Cover image of "Maisie Dobbs," one of my 10 top novels about private detectives

To date, I’ve read and reviewed some 300 detective novels. Most of those involve police investigators. After all, there are 800,000 police officers working in the United States and only about 32,000 private detectives, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. The conceit of crime writers notwithstanding, very, very few private eyes become involved in investigations of serious crime, and certainly not murder.

So, it’s only natural that a much smaller number of the detective novels I’ve reviewed feature private investigators. And those I’ve awarded ratings of ★★★★☆ or ★★★★★ come to fewer than 50. Below, following a list of my 10 favorites (limited to one per author), I’m listing them all. In both lists, they’re arranged in alphabetical order by the authors’ last names. Each entry includes a link to my review.

This post was updated on November 22, 2022.

10 top novels about private detectives

Cover image of "The Long and Faraway Gone"

The Long and Faraway Gone by Lou Berney—A prize-winning novel of suspense probes the impact of trauma

The flamboyant musician Wayne Coyne, lead singer and songwriter for the Flaming Lips, has been one of Oklahoma City’s most recognizable assets since the 1960s. As Wikipedia notes, “Flaming Lips concerts feature confetti cannons, lasers, laser pointers, images projected on to a screen, dozens of large balloons, a stage filled with dancers dressed as aliens, and yetis.” And in Lou Berney‘s prize-winning novel of suspense, The Long and Faraway Gone, which is set in Oklahoma City, an aging rock star who resembles Wayne Coyne plays a major role. Berney teaches in the MFA program at Oklahoma City University, so he knows whereof he writes.

Two of the crimes at the center of the story in The Long and Faraway Gone take place in 1986, the third twenty-six years later in 2012. Survivors of two of those original crimes are the principal characters. Wyatt Rivers was fifteen and a doorman at a movie theater in Oklahoma City when he was unaccountably the sole survivor of a robbery and massacre that left behind six dead. Julianna Rosales was twelve when her beautiful seventeen-year-old sister disappeared one night at the Oklahoma State Fair and was later presumed dead. Both Wyatt and Julianna are obsessed with those experiences. Wyatt is desperate to know why he survived when all his friends did not. And Julianna wants nothing more in the world than to know what happened to her big sister. This book should be on any list of the top novels about private detectives. Read more.

Cover image of "Red Harvest," one of my 10 top novels about private detectives

Red Harvest (Continental Op #1) by Dashiell Hammett—The original hard-boiled detective?

Maybe he wasn’t the original hard-boiled detective. But he was certainly among the first. His creator, Dashiell Hammett, called him “the Continental op.” And the New York Times termed Hammett “the dean of the… ‘hard-boiled’ school of detective fiction” in its obituary in 1961.

The tough guy made his first appearance in Red Harvest, the first of Hammett’s five novels. Hammett is better known as the author of The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man, both of which are familiar to fans of classic films. But it was Red Harvest that Time magazine singled out, including the novel on its list of the 100 best English-language novels published between 1923 and 2005. Red Harvest first appeared in book form in 1929, following its serialization in four parts in the mystery magazine Black Mask in 1928-29. Read more.

Cover image of "IQ"

IQ (IQ #1) by Joe Ide—Sherlock in the hood: inner-city crimesolver

IQ is Isaiah Quintabe. He lives in East Long Beach, California, in a crime-ridden neighborhood where Latino and African-American gangs are often at war. Though he dropped out of high school, he is anything but ignorant. With “near-genius” intelligence, a voracious taste for reading, and an extraordinary ability to apply inductive reasoning to any problem facing him, IQ is a latter-day Sherlock Holmes. He’s “the low-key brother who was so smart people said he was scary.”

An unlicensed inner-city crimesolver, IQ devotes himself almost exclusively to investigating crimes, usually for no payment more than a chicken or a plate of food. He supports himself through a series of menial and generally low-skill jobs. Because of an article in a local online hip-hop newsletter, his reputation has spread throughout the region. He receives numerous requests for help on a daily basis, but he takes only those he finds worthy and “where the police could not or would not get involved.” Read more.

Cover image of "The Galton Case," one of my 10 top novels about private detectives

The Galton Case (Lew Archer #8 of 18) by Ross MacDonald—A classic detective novel that’s hard to put down

Reading as much as I do, it’s highly unusual for me to come across a book I find so riveting that I lose track of time. But this masterpiece of detective fiction did that to me. Strangely, I had read the novel nearly half a century ago, when I was in the process of devouring all 18 of the Lew Archer tales. But Ross MacDonald’s plot was so fiendishly complex, and he stuffed so many startling surprises into it, that I couldn’t possibly have remembered them all. Thus, “I (literally) couldn’t put it down.” Here’s a classic detective novel that fully merits the label.

In The Galton Case, an attorney in Santa Teresa summons Lew Archer to investigate the disappearance of a wealthy woman’s son. (Santa Teresa is MacDonald’s lightly disguised version of Santa Barbara, California, where he lived for decades.) Tony Galton vanished 20 years earlier, in 1936, at the age of 22. Now, as she nears death, old Maria Galton wants to reconcile with her long-lost son. Archer regards the case as a waste of time and money, but he’s got plenty of time, and he won’t turn down the money. Read more.

Cover image of "The Colors of All the Cattle"

The Colors of All the Cattle (#1 Ladies Detective Agency #19) by Alexander McCall Smith—#1 Ladies Detective goes into politics

Precious Ramotswe, Botswana‘s #1 Lady Detective, is respected throughout the capital city of Gaborone. She’s a problem-solver, and very good at it. So it’s no surprise that friends would turn to her to run for a vacant seat on the city council. The only candidate registered to run is her nemesis, a conniving and dishonest young woman who preys on men. And they’re all concerned about a proposal to build a new luxury hotel next door to a graveyard. After all, the noise from the parties held there every night will disturb all their “late” friends and relatives. Naturally, Precious is unhappy about the idea, to put it mildly. Inevitably, then, the Number 1 Lady Detective will go into politics. Read more.

Devil in a Blue Dress

Devil in a Blue Dress (Easy Rawlins #1) by Walter Mosley—The suspenseful first Easy Rawlins detective novel

In 1948, the first In-N-Out Burger opened in Los Angeles, a harbinger of the car culture that would come to dominate the region. Farmland divided the city from the town of Santa Monica, and the population then fell short of two million. (It was only with the 1950 census that L.A. surpassed Detroit as the nation’s fourth largest city.) During those post-war years, the LAPD was notorious for rampant corruption, police brutality, and unrestrained racism.

It’s fitting, then, that Walter Mosley chose to set the first Easy Rawlins detective novel in that time and place. Devil in a Blue Dress is, above all, an unvarnished portrait of African-American life in Los Angeles in the aftermath of World War II. But in a larger sense, the book provides a window on all the messiness of a great city in the making. And it belongs without doubt on any list of the best novels about private detectives. Read more.

Cover image of "Shell Game," one of my 10 top novels about private detectives

Shell Game (V. I. Warshawski #19) by Sara Paretsky—Uncovering fraud in high places once again

Private eye V. I. (Victoria) Warshawski is now in middle age. She is no longer quite so likely to best a large, menacing opponent in a physical confrontation. But her skills as an investigator are finely honed, and she has gained an enviable citywide reputation for her success in uncovering fraud in high places, both within private industry and in city government. Her specialty is, in fact, financial fraud. It’s her bread and butter. The problem is, the cases that come her way often take her in new directions. In Shell Game, V. I. is dragged into not one but two cases involving people close to her. And neither one will help her pay the bills.

First, a great-nephew of her good friend Lotty Herschel, a Holocaust survivor who is a prominent physician, is accused of a murder he almost certainly didn’t commit. On top of that, he is Canadian, and because of his Syrian friends, the INS is convinced he’s a terrorist and wants to deport him. Then, one of V. I.’s nieces, a daughter of her ex-husband’s sister, shows up in town desperate to find her sister, who has disappeared. Are the two cases connected somehow? As readers of mystery and suspense fiction, we’re inclined to believe they are. But only time will tell. And in the meantime it’s inevitable that more than one murder will turn up. Read more.

Cover image of "The Godwulf Manuscript"

The Godwulf Manuscript (Spenser #1) by Robert B. Parker—The first Spenser novel by the “Dean of American Crime Fiction”

When you think about private eyes, who comes to mind? Sherlock Holmes, of course. Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe, perhaps. But surely, if you’re a fan of mysteries and thrillers, you’ll conjure up Spenser as well. The protagonist of forty novels by the late, great Robert B. Parker (1932-2010), Spenser was the bane of the Mob and other assorted miscreants in Boston from 1973 to 2019. And the whole saga started with The Godwulf Manuscript in 1973.

One of the hallmarks of the Spenser novels is the inclusion of a diverse cast of characters. In the course of the series, you’ll find characters including Hawk and Chollo, African-American and Mexican-American, respectively, as well as Spenser’s Jewish girlfriend, Susan Silverman, various Russians, Ukrainians, Chinese, a gay cop (Lee Farrell), and even a gay mob boss (Gino Fish). But none of these characters surface in The Godwulf Manuscript, which is largely confined to the campus of a large urban university (probably the University of Massachusetts, Boston). Read more.

Cover image of "The Cuckoo's Calling"

The Cuckoo’s Calling (Cormoran Strike #1) by J. K. Rowling (Robert Galbraith)—J. K. Rowling writes for grownups with her debut in detective fiction

The Cuckoo’s Calling is a well-crafted detective story featuring fascinating but believable characters brought together in a complex web of circumstances surrounding the death of a London supermodel. Lula Landry was 23 when she fell to her death from the balcony of her luxurious apartment onto a snow-covered street in a fashionable district. The police and most of her family insist she committed suicide, but her brother, John Bristow, believes otherwise and hires a down-and-out private detective with a colorful past and the unlikely name of Cormoran Strike.

Strike reluctantly accepts the fat wad of cash Bristow pushes his way and sets out, with his “temporary” secretary, Robin, in tow, to unearth the answers to the few dangling questions in the case. Both she and her boss would be pegged by most casual observers as underachievers, but circumstances have forced both of them to drop out from promising debuts at prestigious universities. They’re soon hot on the trail. If I had to pick the best of these five top novels about private detectives, The Cuckoo’s Calling might be it. Read more.

Cover image of "Maisie Dobbs," one of my 10 top novels about private detectives

Maisie Dobbs (Maisie Dobbs #1) by Jacqueline Winspear—A female detective like no other

In the first of the Maisie Dobbs novels, it’s 1929, and Maisie is just setting out to establish her practice as a “psychologist and investigator” independently of her long-time mentor, Dr. Maurice Blanche, who has just retired. Maisie is the daughter of a widower who ekes out a living selling vegetables from his cart. They live on the south side of the Thames, the poor side. At the age of thirteen, she is taken into the home of a wealthy aristocratic couple, one of her father’s customers, since her father doesn’t feel able to take adequate care of her. She enters “into service,” beginning a story that at first resembles Upstairs, Downstairs or Downton Abbey.

However, Maisie is exceptionally bright and shortly begins to transcend the limitations of her employment. She is a voracious reader and camps out in the mansion’s library at every opportunity. Through her efforts to educate herself she is introduced to Dr. Blanche, who will become, first, her mentor, and then her employer. Read more.

More great stories about private detectives

Novels in series about American private detectives

The Big Sleep (Philip Marlowe #1) by Raymond Chandler—The classic first Philip Marlowe novel by Raymond Chandler

The Monkey’s Raincoat (Elvis Cole and Joe Pike #1) by Robert Crais—Introducing Elvis Cole and Joe Pike, odd-couple private eyes

A Credible Threat (Jeri Howard #6) by Janet Dawson—Stalking and murder at UC Berkeley

House on Fire (Nick Heller #4) by Joseph Finder—Joe Finder’s excellent novel about the family that started the opioid epidemic

Last Looks (Charlie Waldo #1) by Howard Michael Gould—An inventive Hollywood detective novel written by a veteran screenwriter

Red Harvest (Continental Op #1) by Dashiell Hammett—The original hard-boiled detective?

IQ (IQ #1) by Joe Ide—Sherlock in the hood: inner-city crimesolver

Japantown (Jim Brodie #1) by Barry Lancet—A thriller grounded in deep understanding of Japanese culture

Save Me From Dangerous Men (Nikki Griffin #1) by S. A. Lelchuk—An exciting new thriller series introduces Nikki Griffin, a badass private eye

The Spellman Files: Document #1 by Lisa Lutz—A family of private eyes stars in this debut of a funny detective series

The Galton Case (Lew Archer #8 of 18) by Ross MacDonald—A classic detective novel that’s hard to put down

Devil in a Blue Dress (Easy Rawlins #1) by Walter Mosley—The suspenseful first Easy Rawlins detective novel

Shell Game (V. I. Warshawski #19) by Sara Paretsky—Uncovering fraud in high places once again

The Godwulf Manuscript (Spenser #1) by Robert B. Parker—The first Spenser novel by the “Dean of American Crime Fiction”

The Cut (Spero Lucas #1) by George Pelecanos—A hard-boiled detective for the 21st century, with grit to spare

Novels in series about foreign private detectives

Murder in the Marais (Aimee Leduc #1) by Cara Black—Neo-Nazis in a fascinating murder mystery set in Paris

The Case of the Missing Servant (Vish Puri #1) by Tarquin Hall—Indian private eye Vish Puri is the best, he thinks

The Colors of All the Cattle (#1 Ladies Detective Agency #19) by Alexander McCall Smith—#1 Ladies Detective goes into politics

The Joy and Light Bus Company (No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency #22) by Alexander McCall Smith—Botswana’s famous lady detectives are back

The German Client (Bacci Pagano #6) by Bruno Morchio—An outstanding novel about the Italian Resistance in World War II

The Bangalore Detectives Club (Kaveri and Ramu #1) by Harini Nagendra—A murder case crosses class and caste lines in 1921 Bangalore

The Missing American (Emma Djan #1) by Kwei Quartey—A nitty-gritty view of Ghana today in this inventive detective novel

Sleep Well, My Lady (Emma Djan #2) by Kwei Quartey—The truth lies undercover in this Ghana murder mystery

The Cuckoo’s Calling (Cormoran Strike #1) by J. K. Rowling (Robert Galbraith)—J. K. Rowling writes for grownups with her debut in detective fiction

Maisie Dobbs (Maisie Dobbs #1) by Jacqueline Winspear—A female detective like no other

Standalone novels about private detectives

Disciple of the Dog by R. Scott Bakker—Cults and neo-Nazis—and a detective who can never forget

A Tap on the Window by Linwood Barclay—An engrossing small town thriller

The Black-Eyed Blonde: A Philip Marlowe Novel by Benjamin Black (John Banville)—Benjamin Black brings back Philip Marlowe

The Long and Faraway Gone by Lou Berney—A prize-winning novel of suspense probes the impact of trauma

Clean Hands by Patrick Hoffman—A diabolically clever thriller about corporate espionage

Murder in Old Bombay by Nev March—A brilliant debut novel based on an unsolved murder

The Second Girl by David Swinson—An anti-hero ex-cop takes on drug traffickers

For more reading

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Check out, too, the novels of the Cadfael Chronicles about a monk in 12th-century England who operated as a sort of medieval detective. You can find my reviews of many of these books by typing the name Cadfael in the search box in the upper right-hand corner of the Home Page. There, you’ll also find my most popular reviews, and the most recent ones, plus a guide to this whole site.