ISO Good Mystery Series (novels)
July 20, 2013 10:55 AM   Subscribe

I think I'd like to begin following an author who writes mysteries featuring a regular protagonist and cast of recurring characters, but I have some d'ruthers. Can you help match me up?

I just finished The House at Sea's End by Elly Griffiths, which sort of got me in the mood. What I liked about it: a chilly, desolate/melancholy setting; unglamorous (sort of nerdy, sort of chubby) female protagonist (Ruth Galloway) who is a forensic archaeologist and single mom whose relationships are all rather "complicated." She's very smart, but not an über-achiever and can be insecure about a lot of things. There are several well-developed recurring characters who all have their own back stories and personal, sometimes intertwined issues going on. Unfortunately, I wasn't too crazy about the plot, or how the mystery and "bad guy" was handled, so I don't think I will continue with the others in this series.

I seem to like cold, rugged, lonely or eerie settings (loved Smilla's Sense of Snow, Winter's Bone, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, etc.), and somewhat damaged or somehow "othered" protagonists – preferably not in a too "romantic" way. (Like, as a reader, I don't want to be "oh, swoooon"; I'd like to feel that they are complex, complicated and fallible). In some of the books I've mentioned I've liked, the characters have been pretty intense, but this isn't necessary; I liked Ruth Galloway because her life is in a lot of ways mundane (if you don't count the all the murrrrrrders n'stuff), and she's more likely to be worried about finding a babysitter than running around karate chopping bad guys.

I really like when the setting is almost another character in the story, and it would be very nice (but not totally necessary) if the main character was a woman, and/or a person of color, or gay/lesbian/trans, or first nations, or something other than the white male urban tough guy sort.

But most of all, good writing, good storytelling! Any ideas?
posted by taz to Media & Arts (30 answers total) 48 users marked this as a favorite
Denise Mina's Paddy Meehan series.
posted by BibiRose at 11:12 AM on July 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

Try Henning Mankell's Kurt Wallander series. Desolate sectting: check. Damaged character: check. recurring characters: check. (later on in the series his daughter even gets her own novel.) Dogs of Riga is a personal favorite.
posted by dortmunder at 11:22 AM on July 20, 2013 [5 favorites]

Kate Shugak. Best read in order.
posted by The corpse in the library at 11:28 AM on July 20, 2013 [2 favorites]

John Burdett's Bangkok novels are technically crime but sometimes show up in mystery. Protagonist is half-Thai, half-American.
posted by seemoreglass at 11:29 AM on July 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

I liked Charlaine Harris's Lily Bard mysteries - she's better known for the True Blood/Southern Vampire series, but her mundane mysteries are excellent too. Female trauma survivor protagonist is a stranger in a small Southern town and gets involved in various mysteries. It's the cozy format, but fairly dark.

Sara Paretsky's V.I. Warshawski novels are more traditional detective stories, but they're set in Chicago, and by that I mean they're set in Chicago. They otherwise don't really fit your criteria, but for sense of place they're fantastic.
posted by restless_nomad at 11:30 AM on July 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

When someone says "setting is a character" I always think of the Judge Dee Stories by Robert van Gulik. I was assigned one of the books as part of a class on Chinese art and history and holy smokes it drew me in to read the whole series.

The stories are rich with historical detail, all fastidiously researched and woven into the narrative without overtaking or distracting. The books were slow reads if only because I found myself running to learn more about various references, people, and places he mentions. Also, many of the mysteries/storylines are from actual court cases van Gulik researched.

Rather than one intense "whodunit?" the books feature multiply storylines/mysteries combined into one narrative, each benefitting from the other.

The stories can be read in any order without ruining any of the experience, as there aren't many specific references or points from the previous novels. The benefit of reading in chronological order is how certain characters come into Judge Dee's company and his take on the court duties before him.
posted by boonerang at 11:30 AM on July 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

Just finished reading Broken Harbor, by Tana French. Link to a non-spoilery review here.

She has 3 other books before this and I'll be going back and reading them. At least one has a female protagonist. Broken Harbor doesn't really (tho' there are some interesting female characters), but the male protagonist is interesting and very humanly flawed.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 11:33 AM on July 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

I really like Tana French's Dublin Murder Squad series. I know you want one character BUT if you get kind of burnt out on that and still want a murder series, then I suggest these books. I just think that some of those long series built around one character can get a little watered down after a while. Each book has a nice, strong sense of place and the main characters though not terribly diverse usually don't have it easy.
posted by TheLibrarian at 11:36 AM on July 20, 2013 [4 favorites]

You might like Sara Gran's Claire De Witt novels. There are only two so far, but they have some overlapping characters, a flawed female protagonist, and a strong sense of location-as-character (New Orleans in the first, San Francisco in the second).
posted by pocketfullofrye at 11:42 AM on July 20, 2013 [2 favorites]

Also, I really like the very new Claire DeWitt series. The main character is female. She is a detective and an outcast in that world. She is more comfortable hanging out with the fringes of society but the author never seems to be judge-y or disrespectful. There is a lot of drug use and casual sex. The main character is flawed but her mystical approach to solving crimes make her an interesting character.
The first book takes place in NOLA and the other in SF/ Northern California.
posted by TheLibrarian at 11:44 AM on July 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

every time I write a post, the person before me posts the same recommendation. this is some freaky shit. (not really).
posted by TheLibrarian at 11:45 AM on July 20, 2013

Ian Rankin's Rebus novels (especially now that Rankin has resurrected the series).

Possibly Stephen Booth's Cooper/Fry novels, which sound like they fit your criteria. Warning: the series moves at a positively glacial pace (roughly 1/3 of "real time" speed).
posted by thomas j wise at 11:48 AM on July 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

I absolutely love Lisa Lutz's Spellman series. San Francisco counts as a cold setting, at the very least, and her protagonist, Izzy Spellman, is definitely damaged in a non-romantic way.
posted by BlahLaLa at 11:53 AM on July 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

Oh, and the Rei Shimura series by Sujata Massey.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 11:54 AM on July 20, 2013

Oh my God, you absolutely have to read Dana Stabenow's Kate Shugak series because I think it may have been written for you.

It is set in the Alaskan outback ("cold, rugged, lonely, eerie") to which (über-smart) Kate has retreated following an act of violence in her former job which has left her with scars ("somewhat damaged.") Her community is filled to the brim with "well-developed recurring characters who all have their own back stories and personal, intertwined issues going on" and this continues right through the series.

Delightfully, there are 20 books in the series so far, and I read straight through the first 19 and imaptiently awaited the 20th. It's that good. And, if you have a Kindle, the first one is free!
posted by DarlingBri at 11:57 AM on July 20, 2013 [2 favorites]

Seconding Rankin (Rebus) and the Mankell (papa Wallander) series. Both series spun off some regular characters into new series; in both cases I find the new series less exciting but it could just be me..
posted by whatzit at 12:13 PM on July 20, 2013

********* Rankin and Mankell. I read way more mysteries than can be good for you and I do not think you can beat these two for mood, character development, setting and straight forward writing. I think they are best read in order as the characters develop and change over time. You might move up the Scottish Coast and read Anne Cleeves series "Shetland" set in the guess where. BTW, I am a serious fan of Elly Griffith's mysteries set in Norfolk. I should not like these as they go against the grain of what I usually like. But Ruth Galloway has to be one of the most interesting female protagonists to recently emerge. If a happily married 70 year old can have a "crush" I have one on Ruth. Flawed, independent, bright, awkward, feisty, charming and her own brand of sexiness.
posted by rmhsinc at 12:34 PM on July 20, 2013

Many of the above recommendations (French, Mankell especially), plus Arnaldur Indridason's Icelandic detectives series.
posted by matildaben at 1:01 PM on July 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

Inspector Espinosa Mysteries.
I suggest starting with ''The Silence in the Rain''
"If Gabriel García Márquez wrote crime fiction, he might create a detective like Inspector Espinosa."
posted by adamvasco at 1:26 PM on July 20, 2013

I asked a somewhat similar question about movies.

You may have already considered the Michael Connelly bestsellers, but if not, it might be worth giving them a try. Detective Bosch feels somewhat damaged and "other" from being raised in the foster system. His mother had struggled with poverty and lived on the margins of society. Los Angeles, or one portion of it, usually seen at night, often feels like a character in the story. I listened on audio, so I don't know if they are as good in print, (I tend to need short sentences), but you might try one out. He's flawed and somewhat complex, and though the female love interests seem interchangeable at first (one per book for the first 2-3 books), they start returning later in the series. His closest companion on the force (it emerges over many books) is a smart, principled, black lesbian.

+1 to Tana French. I've read the first two. In both, a somewhat isolated and haunted-feeling locale is key. A smart female supporting character in book 1 comes back as the protagonist in book 2.

In my queue is P.D. James's Death in Holy Orders, which I understand to be part of a series. The male protagonist seems to be grieving, bookish, and injured or disabled in some way. The setting is definitely rugged and windy.
posted by slidell at 1:28 PM on July 20, 2013

Marcia Muller's Sharon McCone detective series. Many books, she has been writing them since the 70s, recurring and evolving characters. Sharon has many family issues as well as solving murders. Set mostly in a well-described San Francisco but some are in other atmospheric locales as well.
posted by mermayd at 1:38 PM on July 20, 2013

Not a novel, but if you like this sort of thing, you'd like the show The Killing (or the original Danish version, Forbrydelsen).
posted by rossination at 2:09 PM on July 20, 2013

Seconding Ann Cleeves's Shetland quartet, starting with Raven Black. I didn't actually like the series myself (and did like the Elly Griffiths series) but I think it meets your requirements of settings. I did find it rather depressing, though, so depends on your view of when melancholy falls over into general lowness.
posted by sock of ages at 4:23 PM on July 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

Seconding Tana French. I'd also recommend Carol O'Connell's Mallory books. The setting isn't quite what you want, but I think the characters are. Susan Hill's mystery series is quite good. Read both in order.
posted by jeather at 7:22 PM on July 20, 2013

You might want to check out Barbara Hambly's Benjamin January mysteries, starting with A Free Man of Color. The protagonist is a mixed-race surgeon and musician in 1830's New Orleans. Hambly's a historian by training, and it shows in all sorts of good ways.
posted by McCoy Pauley at 9:38 PM on July 20, 2013

Nthing Rankin's Rebus books. They really are terrific. His characters and sense of place are what really sets the series apart.
posted by smoke at 3:45 AM on July 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks so much for the all the suggestions! I just started with the first book in the Kate Shugak series, and it's exactly the sort of thing I was hoping for (and I lived in Alaska when I was a child – in an area just mentioned at the beginning of the second chapter, in fact! – so the setting is especially wonderful for me). I'll be checking out the other series recommended here, as well. I'm completely delighted.
posted by taz at 8:05 AM on July 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

I am a big fan of Craig Johnson's books about Sheriff Walt Longmire, which meet a couple of your criteria (cold rugged landscapes (Wyoming) and prominent First Nations characters).
posted by Pyrattorney at 10:01 AM on July 22, 2013

I just started with the first book in the Kate Shugak series, and it's exactly the sort of thing I was hoping for

OH GOOD! Welcome to the coven :)
posted by DarlingBri at 12:10 PM on July 22, 2013

Julie Smith- set in New Orleans.

Tony Hillerman- set on Navajo Reservation
posted by sulaine at 6:50 PM on July 22, 2013

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