10 Mystery Novels As Gritty As 'True Detective'

by Catherine Kovach

I can't get enough of a good fictional death: the stranger, the better. It isn't as though I hang around reading obituaries online in the hopes of finding something that catches my fancy... but let's just say that if the Wikipedia list of unusual deaths were a bar, everyone inside would know my name by now.

That, however, is empty calories compared to the satisfaction I get from watching a highly competent, but ultimately dysfunctional detective bring creative murderers to justice. From Criminal Minds to Hannibal, it's just my thing. That's why when Season 1 of True Detective premiered, I was hooked. Strange, ritualistic murder? Check. Incredibly intriguing meme-worthy detective tormented by more internal demons than a Dante's Inferno-themed message board? Check. Although Season 2 hasn't gotten the same fanatical response as the first season did, it's still being watched, theorized about, and discussed. We still love our hopeless, existential mysteries.

If you’re addicted to the grit and darkness prevalent in True Detective, this list is here for you. In fact, these 10 books have more grit than a Southern diner, if they were any grittier, birds would eat them to help with their digestion. So, put on your fedora, pour yourself a bracing glass of scotch, and prepare to dive into these dark and murderous tales. Will you be able to solve the mystery before the detective does?

The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett

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The Maltese Falcon is more commonly known as one of the great staples of the film noir movement, but was originally a novel published in 1929. Sam Spade, the main character, would eventually rise to become one of the most iconic detectives in the entire genre. This book has everything: arson, torture, poisoning, seduction for power, a dead partner, femme fatales. Sam Spade sets the tone for what a true detective really is; dedicated to his honor at the expense of everything else, he’s a proto-Rust Cohle, if you will.

The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler

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When it comes to film noir, if you aren’t thinking of Sam Spade, you’re thinking of Philip Marlowe. The Big Sleep was his debut into the world of Los Angeles noir, a setting that True Detective is currently inhabiting. When Marlowe is hired to find the missing son-in-law of a reclusive millionaire, he find that he’s bitten off more than he can chew. This story may be the basis of The Big Lebowski, but it's no joke. Full of terrible murders, women being drugged and blackmailed, this detective novel has more twists and turns than the Angeles Crest Highway.

Night Train by Martin Amis

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Detective Mike Hoolihan may be hardboiled, but she’s no private dick. Facing down a past of sexual abuse that exacerbates her alcoholism and causes her to pursue unhealthy relationships with abusive men (as if there can be any other kind), Mike may have the most grit on this list. (And she might be just as cool as Ani Bezzerides.) If you enjoy character studies and ruminating on chaos theory, Night Train is definitely the existential detective novel for you.

The Sins of the Fathers by Lawrence Block

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After a hooker is found butchered in an apartment in Greenwich Village and the only suspect hangs himself in his jail cell, the murder case is considered closed. When the victim's stepfather doesn't believe it, he hires someone to figure it all out. Enter Matt Scudder, an alcoholic ex-cop obsessed with mortality after accidentally causing the death of a young girl. Working as an unlicensed private detective out of Hell’s Kitchen, our hero studies the meaning of loneliness and anguish in a way that’s quintessentially New York.

Nineteen Seventy-Four by David Peace

One of the more recent entries into the genre, Nineteen Seventy-Four is the first of a quartet of books featuring a serial killer called the Yorkshire Ripper. Following Edward Dunford, a jaded crime correspondent working out of Yorkshire, England, he takes it upon himself the crack the case of a missing girl named Clare Kemplay, hoping to find her dead or alive before Christmas. Unfortunately she’s found brutally murdered with a pair of swan wings sewn into her back. Fans of the crime staging in the first season of True Detective will enjoy the imagery, while the minimalist prose gets darker and darker, leading up to a conclusion that has to be read to be believed. It’s not necessary to read the rest of the quartet, but it’s highly recommended.

The Alienist by Caleb Carr

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An unusual entry into the gritty detective genre, but nevertheless worthy, The Alienist is set in 1896’s New York, opening with the gruesome murder of a male-to-female transgender prostitute. Called in to investigate the murder is Dr. Laszlo Kreizler, an alienist (an archaic term for a psychologist) who fills the role as our eccentric detective. Although steeped in history (Theodore Roosevelt fills the role as the grizzled police commissioner), this mystery novel still touches on many relevant issues today: focusing on the plight of transgender sex workers and how violence against them is often ignored.

Kiss the Girls by James Patterson

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Many may remember the movie adaptation of this novel: Detective Alex Cross is called to investigate the rape and murder of a woman out in the woods of North Carolina, only to uncover two serial “collectors”, men who stalk and kidnap exceptional women to keep confined in their “collections”. While the film is chilling on its own, the novel expands even further on the horror, featuring a scene with a woman and a snake that just may make your stomach turn. While Alex Cross may not be as hardboiled as many of the others on this list, what he faces is as dark as it comes.

L.A. Confidential by James Ellroy

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For those who are absolutely loving the California noir in True Detective's Season 2, L.A. Confidential is one of the longest epic detective novels out there. Set in 1950’s Los Angeles, this novel follows a trio of detectives almost as corrupt as the criminals they are trying to fine. As each attempts to solve the Nite Owl Killings, a horrific sextuple homicide that originally looked like a botched coffee shop robbery, they are dragged into the seedy underbelly of Tinseltown; featuring drugs, murder, and prostitutes surgically altered to look like Hollywood starlets.

The Last Good Kiss by James Crumley

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With a writing style described by The New York Times as being the offspring of Raymond Chandler and Hunter S. Thompson, James Crumley’s gritty post-Vietnam war books were never bestsellers, instead enjoying a cult following. The Last Good Kiss follows alcoholic(seeing a theme here?) ex-army investigator C.W. Sughrue who has been on the trail of a missing girl for the past decade, and kills time by working in a topless bar in Montana. When C.W. is hired to track down an author before he drinks himself to death, he’s sent on a 300-page booze-soaked mystery full of depraved violence. The most famous part of the novel is the first line, which is right up there with “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again."

Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem

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It could be argued (by me) that True Detective is an homage to the old gritty detective story, and Motherless Brooklyn is right there beside it. Tourette-Syndrome-and-OCD-afflicted Lionel Essrog works as a detective for a low level mafia member with three of his friends — all veterans of the St. Vincent's Home for Boys— life was working out pretty well for them... until their boss shows up dead and they need to solve the murder. Notable due to having a complex mentally ill protagonist, Motherless Brooklyn might be the most self-aware book on the list.

Image: Lacey Terrell/HBO