In no certain order ...
1. “Travis McGee” by John D. MacDonald. 21 books all with a color in the title (The Deep Blue Good-bye; Darker Than Amber; The Green Ripper.) McGee, who works as a “salvage consultant” in Ft. Lauderdale, has all the best qualities of Magnum, Rockford, Bond, and Robin Hood, with the addition of yen philosophizing and rueful self-awareness. Must be read in consecutive order.
2. “Burke” by Andrew Vachss. 18 books. Vachss (rhymes with “tax”) is a lawyer who only represents children and youths and writes the darkest, most unrelenting series of books about crime and revenge. Main character Burke is one of the “children of the secret” - abused children who were victimized without ever experiencing justice, much less love and protection. To say the least, the adult Burke is a deeply conflicted character. Must be read in order.
3. “Sherlock Holmes” by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. 4 novels and 5 collections of short stories. What can you say?
4. “Thorn” by James P. Hall. 10 books featuring Thorn who lives in the Florida Keys and makes his living tying lures for fly fishing. There’s quite a bit of Travis McGee in Thorn, and a little bit of Burke also. You don’t have to read these books in order, but I highly recommend reading the first one (Under Cover of Daylight) so you will know why Thorn is the way he is.
5. “Repairman Jack” by F. Paul Wilson. 10 books. Andrew Vachss calls Repairman Jack “righteous!” An apt description. Jack is a loner who lives off the public grid (no SSN, no official identity) and makes his living “fixing” extreme situations. His adventures also feature touches of the paranormal. Must be read in order.
6. “Joe Kurtz” by Dan Simmons. 3 books – Hard Case, Hard Freeze, Hard As Nails. Hard-boiled crime noir at its best. Simmons is one of my all-time favorite writers. In addition to these great novels, he has also written my two favorite horror novels (Carrion Comfort and Children of the Night), a sci-fi classic (Hyperion) and a great Hemingway historical novel (The Crook Factory). It helps to read them in order.
7. “Parker” by Richard Stark (Donald E. Westlake). 24 books. Parker may be the meanest, nastiest character on this list. Very few redeeming qualities. These books are almost nihilistic. Highly recommend you read these in order – some of the books began the second after the previous book ends.
8. “Justin & Cuddy” by Michael Malone. 3 books - Uncivil Seasons, Time’s Witness, First Lady. Great literate mysteries set in small town North Carolina. Uncivil Seasons is one of the best mysteries I’ve ever read. Read in order.
9. “Lew Archer” by Ross MacDonald. 18 books. William Goldman calls these the "the finest series of detective novels ever written by an American". Macdonald is the primary heir to Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler but his writing built on the pithy style of his predecessors by adding psychological depth and insights into the motivations of his characters. Archer often unearthed the family secrets of his clients and of the criminals who victimized them. Lost or wayward sons and daughters were a theme common to many of the novels. Macdonald was one of the first to deftly combine the two sides of the mystery genre, the "whodunit" and the psychological thriller.
10. "87th Precinct" by Ed McBain. 56 books. THE BEST. The most consistent police procedurals written about day-to-day cops, the inspiration for "Hill Street Blues" and all the other more realistic, gritty cops show that followed. Steve Carella, Meyer Meyer, Bert Kling, Ollie Weeks, Cotton Hawes, and Andy Parker just to name a few of the memorable characters we have to know and love who work out of the 8-7. And of course, the Blind Man, one of the greatest, coolest criminals to grace crime pages. McBain died in 2005 so alas, there will be no more 8-7 books.
11. “Spenser” by Robert B. Parker. 35 books. I almost didn’t list Spenser here … but I had to. This is an infuriating series … the first 14 books are as good as PI fiction gets … and the rest are hit-and-miss. Hawk is one of the great characters in crime fiction. But then you also have Susan Silverman - Spenser's main squeeze. The more important Susan Silverman becomes to the story the more annoying the book is. I keep hoping Susan gets killed and we get back the old, tougher Spenser, not the Oprah-fied Spenser we currently have.