Best Noir Novels Set in Los Angeles

Looking for the best noir novels set in LA? Welcome to the dark and gritty world of LA Noir, where the city of angels reveals its shadowy underbelly in all its sinister glory.

the best noir novels set in Los Angeles

Noir books are all about atmosphere —the sights, the sounds, the smells of a city pulsating with danger and desire. In noir books, the streets are slick with rain, the neon lights flicker like dying stars in a smog-choked sky.

The city is teeming with corrupt cops, femme fatales with secrets as dark as midnight.

Hard-boiled private eyes walk the razor’s edge between justice and darkness. Every alleyway holds a secret and every whispered promise comes with a price.

So, what makes a great LA Noir novel?

A perfect blend of gritty realism, razor-sharp dialogue, and morally ambiguous characters navigating a world where the line between good and evil blurs like the smudged fingerprints on a whiskey tumbler.

From the sun-drenched boulevards of Hollywood to the smoke-filled speakeasies of downtown, the best LA Noir novels plunge readers into a labyrinth of intrigue and deception, where everyone has a hidden agenda and no one can be trusted.

With that said, here’s a list of LA Noir novels we love, a mix. of both classic and contemporary LA noir novels.

Black Dahlia by James Ellroy

Best LA noir novels by James Ellroy

On January 15, 1947, the tortured body of a beautiful young woman is found in a Los Angeles vacant lot.

The victim makes headlines as the Black Dahlia, and so begins the greatest manhunt in California history.

Caught up in the investigation are Bucky Bleichert and Lee Blanchard.

The pair are Warrants Squad cops, friends, and rivals in love with the same woman.

But both are obsessed with the Dahlia, driven by dark needs to know everything about her past, to capture her killer, to possess the woman even in death.

Their quest will take them on a hellish journey through the underbelly of postwar Hollywood, to the core of the dead girl’s twisted life, past the extremes of their own psyches into a region of total madness.

This is the noir novel that made James Ellroy a household name.

Today, you can still visit the Biltmore downtown, the alleged scene of the crime, and order a Black Dhalia cocktail from the bar.

The book is also the source material for a major motion picture. Check it out.

The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler

Numerous Raymond Chandler novels deserve a spot on this list, butThe Big Sleep helped to define LA Noir.

Private eye Philip Marlowe is the blueprint for many contemporary detectives.

The book remains one of the most celebrated and stylish noir novels of the twentieth century.

In The Big Sleep, a dying millionaire hires Marlowe to handle the blackmailer of one of his two troublesome daughters.

Old man Sternwood, crippled and wheelchair-bound, is being given the squeeze by a blackmailer and he wants Marlowe to make the problem go away.

But with Sternwood’s two wild, devil-may-care daughters prowling LA’s seedy backstreets, Marlowe’s got his work cut out for him.

And that’s before he stumbles over the first corpse.

Marlowe finds himself involved with more than extortion.

Kidnapping, pornography, seduction, and murder are just a few of the complications he gets caught up in.

Double Indemnity by James Cain

Double Indemnity - classic LA Nor Novel

You don’t have to understand life insurance to appreciate Double Indemnity.

Fact is, no list of top LA noir novels would be complete without James Cain’s classic novel.

Walter Huff is an insurance salesman with an unfailing instinct for clients who might be in trouble.

Instinct leads him to Phyllis Nirdlinger.

Phyllis wants to buy an accident policy on her husband.

Then she wants her husband to have an accident.

Walter wants Phyllis.

To get her, he would arrange the perfect murder…

…and betray everything he had ever lived for.

Cain’s gift for creating suspense and atmosphere with such spare prose is is something that has spawned many imitators.

A slim book that can be easily finished on a long flight, Double Indemnity is considered one of the best crime novels of all time.

It’s also the source for classic film noir in the feature, starring Barbara Stanwyck and directed by Billy Wilder.

Thin Air by Lisa Gray

The Best LA Noir Novels include Lisa Gray's Thin Air

Readers who love contemporary LA noir are in for a treat with Lisa Gray’s gripping debut novel, Thin Air

The driving force in the novel is a photograph sent anonymously to private investigator Jessica Shaw of a three-year-old girl who has been kidnapped.

The little girl, it turns out, is her.

Who sent it to her, and why?

The answers lie in the shadows of LA, where her biological mother was killed the night she was abducted, 25 years earlier.

The LAPD has forgotten all about the unsolved murder.

Meanwhile, veteran LAPD detective Jason Pryce is in the midst of a gruesome investigation into a murdered college student moonlighting as a prostitute.

A chance encounter leads to them crossing paths, but Jessica soon realizes that Pryce is hiding something about her father’s checkered history and her mother’s death.

Gray’s protagonist, Jessica Shaw, battles serious demons that will test readers’ sympathy and loyalty.

Shifting perspectives keep readers on their toes.

Those who stay on board until the final chapter are in for some terrific surprises.

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Threads by Bryan Cassiday

 A fast-paced, mesmerizing blend of classic LA noir and contemporary whodunnit.

Threads is one of the best LA noir novels

Bryan Cassiday’s fourth Scott Brody thriller finds the private investigator framed for the the murder of a controversial LA fashion designer. It doesn’t look good for Brody. The explosion that killed designer Max Reed happens not long after Brody delivers a package from local mobster Sal Andrasi, and he knows the clock is ticking before the cops bring him in for questioning. 

Early on, Cassiday delivers a delicious slice of irony as Brody risks returning to the scene of the crime (Reed was infamous for shooting fashion ads at actual murder scenes). There he finds Reed’s daughter, Megan, who is trying to get to the bombed penthouse to “examine documents.” She’s also evasive when Brody asks her about a loan shark named Rafe Calabrese. 

Meanwhile, Cassiday heightens the intrigue by expanding the lists of possible suspects. As LAPD homicide investigator George Macready and special agent Rieber note, Reed had lots of enemies, including rivals within the industry and animal rights activists. Considering the way the bomb was made and detonated – C-4, ball bearings and triggered via cell tower – they also can’t yet rule out terrorism. Could Reed have been working for the CIA? Readers of Cassiday’s Murder LLC (book two in the series) know that government conspiracies are one of the author’s favorite subjects. 

Newcomers to Cassiday’s work will find Threads a perfect series entry point. Cassiday blends classic LA noir ingredients – a sympathetic PI, shady mobsters and family intrigue – with contemporary social mores and technology. The dialogue is crisp and uncomplicated. What’s more, the plot is fast-paced yet complex enough to keep even veteran whodunnit readers guessing until the end.

But Cassiday’s finest invention may be the book’s murder victim. While we experience Reed only briefly in the early chapters, we understand him far better as the story goes on through the remembrances of others. He’s absolutely one of the nastiest and most memorable characters in any of Cassiday’s novels.  

LA Confidential by James Ellroy

James Ellroy’s second appearance on this list marks perhaps his most essential and memorable book.

It’s fair to say that no respectable collection of the best noir novels would be complete without LA Confidential.

Not only is the book one of the best examples of how LA noir evolved through the decades, but it is also the source material for an instant classic film noir starring Russell Crowe and Kim Basinger. It was nominated for nine  Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Basinger took home the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, while the film also won Best Adapted Screenplay.

As corruption grows in 1950s Los Angeles, three policemen investigate a series of murders with their own brand of justice.

One is one strait-laced, one is brutal, and one is sleazy.

A horrific mass murder invades the lives of victims and victimizers on both sides of the law.

And three lawmen are caught in a deadly spiral, a nightmare that tests loyalty and courage, and offers no mercy, grants no survivors.

Fans who love LA Confidential should seek out the other books in Ellroy’s LA Quartet series.

The Loneliest Places by Keith Edward Vaughn

Don’t be fooled by the sunny California cover. While perhaps departing from the rain-slicked streets of classic noir, this atmospheric, suspenseful and wistful novel is a great example of contemporary LA Noir.

Can a private investigator’s worst nightmare also be his salvation? 

In Keith Edward Vaughn’s debut novel, second-generation PI Ellis Dunaway lives in the shadow of his late father, a former LAPD detective with a rock-solid reputation. But on Ellis’ watch, the shrinking firm’s cases wrap too soon and for too little money. As the book begins, he can only afford to keep his lone employee – a struggling single Mom working two jobs – for just one more month. 

A new journey begins as club owner Terry Montero asks Ellis to check up on a friend named Douglas. On his way, he learns from Los Angeles Sheriff’s Detective Courtland Hollender that Terry sells drugs for a cartel called the Black Fist – and that his father was looking into the organization prior to his death. In addition to drugs, the Black First also trades in guns, babies and body parts. Later, at Douglas’ rental, he finds a loaded pistol and cocaine, dirty dishes, pills and signs of sporadic occupancy. The trail soon leads to a series of lethal encounters that could be the end of Ellis – or an opportunity for redemption. 

In Ellis, Vaughn has modeled his hero in the tradition of down-and-out LA noir detectives. Ellis doesn’t use the term “shabby dignity” to refer to himself, but it aptly describes his own situation. He has heart, guts and good instincts, but he’s also a loner with money problems and a marijuana habit that may get him kicked out of his apartment. Ellis’ idea of a good night is getting home, getting drunk and working on his screenplay. In his darker moments, he views himself as a martyr who sacrificed his writing career and girlfriend to try to save his father’s business. 

LA-obsessives will adore Vaughn’s service to the city and its history throughout the book. That’s especially true of entertainment culture, as Vaughn name-drops everything from fascinating Beach Boys lore to Three’s Company skits. As for music, the book’s audio references will make a terrific Spotify playlist. Vaughn mostly drops locally-grown icons like Guns n Roses and Motley Crue, but he also knows when to break outside of the mold, as he does with Rick Astley’s Never Gonna Give You Up – which, used in two very different contexts, becomes surprisingly emotional. 

The Sellout by Andrew Diamond

The Sellout opens as penniless creative writing teacher Joe McElwee realizes every writers’ dream: to make the New York Times bestseller list. Joe’s blockbuster thriller is already making money, and his publisher assures him that this is just the beginning. He allows himself to dream of a better life – one in which he doesn’t have to stuff himself with free food at book readings simply to survive. 

There’s just one problem: Joe doesn’t like his own book. He’s completely uninspired by his protagonist (“He’s a simple archetype, and a stupid one.”). His friend Veronica isn’t a fan, either, and in a jaw-dropping scene that will make every creative person sweat, she makes no attempt to hide her contempt for his new work. Veronica may be hosting a book reading at her store, but she calls it a necessary evil: “Books like that keep me afloat so I can sell books like you used to write.” She calls Joe a sellout and compares him to an author they both loathe, Niall Turner. And then she declares that as punishment for writing such dreck, Joe deserves to live as a character inside an even crappier novel than the one he wrote. 

After a slip on the ice, Joe loses consciousness. He wakes up to a pile of cash and jewels, a bloody knife and a headache. A quick study, he soon notices something is off. Through various observations and a run-in with a certain someone from his own era, he soon realizes he’s living in the 1940s – inside a Niall Turner novel (it’s not all bad – sex seems easy to come by, and he can eat whatever he wants without getting fat). 

And his way out of the “Turnerverse”? Solving a crime, of course. 

In what may be the most comedic effort of his career to date, Andrew Diamond scores big with this juicy blend of noir, comedy and time travel. Comparisons to Stephen King’s Misery, a story about a novelist whose life is irrevocably changed after an icy accident en route to LA, are inevitable. Like King’s protagonist Paul Sheldon, Joe is also trapped by a woman who wants to punish him for subject matter she disapproves of. But The Sellout is both more fun and sophisticated than King’s novel. For one thing, Joe’s journey is filled with self-doubt and loathing. Also, Veronica’s identity becomes far more nuanced as the narrative progresses, resulting in scenes that are, in turn, titillating, surprising and hilarious.

The Sellout features plenty of satire, but it also works as a mystery in its own right. Along the way, Diamond explores questions about personal growth, fulfillment, suffering, justice – and the bliss of just letting go. Highly recommended. 

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