The Great Books: Modern P.I. Series

 

These are the series I will reread time and again, the ones that suck me back in and have held up over time. By “modern” I mean 1960s on, and include both licensed P.I.s and sole investigators. I’ll occasionally go back to some individual classics by Hammett, Chandler, Christie, and Ellery Queen (especially the trilogy of Queen failures at the center of which is Ten Days Wonder, a masterpiece.) But these twelve are the ones I will reread in their entirety.

JOHN D. MACDONALD, Travis McGee (21 books)
A hardcore beach bum burnout who lives on a houseboat in Florida, Travis is a prototype for many to come, including Jack Reacher. The Kindle versions are high-priced, but individual ones pop up occasionally for $1.99.

ROSS MACDONALD, Lew Archer (18 books)
Psychological Los Angeles P. I. writing that set the foundation for the more light-hearted Elvis Cole. Yeah, I know. Violates my “modern’ rule, but for some reason, Archer always feels saturated in early 60s L.A. culture. Perhaps it’s the whole timeless Hollywood thing.

ROBERT B. PARKER, Spenser (39 books) / Jessie Stone (9 books) / Virgil Cole & Everett Hitch (4 books)
You have to respect a writer who gets his Ph.D. in English Lit and writes his dissertation on “The Violent Hero, Wilderness Heritage and Urban Reality: A Study of the Private Eye in the novels of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and Ross MacDonald.” The first Spenser novel is not fully realized as the later character, but Parker hits his stride with Looking for Rachel Wallace and  Early Autumn. Jessie Stone, and Cole and Hitch are embodiments of Spenser, and all worthwhile. Appaloosa is a little literary western masterpiece. If only Parker’s writer-replacements had his literary chops.

LAWRENCE BLOCK, Matthew Scudder (17 books)
The alcoholic NYC P. I. By the time you finish When the Sacred Ginmill Closes, you know you are in the hands of a master writer. Classic! 

NELSON DEMILLE, John Corey (8 books)
DeMille wrote Plum Island without thought of a series. But the smart-ass character’s popularity took over. Funny and smart. I think it’s time to start reading this series again.

DENNIS LEHANE, Patrick Kenzie & Angela Gennaro (6 books)
Carries on Parker’s Boston P. I. tradition. Lehane is a writer’s writer and virtually all he writes turns to gold. The movie version of Gone, Baby, Gone did the characters justice.

LEE CHILD, Jack Reacher (26 books)
Yeah, not the literary style of the other writers, but still fun and viscerally compelling. Reacher carves out his own world as a character, and though the plots are often predictably routine, they are still rereadable primarily for Reacher’s compelling inner drives. Tom Cruise? Uh, no. But there is a series in the works where the actor playing Reacher is over six feet. Here’s hoping.

ROBERT CRAIS, Elvis Cole & Joe Pike (18 books)
Always fun! A great twist on the Spenser-Hawk kind of duo. Crais knows how to write, and he’s one of the few I will buy hot off the press, rather than waiting for the price to drop.

MICHAEL CONNELLY, Harry Bosch (20 books)
Okay, not exactly a P. I., but he’s a sole investigator in spirit. Bosch is Bosch and Titus Welliver on the Amazon series nails him.

STEPHEN HUNTER, Bob Lee Swagger (12 books)
The movie and TV attempts to deliver this character completely fail. Bob Lee Swagger is an icon that would require miracle casting. The three Earl Swagger books are excellent as well.

JAMES W. HALL, Thorne (15 books)
Carrying on the Travis McGee tradition in the Florida Keys. If you enjoy Travis and have not tried Thorne, pick him up! You can’t beat the Kindle prices.

C.J. BOX, Joe Pickett (21 books)
A nice surprise as a series. Joe is a Wyoming game warden who has the occasional “Hawk/Joe Pike” sidekick Nate Romanowski. Different and fun to read.

* * * * *

That’s my list. Reread honorable mentions that don’t quite fit into the P.I./Sole Investigator mold go to Vince Flynn’s Mitch Rapp (13 books) and Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus (23 books).

So did I miss any? What would be on your reread list?

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  1. John H. Member
    John H.
    @JohnH

    I have read all the Travis McGee stories. And reread all of them except Nightmare in Pink. Just didn’t want to see that one again. But I might change my mind!

    Not a big fan of private-eye stuff, but I do revisit the Ed Mort stories by Luis Fernando Verissimo. They are so good that I will shun the movie.

    • #1
  2. Jan Coolidge
    Jan
    @ChileGirl

    I am a fan of these series books, and read at least a few of each of them.  You start, really, as a kid, (at least I did) with Trixie Belden, Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys etc. 

    Travis McGee was fun in the 70’s for me.  I should go back and re-read some of them.

    The Kinsey Millhone books were regular events and stretched over the years from A is for Alibi to Y… and I was really shocked and sad when the author passed away before she got to X.   They were maybe the first of the “chick” private detective series.  They were comforting and interesting and no serial killers.  

    I have to admit that a couple of really good series that I followed for years I recently crossed off my list for further purchase.  There was absolutely no reason to go specifically political, but the author chose to.  They just had to let everyone know exactly where they stood and no need to fret about insulting a huge portion of their purchasers and readers.  They don’t need them anymore. Good to know. 

    • #2
  3. JustmeinAZ Member
    JustmeinAZ
    @JustmeinAZ

    Jan (View Comment):
    There was absolutely no reason to go specifically political, but the author chose to. They just had to let everyone know exactly where they stood and no need to fret about insulting a huge portion of their purchasers and readers.

    Yeah, I hate that. Connelly did that in his latest Mickey Haller book, Law of Innocence. I was so disappointed in him. But I won’t give him up; he writes too well.

    I’ve read many of those series listed and am glad to get  some ideas for what I haven’t read. I especially like Lehane.

    I think Child has gotten a little boring with Reacher. I started reading my Dad’s Travis McGee paperbacks when I was a teen. I think I’ll go back and start all over with them.

    • #3
  4. EB Thatcher
    EB
    @EB

    Love all of these.  Will have to try some of your others.

    ROBERT B. PARKER, Spenser (39 books) / Jessie Stone (9 books) / Virgil Cole & Everett Hitch (4 books)

    LAWRENCE BLOCK, Matthew Scudder (17 books)

    LEE CHILD, Jack Reacher (26 books)

    MICHAEL CONNELLY, Harry Bosch (20 books)

    ROBERT CRAIS, Elvis Cole & Joe Pike (18 books)

    Also Josephine Tey, particularly Brat Farrar.  Although maybe she belongs in Christie territory.

     

     

    • #4
  5. Taras Coolidge
    Taras
    @Taras

    I’ve greatly enjoyed the Cormoran Strike novels by “Robert Galbraith” in their excellent audio versions.  In fact, I’ve listened to most of them several times.  It’s a credit to Galbraith’s skill as a writer that they hold up so well even at that slow speed.

    I’m not as likely to listen to the latest book, Troubled Blood, again:  some of the contents are just too grim.  In a way (and almost certainly not by the author’s intent) it serves as an argument for the death penalty, as it shows how an imprisoned (!) serial killer can psychologically torture the families of his victims — and possible victims — for 40 years.

    Incidentally, the Left is trying to cancel Galbraith, for insisting that a man who says he is a woman does not magically transform into a woman thereby.  No groveling apology from Galbraith so far.

    • #5
  6. Mark Alexander Coolidge
    Mark Alexander
    @MarkAlexander

    John H. (View Comment):

    I have read all the Travis McGee stories. And reread all of them except Nightmare in Pink. Just didn’t want to see that one again. But I might change my mind!

    Not a big fan of private-eye stuff, but I do revisit the Ed Mort stories by Luis Fernando Verissimo. They are so good that I will shun the movie.

    Yeah, Pink is week. Blue too, in comparison to the later ones. But my DNA is so completionist, I have to read them all.

    • #6
  7. Mark Alexander Coolidge
    Mark Alexander
    @MarkAlexander

    Taras (View Comment):

    I’ve greatly enjoyed the Cormoran Strike novels by “Robert Galbraith” in their excellent audio versions. In fact, I’ve listened to most of them several times. It’s a credit to Galbraith’s skill as a writer that they hold up so well even at that slow speed.

    I’m not as likely to listen to the latest book, Troubled Blood, again: some of the contents are just too grim. In a way (and almost certainly not by the author’s intent) it serves as an argument for the death penalty, as it shows how an imprisoned (!) serial killer can psychologically torture the families of his victims — and possible victims — for 40 years.

    Incidentally, the Left is trying to cancel Galbraith, for insisting that a man who says he is a woman does not magically transform into a woman thereby. No groveling apology from Galbraith so far.

    I’m on book 4 now.

    • #7
  8. philo Member
    philo
    @philo

    GREGORY MCDONALD, I. M. Fletcher (9 books

    Actually, I’ve only read three of them but they are entertaining and one of the greatest movies of all time was based on the character…one which reminds us that Chevy Chase was once very funny.

    (Thanks to a co-worker supplying me with material in the audio format, I am a huge Reacher fan.)

     

    • #8
  9. The Cynthonian Member
    The Cynthonian
    @TheCynthonian

    Do you like any mystery/suspense authors who feature a female protagonist?

    My current favorites:

    Iona Whishaw’s series featuring Lane Winslow as a Brit living in remote British Columbia in the late 1940s.  She was a spy during the war and wanted to get away from all the memories.

    Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs series.  I’m only up to the fourth one, but enjoying them so far.  This one is set in England in the between-the-wars era.

    Another series I like by a female author is M.L. Longworth’s Judge Verlaque series.  It’s set mostly in Provence.  

    Last but not least, Louise Penny’s Armand Gamache series is excellent…..though she may stray into the PC territory in her later volumes.  I haven’t read them all yet.

    I’m not much of a re-reader, especially when it comes to this type of fiction.  I should try rereading Agatha Christie.  I first read most of her works when I was in high school, and that was some decades ago!

     

    • #9
  10. Mark Alexander Coolidge
    Mark Alexander
    @MarkAlexander

    The Cynthonian (View Comment):

    Do you like any mystery/suspense authors who feature a female protagonist?

    My current favorites:

    Iona Whishaw’s series featuring Lane Winslow as a Brit living in remote British Columbia in the late 1940s. She was a spy during the war and wanted to get away from all the memories.

    Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs series. I’m only up to the fourth one, but enjoying them so far. This one is set in England in the between-the-wars era.

    Another series I like by a female author is M.L. Longworth’s Judge Verlaque series. It’s set mostly in Provence.

    Last but not least, Louise Penny’s Armand Gamache series is excellent…..though she may stray into the PC territory in her later volumes. I haven’t read them all yet.

    I’m not much of a re-reader, especially when it comes to this type of fiction. I should try rereading Agatha Christie. I first read most of her works when I was in high school, and that was some decades ago!

    Maisie Dobbs is great, but I’m not much for rereading those.

    Same with Fannie Fischer.

    Then, Miss Marple, of course.

    Sunny Randall is part of the Jessie Stone universe.

    • #10
  11. JustmeinAZ Member
    JustmeinAZ
    @JustmeinAZ

    Mark Alexander (View Comment):
    Last but not least, Louise Penny’s Armand Gamache series is excellent…..though she may stray into the PC territory in her later volumes. I haven’t read them all yet.

    I was turned on to Louise Penny by @She and I’ve listened to them all. My main complaint is that as they go along Gamache becomes a little too mushy, touchy-feely for my taste. All the books have been a little on the PC side as shown by the inhabitants of Three Pines, but as yet there are no trans characters.

    • #11
  12. Hoyacon Member
    Hoyacon
    @Hoyacon

    I’ve read almost all of them.  They fall into a couple of different categories IMO, including “somewhat anachronistic” (John D.).  For my money, the Ross McDonald series–although dated–is the best written, followed by Mr. Connelly.   I share your admiration for James Hall and C.J Box as well.

    I noticed there was no mention of the Dave Robicheaux/James Lee Burke series.   

    • #12
  13. Mark Alexander Coolidge
    Mark Alexander
    @MarkAlexander

    Hoyacon (View Comment):

    I’ve read almost all of them. They fall into a couple of different categories IMO, including “somewhat anachronistic” (John D.). For my money, the Ross McDonald series–although dated–is the best written, followed by Mr. Connelly. I share your admiration for James Hall and C.J Box as well.

    I noticed there was no mention of the Dave Robicheaux/James Lee Burke series.

    Read a couple and they were good. Don’t know why I didn’t continue…

    • #13
  14. Allan Rutter Member
    Allan Rutter
    @AllanRutter

    Before Harlan Coben went all in on stand-alones (and British TV series), his Myron Bolitar series was great fun. I tend to like my PI’s snarky, so I also enjoy the Robert Crais stuff.

    If you like CJ Box (who also can get a bit political), two other western/midwestern series are Craig Johnson’s Longmire books (the books are so much funnier than the dour TV adaptation, although they did the best job of casting) and John Sandford’s Virgil Flowers books. Like Joe Pickett, they are both law enforcement related, but more outdoors than strict police procedurals.

    The most recent entry in the Reacher series, now co-written by his brother, is pretty good, too.

    • #14
  15. Mark Alexander Coolidge
    Mark Alexander
    @MarkAlexander

    Allan Rutter (View Comment):

    Before Harlan Coben went all in on stand-alones (and British TV series), his Myron Bolitar series was great fun. I tend to like my PI’s snarky, so I also enjoy the Robert Crais stuff.

    If you like CJ Box (who also can get a bit political), two other western/midwestern series are Craig Johnson’s Longmire books (the books are so much funnier than the dour TV adaptation, although they did the best job of casting) and John Sandford’s Virgil Flowers books. Like Joe Pickett, they are both law enforcement related, but more outdoors than strict police procedurals.

    The most recent entry in the Reacher series, now co-written by his brother, is pretty good, too.

    Myron, yes, I read all those and enjoyed them.

    You’re right about CJ, but I never felt the author inserting himself too much. I’m okay when politics fits the character. And Nate makes up for so much. Love him. I’m a sucker for Hawk/Pike/Nate. It’s a formula, but they make it work.

    Read several Virgil Flowers during my reading of Sandford overall, but stopped, and never really had the desire to reread Sandford…

    Saw and enjoyed the Longmire series, but not read the books. The fact that they have much more humor may trigger me to start them. Thanks for the tip. The first on Kindle is only $2.99. https://amzn.to/3eJdSwN

    • #15
  16. Max Knots Member
    Max Knots
    @MaxKnots

    JustmeinAZ (View Comment):

    Mark Alexander (View Comment):
    Last but not least, Louise Penny’s Armand Gamache series is excellent…..though she may stray into the PC territory in her later volumes. I haven’t read them all yet.

    I was turned on to Louise Penny by @ She and I’ve listened to them all. My main complaint is that as they go along Gamache becomes a little too mushy, touchy-feely for my taste. All the books have been a little on the PC side as shown by the inhabitants of Three Pines, but as yet there are no trans characters.

    Yes. The main characters are well-developed. Enjoyable reads all.

    • #16
  17. Max Knots Member
    Max Knots
    @MaxKnots

    Allan Rutter (View Comment):

    Before Harlan Coben went all in on stand-alones (and British TV series), his Myron Bolitar series was great fun. I tend to like my PI’s snarky, so I also enjoy the Robert Crais stuff.

    If you like CJ Box (who also can get a bit political), two other western/midwestern series are Craig Johnson’s Longmire books (the books are so much funnier than the dour TV adaptation, although they did the best job of casting) and John Sandford’s Virgil Flowers books. Like Joe Pickett, they are both law enforcement related, but more outdoors than strict police procedurals.

    The most recent entry in the Reacher series, now co-written by his brother, is pretty good, too.

    Yes to these plus J.A. Jance’s “JP Beaumont” series is well done. A Seattle PD detective before the city’s recent “troubles”. The lead character ages with the series, quite realistically.

    • #17
  18. David Pettus Coolidge
    David Pettus
    @DavidPettus

    No love for Longmire?

    • #18
  19. JustmeinAZ Member
    JustmeinAZ
    @JustmeinAZ

    David Pettus (View Comment):

    No love for Longmire?

    See comments 14 & 15

    • #19
  20. Headedwest Coolidge
    Headedwest
    @Headedwest

    Mark Alexander (View Comment):

    Hoyacon (View Comment):

    I’ve read almost all of them. They fall into a couple of different categories IMO, including “somewhat anachronistic” (John D.). For my money, the Ross McDonald series–although dated–is the best written, followed by Mr. Connelly. I share your admiration for James Hall and C.J Box as well.

    I noticed there was no mention of the Dave Robicheaux/James Lee Burke series.

    Read a couple and they were good. Don’t know why I didn’t continue…

    Burke is a good writer, but I found his political injections annoying.

    • #20
  21. Headedwest Coolidge
    Headedwest
    @Headedwest

    Allan Rutter (View Comment):

    Before Harlan Coben went all in on stand-alones (and British TV series), his Myron Bolitar series was great fun. I tend to like my PI’s snarky, so I also enjoy the Robert Crais stuff.

    If you like CJ Box (who also can get a bit political), two other western/midwestern series are Craig Johnson’s Longmire books (the books are so much funnier than the dour TV adaptation, although they did the best job of casting) and John Sandford’s Virgil Flowers books. Like Joe Pickett, they are both law enforcement related, but more outdoors than strict police procedurals.

    The most recent entry in the Reacher series, now co-written by his brother, is pretty good, too.

    Sandford’s long-running “Prey” series are all readable, but the Virgil Flowers books have entertained me more, I think.

    I think CJ Box does a pretty good job of juggling political points without getting overbearing. It’s also an amusing point that Joe Pickett is not at all good with his pistol, which goes against most of the standard tropes in books like this.

    • #21
  22. mildlyo Member
    mildlyo
    @mildlyo

    The Emma Lathen series about John Putnam Thatcher, a new york banker detective, are a favorite of mine. 24 books, starting in 1961. Wonderful writing, and very different from the normal run of detectives.

    • #22
  23. mildlyo Member
    mildlyo
    @mildlyo

    The Fletch series, by Gregory Mcdonald, 11 books. The horrible movie pretty much ruined the series for me, but the half dozen books I read before that were fun.

    • #23
  24. GFHandle Member
    GFHandle
    @GFHandle

    Slightly different genre but:

    Everything by Margery Allingham

    Everything by Rex Stout

    Actually in the Modern PI Category of this thread and a New Find for me: Peter Lovesey’s Peter Diamond series.

    • #24
  25. Mark Alexander Coolidge
    Mark Alexander
    @MarkAlexander

    Taras (View Comment):

    I’ve greatly enjoyed the Cormoran Strike novels by “Robert Galbraith” in their excellent audio versions. In fact, I’ve listened to most of them several times. It’s a credit to Galbraith’s skill as a writer that they hold up so well even at that slow speed.

    I’m not as likely to listen to the latest book, Troubled Blood, again: some of the contents are just too grim. In a way (and almost certainly not by the author’s intent) it serves as an argument for the death penalty, as it shows how an imprisoned (!) serial killer can psychologically torture the families of his victims — and possible victims — for 40 years.

    Incidentally, the Left is trying to cancel Galbraith, for insisting that a man who says he is a woman does not magically transform into a woman thereby. No groveling apology from Galbraith so far.

    Just finished the 4th book, Lethal White. Excellent! Although I am mentally telling Strike to get an updated prosthetic (ignorant as I am of prosthetics, but modern advances mean the pressure can be distributed to lesson his pain).

    I predict Robin will likely one day become a full partner, in both senses of that word.

    Book 5 awaits. It had recently been on a short Kindle sale for $2.99, and it has received over 30,000 reviews. 4.5 stars. Should be fun.

    • #25
  26. JustmeinAZ Member
    JustmeinAZ
    @JustmeinAZ

    Just to add to the list here are series with police detectives. Start with P.D James and Ruth Rendell.

    Peter Robinson – Inspector Alan Banks

    P.D. James – Inspector Adam Dalgliesh

    Ruth Rendell – Chief Inspector Wexford

    Elizabeth George – Inspector Lynley

    Ian Rankin – Inspector Rebus

    • #26
  27. Mark Alexander Coolidge
    Mark Alexander
    @MarkAlexander

    JustmeinAZ (View Comment):

    Just to add to the list here are series with police detectives. Start with P.D James and Ruth Rendell.

    Peter Robinson – Inspector Alan Banks

    P.D. James – Inspector Adam Dalgliesh

    Ruth Rendell – Chief Inspector Wexford

    Elizabeth George – Inspector Lynley

    Ian Rankin – Inspector Rebus

    Still reading Robinson and Rankin when they release one. The others I read a couple of decades ago. Many fine mystery writers out of Britain.

    • #27
  28. colleenb Member
    colleenb
    @colleenb

    I can barely get the first reading so I don’t reread at all. I would add the the Inspector Ian Rutledge mysteries by Charles Todd (WWI veteran who is ‘haunted’ by his Scottish sergeant); Bruno series by Martin Walker (never read when you are hungry); the series on a Chinese detective by Qiu (dealing with the CCP and corruption, etc). I continue to go through the Louise Penny series but the PC quotient is going up and I may give up. Also enjoy Winspear. Still going through Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe series and they just get better as opposed to some series. Stout apparently never felt the need to write longer and longer books. Penny and some of these other writers could use a good editor that just tells them “no, this is a mystery not a novel.” Thanks for the post and all the comments/recommendations.

    • #28
  29. Hoyacon Member
    Hoyacon
    @Hoyacon

    Headedwest (View Comment):

    Mark Alexander (View Comment):

    Hoyacon (View Comment):

    I’ve read almost all of them. They fall into a couple of different categories IMO, including “somewhat anachronistic” (John D.). For my money, the Ross McDonald series–although dated–is the best written, followed by Mr. Connelly. I share your admiration for James Hall and C.J Box as well.

    I noticed there was no mention of the Dave Robicheaux/James Lee Burke series.

    Read a couple and they were good. Don’t know why I didn’t continue…

    Burke is a good writer, but I found his political injections annoying.

    I mentioned him because it’s a very prominent series.  Plus, he’s good at atmospherics.  I haven’t read a lot of the later books, so I may have missed his political posturing–which is a death knell for me.  In fact, I found his injection of the character’s alcoholism to be tedious over time, although I recognize it’s a serious issue.  There’s an element of that in the Block/Scudder books as well.

    • #29
  30. JustmeinAZ Member
    JustmeinAZ
    @JustmeinAZ

    Another good police series is by Jussi Adler-Olsen – Department Q. Danish but well translated.

    • #30