What is it about California that makes it such rich stomping grounds for crime and mystery? Whether it’s the moody fog of San Fran or the seedy underbelly of LA, California teems with a sense of danger and lawlessness in our collective imaginations that harkens back to a burgeoning Gold Rush era full of prospectors, bandits and con men.

Here we’ve gathered a selection of mystery and noir series set in the Golden State, along with a recommended entry point. Some are old favorites and some are new arrivals, but all are part of a long tradition of California crime tales.


The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler

You can’t talk about California crime without a nod to this groundbreaking debut by one of the founding founders of the hard-boiled crime genre. Chandler’s Philip Marlowe (forever immortalized by Humphrey Bogart in the film adaptation) is a wisecracking, hard-drinking Los Angeles P.I. with a philosophical, contemplative side. On this case, he’s nonplussed by the seedy elements he encounters, which include a pornography racket, blackmail, murder and the machinations of femme fatales, which he heroically resists throughout.

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Black Money by Ross Macdonald

Speaking of hard-boiled detective novels, Ross Macdonald‘s Lew Archer series also takes place mainly in southern California. While initially derivative of Chandler’s Marlowe, Archer grew to be much more empathetic and complex as the series went on. Meanwhile, Macdonald took the genre to a new level with literary themes and more psychological depth than his predecessors. Black Money is the work Macdonald himself considered his best book, featuring an intricate plot, a grab bag of diverse informants, gambling, and a suicide that just might have been murder.

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Fair Warning by Michael Connelly

Switching gears from private investigators to investigative reporters, Connelly’s welcome return of LA journalist Jack McEvoy picks up from the events of 2009’s The Scarecrow and brings his world up to speed with current events, including the decline of McEvoy’s brand of journalism and the print newspaper medium, as well as the rise of fake news. The story centers on consumer DNA tests and the information security issues surrounding them, particularly those created by secondary markets for this data. Into this unregulated space come some bad actors, including “incels” whose misogynist, misplaced rage is anything but harmless. A serial killer is marking and tracking his victims with the help of such genetic data; it’s a plausible, if chilling, premise. Read Casey Barrett’s full review here.

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Ballast Point Breakdown by Corey Lynn Fayman

Guitar-playing CA private detective Rolly Waters makes for a refreshing change of pace from all this grit. Fayman aptly describes him as “A cozy hero living in a noir world.” In this installment of the mystery series, when a speedboat hurtles across San Diego Bay and crashes a farewell party for the Navy’s top-secret Dolphin Divers program, all hell breaks loose. A woman crawls from the ensuing inferno and screams her last words – “Arion has returned!” As Rolly races against the authorities to find out who “Arion” may be, he uncovers tantalizing connections between missing diver Butch Fleetwood, a crusading journalist, a celebrity artist, a punk rock singer, a radical animal-rights organization, and the dead woman’s own dysfunctional family. We won’t reveal the ending here, but shocking secrets are unleashed in a climactic showdown that takes place in a ruined casino on a deserted Mexican island. Read more about the book in our interview with the author here.

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Tie Die by Max Tomlinson

Moving further into rock n’ roll noir, this entry into Tomlinson’s Colleen Hayes mystery series has our heroine helping has-been rock star, Steve Cook, find his kidnapped daughter Melanie. Set in 1970s San Francisco and venturing across the ocean to London for a few chapters, the charged time period lends the storyline an underlying tension and uneasiness. Once you add the music industry, rife with secrets and provocations, and protagonists with more than a few skeletons in their closets, the stage is set for something electrifying; happily, the consequent performance never disappoints.  Read Judy Moreno’s full review here.

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The Heartless by David Putnam

Time to throw a police procedural into our mix. Putnam’s seventh novel about the world of Los Angeles County officer Bruno Johnson involves a hunt for escaped convicts through the meanest streets of Los Angeles. The conflict between Bruno and the bad guy, a sociopathic escaped killer with a foot fetish named Louis Barkow, is only scaffolding around a rich, surprising and more intimate story about the battle raging inside Bruno’s own head. It’s an all-too-human mess of guilt, survival instincts, rage and regrets tied to a rapidly deteriorating relationship with his teenage daughter, Olivia, that would break any parent’s heart. Read Dennis Hetzel’s full review here.

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