You can start with Edgar Allan Poe if you like, but for me the story of American crime writing starts with Dashiell Hammett, who laid the egg that became the hard-boiled detective. Also he has such a dashing name, was by all accounts a noble (though often drunk) man and partner to Lillian Hellman. All good things.
Despite his historical importance, Hammett doesn’t make this list, I’m afraid. We’ll start with his first great disciple instead, the man who put crime back on the streets where it belongs, but took the prose to the stars.
The thing with Chandler is his style. The plots ramble and there’s at least one unexplained body in his novels. He wrote very few novels and they’re all worth reading, except The Poodle Springs Story, which was started by Chandler and finished by Robert Parker decades later. Ignore that one. Start with The Big Sleep or Farewell My Lovely.
One request: Please, please don’t then turn around and try to write like him. Too many have done that already. The world doesn’t need another hard-drinking cop/detective who lives alone with his cat. Poor old Philip Marlowe nearly suffered death by a thousand copies already. And we don’t need another crime writer wracking his brain to shoehorn an outlandish simile into every second sentence. Chandler pretty much created the style of 20th Century crime fiction, but it’s best read in the original.
In one of Chandler’s letters, he savaged Macdonald for daring to say a car was “acned with rust”. So maybe his prose isn’t quite up to Chandler’s standard. But his plots hang together far better, his insights into the dark side of family life is second to none and his protagonist is sufficiently different to Chandler’s. Where Marlowe is hard as nails, Macdonald’s Lew Archer has a soft side – he loves art and so on.
Also, Macdonald wrote many more books and managed a very consistent standard. An incredible body of work, actually. Interestingly, he seemed to tweak onto environmental issues earlier than most. In essence, his books are family dramas of which the crime is only the culmination.
Now hold tight, here’s a writer with incredible talents… and too many books. He even sometimes copied himself – The Killer Inside Me and Pop. 1280 being essentially retellings of the same story.
He’s classic hard-boiled, but with a incredibly dark side that can make some of the books hard to take. I guess you can say Jim Thompson’s books are more hard-luck than hard-boiled.
Now I’m going out on a limb here and making a big statement: Jim Thompson’s Pop. 1280 is my candidate for the greatest pulp crime novel out there. Period. (I slip the word “pulp” in there to avoid competing with The Brothers Karamazov.) Pop.1280 is a masterpiece of sustained first-person narrative. It’s awesome, okay? Read it.
Then read The Grifters and The Getaway. After that, you’re on your own. The books can be patchy, but there are some very good ones out there.
Late in his life, Charles Willeford wrote a book that changed his reputation. It was called Miami Blues. Here, finally, publishers had a book with bestseller potential from someone who had hitherto displayed ample talent, but less commercial appeal. They asked him to write a sequel. He came back with a manuscript in which the hero of Miami Blues, detective Hoke Moseley, kills his two daughters…
Noooo, went the publisher, this is not what we had in mind! That book was never published, to the best of my knowledge. Instead, Willeford went off and wrote three more Hoke Moseley books. Taken together, they are the best detective series since Chandler. Read Miami Blues, New Hope for the Dead (what a title!), The Way We Die Now and Sideswipe.
The last is the best (a book of masterful dread in which the detective hardly does anything), but reading them in order adds a nice dimension as you see Hoke Moseley’s private life develop.
Then seek out the gems among Willeford’s earlier work.
Here’s a rare writer who’s kept his true identity a mystery. Unfortunately, his books are also too much of a mystery to the reading public – not enough people know about them. Constantine writes police procedurals, sometimes with smalltime events. But, oh, the characters!
K.C. Constantine is in the league of George V. Higgins when it comes to using dialogue as plot exposition and character revelation. The later books in the Rocksburg series read like radio plays, all talk. And they are often brilliant.
Bottom-Liner Blues I found too self-absorbed, with the author’s personal history and issues becoming too prominent at the expense of narrative drive. But all the others I’ve managed to get my hands on are exceptional reads. The early books focus on police chief Mario Balzic, but lately Constantine has begun to give other characters the limelight, reinvigorating the series. But start with the early ones.
* If this had been a list of seven, I would’ve added the names of Tony Hillerman and Elmore Leonard.