“The Deep Blue Good-by,” first in the Travis McGee series, by John D. MacDonald.

“The Deep Blue Good-by,” first in the Travis McGee series, by John D. MacDonald.

A summer of series reading: Review culture writer picks literary sagas worth slipping into

Summer is traditionally the time of the “beach read” — breezy, dynamic books that entertain, ask little of us, and provide the one intrinsic reward of any good vacation endeavor: pleasure.

So, as you set about deciding what books deserve a bit of your precious suitcase space, which ones will be the best distractions during your travels, or what to read while you enjoy some seasonal relaxation at home, consider diving into a series.

There is a reason nearly all of the most popular books of the last few decades (or at least those that have most impacted the broader culture) have grown into series: “A Song of Ice and Fire” (that’s “Game of Thrones” to you non-readers out there), the Harry Potter books, “Twilight,” the “Fifty Shades” trilogy, the “Dexter” series, Stephen King’s Dark Tower series … I could go on.

The joys of the novel series, following the exploits of a continuous cast of characters through the trials and tribulations of several books, getting to know them and their world, and really inhabiting the author’s mindset for a time, is a rare delight. And one the comparative down time of summer annually allows us.

Here then are my five picks for series summer reading for those looking for some serious escapist lit.

1James Patterson’s Alex Cross series

Just hear me out, OK?

Yes, in the time it takes you to read this article Mr. Patterson will undoubtedly have released two new bestsellers. His books have supposedly sold more than 300 million copies, he was the first person to sell 1 million e-books, and, in 2016, he reportedly topped Forbes’s list of highest-paid authors for the third consecutive year with an income of $95 million. With such a notoriously paced output and mass appeal to burn, they can’t all be winners. His lows have been well documented.

However, do not let any of that dissuade you from the early books in his famed Alex Cross series, all of which are ridiculously captivating and hold up nicely. They focus on the titular detective, a widower whose wife was killed (the case remains unsolved for most of the series) trying to maintain a relationship with his children and beloved grandmother, Nana Mama, find love, and solve ever more baffling and heinous crimes.

Start at the beginning, obviously, with “Along Came a Spider.” And though all of the early books are fun reads (I fell off at number nine), I most highly recommend “Kiss the Girls,” “Cat and Mouse,” and the two-part installment “Roses are Red” and “Violets are Blue.”

2Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series

Described as “a spunky combination of Nancy Drew and Dirty Harry” and “heroic when necessary,” Stephanie Plum, lingerie buyer-turned-bounty hunter, is worth getting to know.

The author herself claims the inspiration for the character came after watching “Midnight Run,” starring Charles Grodin and Robert De Niro, explaining, “If Mickey Spillane wrote Archie and Veronica, Stephanie would be Betty.”

At the beginning of the series, Plum has been laid off from her job as a lingerie buyer and is forced to sell off her appliances to pay her rent. Then, her car is repossessed.

She turns to her cousin Vinnie, owner of Vincent Plum Bail Bonds, for a job, originally hoping to be a file clerk. But the only position available is as bounty hunter. She blackmails Vinnie into giving her a shot. Hilarity, danger, intrigue and personal growth ensue over the course of 20-some novels, plus three holiday novellas, and at least one short story.

Again, start at the beginning (“One for the Money”). You’ll never get lost in this series, because the installment number is in the title. I’ve only read the first three myself (“Two for the Dough,” “Three to Get Deadly”), but fully intend to one day continue with the series.

3John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee series

MacDonald is one of the most iconic figures in the history of American literature, but in a strangely invisible way.

He sold some 70 million books in a career that straddled the middle of the so-called American Century, and in fact pioneered the use of a consistent “title theme” in a novel series in his towering masterwork: the Travis McGee books (which use a color in each book’s title).

Admittedly, MacDonald is even better known as the man behind “The Executioners” (later turned into an excellent film, twice, as “Cape Fear”) and several other standout standalone novels (including 1977’s “Condominium”), but for all his success and prolific output MacDonald’s legacy is bereft of the cult of personality that so often formed around similar seminal writers of the era. Regardless, I’m aware of no other author that is so wildly and often praised by other writers, and the work most loudly lauded most often is the McGee series.

McGee is a Florida-based freelance “salvage consultant.” Basically, the idea is this: People come to him, usually referred by a friend or past client, when something has been stolen from them and they cannot go to the police. He gets it back, but he gets to keep half of what it’s worth. As he often tells people, half of something is better than all of nothing. You don’t end up coming to McGee unless you’re desperate.

He’s cool, smart, tough and cynical in a worldly jaded way that makes his ongoing internal monologue (all the books are written in the first person) read like some of the best potential film noir voiceover ever.

Once more, start at the beginning (“The Deep Blue Good-by”), but after that reading order doesn’t really matter. I’m seven books into this series myself, looking to finish it as my own summer reading project, and especially loved “The Quick Red Fox,” “A Deadly Shade of Gold” and “Bright Orange for the Shroud” thus far.

4Jussi Adler-Olsen’s Department Q series

Balance all that summertime sun with some Copenhagen gloom.

This series follows Carl Mørck, who used to be a great cop. He was once one of Denmark’s best homicide detectives, but then a hail of bullets destroyed the lives of two fellow cops and Carl — who didn’t even draw his weapon — blames himself. So, apparently, do his superiors. Because a promotion was the last thing he expected, and the one he got turned out to be more than he bargained for. His new home, Department Q, is a dead-end department of one, and Carl’s got nothing but a huge stack of cold cases for company.

I’ve only read the first book so far (“The Keeper of Lost Causes”) but it really bowled me over. In it, a liberal politician who vanished five years earlier is presumed dead, but Carl learns she actually isn’t … at least not yet.

I’d all but sat out the whole “Nordic noir” craze, and wasn’t especially thrilled by the premise, but the book came my way via a trusted friend’s recommendation and I am definitely seeking out the latter installments of this series sooner rather than later.

5Joe R. Lansdale’s Hap and Leonard series

Frankly, I’m absolutely thrilled that Lansdale is finally getting his due from a wider audience after so many years of being fanatically beloved by a comparatively small, cultish group of fans. He deserves it.

The man is typically a writer of horror and suspense tales, but his best work is truly unclassifiable (try to put a label of the “Drive-In” trilogy, go ahead). He has written 45 novels and published 30 short story collections, along with many chapbooks and comic book adaptations, and though several of his novels have been adapted to film and TV already (“Cold in July” is especially good, and his stories inspired at least two episodes of Netflix’s recent “Love, Death & Robots”), it seems that “Hap and Leonard” (also now on Netflix) is finally his breakthrough.

And the books are even better.

Hap Collins and Leonard Pine are amateur adventurers, two very different men — Collins is a poor white laborer who spent time in federal prison for refusing to be drafted during the Vietnam War; Pine is a gay, black Vietnam vet with serious anger issues — but somehow the best of friends, who work together as private investigators for Hap’s girlfriend in LaBorde, in East Texas.

The same gritty, realistic characterization and razor-sharp dialogue that marks all of Lansdale’s work is here in abundance, and the plot moves along faster than a bullet through a speeding car’s windshield.

I have read the first two books in the series (“Savage Season” and “Mucho Mojo”) and number three (“The Two-Bear Mambo”) is on my bedside table right now. I can’t wait.

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