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Mean Streets: Hard Boiled Fiction


Founding Fathers

James M. Cain
Cain X 3
James M. Cain (1892-1971) learned journalism from H.L. Mencken and Walter Lippman. While he was unsuccessful as a screenwriter, movie adaptations of his popular and critically acclaimed novels helped create the film noir genre.

In three novels that became screen classics—The Postman Always Rings Twice, Mildred Pierce, and Double Indemnity—Cain explores the dark side of human passions in tough American language.

Raymond Chandler
The Big Sleep (In Stories and Early Novels)

Born in Chicago but raised in England, Raymond Chandler (1888-1959) served in the Canadian Army, then became an oil company executive in L.A. He sold his first story to Black Mask magazine in 1933 and published this first Philip Marlowe novel six years later.

General Sternwood hires Philip Marlowe to find out about a blackmail attempt concerning the younger of his two wild daughters. But what he really wants to know is what happened to his older daughter’s husband, Rusty Regan.

Dashiell Hammett
The Maltese Falcon (In The Novels of Dashiell Hammett)

Dashiell Hammett (1894-1961) turned his experience as a Pinkerton agent into crime fiction for Black Mask and other pulp magazines, perfecting his spare writing style in short stories before publishing his first novel, Red Harvest, in 1929.

Neither Sam Spade nor his partner Miles Archer believes the story their female client tells them, but only Archer turns up dead. Investigating his death introduces Spade to a group of competing crooks, all ruthlessly pursuing a mysterious statue of a black bird.


The Next Generation

John D. MacDonald
The Scarlet Ruse

MacDonald (1916-1986) moved crime out of the big city and down to Fort Lauderdale, where his hero lives on his boat, The Busted Flush.

Travis McGee’s friend Meyer talks him into helping a stamp-dealer friend who has had a seemingly impossible switch pulled on him—a dangerous customer’s valuable stamps, kept in a safe-deposit box, have been replaced with worthless duplicates.

Ross Macdonald
The Blue Hammer

Macdonald (1915-1983) named his hero after Sam Spade’s partner; this was changed to Harper when Paul Newman filmed two novels as Harper and The Drowning Pool.

Hired to trace a stolen painting, ex-cop Lew Archer finds his seemingly straightforward case involves family relationships and questions of identity that stretch back 30 years.

Ross Thomas
Chinaman’s Chance

Thomas (1926-1995) wrote two series, one about sophisticated “professional troubleshooter” Philip St. Ives and one about Cold War espionage, as well as stand-alone crime caper stories noted for plot twists.

When wealthy Californian Randall Piers needs help finding his sister-in-law, hiding out after the questionable death of her married Congressman lover, he hires tough Quincy Durant and his partner Artie Wu, who may actually be, as he claims, heir to the Chinese throne.


The Distaff Side: The Big Three Women Authors

Sue Grafton
“A” Is for Alibi: a Kinsey Milhone mystery

Grafton (b. 1940) grew up with crime—her lawyer father wrote three mysteries—and became a writer for film and television as well as the author of the best-selling alphabet series.

Santa Teresa, California P.I. Kinsey Milhone thinks Nikki Fife, just released from prison after serving time for killing her husband, must be innocent—otherwise, why would she ask Kinsey to discover the true killer?

CASS FIC MULLER (Book on cassette)
Marcia Muller
Edwin of the Iron Shoes
Muller (b. 1944), credited with creating the first modern American female private detective, writes three series with strong women investigators, all set in California. Married to Bill Pronzini.

Sharon McCone, investigator for a San Francisco legal cooperative, returns to Salem Street where she had previously looked into vandalism. Now, an antiques shop owner has been murdered, and she has to work with condescending police lieutenant Greg Marcus.

CASS FIC PARETSKY (Book on cassette)
Sara Paretsky

Blood Shot
One of the founders and first president of Sisters in Crime, Paretsky (b. 1947) uses her business background in the V. I. Warshawski series that began in 1982 with Indemnity Only, titled after James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity.

When her childhood friend Caroline asks Chicago investigator Warshawski to find her unknown father, the search ranges from the decaying industrial South Side to the posh Gold Coast, and results in the death of another friend who was trying to clean up industrial pollution in the old neighborhood.


Modern Mean

(Book on casette)
Robert Crais
L.A. Requiem
After a television-writing career that included an Emmy nomination for Hill Street Blues, Crais (b. 1953) turned to writing novels and won all four mystery-writing awards.

When her father brings Elvis Cole and his ex-cop partner Joe Pike into the police investigation of a young woman’s murder, Pike’s long-standing antagonistic relationship with the lead detective is just one of the dangers to their personal and professional lives.

Loren D. Estleman
The Witchfinder

Known for historical westerns and the Detroit Chronicles as well as mysteries, Estleman can be considered a successor to Raymond Chandler in his sense of place, descriptive language, and humor.

A dying architect, considered a national treasure, hires Detroit P.I. Amos Walker to discover who framed his fiancée eight years before. Walker, in classic hard-boiled style, pieces together the clues from two murders and a disappearing witness despite suffering a bullet wound.

Bill Pronzini
Quarry: a “Nameless Detective” mystery

Prolific in several genres, Pronzini (b. 1943) has edited many anthologies and collaborated with many authors, including his wife, Marcia Muller.

“Nameless” thinks Salinas Valley rancher Arlo Haas needs a psychiatrist rather than a detective when his daughter Grady shows up acting strangely withdrawn. But when “Nameless” finds Grady’s apartment ransacked and her boyfriend beaten, he knows her troubles are all too real.

Les Roberts
The Lake Effect: a Mike Jacovich mystery

A Hollywood writer and producer, jazz musician, and gourmet cook, Roberts also finds time to write two mystery series, one set in Cleveland and one in L.A.

Cleveland P.I. Jacovich reluctantly honors his commitment to return a favor to mob heir Victor Gaimari. But why is wheeler-dealer Gaimari supporting suburban mayoral candidate Barbara Corns, and how is he connected to the hit-and-run death of her opponent’s wife?

Richard Stark

Strange, but true: very hard-boiled Richard Stark is really Donald E. Westlake, known for his comic thief Dortmunder novels.

Professional thief Parker thinks something’s odd when an ex-bureaucrat helps him set up a theft from a new Hudson River gambling ship, but even he is unprepared for how wrong things go.


Mean Fun

Marcia Muller and Bill Pronzini
The husband and wife authors pair their detectives, “Nameless” and Sharon McCone, at a P.I. convention that produces mysteries of its own.

Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe: A Centennial Celebration

After you’ve read all of Raymond Chandler, trace Marlowe’s career in these short stories, as some of today’s best mystery writers recreate “the man who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.”


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