Once I find a mystery series I like, I read every installment that’s published. The characters in the series become my friends, whom I want to check in on, whose life adventures I want to follow.
I’ve profiled a number of these series already on this blog. In the medieval mystery sub-category, my favorite is Ellis Peters’s classic Brother Cadfael Series, centered on a monastery in 12th-century Shrewsbury, England. In 21 books published between 1977 and 1994, Peters developed the brilliant and compassionate character Cadfael, with excellent historic authenticity.
Among authors of contemporary mystery series, Alexander McCall Smith stands in a category of prolificacy all his own. I’ve reviewed his No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency Series, set in Botswana (1998-present) and his Isabel Dalhousie Series, set in Edinburgh (2004-present). Both series feature female detectives who investigate primarily non-violent crimes. These novels are definitely not thrillers!
Other mystery series that I’ve reviewed in the past are listed at the end of this post. Here are some new reviews:
The Marco Didius Falco Mystery Series and the sequel Flavia Albia Mystery Series by Lindsey Davis (1989-present).
Falco is a private investigator of thoroughly modern sensibilities who lives in the first-century Roman Empire. By the time he retires after 20 books, his adopted daughter, Flavia Albia, is ready to move into detective work. Many of the novels in these two series take place up and down the seven hills of Rome, but the remarkable mobility of Roman citizens allows the author to set a number of the tales in far-flung provinces of the empire.
Early on, the plebian Falco acquires a patrician girlfriend, Helena Justina, the daughter of a Roman senator. Falco also has an old Army buddy, Lucius Petronius Longus, and a large extended family who figure prominently. The books are best read in sequence, so that you can keep track of the interpersonal relationships that evolve over several decades. Start with Silver Pigs (also published as The Silver Pigs).
The stories are complex, fast-paced, satirical, and outrageously funny. I love how the characters curse, as in this bit from The Third Nero (2017): “Perella exploded with exasperation. ‘Venus and her golden girdle! I can’t leave them alone for a moment without the idle barmpots getting in a twist.’” And I love how Davis portrays the Roman bureaucracy that Falco has to wade through as he takes on assignments from various emperors. “People wonder how the Roman Empire can be managed so successfully. As any scribe would tell you, this is how. Emperors may come and go, bringing more or less chaos, but the bureaucrats keep the wheels turning.”
If you know a little Latin and a little Roman history, you’ll catch a few more of the jokes, but you definitely don’t need a degree in classics to appreciate this series. If you’re familiar with I, Claudius (the 1934 novel by Robert Graves adapted into a 1976 BBC television series), you’ll recognize Davis’s flagrantly anachronistic technique of transposing modern British social constructs to the ancient world.
I grab every one of these books the minute they hit the library shelves.
The Rev. Clare Fergusson and Russ Van Alstyne Series by Julia Spencer-Fleming (2002-2013, possibly ongoing)
For several years now, fans of Julia Spencer-Fleming have been waiting breathlessly for the next installment in this contemporary mystery series, set in upstate New York.
The character Clare Fergusson served as a combat helicopter pilot in the Army but finds her true vocation as an Episcopal priest. Russ Van Alstyne is the police chief in the small town in which Clare arrives to minister to a faltering congregation. Clare is in bad shape emotionally from her military service; Russ, who is also a veteran, has his own demons. The electricity between these two is crackling from their very first meeting. And did I mention that Russ is married?
I confess that the crimes that occur in the Clare/Russ Series are not the main attraction for me. There are violent scenes that I have to glide past, particularly when they involve fresh human blood on snow banks. I’ve read this series primarily for the interactions of Clare and Russ and for the Episcopal humor. I laughed out loud when Russ came to discuss a case privately with Clare late one spring evening and was shocked to find the church filled with worshipers attending an Easter Vigil service. The non-believer Russ has to learn a lot about Christian customs and has to accept that Clare is going to intervene in his murder cases when she feels a moral obligation to do so. Clare, who is a Southerner, has to get used to both the snowbound winters and hidebound mindsets of rural New York State.
Spencer-Fleming uses dialogue extensively in building her characters, and the dialogue in the Clare/Russ Series is snappy and authentic. The setting is depicted generously and with elegant detail, helping readers feel the biting cold winds of a blizzard, the treacherous slippage of tires on ice-slicked roads. Indeed, the first novel in the series is In the Bleak Midwinter, taking its title from a Christmas carol. Subsequent books are also titled with lines from various hymns, all beloved by Episcopalians.
Be sure to read the eight novels in the series in order, and maybe send Spencer-Fleming a Facebook message, encouraging her to get going on the ninth installment.
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My reviews of medieval mystery series:
The Domesday Series by Edward Marston (1993 to 2000)
The Owen Archer Series by Candace Robb (1993 to 2008)
The Roger the Chapman Series by Kate Sedley (1991 to 2013)
The Dame Frevisse Series by Margaret Frazer (1992-2008)
My reviews of other historical mysteries set in Britain:
The Matthew Shardlake Series, set in the Tudor period, by CJ Sansom (2003-present)
The Maisie Dobbs Series, set during World War I and World War II, by Jacqueline Winspear (2003-present)
My reviews of contemporary mystery series:
The Michigan Mysteries by Aaron Stander (2000-present)
The Mainely Needlepoint Mysteries by Lea Wait (2015-present).
My reviews of standalone mystery novels are too numerous to list, but you can click on “Mysteries” in the right-hand column to scroll through them all.