Cover image of "The Neon Rain" by James Lee Burke, a great example of an outstanding mystery and thriller series:

Unless you’re a devoted fan of the genre, you may be unaware of the sheer number of mystery and thriller series. I stumble across a new one about every month or two. Over the past ten years, I’ve read (or at least started reading) more than 100 such series. Over four dozen of them belong in any list of engaging, well-written stories of crime and intrigue.

The best mystery and thriller series

This list just scratches the surface of what’s available, but I’m confident that at least some of the very best mystery and thriller series can be found below. All these series have one or both of two things in common: the protagonist is the same from one book to the next, or (in just two cases) the series are rooted in a particular time and place, though the cast of characters varies. There are just two exceptions to this rule: the work of Ross Thomas and John Grisham. I’ve included both authors because many of their characters appear in each of several novels—and because they’re so good I can’t bring myself to ignore them.

Top 10 mystery and thriller series

Here I’ve listed what I consider to be the top ten, with the rest below. In all cases, I’ve read at least two novels in the series, usually many more. Each entry is linked to my review of one particular novel. Each begins with the city or country where the action is centered, followed by the name of the author, the title of one of the books in the series that I’ve reviewed, and the identifying series name, with the number of its order in the series.

You’ll find readily recognizable authors on this list, such as Michael Connelly, Elizabeth George, and Alan Furst, as well as others who are less well known. But all of my top ten are accomplished, bestselling authors. So are many of those in the second tier of four dozen and even among the 16 not-so-great series at the bottom; it’s just that I either grew tired of their series or found more than one or two disappointing entries.

My top 10 mystery and thriller series

Images of 5 books in my top 10 mystery and thriller series

DenmarkJussi Adler-Olsen, Conspiracy of Faith (Department Q #3)

Department Q is a small band of misfits relegated to the basement of the Copenhagen Police headquarters. Their mission is to solve cold cases, and somehow they manage to do so despite all odds.

Louisiana—James Lee Burke, The Neon Rain (Dave Robicheaux #1)

Corruption and violence are no strangers to rural Louisiana, and deputy sheriff Dave Robicheaux’s investigations often expose him and his family to the worst of it.

Los Angeles—Michael Connelly, The Burning Room (Harry Bosch #17)

Detective Hieronymous (Harry) Bosch is one of the LAPD’s most resourceful detectives, but he often runs afoul of his superiors as he takes on some of the most difficult cases.

Europe—Alan Furst, Mission to Paris (Night Soldiers #12)

The Night Soldiers are espionage agents, usually amateurs and often drawn into work as spies unexpectedly and reluctantly. They work in Europe the troubled era before and during World War II.

England—Elizabeth George, Believing the Lie (Thomas Lynley #17)

An aristocrat—an earl, no less—Inspector Thomas Lynley of New Scotland Yard and his sidekick, Sergeant Barbara Havers, tackle the most challenging assignments and are often dispatched far from London to work with baffled local police.

England—Mick Herron, Bad Actors (Slough House #11)

Herron’s fictional Slough House is the dumping ground of MI5 spies who have screwed up on the job or simply proved unable to fit into the agency’s culture. They eke out their lives, refusing to resign the service, under the direction of the slovenly and abusive Jackson Lamb, himself a washed-up spy. These novels are often laugh-out-loud funny.

Images of 5 more books in my top 10 mystery and thriller series

USSR— Stuart M. Kaminsky, A Cold Red Sunrise (Inspector Porfiry Rostnikov #5)

This venerable series of police procedurals follows Moscow police Inspector Porfiry Rostnikov through the 1980s in the final years of Communist rule in the USSR. Together with his two sidekicks, Rostnikov battles not just the criminals that abound in his corrupt society but the powerful KGB.

Sweden—Camilla Läckberg, The Hidden Child (Fjallbacka #5) 

Fjällbacka is a resort town on the Swedish coast where detective Patrik Hedström and writer Erica Falck investigate violent crimes.

Sweden—Henning Mankell, The Troubled Man (Kurt Wallander #10)

Kurt Wallander is no beacon of joy, but he proves his gifts as an investigator. The cases he pursue often involve drugs, immigrants, and other signs of change in Swedish society in the closing days of the twentieth century and the early years of the twenty-first.

China—Qiu Xiaolong, When Red Is Black (Inspector Chen #3)

Inspector Chen Cao of the Shanghai police is a rising star in the Communist Party in the 1990s but is often at odds with his boss. He manages to outmaneuver the man because he is well connected at the highest levels of the Party in Beijing.

Norway—Jo Nesbø, The Leopard (Harry Hole #8)

Harry Hole is an alcoholic who is even dysfunctional from time to time. But he is such a talented and effective detective for the Norwegian police that he is often drawn into the highest-profile cases in the country.

Eastern Europe—Olen Steinhauer, Victory Square (Yalta Boulevard Cycle #5)

In a “cycle” of five compelling novels, Olen Steinhauer portrays the evolution of Eastern European society under Communism, with each book in succession set in one decade from the 1940s through the 1980s.

Within each of the two lists below, I’ve arranged titles alphabetically by the location where they’re set. Within each location, if there are two or more authors named there, I’ve arranged them in alphabetical order by the authors’ last names.

Four dozen other great mystery and thriller series

Alaska—Stan Jones, Shaman Pass (Nathan Active #2) 

American South—John Grisham, The Racketeer

Boston—Joseph Finder, Buried Secrets (Nick Heller #2) 

Botswana—Alexander McCall Smith, The Handsome Man’s Deluxe Cafe (The #1 Ladies Detective #15)

Chicago—Sara Paretsky, Critical Mass (V. I. Warshawski #16) 

Denmark—Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis, Death of a Nightingale (Nina Borg #3)

England—Rennie Airth, The Reckoning (John Madden #4) 

England—Deborah Crombie, Now May You Weep (Duncan Kincaid & Gemma James #9) 

England—Charles Cumming, A Colder War (Thomas Kell #2)

England—Robert Goddard, The Ways of the World (James Maxted Series #1)

England—Mick Herron, Spook Street (Slough House #5)

EnglandPeter Lovesey, Upon a Dark Night (Peter Diamond #5)

England—Ellis Peters, A Morbid Taste for Bones (Cadfael Chronicles #1)

England— Stella Rimington, Secret Asset (Liz Carlyle #2)

England—J. K. Rowling, The Cuckoo’s Calling (Cormoran Strike #1)

England—Edward Wilson, A Very British Ending (William Catesby #5)

England—Jacqueline Winspear, Among the Mad (Maisie Dobbs #6)

Georgia—Karin Slaughter, Criminal (Will Trent #7) 

Germany—Rebecca Cantrell, A Trace of Smoke (Hannah Vogel #1) 

Germany—Philip Kerr, A Man Without Breath (Bernie Gunther #9)

Ghana—Kwei Quartey, Murder at Cape Three Points (Darko Dawson #3)

India—Tarquin Hall, The Case of the Missing Servant (Vish Puri #1)

India—Abir Mukherjee, A Necessary Evil (Wyndham and Banerjee #2)

India—Sujata Massey, The Widows of Malabar Hill (Perveen Mistry #1)

Ireland—Benjamin Black, Christine Falls (Quirke #1)

Ireland—Tana French, Broken Harbor (Dublin Murder Squad #4)

Los Angeles—Michael Connelly, The Dark Hours (Renée Ballard and Harry Bosch #4)

Los Angeles—Ron Goulart, Elementary, My Dear Groucho (Groucho Marx Mysteries #3)

Los Angeles—Timothy Hallinan, The Fame Thief (Junior Bender #3)

Los Angeles—Joe Ide, Righteous (IQ #2)

Los Angeles—Jonathan Kellerman, Silent Partner (Alex Delaware #4)

Los Angeles—Faye Kellerman, The Ritual Bath (Peter Decker and Rina Lazarus #1)

Los Angeles—Joseph Wambaugh, Harbor Nocturne (Hollywood Station #5) 

Minnesota—John Sandford, Field of Prey (Lucas Davenport #24)

Minnesota—John Sandford, Escape Clause (Virgil Flowers #9)

Mississippi—John Grisham, A Time for Mercy (Jake Brigance #3)

New Jersey—Amy Stewart, Girl Waits With Gun (Kopp Sisters #1)

New York—Donald E. Westlake, Get Real (John Dortmunder #14)

Outer Hebrides Islands—Peter May, The Blackhouse (Lewis Trilogy #1)

Palestine—The Collaborator of Bethlehem (Omar Yussef #1) by Matt Rees

Russia—William Ryan, The Twelfth Department (Captain Alexei Korolev #3)

Russia—Tom Rob Smith, Agent 6 (Leo Demidov #3) 

Russia—Martin Cruz Smith, Wolves Eat Dogs (Arkady Renko #5)

San Francisco—John Lescroart, The Ophelia Cut (Dismas Hardy #14)

San Francisco—Lisa Lutz, The Spellman Files: Document #1

Scotland—Ian Rankin, The Black Book (Inspector Rebus #5)

Sweden—Stieg Larsson, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest (Lisbeth Salander #3)

Sweden—Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, The Man Who Went Up in Smoke (Martin Beck #2)

Sweden—Lars Kepler, The Fire Witness (Joona Linna #3)

Thailand—John Burdett, Vulture Peak (Sonchai Jitpleecheep #5) 

Washington DC—George Pelecanos, The Double (Spero Lucas #1)

Washington DC—The Good Lie (Peter Rena #2) by Tom Rosenstiel

Worldwide—Thunder Point (Sean Dillon #2) by Jack Higgins

Worldwide—Ross Thomas, Briarpatch

WorldwideJason Matthews, The Kremlin’s Candidate (Red Sparrow Trilogy #3)

Worldwide—Alex Berenson, The Night Ranger (John Wells #7)

17 not-so-great mystery and thriller series

The following 16 titles represent series that I liked at first but later discovered I was much less impressed with others. In some cases, I liked the first several but thought that the quality of the writing deteriorated over time.

Canada—John Farrow, Seven Days Dead (Storm Murders Trilogy #2)

China—Robert van Gulik, The Chinese Maze Murders (Judge Dee #1)

England—Kate Atkinson, Case Histories (Jackson Brodie #1)

England—Charles Finch, The Laws of Murder (Charles Lenox #8)

England—Charles Todd, Search the Dark (Inspector Ian Rutledge #3)

France—Cara Black, Murder in the Marais (Aimee Leduc #1)

France—Georges Simenon, Pietr the Latvian (Inspector Maigret #1 of 75)

Iceland—Arnaldur Indridason, Hypothermia (Detective Erlendur #8)

Japan—Barry Lancet, Japantown (Jim Brodie #1)

Laos—Colin Cotterill, The Coroner’s Lunch (Dr. Siri #1)

Las Vegas—Deborah Coonts, So Damn Lucky (Lucky O’Toole #3)

Los Angeles— Walter Mosley, Charcoal Joe (Easy Rawlins #14)

North Korea—James Church, A Drop of Chinese Blood (Inspector O #5)

Quebec—Louise Penny, Still Life (Armand Gamache #1)

Trenton, New Jersey—Janet Evanovich, Notorious Nineteen (Stephanie Plum #19)

Venice—Donna Leon, Quietly in Their Sleep (Commissario Brunetti #6)

Worldwide—Aaron Elkins, Curses! (Gideon Oliver #5)

What’s missing from this survey

What’s missing from this survey are the works of a number of older bestselling authors of mystery and thriller series. Simply because I haven’t recently read anything by them recently enough, you won’t find here the names Robert B. Parker (Spenser), Ross MacDonald (Lew Archer), Ed McBain (87th Precinct), or John D. MacDonald (Travis McGee).

As you’ll see, these 71 series of novels cover a lot of territory. A LOT of it. But what am I missing?

For a very different take on this subject, see my much later post, Mystery and thriller series starters can be misleading.

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If you’re looking for exciting historical novels, check out Top 10 historical mysteries and thrillers.

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