In this post, I struggle mightily to list my ten favorite series in the mystery/detective/crime genre. This is one of my favorite fiction categories (some days, my definite favorite) and I think I’m hurting someone’s feelings when I’m forced to leave them off the list. You really can’t go wrong with the following ten, though.
The Travis McGee Series — 21 novels published over about as many years from 1964 until 1984, about Florida beach bum and self-described “salvage consultant” Travis McGee. These were written by John D. MacDonald, who would also, not surprisingly, make my list of favorite authors ever. Each of the book titles in this series includes a color, from The Deep Blue Good-By to The Lonely Silver Rain. Even though MacDonald passed away in 1986, I believe Travis McGee still lives down in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, on his houseboat The Busted Flush in slip F-18 at Bahia Mar Marina.
The Nero Wolfe Series — Written by Rex Stout over four decades. 33 novels and 39 novellas and short stories. A lot of books. Unlike the MacDonalds, I still haven’t read all of these, but I’m working on it. I’ve not read a Nero Wolfe story I haven’t liked yet. Archie Goodwin, Wolfe’s confidential assistant, narrates all of the stories and is an affable sort, whereas Wolfe is not, even though Wolfe is the genius detective. Aside from the stories, it’s great to read about New York City of the 1930s onward.
The Sherlock Holmes Series — Well, of course Sherlock Holmes. In many ways, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s creation is the template all other private detective storytellers followed after him. I still love all of the Holmes stories.
The Spenser Series — Robert B. Parker’s stories about Boston p.i. Spenser are still among my favorites. Parker wrote 40 Spenser novels, beginning way back in 1973, roughly one a year. Spenser (who never had a first name, to my knowledge) was a former cop, a boxer and fitness enthusiast, a gourmet cook and an all-around good guy. He is madly in love with Susan Silverman, and best friends with Hawk, a gun-for-hire with a shady past, who was played on TV by the same guy who plays Captain Benjamin Sisko on DS9. Reading a Spenser novel is the reading equivalent of eating a tub of hot buttered popcorn to me.
The Matt Scudder Series — Lawrence Block’s Matt Scudder is another great New York City detective, drunk or sober. 17 novels and 1 short story collection since 1976. Block thought he may have been finished with the character after Eight Million Ways to Die, when Matt finally reached rock bottom with the booze and got sober. But, he’s still around 13 books later. Block is also one of my all-time favorite writers.
The Lew Archer Series — Lew Archer is a Southern California private eye, appearing in 18 novels between the late 1940s and early ’70s, written by Ross Macdonald. I’ve read about half of these so far (the others are waiting for me on the bookshelves) and loved each. Again, we get some period detective stories written during the period they’re set in.
The Nameless Detective Series — Bill Pronzini’s Nameless Detective has appeared in 40 novels and 2 short story collections. He’s never given a name, but I’ve always suspected it was “Bill Pronzini.” Pronzini is also a great writer and well-respected in the mystery genre. Nameless’ milieu is San Francisco and surrounding environs. I once got highly upset in a San Francisco bookstore that had no Pronzinis on its shelves.
The Sharon McCone Series — There are 33 novels in Marcia Muller’s Sharon McCone series, several of which I still need to read. Muller is married to Bill Pronzini, by the way, but she made this list on her own merits. The two authors have worked together (as on Double, a novel starring both the Nameless Detective and Sharon McCone), but they have individual styles. I have always been a Sue Grafton fan also, but I think McCone was the female private eye prototype, first appearing around five years before Kinsey Millhone.
The Parker Series — Parker is a career criminal, not a private eye, but the crime novel is closely related to the private eye novel, and Parker is a fun character. He appears in 24 novels written by Richard Stark (a pseudonym of Donald E. Westlake), beginning in 1962 and continuing until 2008, when the author died. The first novel in the series, The Hunter, has been adapted to film twice, as Point Blank in 1967 and as Payback in 1999 (with the main character’s name changed inexplicably to “Porter”). If you like heist movies, you’ll like these as well.
The Kenzie and Gennaro Series — Dennis Lehane has earned all of the accolades he’s received over the years, and he’s written some truly excellent non-series novels, such as Mystic River and Shutter Island, but it was Kenzie and Gennaro who drew me in to Lehane’s writing. There are only six Kenzie-Gennaro novels (and I still haven’t read Moonlight Mile). Read A Drink Before the War (1994), the first of these, and you’ll agree with me that they are something special. Like Spenser, Kenzie and Gennaro spend most of their time in and around Boston.
Part of this 10-List exercise is forcing myself to limit a list to only ten items. This was an extremely difficult task on this topic.
If authors had multiple series characters, I limited myself to only one. I could easily have included Bernie Rhodenbarr and Keller for Lawrence Block. And I also enjoyed Robert B. Parker’s take on the female private eye in his Sunny Randall series.
Series characters who didn’t make this list, but may have on a different day: Kinsey Millhone (of course); Elvis Cole; Harry Bosch; Perry Mason; Kay Scarpetta; Dave Robicheaux; Lincoln Rhyme; and, literally, dozens of others.