This list reflects the rankings of all 174 lists published as of February 1, 2021. It is unchanged from the version in the published book.
1. The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler (1953). Chandler’s sardonic and chivalric gumshoe Philip Marlowe winds up in jail when he refuses to betray a client to the Los Angeles police investigating the murder of a wealthy woman. Marlowe’s incorruptibility and concentration on the case are challenged even more when the obsessively independent private eye falls in love, apparently for the first time, with a different rich and sexy woman. She proposes marriage, but he puts her off, claiming he feels “like a pearl onion on a banana split” among her set.
2. The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson (1952). Everyone in the small town of Central City, Texas loves Lou Ford. A deputy sheriff, Lou's known to the small-time criminals, the real-estate entrepreneurs, and all of his coworkers—the low-lifes, the big-timers, and everyone in-between -- as the nicest guy around. He may not be the brightest or the most interesting man in town, but nevertheless, he's the kind of officer you're happy to have keeping your streets safe. The sort of man you might even wish your daughter would end up with someday. But behind the platitudes and glad-handing lurks a monster the likes of which few have seen. An urge that has already claimed multiple lives, and cost Lou his brother Mike, a self-sacrificing construction worker fell to his death on the job in what was anything but an accident. A murder that Lou is determined to avenge—and if innocent people have to die in the process, well, that's perfectly all right with him.
3. Red Dragon by Thomas Harris (1981). Imitation is the most annoying form of flattery for archfiend Dr. Hannibal Lecter in this terrifying predecessor to The Silence of the Lambs. Red Dragon describes the original capture of cannibalistic serial killer Lecter and his subsequent indignation on hearing that another monster is imitating his sadistic methods. Harris skillfully leaves open who is manipulating whom when Lecter agrees to help the FBI track down the copycat, who matches Lecter eye for eye—literally.
4. The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler (1939). This is the first novel featuring hard-boiled Los Angeles private eye Philip Marlowe, a tough guy with a fast gun and a quick wit. Noting that he “was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it,” Marlowe goes to work for a dying L.A. oil tycoon whose two lusty daughters have fallen prey to an array of drug dealers, pornographers, and bootleggers intent on separating the old man from his money.
5. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John Le Carré (1974). This is the first novel in Le Carré’s Karla trilogy featuring aging, meticulous, self-effacing British spy George Smiley. Smiley is called out of forced retirement to root out a traitorous “mole” placed in the London headquarters of British intelligence by Soviet spymaster Karla. Working alone and without his agency’s resources for fear of alerting the mole, Smiley methodically sets about unmasking his quarry in this quintessential Cold War cloak-and-dagger yarn.
6. The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett (1930). Shortly after San Francisco private eye Sam Spade accepts a case from a beautiful and mysterious young woman, his partner, Miles Archer, is killed. Though Spade despised him, his code of honor compels him to solve Archer’s murder. As the two cases intersect, Spade finds himself involved with an eccentric assortment of thugs and con men, all in search of the titular black statue of a falcon said to be worth millions.
7. Mildred Pierce by James M. Cain (1941). After shedding her philandering, unemployed husband, Mildred Pierce works menial jobs to support her two children before discovering a gift for making and selling pies in Depression-era California. She’s a strong woman with two fatal flaws — an attraction to weak men and blind devotion to her monstrously selfish daughter Veda. These weaknesses join to form a perfect storm of betrayal and murder in this hard-boiled tale.
8. The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain (1934). An amoral young tramp. A beautiful, sullen woman with an inconvenient husband. A problem that has only one grisly solution—a solution that only creates other problems that no one can ever solve. When a drifter enters her roadside diner, a sexy young woman imagines a new life. Together they plot the murder of her boorish husband in this noir classic, in which spare prose and desperate characters raise dime-store pulp to an art form.
9. The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris (1988). Dr. Hannibal “the Cannibal” Lecter is a deranged serial killer and a brilliant psychiatrist — who better to help the FBI profile psychos like Buffalo Bill, who loves peeling the skin off his lovely young victims? So the Bureau dispatches Clarice Starling, a smart, charming, slightly vulnerable agent, to Lecter’s prison cell. While playing mind games with Clarice, Lecter provides her with strange but telling clues, which she pursues against her superiors’ wishes and the clock ticking out the seconds for Buffalo Bill’s next victim.
10. Everybody Pays by Andrew Vachss (1999). A master of the amped-up, neonoir style, whose work reflects a deep concern with child abuse and a taste for raw vengeance, Vachss offers here forty-four stomach-churning stories featuring prostitutes and pederasts, neo-Nazis and savage punks, hit men and kidnappers, who inhabit a world where merciless street justice provides the only brake on evil.