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I’m in a list-making mood today, so to help launch Mystery Month at Booklist, I offer a wildly subjective list of the best American crime novel in every decade from 1930 through 2009. Do I believe these eight novels are truly the best of their respective decades, or are they really just my favorites? The honest answer is probably somewhere between the one and the other. I was aiming for “best,” but of course, I haven’t read every crime novel published since 1930, so who knows, finally? And in the case of close calls, I definitely leaned toward favorites to break ties. But not always. In the 1990s, I’m going with James Ellroy’s masterpiece American Tabloid, but my favorite crime novel of that decade is Daniel Woodrell’s Tomato Red. Like any list, this one is driven by taste (no cozies here), a failing memory, a deadline, and, just maybe, a modicum of judgment and experience (but don’t bet heavily on the latter).
The Glass Key, by Dashiell Hammett (1931)
A very tough call given the competition: Hammett’s more famous novel, The Maltese Falcon (1930); Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep (1939); James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934); and Cain’s other classic, Double Indemnity (1936). So why pick the least well known of this illustrious shortlist? Because I think it’s—ever so slightly—the best book of the bunch (and because it’s the novel that hooked me on crime fiction back when I was a high-minded English major with no time for the “lower” forms of literature). The Glass Key stars Ned Beaumont, a political fixer in the employ of a gangster who runs his town. Beaumont feels beholden to his boss, but when he’s asked to investigate the murder of a senator’s son, that relationship starts to unravel. Crisply told in the third person, this is very different from the flamboyant, metaphor-rich Raymond Chandler style, but the seemingly flat telling packs its own kind of power. Hammett always claimed The Glass Key was his best book, so I have him in my corner of this one.
The Fabulous Clipjoint, by Fredric Brown (1947)
Brown (1906–72) is shockingly little read today, but he deserves the same acclaim as Chandler, Hammett, and the other great pulp-era crime writers (Jim Thompson, Cornell Woolrich, David Goodis, et al.). His Ed and Ambrose Hunter novels star a nephew (Ed) and an uncle (Am) who begin as amateur sleuths but eventually become professional detectives. The Fabulous Clipjoint, which won an Edgar for Best First Novel, finds 18-year-old Ed helping his uncle solve the murder of Ed’s father. Brown captures postwar Chicago in all of its hallmark seediness. Like Hammett, Brown relishes specificity of place as he tracks Ed and Am’s peregrinations across the city’s North Side slum (now the trendy River North district). Brown’s streets are mean, but his characters are amiable and his prose is almost jaunty. In many ways, Brown anticipated the hordes of contemporary detective writers who combine grit with wit.
The Long Goodbye, by Raymond Chandler (1953)
For my money, this later Chandler novel is his best. Philip Marlowe isn’t quite so cocky here; his world-weariness, always present, is tinged with a heavier layer of melancholy, and that adds some depth to the banter. The plot is typically byzantine, but the main story line, involving the drunken, dissolute Terry Lennox, whom Marlowe befriends, is particularly affecting: Is Lennox a kindred spirit, the kind of guy who feels the full weight of a wrong world but is able to take some solace in a well-made gimlet, or is he a killer and con man, playing Marlowe for a sap?
The Goodbye Look, by Ross Macdonald (1968)
If Hammett and Chandler have their decade, Macdonald, the third member of the great hard-boiled triumvirate, deserves his, too. Macdonald’s signature theme was the skeletons that hide in rich people’s closets—and how crime has a way of throwing open those closet doors. His detective, Lew Archer, draws from Marlowe and Spade, to be sure, but Macdonald brings a postwar sensibility (a new kind of cynicism) to his character that Hammett and Chandler, both older writers, didn’t feel in quite the same way. Runners-up in this decade include Jim Thompson’s jewel of a comic noir novel Pop. 1280 (1964) and John D. MacDonald’s Bright Orange for the Shroud (1965), one of the grittiest of the Travis McGee series.
The Last Good Kiss, by James Crumley (1978)
Often considered the most influential crime novel of the last 50 years (Michael Connelly, George Pelecanos, and Dennis Lehane all cite the book as an inspiration), Crumley’s masterpiece can bear endless rereading. As we’ve seen, there were hard-boiled American PIs in every decade since the 1930s, but Crumley’s C. W. Sughrue brings a new, post-Vietnam edge to his cynicism and to his world-class dissipation. The plot? It’s almost as chaotic as Chandler, with Sughrue boozing and drugging his way across the West, first searching for a missing teenager in San Francisco and then, well, doing other stuff. Don’t think for a minute, by the way, that I’m going to miss a chance to quote perhaps the most oft-quoted first line from any crime novel: “When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside of Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon.”
Out on the Rim, by Ross Thomas (1987)
If I had been in a slightly different mood, I might well have chosen a Ross Thomas novel as the best of the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s. Whether writing his McCorkle and Padillo spy novels, his Washington-insider political thrillers, or his Wu and Durant caper novels, Thomas was a consummate professional. In Out on the Rim, he puts together the most engaging crew of international con artists in popular literature: there’s “Otherguy” Overby, nicknamed for his ability to place blame on the other guy; Georgia Blue, a beautiful but deadly Secret Service type; and the legendary Wu and Durant, a Pacific Rim version of Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin. The plot may be Thomas’ most labyrinthine maze yet, but it’s a delight to follow as coalitions fall apart, new ones form, and everyone schemes to make off with five-million dollars. As always, Thomas handles the mechanics expertly, but what makes the book so pleasurable is his ability to portray the special verve of individuals who live entirely by their wits.
American Tabloid, by James Ellroy (1995)
Yes, Ellroy jumped the shark a few years ago and has become a something of a study in self-parody, but back in his salad days, he went places with the crime novel that no one else cared to go. Was he at his best in his celebrated L.A. Quartet or in this metafictional take on the JFK assassination and the cultural milieu that surrounded it? Tough call, but I’ll take American Tabloid for the way it uses the most paradigmatic tabloid moment in American history to explore the aphrodisiac of power in all its guises. Appetites, Ellroy shows us, are what drive human events: money, power, and sex lurk behind every headline, and to follow their trail is to expose a slippery umbilical cord of sleaze connecting high life to low life, ideological posturing to the fundamental hungers that define us all. He does that here, using his staccato style to maximum effectiveness (before it drowned in its own ellipses). Forget Camelot, grassy knolls, and Oliver Stoneish righteous indignation: Ellroy’s JFK novel reads like your typical office power struggle gone bad, and it’s all the more true for it.
The Narrows, by Michael Connelly (2004)
So much to choose from in the first decade of the twenty-first century, but I’m going with what I believe is Connelly’s best book in the celebrated Harry Bosch series. The Narrows brings back the way-creepy serial killer from The Poet (1996) and sets up the ultimate showdown between Bosch and the bad guy. Expertly juggling the narrative between Bosch’s brooding, hard-boiled voice and a broader third-person perspective that takes in the points of view of the Poet and FBI agent Rachel Walling, Connelly builds tension exponentially through superb use of dramatic irony. A stunning finale in the Narrows—the cement-lined Los Angeles River, which transforms itself during a storm from a harmless puddle into a rampaging death trap—works on multiple levels, satisfying both plot-hungry suspense addicts and character-driven Bosch devotees, who will stick with their hero—he of the “seen-it-all-twice eyes”—on his journey into the metaphorical narrows, where evil “would grab at me like an animal and take me down into the black water.” If you’ve come to Connelly recently, you owe it to yourself to backtrack.
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