It may seem blatantly obvious to say that crime fiction characters should be interesting, but it does bear a mention. Whether it’s a standalone or series, an addictive book or series has characters who aren’t warmed-over clichés and who are realistic. That in itself can make them interesting. They don’t have to be the stereotypical “tortured and self-destructive sleuth;” in fact, sometimes that kind of character can actually turn out clichéd. But they do seem to need to be well-rounded and have some character traits that make them stand out.
That’s one reason, for instance, that Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch is so popular. He’s got personal demons, drinks more than he should, and smokes, too. He’s obsessed with his job and he doesn’t always play by the rules. And yet, he’s not stereotypical. He’s got an interesting past that unfolds as the series goes on. He’s got a complicated personal life, but his personal life isn’t cliché, either. Bosch is reflective and philosophical, too, which adds an interesting layer to a character who’s also not afraid to get into a fight. Connelly has rounded out Bosch’s character as time’s gone by, so that his fans really feel that they know him.
That’s also true of characters such as Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s Martin Beck and Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander. They are complicated and interesting characters who can’t be summed up in just a few sentences. They are human beings who deal with sometimes very inhumane cases, and we watch their characters evolve over time.
Character is also one important reason for the popularity of Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series. Mma. Precious Ramotswe is not your typical sleuth. She’s not an alcoholic, divorced private investigator who’s tortured by personal demons. She’s a happily married, balanced, philosophical woman who uses her detective agency to help people solve problems. She and the other characters we meet in the series have become like good friends to those who love these novels.
It seems just as blatantly obvious that outstanding novels should have strong plots. But the plot is at the center of a novel, and truly fine novels are focused on that plot. That means that everything in the novel supports the plot, whether the novel is a standalone or part of a series. It also bears repeating that strong novels don’t use warmed-over plots with no innovations or twists.
That’s one of the real strengths of Agatha Christie’s work. Her novels are focused on the plot at hand, and each incident, each character and each nuance is related to the plot. Christie wasn’t afraid to try new things with her plots, so her novels run the gamut from the traditional Golden Age country-manor-murder to the English-village-with-secrets murder to spy novels.
The same might be said of Ngaio Marsh’s novels. Not only are those novels focused on the plot at hand, but they have innovations and plot twists that keep readers engaged.
A plot doesn’t have to be strictly linear to be an outstanding plot. In fact, a plot that’s too linear, with no minor characters or sub-plots, can be too thin. But outstanding plots are woven together with purpose. For instance, Martin Edwards’ Lake District series is based on plots that weave together past and present, and often involve related sub-plots. All of the threads of the plots are tied together, but not always in a strictly linear way.
Some novels and series are addictive in part because of the author’s writing style. For example, James Lee Burke’s lyrical writing style and evocative dialogue have made his Dave Robicheaux novels “winners” for millions of fans. His novels capture the essence of Louisiana through all sorts of subtle and more obvious use of language. Of course, Burke’s novels also involve well-written characters and plots, but the writing style sews these together in a unique way.
And then there’s Adrian Hyland, whose Emily Tempest novels have captured the imaginations of millions of readers. Hyland’s writing style is uniquely Australian, and catches the reader up right away in the story. I can do no better to show this than to invite you to take a look at this snippet of Gunshot Road from José Ignacio at The Game’s Afoot. Again, Hyland’s interesting characters and plots are central to this series, but the writing style sets them apart.
A Little Something Extra
The really addictive novels and series also have something about them that makes them memorable. It’s hard to define, but it’s that little something extra that draws the reader in.
Sometimes it’s humour. That’s what sets Carl Hiaasen’s work apart and has made him so popular with readers. You could also say that about Andrea Camilleri’s Salvo Montalbano series. Camilleri weaves both dark humour and lighter moments throughout his novels, even though they certainly aren’t comic/caper crime novels. Yrsa Sigurðardóttir’s novels also have threads of welcome humour throughout them.
Sometimes, that little something extra is the setting. The culture, history and traditions of Laos are richly woven into Colin Cotterill’s Dr. Siri novels. There’s humour in them, too, which makes them even more engaging. Deon Meyer’s novels evoke South Africa. Ann Cleeves’ Shetlend quartet evokes that part of the world. In novels like those, readers get swept away into a place or time they wouldn’t otherwise experience.
There are all sorts of “something extras” that can set a novel apart. I’ve just mentioned two.
There’s little to equal the real pleasure of discovering a novel or series that’s a real “winner.” Have you had that happen to you? Check these handy signs out to see if you might be addicted ;-) :
You might be addicted to a book or series if…
…you get highly annoyed if your book delivery is delayed even one day.
…you get equally annoyed at bloggers and reviewers who don’t get the facts right about the series.
…you are tempted to jump into a novel and have a heart-to-heart talk with the sleuth.
…many of your conversations begin with, “Have you read____?”
…you would like to get the author’s Email address so you can hurry him or her along a bit with the next book.
…you are more concerned about what’s happening in the characters’ lives than you are about people you know.
…you really wish those two characters would wake up and get on with it (Ahem, Daniel and Hannah! ;-) ).
…you would never get lost if you were set down in the middle of the series’ setting. You know it very well.
…Never mind the TBR list – the new release is out!!
Any additions? Which novels are series are you addicted to? Why?
*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by the Four Tops.