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The Top 8 Mystery Series to Binge Read This Summer

Tertulia •
Jun 1st, 2023

Elementary, our dear mystery lovers: there’s nothing better than devouring an entire series of capers starring a beloved detective. Luckily, the roster of binge-worthy sleuths has kept growing since the days of Sherlock Holmes. From a legendary Florida boat bum, to a Hiroshima survivor with a nose for trouble, to a bounty-hunting Jersey girl, to a gang of snooping retirees, here are eight killer mystery series starring crime-fighting protagonists you'll want to chill with all summer long.

The Travis McGee Series by John D. MacDonald

Twenty-one escapist mysteries headlined by a beloved, swashbuckling Florida boat bum who moonlights as an amateur detective. That’s the premise behind these propulsive, slightly pulpy, exquisitely written capers that kick off during the innocence and hedonism of 1960s South Florida and work their way up through the flash and fire of the '70s and '80s. You can read them in any order, or choose your favorite color and dive in: each title references a distinct hue. One of these gems, The Scarlet Ruse, follows Trav and his Fort Lauderdale marina buddies as they get mixed up in a dangerous scam involving rare stamps.

Fan and bestselling author Peter Swanson explains their binge-worthiness: “The very best of the Travis McGee novels turn off that part of the brain that is wondering how you’ll pay the bills, or what to make for dinner, or what the world will be like in five years. And they do it in high style, with great writing, some real surprises, and some brutal truth-telling.”

The Plum Series by Janet Evanovich

We’re first introduced to this bestselling series’ Jersey girl-turned-bounty-hunter lead, Stephanie Plum, after she’s been sacked from her job selling lingerie at Macy’s and lands a gig tracking down bad guys for cash in her hometown of Trenton. The 30 installments that follow are sassy action-packed romps full of Jersey attitude and zany characters. Each announces its place in the chronology right in the title (e.g. Seven Up, Hard Eight), but you can grab any book and commence said binge. We do, however, recommend starting at the beginning with One for the Money, where Plum takes her first, shaky steps in the crook-bagging game all while trying to apprehend an old flame from her past.

Aaron Falk Series by Jane Harper

Starring a methodical financial-crimes cop, and written by a former business journalist, these three prize-winning Australian mysteries are best read in order. Get your feet wet with the series' terrific debut, The Dry, where we meet Melbourne Police investigator Aaron Falk as he returns to his drought-stricken hometown in the Aussie outback for an old friend’s funeral. Back home secrets refuse to stay in the past, however, and Falk is thrust into a decades-old murder-suicide case that is the reason he left the first time. Something to look forward to: the latest and (allegedly) final installment in the series, Exiles, hit shelves earlier this year, with BookPage calling it “a powerful send-off for beloved character Aaron Falk.”

The Thursday Murder Club Series by Richard Osman

Once a week an eccentric quartet of pensioners in an English retirement home get together to crack unsolved mysteries in this quirky series from BBC presenter Richard Osman. Start the party off with book one, The Thursday Murder Club, which introduces the crusading retirees as they’re embroiled in a homicide right on their posh doorstep.

CrimeReads editor Olivia Rutigliano couldn’t get enough of the amateur sleuths’ adventures. “I adore the first two Thursday Murder Club books with all my heart, and GUESS WHAT? Now I adore the third one and it MIGHT be the most fun book of them all. It pits our Thursday Murder Club members against spies, mysterious assignments, television personalities, and of course, several dead bodies. A hilarious, gripping new tale, it is not to be missed!” 

Inspector Espinosa Mysteries Series by Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza

The Marvelous City serves as a stunning backdrop for these lush police procedurals starring a bookish Rio de Janeiro cop. Written by a Brazilian philosophy professor who got into the crime-writing game after a lifetime in academia, each of the seven books presents a standalone mystery. But devouring them in order allows for a deeper understanding of the philosophizing Inspector Espinosa and his colorful surrounding cast.

A Window in Copacabana, the series' fourth installment, finds Inspector Espinosa on his home turf and hot on the trail of a serial killer brazenly dusting off corrupt local cops and their mistresses, all under the watchful eye of Rio’s towering Christ the Redeemer statue. Kirkus raved, “Garcia-Roza, who writes like nobody else in the world, has produced altogether the most ebullient and delightful tale of serial homicide you’ll read this year.”

A Harlem Renaissance Mystery Series by Nekesa Afia

Throw on your zoot suit and tilt your fedora, ‘cause we’re going Uptown! Here are two sizzling new historical capers set amid the glitter and glam of 1920s Harlem. Series opener Dead Dead Girls introduces our spirited protagonist Louise Lloyd, a talented young dancer and amateur sleuth, as she goes toe-to-toe with conniving nightclub owners, cool Jazz cats, avant-garde artists, intellectuals and, of course, crooked cops, sadistic kidnappers and a dangerous killer targeting the city’s working girls. In the second book, Harlem Sunset, Louise is out to clear the name of her girlfriend Rosa Maria, who’s been unjustly framed for a bloody dance-floor murder. The third installment is slated to drop in 2024.

While the action-packed series twists and turns its way through the speakeasies, backstreets and nightclubs of the vaunted Jazz Age, it also delves into important themes of race, social change and queer identity with its star leading the charge. As Publisher’s Weekly promises: “Readers will root for intrepid, fiery Louise.”

Mas Arai Series by Naomi Hirahara

Aging Japanese-American gardener, Hiroshima survivor and unlikely sleuth, Mas Arai is a series protagonist unlike any other. The curmudgeonly Dodgers fan is not only an inveterate gambler, he also gets himself mixed up in all manner of mysteries around Los Angeles: tracking down a pal’s prized doll collection, dredging up a corpse in a dried-out koi pond, investigating a lottery winner’s murder. Edgar Award-winning author Naomi Hirahara says her own Hiroshima-survivor father inspired the series: "I think all the times I complained that my dad was a gardener and we couldn't afford this trip or that trip, I'm trying to make up for it by creating this heroic, iconic figure that's underestimated."

We recommend starting off with her initial entry, Summer of the Big Bachi, a past and present tale of murder connecting bomb-ravaged Hiroshima to the Pasadena of today, which Publishers Weekly called "[A] seamless and shyly powerful first novel… Peppered with pungent cultural details, crisp prose and credible, fresh descriptions of the effects of the A-bomb, this perfectly balanced gem deserves a wide readership."

Pentecost and Parker Series by Stephen Spotswood

This series consists of four fantastic hardboiled mysteries set in 1940s New York City and features not one, but two badass crime-cracking female leads. There’s the renowned P.I. Lillian Pentecost, blessed with a brilliant deductive mind but frail of health, and her scrappy sidekick Willowjean “Will” Parker, a knife-tossing circus runaway — the proverbial brains and muscle of the operation. In Fortune Favors the Dead, the dynamic duo investigate the inexplicable and possibly haunted murder of a wealthy socialite during an over-the-top Halloween bash.

It’s a fluid, fun, snappy series debut full of intrigue, duplicitous suspects, and noirish one-liners that left Criminal Element thirsting for more: “The first in what will hopefully be a long series, pays homage to several of the greats: the noir atmosphere and sensibilities of Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe, the pastiche of Sherlock Holmes (albeit the Elementary version of the character, where Pentecost’s hard genius is tempered by a sincere need to help the needy and Will is a queer, white, ex-carnie version of Joan Watson), and the labyrinthine mysteries of Poirot.”

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