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.
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.