Please recommend me mystery novels with hard-luck protagonists
July 21, 2021 5:01 PM   Subscribe

It would be nice to read about someone who pieces together facts that elude others, while they also deal with problems like a landlord who wants to evict ‘em or needing to care for an ailing relative or just needing to skip a meal to make the budget work. Not a perfect match, but the TV show Terriers and the novel Dark Places kinda fit the bill. What do you suggest?
posted by Monochrome to Media & Arts (17 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
Check out Joe Ide. His protagonist is a good guy living in a rough area in rough times and unofficially gets involved in crime solving while surviving the challenges of life. I love him.
IQ (2016)
Righteous (2017)
Wrecked (2018)
Hi Five (2019)
Smoke (2021)
posted by charris5005 at 5:35 PM on July 21, 2021 [6 favorites]

Joe R. Lansdale's Hap and Leonard series - the two protagonists (especially Hap) are basically blue-collar "take whatever work you can find" guys, and a pretty fair number of their "cases" start out as an attempt to make a buck when they don't have actual jobs (or because their jobs are low-paying & demoralizing and boring.)

In Lawrence Block's Matt Scudder series, Scudder is an unlicensed unofficial private eye, and while he seems to do well enough financially, he is an alcoholic, and coming to terms with and dealing with his alcoholism and recovery is a constant theme through the novels. (I mean, the novels aren't, like, advertisements for AA, they're very very good mystery novels, just, this is a thing that's a major element of his character.)

On the more comic side:

Parnell Hall's Stanley Hastings series. Hastings is an actor/writer who takes tawdry ambulance-chasing & divorce private eye and process server work to make ends meet, and then keeps winding up in the middle of investigating far more serious crimes.

And the classic Dortmunder series from Donald Westlake. Dortmunder is the leader of a crew of professional thieves that can best be described as "hapless" - he'd be homeless if it wasn't for his girlfriend's job as a supermarket cashier.
posted by soundguy99 at 6:11 PM on July 21, 2021

The Carlotta Carlyle series by Linda Barnes, ex-cop-now-PI cum night shift taxi driver.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 6:14 PM on July 21, 2021

The Harlem Detective series by Chester Himes
posted by nickggully at 7:02 PM on July 21, 2021 [1 favorite]

Blacktop Wasteland by S. A. Cosby
posted by Violet Hour at 7:38 PM on July 21, 2021

V. I. Warshawsky books do this well, by Sara Paretsky.
posted by Lawn Beaver at 8:44 PM on July 21, 2021 [4 favorites]

Seconding the recommendation for the VI Warshowski books.
posted by Zumbador at 10:04 PM on July 21, 2021

I can recommend two Scottish writers: Denise Mina and Ian Rankin.

Specifically, Mina's Garnethill trilogy (Garnethill, Exile and Resolution) and Rankin's 23 John Rebus books. (One of the Rebus titles, Fleshmarket Close, was published as Fleshmarket Alley in the U.S.)

Mina's three Garnethill books touch on sexual abuse (of which her protagonist, Maureen O'Donnell, is a survivor) and mental illness (Maureen has been hospitalized), which I mention in case these are triggering topics for you. Maureen is also compassionate, disorganized, frustrating, and funny.

Rebus is that staple crime-fiction character, the maverick police detective, but Rankin avoids making him larger than life.

For example: An entire subplot of one novel (Let It Bleed) focuses on a dentist appointment that Rebus keeps putting off. He has a steadily worsening toothache -- by the time he finally gets it looked at, I felt like I was in as much agony as he was.

Another example: The scent of damp clothes at an outdoor crime scene in The Naming of the Dead makes Rebus think of the time he got drunk, forgot to hang up his wet laundry and then had to throw it all away because he couldn't get the smell of mold out.
posted by virago at 12:05 AM on July 22, 2021 [2 favorites]

In the comment above, I cannot explain why I referred to Denise Mina's Garnethill protagonist Maureen O'Donnell as "Maureen" on second reference, while I referred to Ian Rankin's protagonist John Rebus as "Rebus."

In any case, I apologize for the inconsistency.

PS Another vote for Sara Paretsky's V.I. Warshawski books.
posted by virago at 12:13 AM on July 22, 2021 [1 favorite]

The Cutting room, by Louise Welsh (and sequel is due out this year). Down at luck book seller in Glasgow.

Seconding Denise Mina!
posted by sedimentary_deer at 12:58 AM on July 22, 2021 [1 favorite]

Rachel Ward’s Cost of Living features a protagonist (Bea) who works as a cashier at a grocery store. She deals with mundane problems, budgets carefully and lives frugally, and also takes care of her mother, who is agoraphobic. Ant, her grocery store trainee and amateur detecting sidekick, is one step away from going to juvenile detention and struggles with his tasks at the grocery store because he is trying to hide his literacy struggles.

I enjoyed it. It’s the first in a series, but I haven’t read the others yet.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 1:14 AM on July 22, 2021 [1 favorite]

Nothing Burns in Hell by Philip Jose Farmer. A subplot in the book involves the detective protagonist getting into a feud with his neighbors in their shitty apartment complex.
posted by Lentrohamsanin at 8:05 AM on July 22, 2021

Carl Hiaasen - Florida-centric, funny, dark, sardonic.
The Alphabet series featuring Kinsey Milhone, by Sue Grafton
posted by theora55 at 8:32 AM on July 22, 2021 [1 favorite]

Whitney Logan is a protagonist who sticks in my memory. Getting by in a gritty LA. There are three, the first book is Dogtown, pub'd in 1991.
posted by Lookinguppy at 10:11 AM on July 22, 2021

I just finished Devil in a Blue Dress and I think it fits the bill. Having a hard boiled type guy doing detective stuff while also navigating postwar racist/segregated LA makes for interesting tensions. He's not pals with the cops for instance, like 3/4 of other detectives.

A slightly different take on this but perhaps one you might like is Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, by Olga Tokarczuk. The protagonist is a very quirky older woman living in rural Poland (if I remember correctly), drives a beat up old Suzuki, everyone thinks she's an old bat etc. But the narrative and writing are really exceptional.
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 10:35 AM on July 22, 2021 [1 favorite]

A lot of Noir detective fiction has protagonists solving mysteries while their life goes to shit, at least in part as a result of their investigations. My absolute favorite example is Jonathan Lethem's Gun, with Occasional Music.
posted by signal at 12:54 PM on July 22, 2021 [1 favorite]

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