One of the most important factors in any strong series is also one of the most basic: high-quality plots. A good mystery has a solid, engaging plot where the mystery is a central focus. That’s one thing that has kept Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse series and Ruth Rendell’s Inspector Wexford series fresh and strong. It’s also what is likely to keep Dexter’s new Inspector Lewis series strong. They are timeless in part because the plots are interesting, well-crafted and intellectually challenging. Many people argue that lack of strong mystery plots is one reason that Lilian Jackson Braun’s Cat Who… series has lost its staying power. In the first few novels of the series (The Cat Who Ate Danish Modern, for instance), the mystery itself is at the forefront of the novel. Many people say that in the last few novels (for instance, The Cat Who Had 60 Whiskers), there’s been so much focus on the characters that the mystery seems to have been lost.
Besides the focus on the mystery, well-crafted series have different sorts of plots; that is, they don’t rely on the same formula for each novel. That was part of Agatha Christie’s genius. Although Miss Marple appears in twelve Christie novels, and Hercule Poirot in fifty-three novels, they all vary enough so that the plot never feels stale. That’s because Christie was brilliant at introducing interesting plot twists. For instance, there’s a very neat plot twist at the end of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd that actually upset many of Christie’s readers when the novel was first published (thanks to Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise for that reminder). There’s also a very surprising twist in Thirteen at Dinner (AKA Lord Edgeware Dies). Well-crafted plot twists keep readers interested, and keep mystery series fresh. Interestingly enough, Christie herself addresses the tendency for authors of mystery series to re-use plots. In Cards on the Table, Ariadne Oliver, Christie’s fictional detective, is asked whether she ever uses the same plot more than once. Poirot immediately mentions two novels with the same plot, and Oliver admits that, while there are differences, the two novels have, essentially, the same plot. One real strength of Christie’s writing was her ability to add twists, interesting characters and other variations to keep her plots interesting.
Christie also varied her plots by having them take place in different locations. Some of her novels take place in the Middle East, some in London, some in different parts of England, and some in France. One even takes place in the Caribbean. Different scenarios also help to keep a series strong.
That said, though, it’s also important to note that well-developed, rich and interesting characters also are critical to staying power. Formulaic characters without depth can make even the most interesting mystery colorless. In the most durable series, characters evolve naturally over time, so that they remain interesting. Alexander McCall Smith is especially skilled at character evolution (for instance, Mma Grace Matsuki’s character in his No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series grows considerably as the series moves along). The same is true of Rita Mae Brown’s Mrs. Murphy series. One of the things that Brown does well is develop her characters over time, so that they don’t seem one-dimensional.
Another aspect of characters in strong mystery series (and I’ve mentioned this before in this blog) is that they are real. In mystery series with staying power, readers get to know the characters so well that they feel they’d recognize and like those characters if they met them. That’s why unpleasant characters or characters with annoying traits take away from the durability of a series, and why likeable characters such as Mervyn Bunter in Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey series keep those series strong.
It’s not easy to develop a mystery series with staying power. That’s why many authors write standalone novels. In fact, Michael Robotham originally intended his novels to be standalone. He hadn’t planned to create a series from his Joe O'Loughlin and Vincent Ruiz characters. However, his plots are strong, the mystery is at the core of his novels, and he’s created real, believable and evolving characters. Those characteristics are at the heart of a series with staying power. As I work on my own Joel Williams series, those are characteristics I’m keeping in mind.
One more note: the picture you see is of a bookshelf that my great-grandfather built nearly one hundred years ago. I still use it. Now that's staying power..
What has given your favorite series staying power? What makes that series durable?