Sunday, October 4, 2009

Staying Power

Like many others, I’m truly excited about reading Stieg Larsson’s The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest, the third novel in Larsson’s compelling series about Lisbeth Salander One of the questions that always arises about even the best mystery series is: does it have staying power? Can the series stay fresh, compelling, interesting and engaging? Some series keep their “edge;” others, of course, do not. What gives a series staying power?

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?


  1. Philip Kerr's Bernie Gunther series switches backwards and forwards in time and moves to new locations.
    Andrea Camilleri's Salvo Montalbano series relies on wonderful characters and descriptions of delicious food.
    Jo Nesbo's Harry Hole series is all about superb plots and Harry.
    Hakan Nesser's Van Veeteren series has black humour and plot twist......I obviously have too may favourites.

  2. Uriah,
    I have lots of favorites, too, so no worries! I agree with you, too, that the best, most durable series have really well-written plots like Nesbo's and memorable characters. I haven't tried Nesser yet, but I love good plot twists, so I'll have to do that.

  3. What a beautiful bookcase! Nothing is made that well anymore....all particle board!

    I love M.C. Beaton's series--both Hamish Macbeth and Agatha Raisin. I have to admit, though, that Agatha wears me out if I spend TOO much time with her. She has a habit of making the same mistakes too frequently. Hamish, on the other hand, I could happily visit every day. I guess we have to make sure that familiarity doesn't breed contempt...

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  4. Elizabeth - Thanks for the compliment about the bookshelf. My great-grandfather was a carpenter, and made some really nice things....

    Thanks, also, for reminding me of Hamish Macbeth. He really is a well-written character, and Beaton has created a wonderful setting in Lochdubh.

    You have a well-taken final point, too. One of the qualities of a durable series is that the characters don't get tiresome. Sometimes, that happens because they have annoying habits or we just can't sympathize/empathize with them. Other times, they're just plain unlikeable. If readers wouldn't want to spend a lot of time with a given character in real life, that character probably won't stand the test of time.

  5. What a shame we will not find out with this author.

  6. Oh, you are *so* right, Patti! It's so tragic! All the more so because, at least in my opinion, Larsson's series had all the qualities of a really durable series.

  7. I too have a lot of favourites. One is Michael Connelly's Harry Bosch series - he's a great character, he speaks for both the city (the novels are a love affair with LA) and for the old values, the basic decencies and respect for the ordinary guy - something we all see disappearing and all wish was still around us. At the same time, these books have great plots, up-to-the-minute themes. The author also introduces new characters/lines- eg an FBI agent in a couple of books, a woman gambler, a lawyer, etc, and has them all joining up in different ways. So these are really layered novels that repay the reader.

    Robert Crais is another author who maintains the "value" of his series with Elvis Cole and Joe Pike. Again, these men are quite sad, being decent and honourable types in a devious world - they are "in touch with their feminine side" yet loners. Again, the plots are good and there is lots of humour. Both Crais and Connelly also gradually reveal some, but not all, of their protags' back stories, which again keeps the reader interested.

    Other novelists, such as Jonathan Kellerman, James Patterson and Patricia Cornwell, seem more interested in pursuing sales to new markets rather than providing value to their existing readers. Personally I find that a long series in which there is essentially no development (eg the Eve Dallas series by J D Robb) palls eventually, whereas authors such as Connelly and Crais always make me wonder what they will be doing in their next book.

    Another way in which series work for me is exemplified by the Sjowall/Wahloo novels, which are all good solid stories in themselves but in which each one is about a different "genre standard". At the same time, the books as a whole provide a cohesive analysis of the politics and society in Sweden at that time, over the 10 novels, as seen by these particular authors.

  8. Maxine - you make some really well-taken points! I really like your analysis of what makes for a strong, durable series! The series with the most staying power are based on solid plots that include new characters and ideas from time to time. That way, the series stays "new." Authors need, in my opinion, to be flexible and open to changing times, characters and the like. Connelly does that quite well.

    Another well-taken point you make has to do with character development and the author's priorities. On one hand, any author will tell you that sales are a good thing. On the other, integrity (by which I mean the quality of the characters, the plot and so on) makes for a strong series that will last, in the end, much better than a series written just to earn more money. In that sense, writing mysteries is much like the music business: the best music isn't written just for more sales.

  9. One of my favorite recurring characters is Thomas Lynley in Elizabeth George's novels. He grows in complexity in every book as both his personal life and job change. He deals with guilt from past mistakes and doesn't always get what he wants. He's very human and has faults. A new book featuring him is always a joy.

    All of Elizabeth George's recurring characters are equally well-defined. Perhaps that's why she's one of my favorite novelists!


  10. Elspeth - That kind of character evolution is so important to a strong and lasting series, isn't it? I'm glad that you brought it up. I think the same thing of Tony Hillerman's Jim Chee. He, too, has made mistakes and tries to learn from them. He gets frustrated, he has to confront his own identity more than once, and yet, he matures and grows.

  11. You've mentioned a lot of my favourites, and I agree, there's so much that goes into the crafting of a good mystery series in order to give it that staying power (your bookshelf is lovely, by the way!).

    One of my new discoveries this year is the Ceepak series by Chris Grabenstein - I've really enjoyed the voice of the narrator, and the plots have such nice twists to them. P.D. James' Dalgliesh and Reginald Hill's Pascoe and Dalziel are two other series that have that staying power for me, and Louise Penny's Armand Gamache series.

  12. Ms. Bookish - Thanks for the compliment :). I love that bookshelf : ). You've offered really good examples of series with "staying power," too. I'll have to try the Creepak series; I've heard it's quite good, actually. I like Hill, too. That's a series that's so solid and the plots are really well-crafted! Thanks for your input.