Sunday, September 26, 2010

We're Still Having Fun, and You're Still the One*

Most of us could name a list of crime fiction authors whose work seems to have stood the test of time. Some authors just seem to be able to create series of novels that are durable and attract new generations of readers. We may not like every novel the author has written, and we may think some novels are better than others. But these authors consistently create (or created) interesting stories that we want to read. And some of them have been able to do this for a long time. How do these authors do it? It’s not just a matter of quality writing skill, creating interesting and well-rounded characters and weaving engaging plots. Many authors can do that. So what is it? I’ve got a couple of ideas for qualities that make for real durability. See what you think…

Character Development

One of the important features of a durable series is character development that keeps readers coming back for more. We all evolve over time, and crime fiction fans want their characters (especially their major characters) to do the same thing. Characters that don’t have enough complexity to develop over time are not interesting.

For example, James Lee Burke has allowed his Dave Robicheaux to go through all sorts of personal and professional changes. Robicheaux has begun and ended relationships, been through personal and professional good and bad times, and changed as a result of what’s happened to him. Robisheaux is also a complicated character; he doesn’t fit easily into a mold, and he has several dimensions. So he remains a very interesting character. We may not agree with him, and we may agree that he has issues. But he’s an interesting – even compelling – character. He’s far from uni-dimensional.

We could say the same of Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch. As the years have gone by, we’ve learned more and more about Bosch, and that’s kept readers’ interest. Like Robicheaux, Bosch is complex and that’s interesting, too. He makes plenty of mistakes, and we’ve seen him go through all sorts of personal and professional changes, some of them wrenching. Part of what’s kept readers’ interest is the way he’s dealt with those changes and developed as a result.

Dorothy Sayers’ Harriet Vane also develops as the series goes on. She begins as the victim of a frame-up, but she turns out to be much more. Over time, she deals with several major changes and we watch her cope with them. What’s interesting about Vane, too, is that we learn about her little by little. In each novel in which she appears, we find out different dimensions of her personality and we see her grow and develop not just as a person, but also as a sleuth. Little wonder Lord Peter Wimsey finds her so irresistible.

Adding Something New

Crime fiction fans don’t want simply recycled plots. The most durable series add new characters, dimensions and plot twists as the series goes on. Readers know that when they open a new book, they’ll get something new and fresh to keep interest.

Ian Rankin has arguably done that with his John Rebus series. Throughout the series, Rebus works with a variety of different characters, each of which adds a different dimension to the series. He’s transferred a few times, and he travels, too. All of those devices add to the quality of the series, so that the reader can expect something different, even if the difference is subtle, with each book.

The same might be said of Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone series. Millhone encounters different sorts of problems in different sorts of places. She travels, she works with new characters and each novel gives the reader something interesting and different.

Of course, there’s a tricky balance here that needs to be maintained. On one hand, newness is an important ingredient to a durable series. On the other, crime fiction fans want characters they can get to know and love (or hate). I’ve heard it put this way: “When I read a new novel in the series, I feel like I’m meeting up with friends of mine.” That said, though, the most durable authors add a dash of “new,” so that readers keep turning pages.

Taking Risks

Sometimes, an author makes a hit with a novel. The plot, the characters, or something else about the novel resonates with readers. When that happens, there’s a real temptation to stay with a formula that works. After all, people like it, and that generates sales. And authors love it when people like what they write. Trust me. But the problem with that is the word, “formula.” After a while, even the most successful formula gets stale. So if you take a close look, you’ll see that authors with truly durable series take risks. Sometimes the risks don’t pan out, but often they do.

Agatha Christie’s work is durable in part because she was not so afraid of taking risks that she wouldn’t do so. For instance, Christie took a real risk with the dénouement of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. She tried something that didn’t fit the accepted way of doing things, and for that, she took heavy criticism. But time has proved the wisdom of her decision; that novel remains one of her best-regarded works. Christie also took plenty of risks in terms of tackling a wide variety of topics, setting her stories in different places and creating several different protagonists.

Of course, other authors have taken risks, too. Jo Nesbø took a serious risk in The Redbreast, for instance, by including a very controversial and (to many) upsetting plot event. Time will tell whether Nesbø’s work will be truly durable but so far, the risks he has taken in his Harry Hole novels seem to be paying off.

Other authors take different kinds of risks. They are unafraid to tackle painful or politically-charged subjects and they don’t let controversy stop them from creating high-quality stories. Authors such as Ruth Rendell don’t always “play it safe.” Rendell has published under two names, and her work has addressed all sorts of sometimes very difficult topics. Because of that, her fans find that her work has remained very durable.

Respecting the Reader

This one is perhaps the most nebulous quality, because people define respect differently. By respecting the author, I mean a few things. First, I mean creating crime fiction that includes interesting, believable plots and engaging characters. That sounds patently obvious, but authors who take the time to really think through their characters and plots and create quality stories show that they respect the reader.

By respect, I also mean giving the reader something to think about, that is, respecting the reader’s intelligence. Some authors, like Ngaio Marsh, have done that by creating fascinating intellectual puzzles. They don’t “hand everything” to the reader; rather, they credit the reader with enough intelligence to match wits with the killer, so to speak. Other authors, such as Peter Robinson and Patricia Highsmith, have respected the reader by inviting the reader to explore the darker side of human nature and really reflect on what it means to be a human – the good and the bad.

I’ve just hit on a few qualities that durable series seem to have. And of course, there are many series I haven’t mentioned here that are durable; the examples I’ve given are just a smattering of the fine crime fiction out there.

What do you think? What qualities do you think really make a series or author durable? Which authors and series have those qualities?

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Orleans' Still the One.


  1. I think when an author has their main characters evolve other time it does make them more realistic and as a reader that helps hold my attention. I can't image reading a series where the protagonist doesn't age or having trouble with relationships for an example.

    Thoughts in Progress

  2. Mason - That's exactly the kind of thing I mean! Readers want to see their characters change over time, develop, and have personal lives. As you say, that makes a character much more down-to-earth and believable.

  3. When I was a young teen, I was addicted to Nancy Drew. At that time, I never questions how she always remained 18, even if the colour of her hair changed from titian to strawberry blond and back again. But older and (hopefully) wiser now, I prefer characters who grow with the series. Let their experiences define them. Change with the time.

    All the series I have loved, I have loved largely for that reason.

  4. I agree with Rayna, I want the characters to grow with the series. For example, I'm reading a series by Deborah Crombie and the first book the main characters are partners and now, in her latest book, they're married. They dated, separated as partners and grew. It's great. Also, Val McDermid does the same thing with her Tony Hill and Carol Jordon mysteries.

    Also, I like to have stories that are set in the UK. I will read American stories but rarely... only if I know the author.

    I like mysteries that teach something as well. I want to be challenged. I don't want to guess who it is before the sleuth and I want to learn something. Whether it be about human nature or about things in the world.

    I hope that I do that with the mysteries I write.


  5. Ngaio Marsh let Roderick Alleyn develop and grow. in fact she took quite a risk at the time and let him have a love interest and then marry. Way back then you had SS Van Dine with his rules of crime fiction which poohood what Agatha Christie did in the book you mentioned earlier, and said detectives mustn't have that love interest. I suppose if they did they might come across as being normal human beings!

  6. Rayna - How funny that you would mention Nancy Drew! I used to read the Nancy Drew books a lot, myself, and I never questioned, either, how it was that she didn't age. But yes, as an adult, I want characters to be real, too. I want them to grow, change, and have things happen to them. That development is interesting!

    Clarissa - I like to learn things, too. I like mysteries that teach me about history, or about glass-making, or about something. I find that fascinating. And thanks for mentioning Deborah Crombie's Duncan Kincaid and Gemma James. I meant to mention them and simply didn't. So I'm glad you did, because that's a terrific example of the way characters grow and develop and chance.

    And I agree: challenging the reader to think can really make a mystery series durable. And yes, you do that in your writing.

    Vanda - LOL! How funny that it wasn't seen as "acceptable" to allow a detective to have a personal life! How Van Dine would have disliked some of the sleuths who have turned out to be the finest, most durable sleuths we have. And yes, Ngaio Marsh did allow Alleyn to grow and change over time. Troy, too, really, and that adds a lot of interest to those novels. In that sense, you could say that Marsh was ahead of her time.

  7. Relationships developing or struggling in the series keep me interested. Donna Leon with the Brunettis, and Andrea Camilleri's Montalbano and Livia are prime examples of this.
    Subtle humour such as in Philip Kerr's Bernie Gunthers, Hakan Nesser's Van Veeterens, Colin Cotterill's Dr Siri and John Lawton's Troy series.
    There is the weirdness and corruption in Marek Krajewski's Eberhard Mock books. And the sense of place in Tony Hillerman's Jim Chee/Joe Leaphorn series. It is no wonder I have such a huge TBR pile as we seem to be living in a golden age of the crime fiction series.

  8. Norman - You make an interesting suggestion that we're living in a golden age of crime fiction series. And each series is just different enough that readers can be involved in several of them without being bored.

    I agree with you that each of the series you mentioned has something special in it. I do love the humour in the Dr. Siri series, and yes, the Kerr and the Nesser books have their own brand of humour, too. Different kinds but they are there.

    And thanks for mentioning the Brunettis and Salvo and Livia. Very different kinds of couples, but very human and real. I like that about those series, too.

    And about TBR lists?? I think mine is beginning to resemble the OED in its length....

  9. Your last point sticks out; respecting the reader. Readers aren't stupid. Writers do not need to explain the obvious multiple times. Nor should they try to get away with something to cover ther lack of creativity, like revealing a special talent the good guy has at the last moment to save the day. The audience is not dumb, and writers cannot condiscend to them.

    Stephen Tremp

  10. Stephen - You put that quite well. Readers aren't stupid and don't want to be treated that way. "Out of nowhere" solutions are annoying for just that reason. And I've read plenty of novels that make the mistake of telling me things that I can figure out for myself. That's annoying, too, especially if its only purpose is to "pad" the length of a book.

  11. I like to see growth in the personal life of a detective but I also like to see growth in the way the writer approaches crime and what those crimes are.

  12. Patti - Oh, that's a very good point. There are lots of ways in which a writer can "stretch." I like to see that, too, actually. Not always the same kind of crime, or victim or motive, and not always the same themes...

  13. Surely some people must like the repetitive nature of some series though because they keep selling books in those series. I have given up on lots of series because each book is just like the last one (the Stephanie Plum books leap to mind). I like things to change for the characters, but not randomly or stupidly (like Patricia Cornwell's books where she brought a character back from the dead and had one of her main characters nearly rape another then not mention it in the next book).

    It must be hard as an author to get the mix right. I agree with you that Sue Grafton has pulled it off, keeping me interested in the series. I thought her last book, U, was one of the best both because Kinsey changed the way she behaved towards her extended family and also because the format of the book was a departure from others. That was risky but it worked for me.

    Another person who I think has taken style/format risks is Reginald Hill - the last 3 Dalziel and Pascoe books have all been very different in terms of style but all very good in their own way. I think I'm luck that I'm one of those people who enjoys those kinds of changes :)

  14. Bernadette - That's an interesting point that some people do like series to be repetitive. I can think of several authors whom I, too, have stopped reading because there were no real differences among the books. And yet, they keep selling very well.

    I also like the point you make about the kinds of changes that take place over the course of the novels. In a durable series, the changes are believable and they affect the rest of the books in a series. They are not, as you say, random and they fall naturally out from what happens in the stories. Your example of Kinsey Millhone's attitude towards her family is a good one.

    When I wrote this post, I hadn't been specifically thinking of style or format changes for books, but I'm glad you brought that up, because those things can keep a series fresh, too. As you say, though, they are risky. I've seen those kind of "experiments" that failed miserably. Still, people like Grafton and Hill have managed to make it work well.