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February 25, 2011 / C.T. Henry

Today’s Best Hard-Boiled Writers

If you love hard-boiled detective fiction, you’ve already read Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Ross Macdonald, James Crumley, and Lawrence Block.  So who are today’s best hard-boiled writers?  You can’t go wrong with the following authors.  They all understand how to deliver the nuanced dialogue, gritty landscape, and street smart characters.

#5 – Reed Farrel Coleman’s Moe Prager series – Winning three Shamus awards in the last four years, Coleman is today’s most highly-acclaimed writers.  Prematurely retired due to an injury, Coleman’s main protagonist, Moe Prager, is a P.I. who misses the life of a New York City cop.  Moe’s contribution to the genre is his philosophical insights: “….the truth doesn’t conform to the rules of Sunday school or sermons, to clichés or adages. The truth doesn’t always come out in the wash or in the end and it’s frequently not for the best. The truth often makes things worse, much worse. The truth can be as much poison as elixir, cancer as cure.” There are six books in the series: Walking the Perfect Square (2002), Redemption Street (2004), The James Deans (2005), Soul Patch (2007), Empty Ever After (2008), and Innocent Monster (2010)

“Do you follow politics, Moe? May I call you Moe?”
“No and yes. I’m an ex-cop, Mr. Geary. Cops don’t have much use for politicians, though politicians got lots of uses for cops. None of ’em any good as far as I can tell. And yeah, you can call me Moe.”

Start with: The James Deans (2005)
Synopsis: It’s 1983 and Reaganomics is in full swing. But beneath the facade of junk bonds and easy money, New York remains a gritty metropolis offering Nirvana with one hand and desolation with the other. Moe Prager, ex-NYPD cop turned reluctant P.I. is too busy reeling from a family tragedy to see what’s coming. He’s about to be sucked into a case that might deliver him what he’s always wanted or plunge him into purgatory. Two years earlier, Moira Heaton, a young intern for an up-and-coming politico, vanished without a trace. Although there is no evidence supporting her boss’s involvement, rumors and whispers have conspired to stall his once-promising career. Now, in a last- ditch effort to clear his name, state senator Steven Brightman, with the clout of a wealthy backer, enlists Moe’s help.


#4 – Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch series – I don’t know anyone who doesn’t love Harry Bosch.  He’s a modern-day Dark Knight, and they’ve given him a badge.  Nothing gets by Bosch, and his disdain for the LAPD’s bureaucracy makes him the ultimate rebel.  There are 14 books in the series, but you can start anywhere.  In most hard-boiled novels, the main character is a private detective, and that’s why I suggest you start with Lost Light, where Bosch retires from the LAPD and tries to solve a cold case by himself.  From there, you’ll want to read the whole series.

Excerpt: “I think it’s the little things I miss most about my former life. For more than twenty years I carried a small bound notebook in my coat pocket. Spiral notebooks weren’t allowed — a smart defense attorney could claim pages of exculpatory notes had been torn out. The bound notebooks took care of that problem and were easier on the jacket lining at the same time…
“It’s unsolved, Mr. Taylor. And I still care about it. I don’t think it is being worked with any kind of . . . dedication.”
“And that’s it?”I nodded. Then Taylor nodded to himself.
“Fifty grand,” he said.
“Excuse me?”
“I’ll pay you fifty grand — if you solve the thing. There’s no movie if you don’t solve it.”
“Mr. Taylor, you somehow have the wrong impression. I don’t want your money and this is no movie. All I want right now is your help.”

Start with: Lost Light (2005)
Synopsis: Fed up with the hypocrisy and bureaucracy of the LAPD, Harry Bosch has retired, but the life of a retiree doesn’t suit him. He has devoted his life to law enforcement because of a deep drive to see equal justice for all. On his own, he is still drawn toward the law. And when he rediscovers a startling, unsolved murder among the old case files he’s been poring over, he knows he can’t rest until he finds the killer with or without a badge. Moving ever further inside the remarkable character of Harry Bosch, whom the New York Post calls the quintessential mystery book hero, Michael Connelly takes another step closer to the classic novels of Raymond Chandler in this breakneck, relentless, and powerful new novel.


#3 – Charlie Huston’s Joe Pitt series – If you like your P.I. fiction really gritty, you can’t go wrong with Charlie Huston’s Joe Pitt series. Huston introduces a new and captivating world where vampires live in obscurity in contemporary New York City. Joe Pitt is a vampire AND a private detective. The best part of Huston’s writing is the off-beat humor.  Pitt is a smartass, and he doesn’t apologize for it.  Imposing and unflappable, Joe Pitt is the ultimate tough guy.  There are five books in the series: Already Dead (2005), No Dominion (2006), Half the Blood of Brooklyn (2007), Every Last Drop (2008), and My Dead Body (2009).

Excerpt: “I smell them before I see them. All the powders, perfumes and oils the half-smart ones smear on themselves. The stupid ones just stumble around reeking. The really smart ones take a Goddamn shower. The water doesn’t help them in the long run, but the truth is, nothing is gonna help them in the long run. In the long run they’re gonna die. Hell, in the long run they’re already dead.”

Start with: Already Dead (2005)
Synopsis: They live among us, slaves to the very condition that empowers them. They are the Vampyre, and their sole chance at survival lies in banding into Clans. Only Joe Pitt has gone his own way. The upside is freedom. The downside is there’s nobody on his side when trouble comes around. Joe gets rough receptions from all the countless Clans shifting about on the island of Manhattan, but his current trouble is with the Coalition, the Clan that controls the city river to river, from 14th Street to 110th Street. To make things right, Joe takes on his most perilous case: The daughter of a prominent New York family is missing, and her Vampyre fascination makes Joe the ideal man for this high-stakes job. With his ferocious style, Charlie Huston offers a thrilling new twist to one of our oldest myths.


#2 – Ken Bruen’s Jack Taylor series – Set in Ireland, Jack Taylor is a private investigator with a history of alcoholism.  It’s dark and it’s raw, but it’s also about loss and suffering.  Bruen is a true poet.  There are eight books in the series: The Guards (2003), The Killing of the Tinkers (2004), The Magdalen Martyrs (2005), The Dramatist (2006), Priest (2007), Cross (2008), Sanctuary (2009), and The Devil (2010)

Excerpt: “It’s almost impossible to be thrown out of the Garda Siochana. You have to really put your mind to it. Unless you become a public disgrace, they’ll tolerate most anything.
I’d been to the wire. Numerous times.
Last chances
And still I didn’t shape up.”

Start with: The Guards (2003)
Synopsis: The Guards introduces Jack Taylor, a disgraced ex-cop battling boredom and addiction on the gritty Galway streets. Still mourning the decades-old death of his father, stinging from his unceremonious ouster from the Garda Siochana-The Guards, Ireland’s police force-and staring at the world through the smoky bottom of his beer mug, Jack has nothing to look forward to. Nothing, that is, until a dazzling woman walks into the bar because of a rumor about Jack’s talent for finding things. A riveting hard-boiled novel fueled by dark humor and stark violence, The Guards kicks off an exceptional new series.


#1 – Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther series – Imagine if Philip Marlowe had lived in Nazi Germany.  That’s how good the Bernie Gunther series is.  No one today writes as good as Philip Kerr does.  There are six books in the series: Berlin Noir (1994), The One from the Other (2006), A Quiet Flame (2009), If the Dead Rise Not (2010), Field Gray (2011)

Excerpt: “My irritation turned to anger. I reached inside my jacket for the card with my left hand, turning my body just far enough around to disguise my right hand becoming a fist. And when I buried it in his gut, my whole body was behind it.

I hit him too hard. Much too hard. The blow took all the air out of him and then some. You hit a man in the gut like that, he stays hit for a good long while. I held the cop’s unconscious body against me for a moment and then waltzed him through the revolving door of the Kaiser Hotel. My anger was already turning to something resembling panic.

“I think this man has suffered some kind of a seizure,” I told the frowning doorman, and dumped the cop’s body into a leather armchair.”

Start with:  Berlin Noir (1994)
Synopsis: The first book of the Berlin Noir trilogy, March Violets introduces readers to Bernie Gunther, an ex-policeman who thought he’d seen everything on the streets of 1930s Berlin—until he turned freelance and each case he tackled sucked him further into the grisly excesses of Nazi subculture. Hard-hitting, fast-paced, and richly detailed, March Violets is noir writing at its blackest and best.


Honorable Mention: James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux series, S.J. Rozan’s Lydia Chin and Bill Smith series, George Pelecanos’ Derek Strange and Terry Quinn series, and Dennis Lehane’s Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro series.


Leave a Comment
  1. Chris / Nov 19 2011 12:29 pm

    I’d add several more:

    Loren Estleman’s Amos Walker series. Amazingly good stuff set in Detroit.

    Dennis Tafoya who writes like an angel about devils.

    Paul Levine who nails the southern Florida genre with his Jake Lassiter series.

    Charles Knief who did the same for Hawaii with his protagonist John Caine (and then disappeared).

    Bruce DeSilva who knocked one out of the park with his recently released “Rogue Island”.

    And finally Anthony Gagliano who put out the wonderful Miami novel “Straits of Fortune” in 2007, but nothing since.

  2. Albert Baranek / Jul 11 2012 7:53 pm

    Shouldn’t Andrew Vachss be rather high up on this list?

  3. David Merker / Apr 16 2014 5:42 pm

    I just finished Baron R. Birtcher “Rain Dogs” It is a stand-alone.
    This is Hardboiled. I loved it.

  4. Brentwood Belair / May 2 2014 1:19 am

    Hardest of the Hardboiled, Paul Cain, “Fast One.’



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