Denver private investigator and author Colleen Collins (@writingPIs) shares her picks for best detective fiction of the year.
by Colleen Collins
I’m a private investigator who enjoys reading about her fictional counterparts in detective stories. I’ve also written novels in the private eye genre, been honored to judge novels for the Private Eye Writers of America, and conducted workshops and written articles about writing plausible PIs. Obviously I dig the genre, and was delighted when Pursuit Magazine invited me to share some of my favorite 2018 detective books.
I included several sub-genres, from historical to noir to farce, as well as an anthology of short stories, to cover different reading tastes. As in the real world, some of these fictional PIs take jobs in related fields, such as security. Although most stories feature private investigators, a few feature protagonists who also conduct investigations, such as reporters. There is no ranking in the order; books are sorted alphabetically by author.
There’s a lot of talented authors crafting compelling detective fiction out there, from first-time authors to seasoned professionals, so let’s get started:
Atkins, a former Pulitzer-nominated crime reporter, and New York Times bestselling author, also writes novels featuring Robert B. Parker’s iconic Boston private eye Spenser. Actually, Robert B. Parker’s estate has selected several authors to write Robert B. Parker novels—for me, Atkins is the best. He flawlessly captures Spenser’s breezy, street-smart style (Old Black Magic is Atkins’s seventh Spenser novel). Spenser deals with black market art dealers, shady murders, grudge-bearing cops in this brisk-paced, tightly plotted novel.
For readers who like lighthearted, campy capers, Naughty on Ice is for you. This series by Maia Chance (doctorate in 19th century New England writing, btw) features socialite-turned-PI Lola Woodby and her Swedish-cook-turned sidekick PI, Berta, in this prohibition-era whodunit. Lola and Berta receive a mysterious Christmas card, signed “Anonymous,” requesting their investigative skills to retrieve an antique ring at a family party in Vermont. Their PI agency is in New York, Vermont is a hop-skip away, plus nothing bad ever happens in Vermont, right?, so off they go to the family party. Something a real-world PI would never do (a promised retainer from “Anonymous”?), but this genre is all about a fun, frothy escape from reality. There are laugh-out-loud moments as Lola and Berta deal with a poisoned party hostess, a cranky police detective who’s not overly thrilled with their roles as PIs, and a clever murderer.
This new series kicks off with LAPD Detective Renee Ballard finding ex-LAPD detective Harry Bosch rummaging through LAPD cold case files, a no-no procedurally, of course. But Ballard, drawn to the cold case, ends up joining forces with Bosch. Some readers haven’t liked the Ballard character and/or the growing (steamy) relationship between her and Bosch, and some think it’s time for Bosch to cash it in (one reader called him a “geriatric Batman”). I, however, think this relationship between two top-of-their-game investigators adds a freshness to the Bosch series. Sure, he’s getting older, but that can open new facets of Bosch’s personality (Bosch as Ballard’s mentor?). Fast-paced, great characters, authentic police procedural.
Marilyn Stasio, New York Times crime fiction critic, sums up Nightown, the seventh novel in the Junior Bender, Hollywood burglar-turned-PI, series: “Exceedingly funny…this one’s good for what ails you.” Story kicks off with Junior breaking his hard and fast rule to never take a job that pays too much when he accepts $50,000 to retrieve an antique doll from a recently deceased 97-year-old woman’s mansion, but when his friend and fellow-burglar Lumia White Antelope finds the doll, it’s cut open, and whatever his client wanted: gone. Which leads to the murder of Lumia, for whom Junior seeks revenge while trying not to add to the body count himself. Wickedly clever dialogue, well-plotted story, and out-there characters who at times steal the show—all make Nightown another hilariously memorable Junior Bender caper.
Fifteen original private eye short stories, set in different locales, written by top-notch mystery authors. The editors, Paul D. Marks and Andrew McAleer, said their publishing goal was to “introduce or reintroduce readers to the art of short detective fiction,” of which this anthology offers a sumptuous sampling, from hardboiled to noir to psychological thriller. It has also garnered an impressive array of nominations and awards this year, including Coast to Coast being shortlisted for the 2018 Best Anthology Anthony Award; and the story “Windward” by Paul D. Marks earning the 2018 Macavity Award and being selected for inclusion in Best American Mysteries 2018.
Mosley has a way of infusing his stories with emotional, spiritual depth while lacing it with cold, real-world issues like racism, prison-industrial complex, and political corruption. Down the River Unto the Sea is Mosley’s 53rd novel, in which he introduces a new character, ex-NYPD investigator Joe King Oliver, who spent three months in prison after being framed for a crime he didn’t commit. Story begins with Oliver, now a PI, working two cases: one trying to save a man falsely accused of crime, the other is Oliver trying to repair an injustice in his own past. His journey is filled with colorful characters, violence, corruption, but also redemption. A soulful, hard-boiled PI tale.
Osborne is the third author tapped by Chandler’s estate to step into the shoes of Philip Marlowe for one last walk down those mean streets. “At first I was loathe to do it,” recalled Osborne. “I thought the whole franchise thing was ridiculous…You’re always going to be criticized by either reviewers or die-hard Chandler fans.” (“Lawrence Osborne does Raymond Chandler quite well, thank you,” Los Angeles Times). So far this year, Only to Sleep is a New York Times Notable Book 2018 and an NPR Best Book of 2018. Story starts with a long-retired Marlowe, 72, sipping sundowners at his local bar (“I never knew retirement could be so sad”). Soon though, he’s wooed back into the shamus game and works a murder case with its twists and turns, femme fatales, and double-crossers. It’s also a bittersweet, often lyrical, tale of aging, nostalgia, and regrets. A fitting good-bye to Marlowe.
Tighten your seatbelt when you start reading Light It Up because you’re in for an adrenaline-spiked ride. Peter Ash, a combat veteran struggling with PTSD, works for a Denver security company that protects and transports large cash transfers for cannabis businesses. Being a Denverite, I can vouch that the story kicks off with a realistic, lucrative crime: the heist of massive amounts of cash from a dispensary. (Although marijuana is legal in Colorado, it remains illegal federally, so marijuana businesses cannot open bank accounts, which are federally insured and federally regulated institutions). Tightly plotted, fast-paced, three-dimensional characters, killer storytelling.
Set in 1888, witty, audacious sleuth Veronica Speedwell is like a Sherlock with her enigmatic Watson-esque sidekick, Doctor Revelstoke “Stoker” Templeton-Vane. Veronica Speedwell is a hoot—smart, sassy, ahead of her time. She and Stoker travel to Egypt to track down a stolen diadem from the tomb of an Egyptian princess, the theft purportedly unleashing the princess’s ancient, vengeful curse. Not only does Veronica face a case plagued with conspiracies and threats, she also battles shadowy figures from Stoker’s past, who are intent on destroying her colleague.
Vancouver PI Dave Wakelund is a former cop turned PI, an archetype often found in hard-boiled private eye stories—also an archetype many readers seek in PI stories, and which Sam Wiebe writes exceptionally well. Similar to Mosley’s Down the River Unto the Sea (also on this list), Wakelund handles two cases in this story: find a brilliant college student gone missing along with a large sum of money, and help his ex-girlfriend with an internal police department conspiracy. Along the way, Wakelund confronts gangsters, corrupt cops, and a contract killer. A gritty, dark PI story with complex characters and surprising turns.
Wait, There’s More:
I wanted to add more books to the above list, but feared this article would morph into a tome, so I’ll simply list six more “read-worthy” titles, categorized by author. Again, most feature private investigators, with a few protagonists (such as the psychotherapist Daniel Rinaldi in Dennis Palumbo’s crime fiction series) who personally investigate crimes. Here we go:
The Bouncer, by David Gordon
Wrecked, by Joe Ide
Dames Fight Harder (Maggie Sullivan mysteries, book 6), by M. Ruth Myers (finalist 2018 Shamus Award Best PI Paperback)
Head Wounds, by Dennis Palumbo (Best of 2018, Thriller/Suspense category, Suspense Magazine)
Baby’s First Felony, by John Straley
Lights Out Summer, by Rich Zahradnik (winner 2018 Shamus Award Best PI Paperback Original)
Keep in mind that these lists are not meant to be an all-inclusive “best of” 2018 detective novels, but a sampling of entertaining reads. Happy Holidays!
About the author:
Colleen Collins is an award-winning author, licensed PI, and owner of North Denver Investigations, LLC.