According to a 2012 study by the National Endowment for the Arts, women read more fiction than men. The survey, which polled more than 37,000 Americans, concluded that 55% of women are fiction readers, compared to 33% of men.
Because supply follows demand, bookstores and bestsellers lists have seen an uptick in fiction with female protagonists: the Hunger Games and Divergent sagas, the Fifty Shades series, Gone Girl, and The Girl on the Train, just to name a few.
Now, mind you, this translates into some terrific opportunities for women authors, and I wouldn’t dream of begrudging them. But I’m here to implore you guy readers (because I know you’re out there): Step your game up! There are plenty of compelling, well-written books out there. Check out this list, then pick one up!
Richard Stark is the pseudonym for the late author Donald Westlake, who passed away in 2008 at the age of 75. Under his given name, Westlake wrote humorous crime novels featuring John Dortmunder, who has been called “the most clever and least lucky thief in crime fiction.” Under the Stark name, he wrote twenty-four novels highlighting Parker, the laconic, all-business, seemingly emotionless master thief who sometimes is forced to kill his way out of trouble. Parker is the ultimate anti-hero: a guy you probably wouldn’t to hang out with (if he were the sort of person to “hang out”), but whom you can’t help rooting for.
Stark also wrote a handful of novel featuring Alan Grofield, an actor who supplements his income with the occasional heist.
Robert B. Parker
Parker, long considered the dean of American crime fiction, passed away in 2010 at the age of seventy-seven. He left behind a hefty body of work – nearly sixty books, thirty-nine of which featured Spenser, the Boston detective portrayed by Robert Urich in the Spenser: For Hire television series. (Ace Atkins, himself a novelist of some note, has picked up the mantle, penning an additional five Spenser novels). Spenser — ex-soldier, ex-boxer, and full-time tough guy with a heart of gold – is the rightful heir to Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade, only tougher and funnier.
Parker was also the author of three other series (featuring Jesse Stone, Sunny Randall, and partners Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch) and a handful of stand-alone novels.
Les Roberts is another well-kept secret of the guy-lit genre, perhaps because of the city in which most of his novels are set: Cleveland, a fascinating city that sometimes gets a bad rap. The author, a former actor and television writer, has penned fourteen novels showcasing his Slovenian tough-guy, private investigator Milan Jacovich (pronounced MY-lan YOCK-o-vich, thank you very much). Divorced, balding, and carrying too many pounds as he approaches middle age, Jacovich isn’t your typical private eye. He has two sons whom he doesn’t get to see often enough. He has a complicated relationship with his ex-wife, and an even more complicated one with the D’Allesandro crime family, particularly their scion, the stylish ladies’ man Victor Gaimari. Roberts’ novels aren’t as action-packed as, say, those of Robert Crais or Lee Child, but Milan Jacovich is probably the most relatable private eye in bookstores today.
The youngest author on this list, Dennis Lehane is the author of the Patrick Kenzie/Angie Gennaro detective series, as well as several highly popular stand-alone novels. Shutter Island, Mystic River, Gone, Baby, Gone, The Drop, and Live by Night have all been made into major motion pictures.
One of Lehane’s greatest strengths character development. Kenzie and Gennaro are childhood friends and neighborhood kids who do most of their investigation in their south Boston ‘hood, on behalf of friends and acquaintances. Their pal, Bubba Rogowski, is one of the most engaging sidekicks in detective fiction, besides being a criminal and a bigot. Bubba hates everyone but Kenzie and Gennaro, and it is a testament to Lehane’s skills as a writer that you can’t help but like Bubba in spite of it all.
Housewright is one of crime fiction’s best-kept secrets. He is rarely mentioned alongside bigger names like John Sandford, Robert Crais and Lee Child, but he has created two private-eye series (both set in Minnesota) that are quickly gaining in popularity: The McKenzie series, featuring millionaire ex-cop Rushmore McKenzie; and the darker Holland Taylor series, featuring a hard-boiled detective who is haunted by the deaths of his wife and daughter. An Edgar Award winner and former president of the Private Eye Writers of America, Housewright has an impressive resume and a unique writing style that should endear him to lovers of the private-eye genre. He is one of the best in the game today.
Connelly is one of the modern masters of the police procedural and the creator of one of the most iconic protagonists in crime fiction. Harry Bosch, the former LAPD detective turned private investigator, is one of the most engaging characters in fiction. He’s smart, tough, wisecracking, and absolutely dogged in his pursuit of bad guys.
Andrew Vachss has had a multi-faceted career, including (but not limited to) field investigation in sexually transmitted disease, casework for the Department of Social Services, and a manager for the Department of Youth Services. These jobs gave him an in-close view of the kinds of things people are capable of doing to each other, and particularly to children. Vachss has parlayed these experiences into one of the most captivating series in American crime fiction: the Burke series.
Burke is a career criminal, a New York shadow operator and scam artist who knows the underbelly of the city like no one else. Raised in a series of abusive foster homes and juvenile facilities, Burke is as hard as nails — but with a soft spot for victimized children, and a cold spot for for the men and women who prey on them. Burke is the protagonist of eighteen Vachss novels, all blistering page-turners.
Crais, a native of Louisiana, lists Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and Robert B. Parker among his literary influences, and it shows in his writing. His detective fiction series — featuring Elvis Cole and his partner, Joe Pike –- combines classic private-eye style with a refreshing view of the modern world. Elvis Cole is a Vietnam veteran trying desperately to hold on to some of the magic of childhood while navigating the mean streets of Los Angeles. Joe Pike is the hardened ex-Marine to whom Cole turns when things get dangerous. Together they make one of the greatest partnerships of the PI genre.
Moviegoers are probably familiar with Jack Reacher, the ex-Army MP portrayed by Tom Cruise in two films. They might be slightly less familiar with Lee Child’s Reacher, the protagonist of more than 20 slam-bang action novels. Contrary to my typical advice, I would suggest that you see the movies first, then read the books. In the novels, Jack Reacher – loner, drifter, brawler, and righter of wrongs — is six feet, five inches tall and weighs two hundred fifty pounds. Tom Cruise is, well…not. The movies are enjoyable, but the lead actor is not even close to a physical match for the role. The books are much, much better.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist John Camp has written nearly fifty novels under his pseudonym, John Sandford. The Prey novels, featuring Minnesota police detective Lucas Davenport, comprise nearly thirty of his books. One of our more prolific novelists, Sandford typically writes two books a year these days: one featuring Lucas Davenport, the other showcasing an equally compelling main character. Virgil Flowers is an investigator with Minnesota’s Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, specializing in cases that are difficult, sensitive or just plain weird. Sandford has also penned four novels featuring Kidd, an artist and computer criminal, and his partner LuEllen, a brilliant and sexy cat burglar. All three series are worthy of the discerning guy-lit reader.