The best American crime novelists of the last century, or: a way into the genre

Four and a half years ago I decided I wanted to try out the genre of crime fiction. I was about to take a semester off from my doctoral studies for paternity leave, and I knew my academic reading would be on the wane, at least while I was caring for my newborn son during the day. I needed something punchy, new, and different that would grab and hold my attention during downtime, long walks, and seemingly endless Baby Bjorn–pacing.

So I ordered a few books: The 39 Steps by John Buchan, The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler, The Friends of Eddie Coyle by George V. Higgins, The Hunter by Donald Westlake, Killing Floor by Lee Child, and The Spy Who Came in From the Cold by John le Carré. An odd, eclectic sampling, obviously made by an outsider. In any case, the experiment worked.

Turns out I love crime fiction.

From there, I wanted to get my hands on the best stuff out there. But the way my mind works, I wanted to do this in a particular way. First, I wanted to get a sense of the genre as a whole, particularly in its development and in the order of influences. I wouldn't read chronologically, but if I read Ross Macdonald, I wanted to know and not be ignorant of the fact that he had read and was influenced by Hammett and Chandler. Second, I wanted to read the masters, not their second-rate imitators. And third, if the author had a series featuring a long-standing character—and they nearly always do—I wanted to read that series and preferably the first entry. I knew that that would mean I might not read an author's best, or best-read-first, work, but that was fine by me. I wanted to see the genesis of their art; and should they draw me in, I wanted to read the series from beginning to end, not start in the middle.

Long story short, here's my list. (I'm an inveterate list-maker. It's a compulsive habit.) I've yet to find a comparable one online: when I do, it invariably includes British authors (e.g., P. D. James, Agatha Christie), expands the genre to include spy fiction (e.g., John le Carré, Len Deighton), does not limit itself to one book per author (e.g., Hammett and Chandler get multiple entries), and includes mysteries from every time period (e.g., Poe, Dickens).

My list's rules: only Americans, beginning with Hammett in the 1920s (so the last 88 years—but close enough to say "the last century"), only crime fiction (broadly defined, but excluding spy and similar novels), and focusing especially on the first entry in the author's most beloved or well-known series.

I've put an asterisk by the ones I've yet to read. I'm only about halfway done, so this is far from an authoritative list. To state the obvious, I'll feel comfortable ranking either the authors or their works only once I've actually read them all. I'll add that falling in love with le Carré and P. D. James along the way hasn't helped in finishing the list.

But in any case, here it is. I welcome suggestions of every kind: corrections, amendments, additions, subtractions, and more.
  1. Dashiell Hammett, The Maltese Falcon (1929)
  2. Erle Stanley Gardner, The Case of the Velvet Claws (1933)
  3. James M. Cain, The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934)
  4. Rex Stout, Fer-de-Lance (1934)
  5. Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep (1939)
  6. Cornell Woolrich, The Bride Wore Black (1940)
  7. Vera Caspary, Laura (1942)
  8. Helen Eustis, The Horizontal Man (1946)
  9. David Goodis, Dark Passage (1946)
  10. Mickey Spillane, I, The Jury (1947)
  11. Elisabeth Sanxay Holding, The Blank Wall (1947)
  12. Dorothy B. Hughes, In a Lonely Place (1947)
  13. Kenneth Millar (as Ross Macdonald), The Moving Target (1949)
  14. Charlotte Armstrong, Mischief (1950)
  15. Jim Thompson, The Killer Inside Me (1952)
  16. Margaret Millar, Beast in View (1955)
  17. Patricia Highsmith, The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955)
  18. Evan Hunter (as Ed McBain), Cop Hater (1956)
  19. Chester Himes, A Rage in Harlem (=For Love of Imabelle) (1957)
  20. Dolores Hitchens, Fools' Gold (1958)
  21. Donald Westlake (as Richard Stark), The Hunter (1962)
  22. John D. MacDonald, The Deep Blue Good-by (1964)
  23. George V. Higgins, The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1970)
  24. Robert B. Parker, The Godwulf Manuscript (1973)
  25. Donald Goines, Crime Partners (1974)
  26. Joseph Wambaugh, The Choirboys (1975)
  27. Lawrence Block, The Sins of the Fathers (1976)
  28. James Crumley, The Last Good Kiss (1978)
  29. Ross Thomas, Chinaman’s Chance (1978)
  30. Martin Cruz Smith, Gorky Park (1981)
  31. Sara Paretsky, Indemnity Only (1982)
  32. Newton Thornburg, Dreamland (1983)
  33. Charles Willeford, Miami Blues (1984)
  34. Robert Crais, The Monkey’s Raincoat (1987)
  35. James Lee Burke, The Neon Rain (1987)
  36. Elmore Leonard, Get Shorty (1990)
  37. Walter Mosley, Devil in a Blue Dress (1990)
  38. James Ellroy, L.A. Confidential (1990)
  39. Michael Connelly, The Black Echo (1992)
  40. James Sallis, The Long-Legged Fly (1992)
  41. Richard Price, Clockers (1992)
  42. George Pelecanos, The Sweet Forever (1995)
  43. Laura Lippman, Baltimore Blues (1997)
  44. Ace Atkins, Crossroad Blues (1998)
  45. Craig Johnson, Cold Dish (2004)
  46. Megan Abbott, Die A Little (2005)
  47. Don Winslow, The Power of the Dog (2005)
  48. Daniel Woodrell, Winter's Bone (2006)
  49. Benjamin Whitmer, Pike (2010)
  50. Dennis Lehane, Live by Night (2012) 
  51. Adrian McKinty, The Cold Cold Ground (2012)
  52. Reed Farrel Coleman, Where It Hurts (2016)
**Update #1: Added Highsmith, Hughes, and Millar on Megan Abbott's recommendation.
**Update #2: Added Lippman, Stout, Sallis, Holding, Goodis, Thompson, and Woolrich on Topher Lundell's recommendation.
**Update #3: Added Hitchens, Eustis, Armstrong, and Caspary on Sarah Weinman's (editorial) recommendation.
**Update #4: I've dropped the asterisks on the books I haven't read—with 15 new additions, the disproportion of unread to read was getting out of hand!
**Update #5: Added Coleman, whose first Gus Murphy book, out last year, I had forgotten to include. 
**Update #6: Added Johnson, Woodrell, and Whitmer on Kester Smith's recommendation.


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