5 top novels about private detectives

MaIsie Dobbs is one of my 5 top novels about private detectives.

In writing this blog, I’ve read and reviewed 250 detective novels to date. Most of those involve police investigators. A much smaller number feature private detectives, and of that number I’ve awarded @@@@ or @@@@@ (4 or 5 out of 5) to fewer than 50. Below, following a list of my five favorites, I’m listing a total of more than 20 novels, since I’m limiting myself to just a single title for each author. And they’re arranged in alphabetical order by the authors’ last names. Each entry includes a link to my review.

You’ll note that many of the books listed below are the first in their series. In those cases where I’ve read (or started to read) a series of novels from the beginning, I’m listing the first one below.

This post was updated on April 6, 2021.

5 favorite top novels about private detectives

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, he 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.”

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 Ladies 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 their 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 Ladies Detective will go into politics.

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.

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 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.

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.

More than 20 top novels about private detectives

Novels in series about private detectives

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

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

Buried Secrets (Nick Heller #2) by Joseph Finder—A thriller that explores the intersection of high finance and high crime

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

The Case of the Missing Servant (Vish Puri #1) by Tarquin Hall—Vish Puri is either India’s #1 private investigator or #2

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

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

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

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

For more reading

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For an abundance of great mystery stories, go to Top 20 suspenseful detective novels. And if you’re looking for exciting historical novels, check out Top 10 historical mysteries and thrillers reviewed here.

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