For the dedicated mystery reader, there's nothing better than a series of detective novels. In general, fans of mystery books are ravenous readers, always hungry for the next delectable puzzle and eager to unravel the most complex of murder mysteries. A mystery book series offers the opportunity for seemingly endless options. And once a reader becomes familiar with a certain detective and their particularities and idiosyncrasies, part of the pleasure is going on the case with their favorite detectives, to experience the journey with them as they unravel the clues.
The most discerning of mystery readers are eager to go back to where it all started, haunting the shelves of the earliest mystery classics—when all the conventions of the genre, most familiar to us now, were still new and fresh. These classic mystery series introduce readers to the some of the roots of the mystery book genre. Follow along as we introduce some of the most classic mystery series that true mystery lovers will readily inhale.
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd
A former Brussels policeman who fled to Britain as a refugee after the German invasion of his country in 1914, Hercule Poirot is one of mystery fiction’s best loved and most enduring detectives. With his moustache, his dandyish clothes and theatrical air, Dame Agatha Christie’s little Belgian has a strange career that doesn’t really begin until he retires to grow vegetables in 1929 (by the time he reaches his final case in 1975, he’s likely getting on for 110-years-old, though he remains ageless). The central figure in 33 novels, two plays and more than 80 short stories, Poirot’s most celebrated—and filmed—cases are Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile. While both those novels showcase Dame Agatha’s flair for constructing knotty whodunnits, the dapper detective’s twinkling gifts are shown to even better advantage in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (with its celebrated surprise ending) and the less well-known, but equally superb, Five Little Pigs in which the brilliant Belgian ingeniously reconstructs a crime that occurred sixteen years earlier.
Rex Stout’s enchanting series of mystery tales featuring eccentric New York detective, Nero Wolfe began with Fer de Lance in 1934 and continued through 31 novels and 41 novellas and short stories ending with the publication of A Family Affair in 1975. The hugely corpulent Wolfe—estimates of his weight vary, but 300 pounds seems about right—prefers to spend his time tending orchids and eating gourmet meals rather than actually chasing criminals. Luckily he has his sidekick, the fast talking, resourceful Archie Goodwin to do his running around for him. Yet no matter how fast Goodwin covers the ground, he can never keep ahead of his boss, whose mind moves quicker than any high-powered automobile. Stout’s work is packed with smart, screwball dialogue, snappy clothes and memorable cast of supporting characters from glamorous socialite Lily Rowan to PI Saul Panzer who has a memory the size of the Collier’s Encyclopaedia. Like 221b Baker Street, Wolfe’s New York brownstone on West 35th Street is a place the reader loves to return to.
The Crime at Black Dudley (Albert Campion #1)
Magaret Allingham’s uppercrust sleuth made his first appearance as a supporting character in the 1929 novel The Crime at Black Dudley and went on to star in 17 further novels and 20 short stories that ran until the author’s death in 1966 (a final, unfinished Campion book, Cargo of Eagles was completed by Philip Youngman Carter and published in 1968). Allingham is a great story-teller with a gift for the twisted and macabre (her serial killer, Jack Havoc, tracked through bleak post-war London by Campion in Tiger in the Smoke is genuinely frightening—a British answer to Cape Fear’s Max Cady). Campion is a tantalizingly mysterious figure, well-educated and blue-blooded but with a shadowy past that the reader pieces together from fragments sprinkled through the series. In his first appearances, the tall, bespectacled detective is a comic blue-blood after the style of Bertie Wooster (possibly he was a satirical dig at Dorothy L. Sayer’s monocle-wearing creation Lord Peter Wimsey). Most fictional detectives remain largely unaltered over the years, but Allingham’s creation noticeable matures as the series progresses, becoming shrewder and wiser as time passes. It’s a pleasure watching him grow.
The Moving Target
Southern Californian private eye Lew Archer first appeared in 1949’s The Moving Target. His creator, Canadian-American Ross Macdonald started out copying Raymond Chandler and Dashiel Hammett (Archer is the name of Sam Spade’s dead partner in The Maltese Falcon) but his talents as a writer soon saw his work taking a direction all of its own. Archer is sensitive and empathetic (the result of his own troubled childhood, perhaps) and sees through the affluence of the Sunshine State’s Cold War suburban prosperity to the bruised psychology beneath—a kind of hard-boiled Joan Didion. Written in a style that is both laconic and graceful, the Archer novels—18 in total plus three volumes of short stories—are filled with sour wisecracks and illuminated by central character’s sardonic philosophy of life (“Never sleep with anyone whose troubles are worse than your own”). There’s little wonder that William Goldman rated them “the finest series of detective novels ever written by an American”. Personally, I’d ditch the “by an American”.
Before there was Jo Nesbo and Henning Mankell, the rulers of Scandinavian crime writing were a pair of left-wing reporters from Sweden, Maj Sjowal and her partner Per Wahloo. Inspired by Ed McBain, the couple wrote a series of police procedurals featuring lugubrious Stockholm detective Martin Beck that ran from 1965 to 1975, when Wahloo died of cancer. Beck is a strangely engaging central character, plodding rather than brilliant, who investigates everything from political terrorism to car crime, while dealing with the slow, painful unravelling of his marriage and the political interference of his bosses. The series of ten novels beginning with Roseanna are tightly and believably plotted and underpinned with deadpan humour. The cast of supporting characters including Frederick Melander and his permanent upset stomach, the incompetent patrolmen Kvant and Kristiansson, and the sarcastic Lennart Kolberg and his sexy wife Gun, is one of the most entertaining and lovable ever assembled.
Joe Leaphorn/Jim Chee
The Blessing Way
Tony Hillerman’s knowledge of Native American lifeways, elegant style and vivid portrayal of his characters and the rugged desert landscape they inhabit have garnered him a justifiably high reputation amongst literary critics. A decorated World War Two combat veteran, Hillerman penned 18 novels about the Navajo Tribal Police detectives Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn and Sergeant Jim Chee beginning with 1970’s The Blessing Way and culminating with Shapeshifter (2006). The Leaphorn/Chee novels are satisfyingly plotted mysteries, but what keeps the reader coming back for more is the New Mexico setting, the insight into a world where tradition and modernity are in dynamic conflict and the back stories of the two main protagonist (Leaphorn struggling to come to terms with the death of his beloved wife; Chee’s series of frustrated romances). Hillerman’s is a masterfully rendered world of both starkness and grandeur.
Detective Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte
The Barrakee Mystery
Jane Harper’s The Dry unleashed a wave of Australian mystery fiction when it raced up the best seller charts in 2019. Back in the 1930s “The Lucky Country” had its own brilliant Golden Age detective in the shape of swaggeringly insubordinate Detective Inspector Napoleon “Bony” Bonaparte of the Queensland Police. A bi-racial foundling, the product of what was, at that time in Australia, a forbidden relationship between a white settler and an indigenous woman (Australia had its own nasty equivalent of Jim Crow), Bony made his debut in The Barrakee Mystery in 1929 and went on to feature in 28 more novels set in the wild country of Australia’s Outback. Upfield loved the baking hot bush country, but his portrayal of it never lapses into sentimentality—this is a tough world filled with hard people. He had a deep and profound relationship with Australia’s indigenous tribes (Bony is based on a real life Aboriginal known as Tracker Leon) and learned from them the survival skills that are part of his star detective’s weaponry. Given the lead character and the desert setting, it’s unsurprising that Tony Hillerman was a massive Upfield fan. Celebrated in his day, Upfield’s work fell from public consciousness after his death in 1964. It’s surely due a revival.