommended: Nightmare in Pink.

    I’m a big fan of all the PIs on your list, except for Hercule Poirot–never could get through a single Christie. So, it would be difficult to decide who to drop so as to accommodate my recommendations.

    Also, I would move Hammett’s Sam Spade to the number one spot. He is the Ur PI; it is hard to imagine the others (with the exception of Sherlock Holmes, of course) existing without him. Also, we should have an honorable mention to Hammett’s Continental Op, the ultimate model of the man-hunter. Red Harvest is an essential read.

    1. Bern Cenewy Reply

      Great comments, Terry. +1 on Travis; JDM “the master storyteller”. His other 50+ books are pretty good, too!

      I’d consider Sid Halley, Leo Waterman, Murray Wheelan and Myron Bolitar.

      Y’know, if we’re going to consider Salvage Consultant, Sports Agent and Gamekeeper, why not ex-governor? SKINK!

    2. Tammy Reply

      I would second the Continental Op, Red Harvest is a brilliantly complex novel and – I argue – a pivotal one in the development of the genre.

      Plus, I adore Dinah Brand.

  3. martin griffiths Reply

    Bird has to be No 1 , not just a PI , but a walker between worlds , The author once signed a book for me , ” from one good Irishman to another ” . Mr Connolly , I tip my hat to you. Not because of a book signed , but because you are a Genius !

  4. Darren Reply

    Harry Bosch from Michael connolly’s books was doing private work for a few books, but went back to the police to do unsolved cases. Worth noting.

  5. Morgan Reply

    One correction, in your file on Sherlock Holmes you list Inspector Lestrade’s first name as Sholto. In canon, his first initial was given as “G”.

  6. Chi Reply

    Thanks this great resource. Hope someone can help me.. I read a review at the end of 2013 and I believe it was a male author writing about a female detective called from her location to help solve a crime in another location. She was a recovering alcoholic(or currently was drinking) with mental health issues. I may have read this in The Tampa Trib or Tampa Bay Times or the NY Times. Not sure. I was ill and gave the review to a friend who lost it. I cannot find any info about this quirky book and hope someone may have some info. Maybe it was to new or not popular. Its worth a try for me to ask.

    1. crimefictionlover Reply

      I’ve consulted the team and we think you might be referring to Stranger Room by Amanda Kyle Williams or possibly Tempe Brennan, a character by Kathy Reichs, although she doesn’t have mental health issues. Maybe our readers have other suggestions?

  7. Damjana Finci Reply

    Love hard-drinking, cynical, much maligned, Jack Taylor. A sentimental fool at heart. Ken Bruen – my favorite living writer.

  8. Michael Reply

    Good list, and some great suggestions in the comments. You mentioned Elvis Cole in your intro, and someone already piped in about Harry Dresden, so I’ll skip those (they’d both have been on my list, for sure.)

    Two of my favorites are from one of my favorite authors, not usually known for mystery/crime novels, hard-boiled or not. Dan Simmons’ Joe Kurtz from his “Hard as…” series is as hard-boiled as they come, and Darwin Minor from his “Darwin’s Blade” is one of the most interesting, brilliant (and funny) detectives I’ve ever come across.

    In no particlular order, I would have also included:

    Lincoln Rhyme, Jeffrey Deaver

    Dave Robicheaux, James Lee Burke

    Alex Delaware, Jonathan Kellerman (technically not a PI, I guess?)

    Patrick Kenzie & Angela Gennaro, Dennis Lehane

    Each of these series shows flawed, ever-evolving human beings, usually (but not always) seeking some sort of redemption or salvation, and usually (but not always) finding it, or at least something that will substitute for the moment. All highly recommended. 

    Thanks for the list, and for the mental exercise!

  9. Richard L. Pangburn Reply

    Well any list falls short unless it is a long, long list.

    I’ve read most of those on the list and mentioned in the comments. My favorite, however, has not yet been named: Stephen Greenleaf’s John Marshall Tanner. These books are my favorite because of the language, the subtle humor, the authenticity of the voice. I reread the entire series recently, and they hold up well. I even see a deeper interpretation than I did before. They have been underestimated by the market.

  10. Penny Reply

    I wish I could remember the author or the books (think there is only 3) of books about a recovering alcoholic PI which had a old’ish assistant. I know it is not much to go on. I remember it is USA …

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