So, what can you tell about mystery and thriller series from their series starters—the first books published in the sequence? Sometimes a whole lot. And sometimes not much at all, as it turns out.
Mystery and thriller fans love book series. By following the exploits of a leading character or a team of investigators, we come to know them intimately over time and can share their triumphs and disappointments. We grow close as they slowly insinuate themselves into our lives. And their stories often become clearer as they evolve over time. Even if, as is the case sometimes, the protagonist never grows older. Our understanding still grows. And that’s enhanced when we start at the beginning and read in sequence.
Authors of mystery and thriller novels—and their publishers—love series, too. If the first book catches on and the publisher welcomes additional titles, the author will gain fans as time goes by and new entries reach the public. Of course, the author’s income rises, too. And as a series lengthens, the backlist grows. New fans often turn back to the earlier titles, further increasing the author’s rewards. Except for that handful of writers whose titles invariably reach the bestseller lists, authors live on their backlists.
A win-win solution
But usually much depends on the success of the first book in the series. Which is one of the reasons I tend to turn first to the series starters when exploring the work of mystery or thriller authors who are new to me. (The other reason is that I like to read stories from the beginning rather than starting in the middle or end. I’m just weird that way.)
Here, then, are the series starters I’ve read for nearly fifty mystery and thriller series in recent years. Below my selection of the top five series, they’re arranged in three sections in descending order of the ratings I’ve awarded them. And within each of the three sections, the titles appear in alphabetical order by the authors’ last names.
The top five mystery and thriller series
You’ll notice that the five series I’ve included here don’t necessarily reflect the order of the lists below. I awarded ★★★★★ to the debut novels for only two of these series, ★★★★☆ to the other three. You may also note that my taste runs toward historical fiction and tales of espionage. However, none of this is to say that I haven’t enjoyed most of the books in the scores of other mystery and thriller series I’ve read and reviewed.
These five top series are arranged in alphabetical order by the authors’ last names, not in order of my preference. I believe they’re all must-read series for any serious fan of mysteries and thrillers.
Benjamin Black’s gorgeous writing style sets apart the Quirke series from the usual run of mystery and thriller tales. But these novels offer far more than window dressing. The books dig deeply into the history of the Catholic Church in Ireland, and the stories Black tells are invariably complex and suspenseful.
The Slough House series by Mick Herron adroitly mixes satire and suspense in his stories about the misfits of Britain’s intelligence service, who are exiled from headquarters to a crumbling old building across London. And the novels are also beautifully written, with the cleverest dialogue this side of Piccadilly Circus.
The late Stuart M. Kaminsky’s novels featuring Inspector Porfiry Rostnikov of Moscow’s municipal police highlight the official corruption and deprivation of the Soviet Union under Communism. In pursuing the difficult cases he’s assigned, Rostnikov is typically caught in the middle between the criminals he’s pursuing and the predatory officials of the KGB.
Wyndham and Banerjee
The Wyndham and Banerjee series by Abir Mukherjee highlights the fraught relations between English colonizers and the Indian people at a time shortly after Mohandas Gandhi had begun to turn in the radical direction that would eventually lead to his country’s independence.
In the Yalta Boulevard cycle, espionage novelist Olen Steinhauer traces the history of Communism in Eastern Europe, decade by decade, from the years immediately after World War II until the fall of the Soviet Union four decades later. Each of the five novels in the series follows an investigation undertaken by the changing cast of characters in the secret police headquarters on the eponymous Yalta Boulevard in the capital city of an unnamed country.
Most promising series starters—★★★★★
The Keeper of Lost Causes (Department Q #1) by Jussi Adler-Olsen (2011) 418 pages—Superb Scandinavian noir from Denmark
In eight books that have been published as of 2020, Carl Morck leads a team of misfits exiled to the basement of Copenhagen’s police headquarters. They’re assigned to cold cases but inevitably they become enmeshed in active investigations that somehow prove to be related to their assignments.
Christine Falls (Quirke #1) by Benjamin Black (2007) 417 pages—Corruption and mayhem in Dublin and Boston in a superior mystery novel
Under the pseudonym Benjamin Black, the Booker Award-winning author John Banville wrote seven mystery tales about the investigations undertaken by Dublin coroner Dr. Quirke in the 1950s. In most of these books, Quirke finds himself entangled and at odds with members of his own adoptive family and with the powerful hierarchy of the Catholic Church.
A Trace of Smoke (Hannah Vogel #1) by Rebecca Cantrell (2009) 301 pages—Crime in the underbelly of Nazi-era Germany
The four books of the Hannah Vogel series follow the eponymous reporter into the dark domain of corruption and murder in Berlin under the Third Reich. Each of the books is tied to a historically significant event, such as the murder of Ernst Röhm of the SA, the 1936 Berlin Olympics, and Kristallnacht. Despite the promise of the first book, I found the series as a whole disappointing.
The Best of Our Spies (Spies #1) by Alex Gerlis (2012) 620 pages—An extraordinary World War II spy story grounded in historical fact
In the four smoothly written and well-researched books published as of 2019, Alex Gerlis explores the shadows of espionage during World War II. The books constitute a series not because a protagonist is featured in all four but because together they provide a panoramic picture of spy agencies at work in the midst of a bitter conflict.
The Eagle Has Landed (Liam Devlin #1) by Jack Higgins (1975) 372 pages—A classic espionage thriller that’s well worth rereading
In the four novels of the Liam Devlin series, Jack Higgins follows the resourceful Irish Republican Army soldier as he battles Nazis, the KGB, and other assorted malefactors. The Devlin novels live up to their billing as “action-packed thrillers.” The series starter is one of the bestselling novels of all time, having sold more than fifty million copies.
IQ (IQ #1) by Joe Ide (2016) 337 pages—Sherlock in the hood: inner-city crimesolver
In the five novels that have appeared as of 2021, Joe Ide follows the idiosyncratic investigations of Isaiah Quintabe, a brilliant young unlicensed private eye in the inner city of East Long Beach (Los Angeles’ port). Known as IQ, the young man is haunted by the murder of his older brother, whom he idolized.
The Boy in the Suitcase (Nina Borg #1) by Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis (2011) 321 pages—Something’s rotten in Denmark
The Danish mystery-writing duo of Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis produced four books together before calling it quits. (They appeared together on a panel I moderated at the Bay Area Book Festival, and I detected a certain frostiness between them. Sad, because the series is uniformly excellent.) Their protagonist is Nina Borg, a neurotic Red Cross nurse with a compulsive desire to help refugees who are victimized by Danish society.
The Widows of Malabar Hill (Perveen Mistry #1) by Sujata Massey (2018) 401 pages—The first woman lawyer in Bombay solves a baffling mystery
American author Sujata Massey writes mystery tales set in other countries, with one series of eleven novels set in Japan and three books to date (2021) in India. The Indian stories follow a brilliant young Oxford-educated woman who serves as the first female attorney in Bombay. The books are set in the Indian metropolis in the years immediately following World War I.
A Rising Man (Wyndham and Banerjee #1) by Abir Mukherjee (2017) 390 pages—A brilliant historical detective novel set in India following World War I
With five books under his belt—the fifth is due to appear in November 2021—Abir Mukherjee has begun to paint a compelling picture of the turmoil and promise in India under the British Raj. Captain Sam Wyndham and his Bengali sidekick, Surendranath Banerjee, investigate complex murder mysteries in eastern India on behalf of the Viceroy, exposing the rising tide of nationalism that would win freedom for the subcontinent less than thirty years later.
The Godwulf Manuscript (Spenser #1) by Robert B. Parker (1973) 210 pages—The first Spenser novel by the “Dean of American Crime Fiction”
The late Robert B. Parker wins top honors for longevity with his series of forty books featuring private eye Spenser. The Boston-area P.I. tackles the Mob and official corruption. These books were widely recognized as the first top-selling mysteries that reflected the country’s increasing demographic diversity. I read and enjoyed a great many of them years ago.
A Morbid Taste for Bones (Brother Cadfael #1) by Ellis Peters (1977) 213 pages—Reviewing the first book in the delightful Brother Cadfael series
The late Edith Pargeter, writing under the pseudonym Ellis Peters, wrote twenty-one novels about a brilliant Welsh monk named Brother Cadfael. The brother uses his experience as a soldier in the Crusades and as an herbalist to suss out the hidden truth about the mysteries that erupt in and around his monastery. The tales are set in the first half of the twelfth century in the western reaches of England, on the border with Wales.
Knots and Crosses (Inspector Rebus #1) by Ian Rankin (2007) 244 pages—The first in a series of great detective novels
Edinburgh police detective Inspector John Rebus is the protagonist of twenty-eight mystery novels award-winning Scottish author Ian Rankin has written as of 2020. Rankin follows him from his debut on the force to the years following his retirement, when he returns to investigate cold cases and other difficult assignments.
Dark of the Moon (Virgil Flowers #1) by John Sandford (2007) 396 pages—In Virgil Flowers’ debut, arson, multiple murder, and a right-wing preacher
Virgil Flowers is the most flamboyant, and most successful, detective in the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension in the twelve books that have appeared as of 2019. He lives to fish in the state’s abundant lakes and writes about wildlife for major national magazines. And author John Sandford gives vent to his sense of humor in these stories, many of which are quite funny.
Triptych (Will Trent #1) by Karin Slaughter (2006) 512 pages—Karin Slaughter’s Will Trent: the first novel
In ten books published as of 2020, Will Trent of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation tackles some of the state’s most difficult cases while fighting off the efforts of his mentally unbalanced ex-wife to distract him from his work. Trent is severely dyslexic and unable to read, so he has cleverly developed a series of workarounds that permit him to function almost normally.
Maisie Dobbs (Maisie Dobbs #1) by Jacqueline Winspear (2003) 305 pages)—A female detective like no other
British-American novelist Jacqueline Winspear has produced sixteen books as of 2021 featuring “psychologist and investigator” Maisie Dobbs. After she served as a nurse on the front lines in World War I, Maisie’s mentor and patron has set her up as a private investigator. The cases she takes on reveal the heavy burden that the war has placed on British society throughout the 1920s and 30s. And as World War II arrives on the horizon, Maisie turns to espionage at the behest of British intelligence.
Series starters that show potential—★★★★☆
River of Darkness (John Madden #1) by Rennie Airth (2005) 451 pages—Rennie Airth’s John Madden series spans the world wars
In the six books he has published as of 2020, South African writer Rennie Airth explores the dark side of England between the two world wars. His protagonist is troubled cop and World War I veteran John Madden.
Murder in the Marais (Aimee Leduc #1) by Cara Black (2003) 354 pages—Neo-Nazis in a fascinating murder mystery set in Paris
Aimee Leduc is the daughter of a Paris police inspector who pursues the disappearance of her American mother as she plies her trade as a private investigator. In the twenty novels that have appeared as of 2021, Leduc and her brilliant partner, René Friant, a dwarf, take on cases that carry them into one after another of the many diverse neighborhoods of metropolitan Paris.
To Shield the Queen (Ursula Blanchard #1) by Fiona Buckley (1997) 288 pages—A worthy murder mystery set in the court of Queen Elizabeth I
The eighteen books of the Ursula Blanchard series follow the lady-in-waiting to Elizabeth I through the endless intrigue of the court. Blanchard becomes a player in uncovering the conspiracies and assassination plots that swirl around the Queen.
Murder by Misrule (Francis Bacon Mystery #1) by Anna Castle (2014) 350 pages—A lawyer is murdered in the Elizabethan Age
The seven books published in this series as of 2021 are based on the real-life figure of Francis Bacon, who was both a high official in the court of Elizabeth I and a noted philosopher who is credited with setting down the rules of empiricism (the scientific method). In the author’s conceit, Bacon leads a spy ring like that of his contemporary, Sir Francis Walsingham.
The Big Sleep (Philip Marlowe #1) by Raymond Chandler (1939) 234 pages—The classic first Philip Marlowe novel by Raymond Chandler
For many mystery authors as well as readers worldwide, Philip Marlowe is the iconic hard-boiled detective who set the stage for a flood of imitators in the decades after the seven books in this series were published. Marlowe is a private investigator who plumbs the depths of the seamy side of Los Angeles in the years just before and after World War II.
A Prisoner in Malta (Christopher Marlowe #1) by Phillip DePoy (2016) 321 pages—A delightful historical mystery novel starring Christopher Marlowe
History tells us that Christopher Marlowe’s popular plays and poetry inspired his contemporary, William Shakespeare. In two books published as of 2017, Marlowe serves as a spy for Queen Elizabeth’s spymaster, Francis Walsingham, and helps take down conspirators planning to assassinate Queen Elizabeth I.
Groucho Marx Master Detective (Groucho Marx Mysteries #1) by Ron Goulart (1998) 262 pages—Sherlock Holmes, meet Groucho Marx, Master Detective
The six Groucho Marx Mysteries follow the madcap comedian and his scriptwriter sidekick as they outsmart the police in solving murder mysteries in Hollywood during its golden era. The books are tightly plotted tales of suspense but often very funny as well.
The Crossing Places (Ruth Galloway #1) by Elly Griffiths (2009) 306 pages—A whodunit that’s not about a detective
Forensic archeologist Dr. Ruth Galloway lives in bleak, isolated Norfolk County northeast of London where in the course of the fourteen books about her that have appeared as of 2021 she invariably encounters one or more dead bodies accompanying the old bones somebody had dug up. She collaborates with Detective Inspector Nelson of the Norwich constabulary to tackle each mystery that unfolds.
The Case of the Missing Servant (Vish Puri #1) by Tarquin Hall (2009) 321 pages—Vish Puri is either India’s #1 private investigator or #2
The sixth book in the Vish Puri series was published in 2019 highlighting the adventures of India’s #1 or #2 private investigator and his motley team. Working with his mother (Mummy-ji) and assistants he calls by such noms de guerre as Facecream, Puri pursues complicated mysteries that could only be found in India. The series brilliantly explores Indian culture and history amid the laughs.
Crashed (Junior Bender #1) by Timothy Hallinan (2012) 459 pages—A career criminal narrates this clever and funny mystery
Junior Bender can’t catch a break. All he wants to do is ply his trade as a burglar—he is unquestionably Los Angeles’s most gifted break-in artist—but the kingpins of crime in Southern California insist on pressing him into service as a crimebuster . . . solving crimes of which they’ve been a victim. There are seven books full of these frequently hilarious sales.
Slow Horses (Slough House #1) by Mick Herron (2010) 336 pages—British satire about misfit spies in MI5
As of 2021, seven books have chronicled the misadventures of Slough House. Located far from MI5 headquarters in London, Slough House is where the agency’s misfits and screwups are sent to do . . . well, nothing at all . . . under the watchful eye of a slovenly and insensitive veteran secret agent. Jackson Lamb himself was exiled there because he murdered MI5’s former managing director.
The Talented Mr. Ripley (Ripley #1) by Patricia Highsmith (1955) 288 pages—A classic mystery novel about a creepy criminal
Critics love this series of five books about the psychopathic serial killer Mr. Ripley. Although I couldn’t deny how well Patricia Highsmith wrote the first one, I haven’t read any of the others because I detested Mr. Ripley.
Death of a Dissident (Inspector Porfiry Rostnikov #1) by Stuart M. Kaminsky (1981) 289 pages—A grim murder mystery set in the USSR
In sixteen books, talented Inspector Porfiry Rostnikov investigates serious crime in 1980s Moscow. Bedeviled by and indifferent superiors and the meddling KGB, he must devote equal time and energy maneuvering through the bureaucratic maze and solving crime.
March Violets (Bernie Gunther #1) by Philip Kerr (1989) 256 pages—A vivid snapshot of Nazi Berlin
Bernie Gunther is an honest cop working under a profoundly dishonest government. A homicide detective in Berlin when Adolf Hitler comes to power, he continues to ply his trade for as long as he can. Eventually, the Nazi regime presses him into service, forcing him to join the SS, where he uncovers some of his colleagues’ terrible crimes. And that in turn forces him to flee to Latin America. Philip Kerr published fourteen books in this series before passing away in 2018.
The Ice Princess (Fjällbacka Book #1) by Camilla Läckberg (2003) 420 pages—Murder on ice in a small Swedish town
In ten books published from 2003 to 2017, true-crime writer Erica Falck and her partner (later husband) police detective Patrik Hedström, tackle baffling crimes in the picturesque town of Fjällbacka, a summer resort on Sweden’s North Sea coast.
The Last Detective (Peter Diamond #1) by Peter Lovesey (1991) 372 pages—A murder mystery by Peter Lovesey that’s suspenseful to the end
Detective Superintendent Peter Diamond of the Bath Constabulary invariably finds the culprit among a passel of suspects in twenty classic mystery novels that have appeared as of 2021. He holds forth from the Bath Constabulary in southwest England, near the Welsh border.
The Blackhouse (Lewis Trilogy #1) by Peter May (2013) 403 pages—A moody Scottish detective novel set in the Outer Hebrides
This dark trilogy is set in the Outer Hebrides, a stormy island chain off the west coast of Scotland. There, Detective Inspector Fin Macleod is sent from Edinburgh to investigate a murder. A native of the island where he was born and raised, he stays on through two subsequent investigations that reveal the darkness that lies beneath the clouds that shroud the islands.
Heresy (Giordano Bruno #1) by S. J. Parris (2010) 448 pages—An historical spy thriller in the Elizabethan Age
The sixteenth-century Dominican friar Giordano Bruno famously defied the prevailing wisdom of his church. He speculated that the stars were suns, each with its own planets, and that the universe is infinite. He was tried for heresy and burned at the stake. But in this series of six books that have been published as of 2020, Bruno acts as a spy for Queen Elizabeth I during an extended stay in England.
The Missing American (Emma Djan #1) by Kwei Quartey (2020) 432 pages—A nitty-gritty view of Ghana today in this inventive detective novel
Ghanaian private detective Emma Djan battles police corruption and official indifference as she pursues justice against powerful people in her nation’s capital. Only two books have appeared as of 2021, but more seem likely.
The Cuckoo’s Calling (Cormoran Strike #1) by J. K. Rowling, aka Robert Galbraith (2013) 561 pages—J. K. Rowling writes for grownups with her debut in detective fiction
Harry Potter author J. K. Rowling turned to adult fiction with this series about an unusual London private eye named Cormoran Strike. Working with his sidekick, Robin Ellacott, the one-legged Afghanistan vet takes on seemingly unsolvable cases. The fifth of these engrossing novels was published in 2020.
The Holy Thief (Captain Alexei Korolev #1) by William Ryan (2010) 352 pages—A terrific murder mystery set in Stalin’s Soviet Union
The three books featuring Captain Alexei Korolev highlight the tragic excesses of Stalin’s regime in the 1930s. He works as an investigator for the Criminal Investigation Division of the Moscow Militia but is sent where the cases are the most challenging.
Rules of Prey (Lucas Davenport #1) by John Sandford (1990) 351 pages—Present at the creation of a serial hero
This venerable series—thirty-one books as of 2021—portrays the remarkable Lucas Davenport in his role as second-in-command of the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension. He leads a remarkable team (including Virgil Flowers, who gains his own spinoff series). Later, Davenport moves to Washington, DC, where he becomes more involved in national affairs and politics.
Blindsighted (Grant County #1) by Karin Slaughter (2001) 468 pages—Homophobia, rape, murder in the New South
The six books of the Grant County series pair pediatrician and coroner, Dr. Sara Linton, and her ex-husband, police chief Jeffrey Tolliver, in solving the gruesome murders that seem to proliferate in their rural Georgia town.
RoseAnna (Martin Beck #1) by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö (1965) 226 pages—Today’s Scandinavian detective fiction started here
From 1965 to 1975, in a series of ten police procedurals, a leftist couple in Sweden launched what we know today as Nordic or Scandinavian noir. The novels follow a senior detective named Martin Beck and his team in the Stockholm police as they pursue investigations into murder mysteries that together reflect the massive changes rocking Swedish society at the time.
The Bridge of Sighs (Yalta Boulevard #1) by Olen Steinhauer (2007) 288 pages—A fully satisfying murder mystery set in post-war Europe
Spy novelist Olen Steinhauer’s best work may be the five-book cycle or series he set in a fictional Eastern European town under Communism. Placed in successive decades, from the 1940s to the 1980s, the novels trace the work of a secret police detachment as it comes to grip with the mounting corruption and disillusionment of the era.
An Honorable Man (George Mueller #1) by Paul Vidich (2016) 289 pages—The Cold War, the early CIA, and the McCarthy Era
The four Cold War spy novels published as of 2021 center on a senior CIA officer named George Mueller. The books revolve around historical events such as the death of a CIA scientist involved in the agency’s notorious MK-ULTRA program to investigate mind control through drugs.
The Hot Rock (Dortmunder #1) by Donald E. Westlake (1970) 246 pages—Dortmunder’s first caper goes awry again and again
The late Donald E. Westlake’s fourteen hilarious Dortmunder novels chronicle the capers of a brilliant burglar and his hapless crew as they stumble into one misadventure after another.
Least auspicious series starters—★★★☆☆
You may wonder why there are so few “least auspicious” series starters listed here, but the explanation is simple. I start reading a lot of books that I never finish. And if I never finish them, I don’t write reviews. In two of the following cases (Jo Nesbø and Deborah Crombie), I’d read a large number of other books in the series and decided to loop back to the author’s series starter. I simply picked up the other two with high hopes that failed me.
The Hot Country (Christopher Marlowe Cobb #1) by Robert Olen Butler (2012) 352 pages—American vs German spies in the Mexican Revolution
The four books of the Christopher Marlowe Cobb series follow the missions of a Secret Service agent who tangles with German spies and other malefactors in the World War I era.
The Eyes of the Queen (Agents of the Crown #1) by Oliver Clements (2020) 303 pages—They’re trying to assassinate the queen!
In the two books released as of 2021, the Elizabethan-Era occultist John Dee—the court astrologer—is cast as a spy for the Queen, who had no lack of willing secret agents around her.
A Share in Death (Duncan Kincaid and Gemma James #1) by Deborah Crombie (1993) 212 pages—An early effort from Deborah Crombie, a master of detective fiction
Here’s an example of a poor start to a series that has later become one of my favorites among English murder mysteries. The eighteen books published as of 2019 follow the investigations of two Scotland Yard detectives—later husband and wife—on assignment out of London.
The Bat (Harry Hole #1) by Jo Nesbø (2013) 386 pages—Where it all began for Harry Hole: the Norwegian master-cop Down Under
Despite the disappointing start to this series, I have enjoyed every one of the eleven Harry Hole detective novels written as of 2019. The alcoholic Oslo detective is his own worst enemy, but he is the country’s most successful sleuth and takes on the most baffling cases.
Haven’t found the debut of your favorite mystery series here? There are four possible reasons for that:
- I read the book a long time ago and haven’t reread it. That’s something I rarely do.
- I tried reading it but gave up after twenty pages, or fifty. Or I read one or more other books in the series but didn’t think highly enough of it to check out the first one written.
- I haven’t yet gotten around to it.
- I’ve never heard of the series.
The superb detective novels of Elizabeth George and Henning Mankell and the Lisbeth Salander thrillers fall in the first category. I won’t mention those books that represent the second. But if you don’t see your favorite here and want to be sure I’m aware of it, please contact me.
For more reading
You might also enjoy my posts:
- Top 10 mystery and thriller series
- 20 excellent standalone mysteries and thrillers
- 5 top novels about private detectives
- Two dozen outstanding detective series from around the world
For an abundance of great mystery stories, go to Top 20 suspenseful detective novels (plus 200 more). And if you’re looking for exciting historical novels, check out Top 10 historical mysteries and thrillers reviewed here (plus 100 others).
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