The Black Tower by P.D. James (Scribner, $16).
Nobody writes murder mysteries like the British: slow-paced, almost laconic, atmospheric, and very quirky. Commander Adam Dalgliesh of Scotland Yard is outwardly detached, but he sees, hears, and evaluates everything. The exquisite prose is why you read James.
The League of Frightened Men by Rex Stout (Bantam, $16).
All of Stout's Nero Wolfe books are excellent, but this is the most excellent. Wolfe is a 300-pound, self-professed genius who grows orchids in his New York City brownstone and has the largest vocabulary of any fictional detective. What I love most about the series is Stout's descriptions of 1930s New York.
Friday the Rabbi Slept Late by Harry Kemelman (Cengage Gale, $14).
The first of Kemelman's Rabbi series, and perhaps the best. When a girl's body is found on the grounds of a synagogue, Rabbi David Small becomes a suspect, then an unlikely detective with a secret weapon: Talmudic logic. Kemelman's writing is spirited and smart, and his characters are multidimensional.
Murder Must Advertise by Dorothy Sayers (Bourbon Street, $15).
Sex, scandal, drugs, and murder at a chic ad agency in 1930s London — and you thought Mad Men was original? Lord Peter Wimsey is my favorite amateur detective after Sherlock Holmes. Like Holmes, he's as cool as a cucumber sandwich at high tea.
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie (Morrow, $14).
Britain's Crime Writers' Association recently named Ackroyd the Best Crime Novel Ever. I'm not sure I agree, but this is a must-read for fans of the genre. Living in England, retired Belgian detective Hercule Poirot is slightly exotic — and occasionally boastful. Still, I vote him the most likable detective in literature.
The Laughing Policeman by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö (Vintage, $16).
Sjöwall and Wahlöö set the standard for Scandinavian noir, and also for brooding, flawed Scandinavian detectives. Unlike most of his Anglo-American counterparts, Martin Beck — in true socialist-democracy style — enlists other detectives to help him solve his cases. You eventually come to admire Beck, even if you don't like him.