Mystery Series to Read in Order
Have you ever been happily reading a book, and then it turned out actually to be Book 5 in a series of 15? When I do this, I start wondering, Have I ruined the whole experience? Should I go back and read Books 1 through 4 or give up and go on to the next writer? Well, it depends. Probably starting a series in the middle is only a permanent enjoyment killer if (1) the books’ recurring characters grow and develop a lot over the course of the series, or (2) if the novels’ plots continue from one book to the next.
If you’re reading through Patricia Cornwell’s Scarpetta series, then it’s a shame if you don’t start at the beginning. Carrie Grethen, Postmortem‘s bad guy, pops up repeatedly in the 23-book series and is back again, more twisted than ever, in the most recent one, Depraved Heart. In this series, the emotional evolution of Cornwell’s characters is at least as important as the mysteries. Will protagonist Kay Scarpetta ever really forgive her husband, FBI profiler Benton Wesley, for his actions in the series’ 9th through 15th books? Should she?
In John Le Carré’s George Smiley espionage series, it’s okay to read the first two, A Call for the Dead and A Murder of Quality whenever the mood strikes, but the trilogy where Smiley is on the trail of Russian agent Karla (a man, by the way) will lose an awful lot if read out of order because so much of the conclusion in Smiley’s People results from the spy work in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and The Honourable Schoolboy.
Christopher Fowler, author of the Bryant and May series, suggests on his website that it’s fine to read his books out of order and “in fact, some volumes benefit from doing so.” The author provides explanatory footnotes when the recurring characters–octogenarian members of an eccentric London police team called The Peculiar Crimes Unit–refer to something that happened in a previous book.
With Agatha Christie, it’s absolutely fine to read the 39 Hercule Poirot mysteries, the 13 Miss Marples, and the five Tommy and Tuppences in any order. While Tommy and Tuppence age in real time, from their early 20s in the 1922 The Secret Adversary up through their 70s in the 1973 Postern of Fate, and minor characters recur in the books, the focus of the writing is on the mysteries, not on character development. While it’s good to know that Tommy and Tuppence get married after the first mystery and live a long and happy life together, it doesn’t come as a surprise: that Tommy and Tuppence were destined for one another is apparent at the very beginning of The Secret Adversary.
A good place to find out the number of books in a series and the sequence in which they were written is FantasticFiction, which provides an exhaustive searchable list of popular series books in chronological order.
Here are the first books in a few popular mystery/thriller series that may keep you happy for awhile:
- Sue Grafton, A Is for Alibi (Private investigator Kinsey Millhone)
- C. J. Box, Open Season (Joe Pickett, game warden)
- Janet Evanovich, One for the Money (Stephanie Plum, bail bondsman)
- Louise Penny, Still Life (Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec)
- James Patterson, Along Came a Spider (Detective Alex Cross)
- Ruth Rendell From Doon With Death (Chief Inspector Wexford)
- Lee Child, Killing Floor (Freelance investigator Jack Reacher)