In the spirit of exploring crime novels set in and around Los Angeles, a city where noir is instinctive and eerily resplendent, here are 20 essential books that rouse the darker angels of our metropolis.
The stories vary in tone, style and subject. But the canon, which includes two nonfiction books, is a starting point for a conversation on crime writing and how it has informed a city driven by myth, desire and the cruel realities between. The collection was compiled with help from writers, readers, critics and local booksellers.
The list has familiar names and some not so, but the books have left a mark, a fingerprint, if you will, on a crime genre that since the days of Raymond Chandler has become distinctive and at times revelatory.
Here’s the list in no particular order. Argue, replace, add at will:
“The Big Sleep” by Raymond Chandler. A classic mystery of blackmail and murder, this novel gave the world Philip Marlowe, the hard-boiled, quick-witted, proud, ever-suspicious private eye. Marlowe, enshrined in film by Humphrey Bogart, became so much a part of Chandler’s imagination that the author once noted: “It begins to look as though I were tied to this fellow for life.”
“The Long Goodbye” by Raymond Chandler. Marlowe’s back again in a dangerous friendship with hard drinker Terry Lennox. Tinged with sadness and loss, it is one of Chandler’s most personal novels, inspiring a 1973 film of the same name directed by Robert Altman. “I read this novel every five years or so and it surprises me in new ways every time,” said crime novelist T. Jefferson Parker. “It’s an almost perfect fusion of voice and story — funny, mean, tragic. Chandler will always be the linchpin of L.A. noir to me. Certainly, the most imitated.”
“True Confessions” by John Gregory Dunne. Catholicism and murder propel this novel based on the real-life Black Dahlia slaying in 1947. Faith, politics, organized crime and shaded moralities haunt postwar Los Angeles, viscerally exposing the lie that this city of perpetual sun and stray breezes is paradise. That revelation is an unsettling whisper; it is also a key ingredient to the best L.A. noir novels. A 1981 film version starred Robert De Niro and Robert Duvall. “Its mix of L.A. history and good old-fashioned intrigue opened my eyes to the notion that mystery novels could be about more than ‘who did it,’” says author and book critic Paula L. Woods.
“The Onion Field” by Joseph Wambaugh. A true crime thriller about two cops who were kidnapped by ex-cons and driven to an onion field near Bakersfield, where one of them was killed and the other escaped. A former member of the LAPD, Wambaugh wrote in a bracing style, and the book was compared to Truman Capote’s landmark “In Cold Blood.” So much so that Capote said of it: “A fascinating account of a double tragedy: one physical, the other psychological.” Wambaugh’s crime fiction is equally compelling.
“In a Lonely Place” by Dorothy B. Hughes. This story of a strangler attacking women across Los Angeles is told, like so many crime novels, through a man’s perspective. A poisonous one at that. But it is written by a woman and was published in postwar 1947, when gender roles in American society were being recast. Or at least beginning to be. Some have credited it as an early feminist voice. NPR said Hughes “belongs in the crime-writing pantheon with male icons like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler.”
“The Grifters” by Jim Thompson. A classic look at the dark consequences of the art of the con, especially when your mother’s in the mix. It’s a story of noticing and reacting, of spinning deceptions and façades, much like L.A. itself. “I was a weak, introverted, vulnerable schoolboy,” observed novelist Joe Ide. “That I could be like [protagonist] Roy Dillon and handle life by my wits was hope. Inspiration. It meant that there was a way for a kid like me to face his world and not be afraid.”
“Black Dahlia” by James Ellroy. A sprawling, wild-voiced novel based on the infamous killing and mutilation of Elizabeth Short. L.A. feels so gritty it needs a shower. Centering on two ex-boxer cops, Bucky Bleichert and Lee Blanchard, the brooding, bizarre tale of obsession brims with swagger and attitude. “High-intensity prose,” wrote Elmore Leonard. “Reading it aloud could shatter your wine glasses.”
“L.A. Confidential” by James Ellroy. An unseemly look at heroin, sex, corruption and L.A. cops, or as the headline for The Times’ 1990 review called it, “Depravity in Dreamland.” The review goes on to note: “Almost everybody in ‘L.A. Confidential’ dies. Those who don’t wish they had. ... Only the ungrateful deceased are permitted to rest — in pieces, most likely; in hell for sure. For the living, it’s just a question of time.”
“The Black Echo” by Michael Connelly. Harry Bosch, a Vietnam vet turned LAPD detective, investigates the death of a fellow soldier, which leads him to a bank heist and pairs him with lovely FBI agent Eleanor Wish. This debut novel marked the beginning of a stunning arc that includes more than 20 Bosch books and Connelly’s enduring fascination with Los Angeles and all the things that go unrequited.
“The Last Coyote” by Michael Connelly. Bosch investigates the decades-old unsolved murder of his mother. "[This] is the fourth Harry Bosch book,” said Times reporter Maria L. La Ganga. “We know enough about him to know there’s one mystery he has not been able to solve: Who killed his mother 30 years earlier. This is the novel in Connelly’s lengthy and ongoing series that lets us watch Bosch dig into his own heart and history.”
“Devil in a Blue Dress” by Walter Mosley. Welcome to the world of Easy Rawlins, a black WWII vet turned private investigator who upended the notion that only white guys play leads in the crime genre. Rawlins draws us into another L.A. “‘Devil in a Blue Dress’ honors the hard-boiled tradition of Hammett/Chandler/Cain in its story line and attitude, but Mosley takes us down some mean streets that his spiritual predecessors never could have because they were white,” said The Times review. “The insightful scenes of black life in 1948 provide a sort of social history that doesn’t exist in other detective fiction, and they lend an ambiance that heightens this story of crime and violence.”
“IQ” by Joe Ide. A young, smart, Sherlock Holmes-like sleuth is set loose in Long Beach. Ide’s ear for dialogue and vernacular is crystal sharp, turning conversations with rappers and opportunists into hilarious and affecting scenes across a diverse landscape. Protagonist Isaiah Quintabe, who prefers thought to muscle, is the voice of what the New York Times has called a “madly lovable new detective series.”
“Get Shorty” by Elmore Leonard. Wiseguy Chili Palmer drops in on Hollywood and wants to make a movie. The book is sly, funny and cruel in a single breath. “What makes it an indelible bit of L.A. crime writing is that Leonard takes the essential grift of the studio system and drops a real bad guy in the middle of it,” said author Tod Goldberg. “Turns out Chili Palmer has more ethics and a better code of conduct than your average producer.”
“Double Indemnity” by James M. Cain. Ahhh, what could be more American: seduction, insurance fraud and murder. The wife, a posh femme fatale, buys a policy on her husband and suddenly doesn’t want him around. Deception and false love cut deep. The novel was turned into an instant classic film directed by Billy Wilder and starring Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray.
“Southland” by Nina Revoyr. A Japanese American woman investigates the life of her grandfather. It is the kind of saga that often epitomizes and shocks L.A. — friction and violence between races and cultures. “An extraordinary novel that lays out the history of two families in the Crenshaw district — one black, one Japanese — between the 1930s and the 1990s,” said novelist Steph Cha. “Its focal point is a tragic mystery, the deaths of four black boys during the chaotic days of the 1965 Watts rebellion.”
“The Moving Target” by Ross Macdonald. Private detective Lew Archer looks for a lost millionaire in a fictionalized Santa Barbara. Macdonald was a noir master, his voice like a guy sitting next to you in a car, making observations. The opening page reads: “A Rolls with a doll at the wheel went by us like a gust of wind, and I felt unreal. The light blue haze in the lower canyon was like a thin smoke from slowly burning money.”
“The Tattooed Soldier” by Héctor Tobar. The violence of Guatemala haunts Los Angeles when refugee Antonio Bernal glimpses a tattoo like those worn by death squad members in his native land. Even in L.A., or maybe especially in L.A., the past cannot be entirely escaped. “The L.A. Riots and the brutal Guatemalan civil war are entwined tragedies,” said novelist Jervey Tervalon. “A necessary read to understand where we are as a city and a country.”
“Your House Will Pay” by Steph Cha. The lives of Korean American and African American families collide in a story of race, rage and history. There are feelings of redemption and retribution, of crimes that haunt, and sins that can’t be washed away. The novel, said Michael Connelly, is “a refreshing, new take on L.A. from a writer who is part of a new generation trying to make sense of this melting pot of people, ideas and experiences.”
“No Human Involved” by Barbara Seranella. Prostitute and drug addict Munch Mancini — what a glorious name — bumps up against a murder investigation. “‘No Human Involved’ kicked off Barbara’s excellent series — if there’s someone at Netflix reading this, please go option these forgotten classics before I do it myself — and revealed a life of crime where the victims were rarely cared about,” said crime novelist Tod Goldberg.
“Helter Skelter” by Vincent Bugliosi. A look at the life and murderous times of Charles Manson by the prosecutor who tried him for a killing spree that included the stabbing of actress Sharon Tate. The book has been praised and criticized for its tone and style, but it has endured for capturing a gruesome, unforgettable moment that forced L.A. — and the nation — to look beyond its myths to its cruel realities.