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Top 25 Best Private Investigator Books

The Best P.I. Mysteries Ever Written from classics to current

Sometimes you just have to pay for it. These guys are there to collect a fee whenever you need the dirt on someone. Private investigators (also called a Private Eye or P.I.) are the flip side to the police, a vigilante who investigates whatever you want for the right amount of greenbacks. Many of these characters are known as hard-boiled, the term for the gritty, more realistic books of fiction. They deal with loose women, drugs, corruption and lost dogs. They drink heavily, sleep around and rip the tags off their mattresses. The rules of society don’t apply to these guys.

P.I. Fiction can cross all genre lines, you'll find the P.I. solving mysteries in Fantasy, Science Fiction, Horror, and just about every literary genre. 

Some of the best and most enduring mysteries ever written feature a P.I. who relentlessly tackles an impossible mystery and against all odds, solves it.

This is a list of the Best Private Eye Books, that is, mystery books that feature a private detective attempting to solve a mystery on behalf of a client. So check out 25 of the best PI novels of all time, from classics to moderns.

Hes nearly 150 years old, has two TV series and a movie franchise. Hes still the best thing to happen to mystery EVER. Hes Sherlock Holmes and its no surprise that he shows up at the top of the private investigators list. Granted, he didnt always get paid for his cases do we know how he lived? but from time to time, he did collect a fee from a grateful client. Sherlock deserves every accolade given to him.

In this book, one of only four Holmes novels written by Doyle, you can see why Holmes is the man to beat. In the opening scenes of the book, Holmes finds the cane of a client who had visited earlier. With a few quick observations, he deduces everything he needs to know about the owner of the cane (and we might add that Watson gets every single one of the clues wrong.) Its the epitome of everything we love about Holmes. Arrogant, but right. Later in the book, one of the classic lines of mystery fiction is said when the client says Mr. Holmes, they were the footprints of a gigantic hound. Of course, Holmes learns who has loosed this hound on the moors and solves a tricky case.

Books in Sherlock Holmes... Series (9)

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Chandler is one of the names most frequently mentioned when private eyes are discussed. Not only does his character Philip Marlowe have a distinct moral code that will be the hallmark of private eye fiction, Chandler as the author has a lyrical voice that brings a beauty to the ugly events of Los Angeles. In his debut novel, Chandler sets up one of the classic scenarios of private eye fiction, the decaying old-money family. In this case, General Sternwood hires Marlowe to deal with a nasty blackmailer who is putting the squeeze on his younger daughter. He also mentions that his older daughters husband has disappeared.

The plot is a bit convoluted in part because Chandler had a tendency to borrow heavily from his pulp works to create his novels. As a result, when the Bogart movie was made from the book and the director asked who had killed the chauffeur, Chandler couldnt answer the question. Even so, Chandler paints a fascinating picture of Los Angeles in the middle years of the century, making it as much a character in the books as Marlowe himself. The Bogart version (made with Bacall as the younger daughter) is a classic that would make you buy the book, even if you dont believe me.

Books in Philip Marlowe Series (8)

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HerculePoirot is no tough guy, but he does get paid to investigate crime. After all, someone has to pay for his symmetrical apartment and his tisanes. He does share qualities with the other private investigators in the list. Hes an outsider. Poirot is Belgian in a land full of English folk, who dont understand people who dont drink tea and play cricket. As a result, he has a better view of what is really going on around him. Hes not hampered by the cultural expectations of the English.

This is likely Poirots greatest case, in which Christie pulls out the rug from under the reader, breaking one of the cardinal rules of detective fiction and yet she does it perfectly. The book is also known for causing its author to disappear. Not really, but Christie did pull her famous disappearing act after this book was released. Her disappearance was national news which only raised sales of this book. To be fair, she was in the middle of a nasty divorce (and she registered at a spa under her husbands mistress name.) Even without the personal drama, this is a hell of a book that has stood the test of time. Its still talked about and few have tried Christies audacious gambit.

Books in Hercule Poirot Series (41)

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If Chandler was the poet of the private eyes, Hammett is the realist. Dashiell Hammett was one of the few authors on this list who could claim to have spent time as a private eye. He worked for Pinkerton for a few years until his health gave way (due to tuberculosis.) After that, he began to write about factionalize versions of his adventures in the field.

The Maltese Falcon is the only Sam Spade novel; a few short stories have been discovered. As much of a pop culture figure as Spade is (does anyone remember Sam Diamond in Murder by Death?) he was featured in only a few stories. In this book, Spades partner is murdered. Later, Spade begins to get visits from several people who are all looking for a jeweled bird statue. Hes beaten, shot at and arrested for his trouble.

Spade still comes out on top in the matter, even though no one ever finds that stupid bird. While he doesnt have the same moral code as Marlowe, he does have a few lines that he doesnt cross. Believe it or not, the Bogart (did anyone else ever play private eyes in the 1940s?) version was the third rendition of the book on film. Its still the best and remains a classic of film. Watch it and read the book.

Books in The Continental ... Series (7)

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Id love to tell you the name of the next private eye on the list, but I cant. Really, I cant. The detectives name is never given, so the character has become known as Nameless. Its a tip of the hat to Hammett who doesnt name his Continental Op. Actually, the character is finally named about a thousand books into the series, but by then, everyone knew the series as Nameless. Fortunately, the rest of the characters are named, or they would be some incredibly confusing books.

The series is set in California and Pronzini is a wicked plotter. Hes known for his humor and his knowledge of all things mystery as well as being the other half of Marcia Muller, who is also on this list. In this book, Nameless takes on the case of a 40 year old murder of a pulp writer (the detective as well as the author are also pulp fans.) His son had been told that his father died in Korea, but now evidence has come to light that makes the son wonder if his father committed suicide or was possibly murdered. This is a great series and most of the novels are in print and easy to find.

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Its hard to believe that a novel which was written purely as satire is now one of the best novels of any category, yet Trents Last Case is just that. In the years in the run-up to World War I, the market had been glutted with mystery novels that featured the intelligent detective who deduced the entire mystery from a few choice words or pieces of information. Bentley wanted to send up all of the tired clichs of the genre and poke fun where needed. Philip Trent is the detective, a reporter and an investigator, who decides to solve the murder of Sisbee Manderson, a wealthy financier. 

Since the book is all about the clichs, its no surprise that Trent falls for the lead suspect during the course of the investigation. He then calls everyone together to propose his solution, but it turns out hes wrong on every count. Finally, the real killer takes pity on his failure and confesses to the crime. It turns out that Trent was even wrong in the title. This was not the last case about Philip Trent. He appeared in a few more mysteries, each following the same pattern of a solution that is entirely incorrect. Its hard to be that wrong so often, but Trent doesnt give up easily. 

The book was made into more than one movie, but theyre next to impossible to find.

Worth reading? Hell yea! One of the best PI mystery books written and a case study for how to do it right.

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Marcia Muller, though she didnt know it at the time, started a new trend in private eye fiction. She introduced Sharon McCone, one of the first female private investigators, in this book. She also didnt know that this series would last 35 years. She married to another author on this list, Bill Pronzini. Theyre one of two couples on the list private eye writing must be a loving profession! Together, theyve written mysteries and books that cover the mystery genre.

So what can a mere dame do for detection? McCone is one of the investigators at All Souls Cooperative. Her first novel dealt with the vandalism and arson at a series of junk and antiques stores in San Francisco. McCone strikes out trying to find the person behind the menace. When one of the owners is murdered, she comes back to the case to finally solve it. In the early books, she has a love/hate relationship with the police officer assigned to the case. Beyond having the same moral code as the boys, McCone is one of the more relatable private eyes around. The reader could see grabbing a latte with her and talking about crimes. The series is still running strong, and theres no better place to start this series than at the beginning.

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Margaret Millar is half of the other married duo on the list. She was married to mystery author Ross Macdonald. Millar didnt write about women private eyes though. She dealt with private eyes in a few of her novels; however, every time she did, her work was compared to her husbands books. So despite her skill in the field, she mainly wrote other types of mysteries to keep things calm at home. Her novels always have a strong psychological element to them which leads to surprising conclusions and rare insights into the characters.

In this book, Joe Quinn is the private investigator who is down on his luck, literally. Hes lost his car, his money and his girl due to gambling and hes hitching a ride home. He ends up at the estate of a religious cult, and one of the leaders, Sister Blessing (way to promote yourself there), asks Quinn to solve the death of Patrick OGorman. One of Millars trademarks is hitting the readers with a surprise in the last few paragraphs of the book, and this one is no exception. Millar is one of the best, yet forgotten, mystery authors of the 20th century and this book is one of her jewels. You cant buy this book fast enough.

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Bertha Cool and Donald Lam run their own private eye outfit. Cool is the nominal head of the company. Shes overweight and greedy, and those are her good points. Lam is a short, cocky, disbarred lawyer who acts as the brains of the organization. Together, they find cases with big payoffs and intricate plots and some physical abuse for Donald. The series ran nearly 30 years and marks one of the few private eye duos around, seeing as how most of the investigators are solitary animals.

In their very first case, the newly hired Lam is asked to serve divorce papers on Morgan Birks. The case gets complicated fast by a murder and its Lam who has to solve the case. Though Cool is supposed to be the head of the firm, shes rarely listed as a female private eye. Shes more the object of a few fat jokes and jabs (When Bertha sits around the office, she sits AROUND the office.) Fair was a pen name for Erle Stanley Gardner who wrote the Perry Mason series. The Cool/Lam books have gotten a second life as eBooks, and theyre not to be missed. Many find them more satisfying than Perry and Della.

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Lawrence Block writes across nearly all types of mysteries. He writes amateur sleuths. He writes hit men, and he also writes private eye. And hes won a ridiculous number of awards for his efforts. Technically, Matthew Scudder is not a private eye. He does favors for friends who want something investigated. They usually repay him with cash or goods so that he can avoid the licensing requirements for being a private eye. Scudder is an ex-cop who shot a girl as friendly fire in the line of duty. That act led him down the path to alcoholism, and the series goes from unrepentant drunk to twelve steps to shaky sobriety. Block is such a good writer that most readers assumed that he was also a member of AA, but hes just that good.

In this book, criminals have begun kidnapping the women associated with major drug dealers and asking for huge ransoms. One of the victims husband wants Scudder to solve the case for him after his wife is murdered by the kidnappers. Despite the morbid title and the intense action, Block uses dark humor to lighten the mood. Liam Neeson is filming this book as we speak. Read the book first now before you see the movie.

Books in Matthew Scudder Series (17)

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Just as Chandler included Los Angeles in his private eye novels, Laura Lippmans works take place in Baltimore they could take place nowhere else. The city, which isnt known as a tourist destination, comes alive in her series about former reporter turned private eye, Tess Monaghan. Tess is dating a much younger man in the series and later they marry and settle down.

This series always looks at other issues while dealing with a tight mystery story. In this book, Ruthie, a friend of Tess father, visits Tess to ask her to look into a cold murder. Ruthies brother is supposed to have killed a young girl over a bottle of glue. Shortly after he goes to prison, hes killed in the same manner a hose tied around his neck. Tess has to find out who the girl is before she can solve the case and those answer cause a number of high-ranking officials in Baltimore to get nervous.

The pace of the series as slowed in recent year as Lippman now alternates Tess adventures with standalone novels that are equally good. However, Im being told at knife-point that I can only discuss the private eye books for this list.

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Dashiell Hammett wrote five novels, two of which are in this list. Not a bad trick if you can do it. Though Sam Spade is the better known of his private eyes, more of his works deal with a character who is best known as the Continental Op. (Op is short for operative as in private detective, not optometrist.) The readers never get to learn what the Ops name is. Its never revealed. The Op is hired to clean up Personville, which he refers to as Poisonville. Gangs have overrun the town and the local newspaperman, who hires the Op, is killed before he can meet with the detective. Instead, the newspapermans father hires the Op and admits that hes the one who brought the gangs to town.

The Op has an odd definition of clean up, since to him the phrase means shoot everything on sight. He gets rid of the gangs and pretty much everyone in town. The book is a classic, because it has been adapted into many other private eye novels and movies. Additionally, the Op is one of the first real private eye characters in fiction. He led to nearly everyone else on this list having something to write about.

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This book marked the first of the Kinsey Millhone series of mysteries. Kinsey starts the series as a freelance op with ties to an insurance company, but as the series progresses (and yes, she goes through each letter of the alphabet up to W now. You can learn your alphabet as you read here.), she cuts free of the insurance firm and works for herself. Kinsey is twice divorced and unencumbered, though she has a family of friends along with her landlord, who becomes a fairly major character in the books. The series has not aged in real time. Though A is set in the 1980s near the time it was published, as of W they are still only in the 1980s.

In her first adventure, Kinsey is hired by a woman recently released from prison for killing her husband. She wants Kinsey to find out who really did it to clear her name. She sees a thread to another crime and tries to solve both of them to earn a fee. Grafton claimed later that she wrote the book to get over a bad relationship, and the interactions between the sexes can be tense well, deadly really. She also has no plans to see Kinsey put on stage and screen; shes a former Hollywood writer who learned her lesson well.

Books in Kinsey Millhone Series (24)

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Hansons books represented a departure for the private eye novel. The mostly macho men who had walked down the mean streets were joined by Dave Brandstetter, an openly gay man. The series began in 1970, when most people didnt even know what gay people were. Brandstetter is an insurance investigator, but were including him here because often he goes out on his own to find the real story behind the crimes. It took Hanson three years to sell the first book because of the content, but after the first novel came out (can books come out?), he published eleven novels in the series and countless short stories (well, really I could count them, but Im being lazy.)

In this book, Brandstetter is asked to investigate the death of a man whose body is washed up on shore. The mans lover wants Brandstetter to look into the crime more, and Brandstetter agrees after learning that the victims son and heir is also missing. Hanson, who was gay himself though married to a lesbian, wrote another series of short stories regarding Hack Bohannon stories, a rancher and part-time investigator. These are hard to find today, though several of the books have recently come out as eBooks. Definitely worth the trouble to find as Hanson began the walk away from the white male sleuth.

Books in Dave Brandstett... Series (12)

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Nero Wolfe novels are something of a hybrid for private eye fiction. Wolfe is all great detective He never leaves his home on business and grows orchids for fun. However, his sidekick is private eye, Archie Goodwin, who does most of the leg work on the cases. Its Archie who finds the bodies and goes to jail when the police want to rough someone up. The dialogue between these two has been called the best and most realistic interactions in fiction. Archies snappy comebacks are worth the price of the book any time.

In this book, Wolfe has come to a county fair to display his orchids. When the car wrecks, he and Archie traipse through a field only to be chased by a prize steer. The humor soon turns to murder and Wolfe, who hates being away from home, has to solve the case in order to leave the jurisdiction. In this book, Archie meets the girl who will follow him for another 30 years, Lily Rowan. Whether Archie is dancing with Lily or interrogating a witness for an alibi, hes all private eye and this one of the best Wolfe books. There was an A&E series of a few of the Wolfe novels but sadly they never go to this one. Its still worth checking out.

Books in Nero Wolfe Series (47)

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Some men are go-getters and some are not. Irwin Maurice Fletcher is definitely not. Fletch is an investigative reporter who is spending his days on the beach watching drugs being bought and sold. Hes looking for an opening to find the source of the drugs for an article. A man approaches him and asks Fletch to kill him for a large sum of money. Fletch is intrigued and the fun begins. He keeps collecting more and more of a fee for each step in the process that he takes. Of course, all hell breaks loose and Fletch is right in the middle of it.

McDonald, which seems to the surname of choice for private eye writers, wrote mostly in dialogue, a style that forced him to show character, plot and humor all in the words spoken by the characters. While writers would notice this, readers only pick up on the speed at which they can read one of these funny books. McDonald twice won the Edgar (from the Mystery Writers of America) for this series and this book was turned into a movie starring Chevy Chase. Skip the movie and just read the book. Its worth it. The author is actually one of the few who added a second generation to the series by having books with Fletchs bastard son as the hero. Not bad.

Books in Fletch Series (12)

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Mike Hammer, the detective in the Mickey Spillane books, is the type to shoot first and then shoot again for kicks and then maybe ask a question or maybe not. Hes the epitome of the 1950s tough guys where men were men and women werent what they seemed. Spillane had been a comic book writer before this, so dont expect a world of characterization here.

It was once determined that about ten bodies piled up in each of the Spillane books, and this one is no exception. When Jack Williams, a friend of Mike Hammer and the guy who had lost an arm saving Hammers life, is murdered, there doesnt seem to be much of a motive for murder. Of course, Williams was killed slowly and painfully which pissed off Hammer like everything else does. Hammer and the police are both investigating the case. Hammer wants to beat them to the punch literally.

Williams had been engaged to a former heroin addict, so Hammer mucks through the seedier side of New York before moving uptown with his suspicions. The book and this series were huge sellers at their time. The book has been made into a movie and there was a Hammer television series as well. Though scandalous at the time, the books seem pretty tame in comparison today. Still worth checking out what all the fuss was in your mothers day.

Books in Mike Hammer Series (24)

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Travis McGee lives on a boat named The Busted Flush. The boat isnt named after a defective toilet, but a bad hand in poker. In this book, which is 16th book in the series, McGee wakes up to find an ex on his boat, the stuff of nightmares. It never pays to have dated McGee because these women have the life span of a fruit fly. You might as well go live next to Jessica Fletcher for all the time you have left. Shes carrying a suitcase full of cash. She offers him $10,000 to hold it for two weeks and instructions on what to do if she doesnt return. Sure enough, she gets run over before the two weeks are up and McGee decides to find out what really happened to her.

This is an incredible series praised by practically every private eye writer around. The action moves fast and the characters are well drawn. Its hard to find something to complain about with these books. The books feel a little dated these days as women prefer not to think of themselves as play toys and corpses, but its hard to put down these books once youve discovered this author. Theyre more addictive than potato chips.

Books in Travis McGee Series (21)

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Private eye Nate Heller is unique in crime fiction. Hes not only tasked with solving his own cases, but also those of some of Americas most infamous crimes. The series is set in the 1930s-1950s and covers a number of unsolved or unsatisfactorily solved crimes. In each, Collins actually takes on the evidence and tries to develop an alternate solution for the crimes. None of the abducted by aliens nonsense, but a logical outcome based on what we know about the crimes.

In this case, Heller tackles the Lindbergh kidnapping twice. He first looks into it during the first days of the crime, when Al Capone says he knows something and again when the state of New Jersey want to be sure it can close its case against Bruno Richard Hauptmann. Of course, unlike the police, no clue is too small for Heller and he tracks down leads that the police ignore. The book has a wicked turn at the end that leaves the reader speechless.

This is definitely a series you should check out. The events covered by Collins are prime targets for a second look and included the Harry Oakes case, Huey Long and a few others. For those readers who enjoy the men tough, the broads wild and the history entertaining, this is the series for you.

Books in Nathan Heller No... Series (21)

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Set in the late 1940s in Watts (Los Angeles), Easy Rawlins was one of the first major African-American private eyes in many years. The character is not a licensed PI when the series starts. Easy is out of work when he gets a request from a man to find a white woman who had recently been visiting African American bars. Easy needs the cash and agrees to look for her. On the trail of the woman, he runs into a lady friend at the bar. They sleep together and Easy is later arrested as being the last one to have sex with her before she was killed.

The book is set during this era for a reason, to take a look at the state of civil rights in America on the cusp of the end of the Jim Crow laws. The series is on-going, though Mosley pulled a Doyle a few years ago, put his character in a coma only to have him wake up last year. The book was made into a Denzel Washington vehicle shortly after it came out. The movie didnt live up to the book, which won a Shamus for Best First PI Novel. Definitely worth the read!

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Its hard to pick just one Ross Macdonald book to put on this list. Some critics say that all of Macdonalds books are the same plot recycled, but not this particular title. With Hammett and Chandler, Macdonald is usually listed as one of the best of the private eye writers ever. His creation, Lew Archer, could have been the lovechild of Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe, well not really, but you know what I mean.

Hesnot afraid to get into sticky situations and keeps his own moral code that keeps things from getting too complicated. In this case, Archers client is the jilted boyfriend. He wants to get the goods on his loves new hunk of the week. The case seems rather simple at first until Archer uncovers an old suicide and a deficit-sized amount of gambling debts. Suddenly the case is much more convoluted than it first seemed.

Macdonald was known best as Mr. Margaret Millar for several years until Paul Newman (before his salad dressing days) made two of his books into movies. The public discovered Macdonalds works, and it was love at first bullet. Not surprisingly, Macdonalds books are readily available today and both movies are on cable from time to time. Check all of them out.

Books in Lew Archer Series (18)

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The Amos Walker series has been running for over 20 years and is still going strong. Set in Detroit, Walker is something different. Hes an ex-military guy who fought in two wars and nearly made it on to the Detroit Police force before he punched a VIPs son while they were both in the showers. Hold on tight to that soap! The series breaks down the wall between readers and the character at times, since Walker watches tons of old movies, but mentions that he hates the clich of the private eyes moral code. The city of Detroit, back when it had a dollar or two, is heavily featured in the novels as well.

In this book, Walker is asked to find the son of a TV personality before the kid overdoses and causes unwanted publicity for his dad nice family values. The kids junkie girlfriend causes most of the issues here as bodies start to stack up. Walker is blamed for some of the mess and the police lock him up for a few days just for good measure. Estleman has been nominated for more Shamus award (from the Private Eye Writers) than any other author. Given that hes written a series of books about Detroit, hes the man to tell a story set in the Motor City. Estleman is still writing these books, so check them out now.

Books in Amos Walker Series (25)

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Gault was one of the last pulp writers producing private eye novels when this book came out at the end of the 1950s. Gault had written those three cents a word stories for Black Mask and other pulps to make ends meet. His private eye novels carry forward much of that gritty action from the pulps. Hes best known for two series that ran about the same time.

The first is Joe Puma, a PI hottie, and Brock Callahan who is more like the other 99% of the country. Callahan, who played professional football and was nicknamed The Rock, is a man with emotions and deep thoughts along with a steady girl, Jan. Just like everyone else they fight a lot. In this book, Jan wants to buy a new convertible. Callahan doesnt want her to buy it, thinking that shes going to get the wrong kind of attention.

Hes right because when she finds the corpse of the dealer in the car, shot right smack in the middle of the forehead, shes getting all sorts of attention from the police. Gault is the real deal and you cant go wrong with much of anything he wrote. The two mentioned series are now available as eBooks, so download them now for some great reads.

Books in Sergeant Cribb Series (9)

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This Parker series features Spenser, the Boston private eye who likes gourmet cooking, deep thoughts and his annoying girlfriend Susan. Spenser fared better than some of the private eyes on this list. He got a single name, Spenser like Madonna or Cher. In this book, the Red Sox look like they might become the Black Sox, when a client asks Spenser to look into a major league pitcher is throwing games. Spenser digs deep enough to find that the pitcher and his wife are being blackmailed due to her past as a prostitute. Spenser along with his amoral friend Hawk have to take down the thugs who are making the Red Sox lose. (like they need one more reason!)

The book has baseball and porn in it. Do I need to say more why you should get this immediately? The Spenser books showed up on television back in the 1980s with Robert Urich starring as Spenser. The show has never been released on DVD and has limited play on the oldies stations for some reason, but theyre a fun watch if you miss big hair and parachute pants. The books are better and dont feel quite as dated as the show.

Books in Spenser Series (42)

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This 1936 private eye novel is not your grandmothers cup of tea. Not unless grandma was into necrophilia, bondage and nudity. Then shed like this entry on the list. Bill Crane is the private eye in the case, and hes joined by two other investigators, OMalley and Williams. The three of them are constantly imbibing Williams actually drinks embalming fluid in this book and lives to tell.

These books are often compared to Craig Rices zany, drunken mysteries, but this series of five tales is darker and more hardboiled than Rices crew. The basic plot of the book is simple. A suicide victims is set to the morgue and her corpse disappears while shes there. The police are anxious to cover this up and various factions want to find the body for their own purposes.

The morgue attendant is killed after this and the puzzle becomes why is this body so important? The book was made into a 1938 movie. Good luck with finding a copy of that one. Latimer wrote another private eye series before ending up a script writer for the Perry Mason show in the 1950s. These books have been frequently reprinted so you can snatch up a copy at 1936 prices.

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