Every major city has been the setting for numerous mysteries and thrillers. Amazon lists more than 10,000 for New York, 8,000 for Chicago, and 3,000 for Los Angeles. But there’s nothing mysterious about this. Crime is more visible, if not more common on a per capita basis, in cities. And the authors of crime novels almost always set their books in a particular time and place, which is usually where they live.
Sometimes the city is itself a character in the story. That is most certainly the case in two of the nation’s favorite series of mysteries and thrillers—the Harry Bosch novels by Michael Connelly, and Jonathan Kellerman’s Alex Delaware novels—both of which are set in L.A.
What you’ll find below
Below I’m listing the top five Los Angeles mysteries and thrillers. They appear in alphabetical order by the authors’ last names. That’s followed by the full list of 50 such novels I’ve read and reviewed here. In the longer list, the books are grouped by author and then arranged in chronological order. Each title is followed by a link to my review.
Please note that I’m well aware these lists are far from comprehensive. Books by Nathanael West, James Ellroy, Ross Macdonald, Dorothy B. Hughes, Robert Crais, Sue Grafton, and others surely deserve mention. But either I read them before I began writing this blog in 2010 or I haven’t yet managed to do so. Expect to see additions to this list in the years ahead.
Top 5 Los Angeles mysteries and thrillers
The Burning Room (Harry Bosch #17) by Michael Connelly—Michael Connelly’s best Harry Bosch novel?
Little Elvises (Junior Bender #2) by Timothy Hallinan—A crime-buster encounters the ghosts of Elvis Presley
The Ritual Bath (Peter Decker and Rina Lazarus #1) by Faye Kellerman—An unusually strong start to the Faye Kellerman series of detective novels
When the Bough Breaks (Alex Delaware #1) by Jonathan Kellerman—When a child psychologist uncovers the key to solving a murder
IQ (IQ #1) by Joe Ide—Sherlock from the hood: inner-city crime–solver
50 top Los Angeles mysteries and thrillers
Along with Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain, and other Black Mask writers, Raymond Chandler is universally regarded as one of the founders of the hard-boiled school of detective fiction. His iconic creation, Philip Marlowe, first appeared in short stories in 1935 and 1936.
The first novel in the series, The Big Sleep, was published in 1939, as World War II broke out in Europe. It was followed by six additional novels that appeared from 1940 to 1958. (Robert B. Parker completed an eighth novel that had been left incomplete upon Chandler’s death in 1959 at the age of 70.) All but one of the eight novels have been adapted for film. Humphrey Bogart famously played Marlowe in The Big Sleep (1946). As Chandler himself said of Bogart after the filming, “Bogart can be tough without a gun. Also, he has a sense of humor that contains that grating undertone of contempt.”
As the “hard-boiled” moniker suggests, Marlowe is a tough guy. He’s not averse to using his fists and can often be found mixing it up with criminals. Ladies love him. Chandler’s dialogue sparkles, revealing Marlowe to be as intelligent as he is tough.
I’ve reviewed only one of the Marlowe novels and have mixed feelings about it. The racism, misogyny, and homophobia that come through in Chandler’s writing is off-putting. It’s understandable, as the author merely reflected the attitudes of the World War II era, but no less annoying. Note below: I’ve also reviewed John Banville’s authorized resurrection of Marlowe in The Black-Eyed Blonde.
The Big Sleep (Philip Marlowe #1)—The classic first Philip Marlowe novel
The Black-Eyed Blonde: A Philip Marlowe Novel by Benjamin Black (John Banville)—Benjamin Black brings back Philip Marlowe
In the 21 novels published to date in Michael Connelly’s bestselling Harry Bosch series, and the five Mickey Haller books, Connelly betrays his love for his adopted home town on almost every page. Los Angeles is as much a central character in the books as Harry Bosch himself.
Harry Bosch’s backstory
Bosch was born in 1950. His mother, a prostitute, was killed in 1961, and his efforts to identify the murderer preoccupy him for many years. He was married for a time to an FBI profiler. They have a daughter named Maddie, who appears from time to time in the novels and eventually moves in with Harry after her mother is murdered in Hong Kong.
Bosch is, formally, Hieronymous Bosch, named after the 15th-century Dutch painter. The now 21 novels in which he is the protagonist are set contemporaneously, roughly spanning the period 1992 to 2018. As Bosch ages, he moves up through the ranks of the LAPD, ultimately becoming a Detective III (the equivalent of a Detective Sergeant), despite the frequent efforts of superiors to derail his career. Because Harry habitually defies orders to pursue his powerful sense of justice, he has been moved from one division to another. He even leaves the department for three years to take up work as a private investigator. Eventually, however, he returns as a homicide detective and retires (unwillingly) from the LAPD. Though aging, Harry takes up a new job, to investigate cold cases for a small suburban community police force.
Harry Bosch’s half-brother
Mickey Haller is Bosch’s half-brother. Both are sons of Mickey Haller, Sr., a prominent defense attorney who represented gangster Mickey Cohen. The younger Haller is known as the “Lincoln Lawyer.” He maintains his office on the back seat of a Lincoln limousine. The two men have a sometimes touchy relationship that on occasion leads the two to appear on opposite sides in a courtroom.
In 2018 Connelly introduced Renee Ballard, a tough and resourceful cop who joins Harry in Dark Sacred Night. Together, they work to unravel a particularly nettlesome murder case Ballard is pursuing as well as a cold case Harry has taken on for the San Fernando Police Department. This appears to be the beginning of a beautiful friendship. And in fact it is the beginning of a new series starring the two.
The Connelly books
The Black Echo (Harry Bosch #1)—The first Harry Bosch novel: the backstory
Nine Dragons (Harry Bosch #14)—A fast-moving tale of murder and human trafficking from L.A. to Hong Kong
The Drop (Harry Bosch #15)—Another thoroughly satisfying police procedural
The Black Box (Harry Bosch #16)—The Rodney King riots, war crimes, and a small-town power elite
The Burning Room (Harry Bosch #17)—Michael Connelly’s best Harry Bosch novel?
The Crossing (Harry Bosch #18)—A police procedural and courtroom drama rolled into one excellent novel
The Wrong Side of Goodbye (Harry Bosch #19)—An aging Harry Bosch is still in fine form
Two Kinds of Truth (Harry Bosch #20)—Russian mobsters and crooked lawyers in the latest Harry Bosch
The Reversal (Mickey Haller #3)—A master of the mystery genre struts his stuff in a new Mickey Haller novel
The Gods of Guilt (Mickey Haller #5)—A brilliant courtroom drama about the Lincoln Lawyer
The Late Show—Michael Connelly introduces a tough new lead character
Dark Sacred Night (Renee Ballard and Harry Bosch #1)—Harry Bosch’s new partner costars in “Dark Sacred Night”
The Night Fire (Renee Ballard and Harry Bosch #2)—Renee Ballard and Harry Bosch in a brilliant police procedural
Robert Crais has been writing the award-winning Elvis Cole and Joe Pike series of detective novels for more than thirty years. Almost every one of the eighteen novels published to date has been nominated for at least one award in the mystery genre, and several have won. Crais himself was awarded the Grand Master Award of the Mystery Writers of America in 2014.
The Monkey’s Raincoat (Elvis Cole and Joe Pike #1)—Introducing Elvis Cole and Joe Pike, odd-couple private eyes
No author is more often cited as the quintessential Los Angeles crime writer than James Ellroy. And his classic novel, The Black Dahlia, is one of the reasons. The book advances an original theory about the long-unsolved murder of an attractive young woman in the years following World War II.
The Black Dahlia by James Ellroy—A classic crime novel about LA’s unsolved Black Dahlia murder
HOWARD MICHAEL GOULD
Howard Michael Gould worked on Madison Avenue for five years and turned to screenwriting and crafting television scripts before trying his hand at writing novels. Last Looks was the first of what now appears to be a series, with a second book published in 2019.
Last Looks by Howard Michael Gould—An inventive Hollywood detective novel written by a veteran screenwriter
Ron Goulart is a prolific novelist as well as a noted historian of popular culture. His 17 nonfiction books explore pulp fiction, comic books, and graphic novels. Among the 96 novels he has written, Goulart has penned (if that’s still the right word) a series of six comic novels, the Groucho Marx Mysteries. They’re structured much like traditional detective novels, tightly plotted and suspenseful to the end. But the dialogue between Groucho and his sidekick, Frank Denby, and his conversations with practically everyone else he encounters, range from amusing to laugh-out-loud funny. And along the way Goulart manages to skewer the Hollywood studio culture.
Groucho Marx, Master Detective (Groucho Marx Mysteries #1)—Sherlock Holmes, meet Groucho Marx, Master Detective)
Groucho Marx, Private Eye (Groucho Marx Mysteries #2)—The comedian solves a baffling murder
Elementary, My Dear Groucho (Groucho Marx Mysteries #3)—Groucho Marx versus Sherlock Holmes: guess who wins
Groucho Marx and the Broadway Murders (Groucho Marx Mysteries #4)— Groucho Marx solves two baffling murders
Groucho Marx, Secret Agent (Groucho Marx Mysteries #5)—Groucho Marx exposes Nazi spies in Hollywood
Groucho Marx, King of the Jungle (Groucho Marx Mysteries #6) by Ron Goulart—Groucho Marx solves another baffling murder
Timothy Hallinan is the author of 17 novels in two thriller series as well as the seven books to date in the comic crime series featuring professional burglar Junior Bender. Hallinan divides his time between Santa Monica and Bangkok. One of his thriller series and the Junior Bender novels are set in L.A. The other thrillers are set in Bangkok.
Junior Bender is the consummate burglar. He has never been arrested, much less done time for his many crimes. He makes it a practice to steal everything valuable from a home except the single item that the owners are likely to regard as most precious. His theory is that they’ll be less likely to come after him. And that’s important because he’s so well regarded in the criminal community that he’s often hired by one powerful crook to burglarize the home or office of another crook. And this, of course, frequently gets him into trouble—the kind of trouble that involves hit men (or hit women) on his trail.
However, the novels showcase Junior as a crime-solver who is forced by big-time crime bosses to solve crimes without involving the police. This typically requires him to exercise his expertise and commit further crimes. Junior’s dialogue with his fellow criminals is often hilarious. Every one of them could have been a character in a Damon Runyon story.
The Junior Bender books
Crashed (Junior Bender #1)—A career criminal narrates this clever and funny mystery
Little Elvises (Junior Bender #2)—A crime-buster encounters the ghosts of Elvis Presley
The Fame Thief (Junior Bender #3)—A cockamamie story about Hollywood and the mob
Herbie’s Game (Junior Bender #4)—A hitman, burglars, and hackers in the San Fernando Valley
King Maybe (Junior Bender #5)—A very funny crime novel set in Hollywood
Fields Where They Lay (Junior Bender #6)—Junior Bender celebrates Christmas in a Los Angeles shopping mall
Nighttown (Junior Bender #7)—A legendary burglar, a beautiful hitwoman, and a seven-foot killer
Joe Ide (pronounced EE-day) has written three novels to date about Isaiah Quintabe, known as IQ. The young man is a self-taught detective who takes on cases for his friends and neighbors in the grittier neighborhoods of Los Angeles. (Ide, a Japanese-American, grew up in South Central L.A.) Isaiah’s nickname is clearly fortuitous. He is a crime-solving genius on the scale of Sherlock Holmes.
Righteous (IQ #2)—A ghetto detective, a Las Vegas loan shark, and a Chinese triad
Wrecked (IQ #3)—Sherlock from the Hood takes on another outrageous case
Faye Kellerman is the author of the 25 novels (to date) in the Peter Decker and Rina Lazarus series of detective novels. Her first book was published in 1986, the most recent in 2018. Decker is a homicide detective who rises to the rank of lieutenant in the LAPD. During his investigation of rape and murder at an Orthodox Jewish yeshiva in Los Angeles, he meets Lazarus. She’s a teacher and the manager of the yeshiva’s ritual bath. It doesn’t take long for them to fall in love. Eventually, Decker converts to Orthodox Judaism and marries her. They team up to varying degrees in solving crimes.
Although most of the novels in the Peter Decker and Rina Lazarus series are set in Los Angeles, the pair eventually moves to a small college town in upstate New York. The later novels take place there.
The Ritual Bath (Peter Decker and Rina Lazarus #1)—An unusually strong start to the Faye Kellerman series of detective novels
Sacred and Profane (Peter Decker & Rina Lazarus #2)—The Peter Decker and Rina Lazarus novels highlight Orthodox Jewish religious practices
Walking Shadows (Peter Decker & Rina Lazarus #25)—Peter Decker and Rina Lazarus are all grown up in Faye Kellerman’s latest
Jonathan Kellerman is married to Faye Kellerman. They have four adult children and seven grandchildren (with an eighth on the way as I write). Two of their children have also written books, most notably Jesse Kellerman, who is himself a bestselling thriller writer and an award-winning playwright. (His two sisters are clinical psychologists like their father.)
Jonathan Kellerman’s Alex Delaware series, now consisting of 34 novels, is the country’s (and possibly the world’s) longest-running crime series. Delaware is a child psychologist who later broadens his practice as a consultant to his ever-faithful partner, Milo Sturgis, an LAPD detective. Clearly, one of the reasons the series has held up so well over more than 30 years is the fascinating relationship between the two men. Sturgis is a gay African American cop in a long-term relationship with a physician. Delaware, who is unmarried, maintains an on-again, off-again relationship with Robin Castagna, a world-class expert in repairing classic guitars and building new stringed instruments. (Kellerman himself, who is a musician and a painter as well as a novelist and clinical psychologist, has written three nonfiction texts in psychology and one about vintage guitars.)
In contrast to his wife’s aging protagonists, Kellerman’s Delaware has miraculously failed to age over the decades. More than thirty years after he surfaced, he remains in his mid-thirties.
The Alex Delaware novels
When the Bough Breaks (Alex Delaware #1)—When a child psychologist uncovers the key to solving a murder
Blood Test (Alex Delaware #2)—This complex murder mystery hinges on the symptoms of schizophrenia
Over the Edge (Alex Delaware #3)—Psychological expertise enlivens this crime thriller involving gifted children
Silent Partner (Alex Delaware #4)—Childhood trauma is the key to this psychological thriller
Time Bomb (Alex Delaware #5)—A school shooting, 60s radicals, and the Holocaust
The Wedding Guest (Alex Delaware #34)—The latest Alex Delaware mystery is as good as the first one
Despite my affinity for crime novels that cast light on other cultures, I’ve never been able to make my way into Walter Mosley’s award-winning Easy Rawlins series of historical mysteries. Easy Rawlins is an African American veteran and private eye in Watts who operates from the 1940s to the 1960s. Although Mosley has written dozens of other novels and nonfiction works, he is best known for the 14 books featuring Rawlins that were published from 1990 to 2016.
Charcoal Joe (Easy Rawlins #14)—Everybody’s favorite African-American detective
The crime genre abounds with books written by ex-cops. Some are excellent, others not so much. But the work of one ex-cop, Joseph Wambaugh, is at or near the top of the list. The five novels in his Hollywood Station series are among his best work. Without doubt, his books are based on his experience with the LAPD (1960-74), where he rose from patrolman to detective sergeant. Wambaugh has also written eleven other novels and five nonfiction books. Many of his books were adapted for feature films or TV movies in the 1970s and 80s.
Wambaugh hasn’t built a series around a single protagonist, or even a pair of them, as is so common in the genre. The Department is itself a character, personified in the Hollywood Station series by the men and women who serve the Hollywood district. You won’t find stereotypes here.
Hollywood Moon (Hollywood Station #3)—Joseph Wambaugh’s Hollywood police saga
Hollywood Hills (Hollywood Station #4)—Life on the streets of Hollywood
Harbor Nocturne (Hollywood Station #5)—Joseph Wambaugh’s latest paints Los Angeles in many clashing colors
For additional reading
You might also enjoy my posts:
- Top 10 mystery and thriller series;
- 20 excellent standalone mysteries and thrillers; and
- 20 outstanding detective series from around the world.
For an abundance of great mystery stories, go to Top 20 suspenseful detective novels (plus 200 more). And if you’re looking for exciting historical novels, check out Top 10 historical mysteries and thrillers reviewed here (plus 100 others).
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