Monday, November 9, 2009

The Ties That Bind

Many crime fiction/mystery fans look forward eagerly to the next novel in their favorite series. I know that I do. What is it that draws a reader to the third, the fourth, the fifth, etc. novel in a series? First and foremost, of course, are plots and characters. Well-written mysteries depend on strong plots, believable characters and an intriguing mystery. But well-written series can offer even more to their fans: ongoing stories-across-stories that bind the series together. In real life, the events of our lives don’t happen as a disconnected series of occurrences; they happen against a backdrop of larger stories that unfold over time. The same is true of well-written crime fiction series. When a crime fiction series includes some well-written stories-across-stories (sometimes called “story arcs” in the television world), the characters become deeper and more real, and the stories are more realistic. There’s also an added layer of interest, since the reader wants to know how the larger stories will be resolved as well as how the particular mystery at hand will be resolved.

Very often, those “stories-across-stories” have to do with the sleuth. For instance, in Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series, we follow the larger story of Precious Ramotswe’s friendship with Mr. J.L.B Matekoni, expert mechanic and repairman, and owner of Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors. In the first novel, they begin as friends, but by the end of the novel, they’re engaged. It’s not until the fifth novel, The Full Cupboard of Life, that they marry, and throughout those first novels, we see them develop as a couple. They even aquire a pair of foster children, Motholeli and Puso, who were orphaned when their mother died shortly after Puso, the younger child, was born. The Ramotswe/Matekoni family unit evolves over the course of the series, and that development ties the novels together and makes the reader want to read the next story.

We follow changes in the sleuth’s life in Martin Edwards’ Lake District series, too. As the series begins, Daniel Kind, an Oxford history don, and his new girlfriend Miranda take a cottage in Brackdale, in the Lake District. Kind’s just recovering from the death of his former girlfriend, and he and Miranda are looking for peace and quiet. Through the course of the novels, Kind meets DCI Hannah Scarlett, who heads a cold case investigation team, and they work together, although in separate ways, on several murder cases. As the stories evolve, Daniel and Miranda drift apart, and Daniel and Hannah become more and more interested in each other. We also see Hannah’s evolving leadership skills as she grows from the newly-appointed head of a team to a self-confident leader. Finally, we learn about both sleuths’ pasts as the series progresses. Those revelations, along with the changes these sleuths go through, make the characters believable, tie the books together, and give the reader added motivation to look for the next installment in the series.

There’s a similar theme of the sleuth’s evolving personal life in Laurien Berenson’s Melanie Travis series. As the series begins, Travis is newly divorced, with a four-year-old son and a full-time position as a special education teacher. As the series evolves, Travis meets Sam Driver, a software developer and breeder of Standard Poodles. Their relationship develops over the next several novels (with several “bumps” along the way) until they finally marry. Late in the series, they add to the family as well. What’s interesting about this series is that we also follow Travis’ evolving career as a breeder and trainer of Standard Poodles. At the beginning of the series, she’s given a Standard Poodle bred by her aunt, Margaret “Aunt Peg” Turnbull. That’s the extent of her involvement with the breed at first. Gradually, she gets involved in showing and training the breed, until by the end of the series, she’s a breeder in her own right. Throughout the series, the changes we see in Melanie Travis’ life make the stories more believable and relate each story to the others.

Agatha Christie’s Tommy and Tuppence Beresford are also an example of how strories-across-stories about the sleuth can make a mystery series all the more interesting. Unlike Christie’s Hercule Poirot or Jane Marple, the Beresfords age over time. In The Secret Adversary, in which the couple is introduced, they’re a young couple with little money but a taste for adventure. They start out as blackmailers, and get swept up in an plot of international intrigue. As the series moves on, they find out that solving mysteries is more legal and more lucrative, so they open a detective agency. They’re also hired by the British Secret Service. Later, they become parents to twins, Derek and Deborah. In N or M? they meet Betty Sprots, an orphaned toddler, and adopt her as well. In Christie’s last novel, Postern of Fate, the Beresfords are elderly grandparents who’ve just moved to what they hope will be their retirement home, and are eager to get the house ready for a visit from their grown children and grandchildren. Apart from the fact that the Beresfords are an interesting couple to begin with, the story-across-stories of their development as a couple and as a pair of detectives binds the stories together and makes the reader want to know what happens to them – what they do next.

One of the most compelling story-across-stories is the that of Kathleen (Kathy) Mallory, a New York City police detective, and the creation of Carol O’Connell. At the beginning of the nine-novel series, Detective Louis Markowitz catches eleven-year-old Kathy Mallory, homeless after fleeing from Louisiana to New York City, stealing. Instead of arresting her, he takes her home and raises her as his own. He soon finds out that she has a troubled past; in fact, she’s a “baby sociopath.” Markowitz is killed in the course of an investigation, and Mallory takes it on herself to find his killer, and eventually succeeds. As the series continues, Mallory enrolls in the police academy and eventually is partnered with Sgt. Riker, Markowitz’ former partner. As the series progresses, each book tells the reader more and more about Mallory’s past (as well as more about some of the other recurring charactrers in the series). We also see Mallory slowly beginning to confront her past. Each of the Mallory novels is focused on a murder or murder, but they are held together by the thread of Mallory’s search for her past.

Sometimes, the story-across-stories has to do with something (or someone) other than the sleuth. For instance, in Alexander McCall Smith’s The Kalahari Typing School for Men (the fourth of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series), Precious Ramotswe’s assistant, Grace Makutsi, who’s careful with money, but never has a lot of it, decides to open a secretarial school just for men. She obtains typewriters from her alma mater, the Botswana Secretarail School, and rents space in a local church. In that novel, we see the beginning of her plan, and we see the school’s opening. As the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series continues, the reader can follow the school’s success, and see it gaining in popularity. The story of the typing school spans several of the novels, and is one of several stories-across-stories in this series that keeps readers interested in finding out what happens next.

It’s just as compelling when the story-across-stories is a mystery that’s unraveled over the course of time. That’s what happens in Kathleen O’Neal Gear and W. Michael Gear’s Anasazi series. In that three-book series, archeologist William “Dusty” Stewart and forensic anthropologist Dr. Maureen Cole excavate a series of ancient graves, each with a story to tell. The narratives move between the modern-day excavation and the 13th Century events that lead to the deaths that the modern sleuths are investigating. As the series moves through the novels, the reader follows War Chief Browser, his deputy and close friend Catkin, and their ancient people as they move towards their own destruction. It also follows Stewart, Cole and their team as they try to uncover the secrets of the gavesites they find. Each book has a separate mystery; the tie that binds them together is the ancient people’s journey to what they hope will be safety, and the modern team’s quest to find out the secrets of the skeletons they find.

There are, of course, many other examples of series with these stories-across-stories – those “ties that bind." I'm sure that you have your own favorites. Those larger stories can make a series more interesting, more “human” and more believable. They add depth and texture to the series, too. At the same time, though, there can be drawbacks, especially for readers who don’t begin a series with the first book. A really well-written series is best when the novels in it also work as standalones, so that readers can enjoy the mystery in each novel without necessarily having to be familiar with all of the other novels in the series – often a tall order.

What are the "ties that bind" in your favorite series? Do you find those stories-across-stories interesting? Do you think they detract from the mystery at the core of each novel?


  1. I love M.C. Beaton...both her Hamish Macbeth and Agatha Raisin mysteries. I'm always curious to see if Hamish and the elusive Patricia will end up together (or if he'll end up with the odd Elspeth) and what Agatha's love life will bring.

    I love the idea of a continuing storyline over books. Elizabeth George is another one who does it well...


  2. Elizabeth - Oh, thank you for mentioning Hamish Macbeth and Patricia! That Beaton series is a classic example of the kind of story-across-stories that I mean. You're also right about Elizabeth George; I especially like the way she allows Barbara Havers' character to develop over time. There's also a very effective story-across-stories in that series about Havers and her parents as she struggles to meet their needs as well as do her job.

  3. I do enjoy the continuing storylines in some of my favourite series - Aside from the ones already mentioned I thing my favourites are reading about Lincoln and Amelia in Jeffrey Deaver's Lincoln Rhyme novels and also about the changes in Rhyme's physical therapy. I also like the way PD Martin's heroine Sophie deals with her psychic gift as the series develops. I'm normally not a fan of 'woo woo' elements in books (I'm far too cynical) but enjoy the way it's handled as a minor element of that series.

    However I do think that the continuing storylines can cause problems for some authors. I stopped reading Patricia Cornwell becauuse of the ridiculous twists in the ongoing story. I nearly stopped when she bought Scarpetta's love interest back from the dead and did stop when she had one of her long term characters sexually assault Scarpetta and then everyone ignore it. I've also stopped reading Karin Slaughter's books partly because of the stupid way she dealt with her ongoing characters. It felt a bit like these authors were sick of the worlds they had created for their characters and were doing bizarre things to shake things up.

  4. I love the character of Salvo Montalbano, and the descriptions of his meals, in the books by Andrea Camilleri. For ten books I have suffered with him the ups and downs of his relationship with his lover Livia. Will Livia move from Genoa to Sicily? Will they get back together? Will either of them become involved a new relationship?
    The finest words on the web referring to Montalbano books are "still to be translated from the Italian".

  5. Bernadette - You're absolutely right that some authors, like Deaver, handle stories-across-stories very well. They make the reader want to find out what comes next and follow the major characters through their changes. But, like you, I've noticed other authors don't do it as well. I've stopped reading the Scarpetta series and James Patterson's Alex Cross series for the same sort of reason you mentioned. In my opinion, a solid, strong plot, a good mystery and believable characters have to come first. Without that, those stories-across-stories can just get ridiculous.

    Norman - Some authors have the gift of creating such strong characters and plot lines that readers feel that they're following the stories of real people - friends, even - and they hurt and celebrate with the characters. Camilleri is that kind of writer, so I'm glad you mentioned her.

  6. I was going to mention Camilleri too (actually, a man not a woman), in particular the characters of Mimi Anguellero, who starts out as a serial seducer of women but, as a result of a plot by Salvo to keep Mimi (his deputy) stationed with him instead of leaving for another city, ends up not only getting married but becoming the most rigorously boringly devoted parent you could imagine, constantly driving Salvo to distraction by the many details of his offspring's digestive habits, etc. The other character who develops fantastically in that series is Caterelli, the devoted, linguistically challenged, IT expert. (How Satarelli translates Caterelli is one of life's miracles).

    I do agree that these developments, like the typing school, make series so attractive, in addition to the journeys the characters themselves make. This is why, for me, some series pall. (I agree with Bernadette that "stretching it" is another reason!). One example is the Eve Dallas series by J D Robb, which is a great idea and I started out reading enthusiastically. Now, after reading 15 or so, I can't bear to read more (two come out every year) becuase although the characters do change a bit (eg one has a baby), the story is essentially static and formulaic.

  7. Maxine - Thanks!!! for correcting my typo-slip about Camilleri : ). Embarrassing mental slip due to far too little caffeine! His work is terrific and deserves far better from me. Your examples from the series are excellent, too; just exactly the kind of thing that keeps readers coming back.

    I'm also glad you brought up the Eve Dallas series. I must admit I'm not as familiar with it as you are, but even a little of it made me wonder how far it would go before it got too "cookie cutter." I only read the first few, but like you, got tired of it. I think you have more patience than I do...

  8. You've written another thought-provoking post, Margot, wow. I, of course, love the Elizabeth George series with Lynley's evolving relationships with both Helen and Havers. I also love the ongoing story between St. James and his wife (who of course is Lynley's ex). I'm hoping for a love interest for Havers (there have been hints); that poor girl deserves something nice!

    That all said, I read Elizabeth George's books for the intriguing plots, not the relationships. If a writer can balance it so the reader can experience more facets of the characters' lives than just solving the mystery then I say bring it on, but the mystery has to be the driving force, not their love life.


  9. Character growth, continued good writing, good supporting characters, an interesting setting, some place I would like to visit, plot.

  10. Elspeth - You make such an important point about the value of a strong plot. Without a well-written plot and interesting characters, ongoing stories won't make a series worth following. If there are already intriguing plots and solid characters, then those ongoing stories add to the series. I also agree with you about Havers, by the way; she really does deserve some happiness, although I admire her grit. I really do : ).

  11. I think the ongoing back story is what I also like about Donna Leon's Brunetti series, and Ruth Rendell's Wexfords. In fact chuck a good set of ongoing characters into any series and I'm yours! That may explain why I have far too many books to read on my shelves.

  12. Kerrie - I so agree with you! Solid ongoing characters whose stories you want to follow make a series absolutely irresitible. I feel that way about Rendell's Wexford series and about Caroline Graham's Inspector Barnaby series, and am beginning to feel the same way about the Brunettis.

  13. I've become increasingly keen on stories across stories.

  14. Martin - I like stories-across-stories very much, too. When they're done well, they make the characters seem so much more human, don't they?

  15. Patti - Please forgive me; I only just now saw your comment. Thanks : ). I agree completely that character growth is a big part of a good story-across-a-story. When there are no major changes in a character's life, it seems too unrealistic. You have a well-taken point about supporting characters, too; if they're solid characters whom you want to know more about, then that's a real motivator to get the next book in the series.

  16. Your readers have ´taken´ most of my favourites, but I also enjoy Andrew Taylor´s Lydmouth series. To be honest, I think it is stupid of Jill Francis to have an ongoing affair with a married man for ages, yet I enjoy the character very much.