In no certain order …
1. “Travis McGee” by John D. MacDonald. 21 books all with a color in the title (The Deep Blue Good-bye; Darker Than Amber; The Green Ripper, etc …)
Travis McGee, works as a “salvage consultant” in Ft. Lauderdale and has all the best qualities of Magnum, Rockford, Bond, and Robin Hood, with the addition of yen philosophizing and rueful self-awareness. Must be read in consecutive order.
2. “Burke” by Andrew Vachss. 18 books.
Vachss (rhymes with “tax”) is a lawyer who only represents children and youths and writes the darkest, most unrelenting series of books about crime and revenge. Main character Burke is one of the “children of the secret” – abused children who were victimized without ever experiencing justice, much less love and protection. To say the least, the adult Burke is a deeply conflicted character. Must be read in order.
3. “Sherlock Holmes” by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. 4 novels and 5 collections of short stories.
What can you say? The all-time greatest, most famous detective in the world and his constant companion, Dr. Watson. No matter how edgy and steampunkish Hollywood makes the movies, these are still some of the greatest crime stories every written.
4. “Thorn” by James P. Hall. 14 books.
Thorn lives in the Florida Keys and makes his living tying lures for fly fishing. He also helps people out of sticky situations on occasion. There’s quite a bit of Travis McGee in Thorn, and a little bit of Burke also. You don’t have to read these books in order, but I highly recommend reading the first one (Under Cover of Daylight) so you will understand why Thorn is the way he is.
5. “Repairman Jack” by F. Paul Wilson. 22 books.
Andrew Vachss calls Repairman Jack “righteous!” An apt description. Jack is a loner who lives off the public grid (no SSN, no official identity) and makes his living “fixing” extreme situations. Some may argue that since Jack’s adventures feature touches of the paranormal and science-fiction, horror and fantasy, this should not be listed in a “Crime Novel” series. I disagree, just for sheer enjoyment and the crime-ridden, violent world that Jack lives in. Must be read in order.
6. “Joe Kurtz” by Dan Simmons. 3 books
Hard Case, Hard Freeze, Hard As Nails are hard-boiled crime noir at its best. Simmons is one of my all-time favorite writers. In addition to these great novels, he has also written my two favorite horror novels (Carrion Comfort and Children of the Night), a sci-fi classic (Hyperion) and a great Hemingway historical novel (The Crook Factory). It helps to read them in order.
7. “Parker” by Richard Stark (Donald E. Westlake). 24 books.
Parker may be the meanest, nastiest character on this list. Very few redeeming qualities. These books are almost nihilistic. Highly recommend you read these in order – some of the books began the second after the previous book ends.
8. “Justin & Cuddy” by Michael Malone. 3 books
Uncivil Seasons, Time’s Witness, First Lady. Great literate mysteries set in small town North Carolina. Uncivil Seasons is one of the best mysteries I’ve ever read. Period. Read in order.
9. “Lew Archer” by Ross MacDonald. 18 books.
William Goldman calls these the “the finest series of detective novels ever written by an American.” MacDonald is the primary heir to Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler but his writing built on the pithy style of his predecessors by adding psychological depth and insights into the motivations of his characters. Archer often unearthed the family secrets of his clients and of the criminals who victimized them. Lost or wayward sons and daughters were a theme common to many of the novels. Macdonald was one of the first to deftly combine the two sides of the mystery genre, the “whodunit” and the psychological thriller. Jonathon Kellerman is the modern heir of MacDonald’s noir.
10. “87th Precinct” by Ed McBain. 56 books.
ABSOLUTELY THE BEST! It is impossible to rate this series too high. It is the most consistently entertaining police procedural novels written about day-to-day cops, the inspiration for “Hill Street Blues” and all the other more realistic, gritty cops show that followed through the 1980s, 90s and beyond. Steve Carella, Meyer Meyer, Bert Kling, Ollie Weeks, Cotton Hawes, and Andy Parker are just a few of the memorable characters we have come to know and love who work out of the 8-7. And of course, the Blind Man, one of the greatest, coolest criminals to grace crime pages. McBain died in 2005 so alas, there will be no more 8-7 books.
11. “Harry Bosch” (20+ books) and “The Lincoln Lawyer” series (5 books) by Michael Connelly.
Connelly is perhaps the best crime fiction writer of the last decade. Harry Bosch is an LA police detective. The books, dark and often violent, explore Bosch’s psyche as he investigate murders and crime in L.A. Harry’s illegitimate half-brother Michael Haller is called the “Lincoln lawyer,” since he is an unconventional defense lawyer who works out of the back seat of a Lincoln automobile. The “Lincoln” books are endlessly entertaining.
12. “Inspector Lynley” by Elizabeth George. 21 books
Brilliant! Detective Inspector Thomas “Tommy” Lynley, 8th Earl of Asherton and Detective Sergeant Barbara Havers are with New Scotland Yard. The dynamic between the accomplished and aristocratic Lynley and the street smart, foul-mouthed, uncouth Havers is only the first brilliant part of these books. Their cases are psychological compelling, filled with comic characters (Havers in particular) and range across the whole of Great Britain.
13. “Crazy Florida” by Carl Hiassen. 15 novels.
The most fun set of books on this list … by far! While strictly not a series, all of the Hiassen’s ‘crazy Florida” novels can all be lumped together. There are about a dozen recurring characters (not in all the books) and enough thematic similarities that connect the novels. Tourist Season, Double Whammy, Skin Tight, Stormy Weather, Skinny Dip, etc .. are all comic caper masterpieces. Embrace the insanity!
14. “Kenzie and Gennaro” by Dennis Lehane. 6 books.
Two private investigators in Boston, Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro, who take cases that are gruesome, sad, and plain horrifying. Gritty, dark and confronting challenging moral questions, this is a compelling series, by a writer more famous for his stand alone novels, Mystic River and Shutter Island.
15. “William Monk” by Anne Perry, 21 books
Quite possible the best crime fiction of the last 20 years. At the beginning of the series Monk is a London police inspector in the 1850s. The first book in the series opens with Monk injured in a carriage accident with a spotty memory of himself and his life. Over the next several novels, not only does Monk investigate crimes, he is also investigating himself, trying to understand what kind of person he is (was) and learning he does not want to be that person.
After the accident he met Hester Latterly, a Crimean War nurse and they became close. Only Latterly knew about Monk’s memory issues. In the second book, A Dangerous Mourning, Monk was fired from the police force for insubordination and became a private investigator. Lady Callandra Daviott (Hester’s best friend) financed his private investigations. Sir Oliver Rathbone was his love rival (he too wanted to marry Hester) and judicial adviser in his case.
In “Dark Assassin,” Monk joined the Thames River Police to pay a debt to a friend who died on a previous case. Although he finds the shift from street policing to river policing difficult, he earns the respect of his men and continues on in this position.
16. “Spenser” by Robert B. Parker. 35 books.
I almost didn’t include Spenser here, but I had to. This is an infuriating series … the first 14 books are as good as PI fiction gets … and the rest are hit-and-miss. Hawk is one of the great characters in crime fiction. But then you also have Susan Silverman – Spenser’s main squeeze. The more important Susan Silverman becomes to the story the more annoying the book is. I keep hoping Susan gets killed and we get back the old, tougher Spenser, not the Oprah-fied Spenser we currently have. During the latter books Hawk became nothing more than a walk-on one-note character; it’s as if Parker was scared to explore the darker dynamics of Hawk and his world.