Thursday, October 14, 2010

I Can't Help Myself*

What is it that separates a truly fine crime fiction series from a “pretty good” series or a mediocre series (or worse)? I’d be willing to bet that most crime fiction fans have read standalones or series that they enjoyed well enough, and might even recommend, but weren’t remarkably good. I know I have. We’ve also read series or standalones that are outstanding, so that we wait impatiently for the next instalment and put all of our other TBR entries aside when that new book arrives. I’ve done that, too. Of course, crime fiction fans all have different tastes and perhaps, different reasons they love one or another author’s work. But there seem to be some things that really make for an addictive book or series.


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.

Writing Style

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.


  1. Almost all my mystery reading is series. Robert Crais, Michael Connelly, Faye and Jonathan Kellerman. Barry Eisler, JA Jance, and that's just a few. I like Harlan Coben's Bolitar series, but I also devour his stand-alone books because of his talent. Another favorite, although it's not truly mystery, is JD Robb's "In Death" series.

    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

  2. Oh, I love so many series. The longer I blog, the more wonderful series I seem to find for some reason.

    And while the plot may be the most important reason why I love a stand-alone, the protagonists are probably the reason why I love most series. Of course I also expect a good plot, but I can accept quiet sections of a book as long as I am really engaged in the characters and the setting.

  3. The series I am addicted to are Sjowall and Wahloo's Martin Beck, Colin Cotterill's Dr Siri, Andrea Camilleri's Salvo Montalbano, Donna Leon's Guido Brunetti, John Lawon's Freddy Troy, Hakan Nesser's Van Veeteren, Philip Kerr's Bernie Gunther and Jo Nesbo's Harry Hole.
    No wonder I can't move for books.
    I admit once i am hooked the plots are not so important as the characters, but most of these series have good plots as well.

  4. Terry - Oh, you've mentioned some series that I like very much, too! I really like Michael Connelly's work so much, and the Kellermans write well, too. Harlan Coben has quite a lot of talent, I think, and yes, his standalones are terrific, aren't they??

    Dorte - I have found the very same thing! The more I read and blog, the more series I find to love.

    It's interesting, too, that you make such a distinction between reasons to love a series and reasons to love a standalone. They are different, aren't they? I am with you in that I come back to my favourite series mostly because of the characters (although I think plots matter, too!). When I pick up a standalone, the plot has to draw me in. If that plot includes a few lulls, it should also have enough of interest to keep me reading.

  5. Norman - Thanks for mentioning some of the wonderful series that I didn't have space to bring up! Like you, I like the Brunetti series, the Harry Hole novels and the Van Veetern novels. I'm just meeting Bernie Gunther (just one or two of those novels) but they are terrific, too.

    And you know, you have a point: a series that is good enough to get someone addicted is usually good because the plots are also strong.

  6. Characters is #1 for me. I love series for the characters and want to follow them through their lives. That's one reason I follow Val McDermid's series, the Crombie series, Martin's series and even the Elizabeth George series (although her writing is starting to get on my nerves). IF the plot and style of writing is good...bonus!


  7. Clarissa - I know exactly what you mean. If the characters in a series aren't strong and interesting, then the series really loses its appeal. And yes, Deborah Crombie, Martin Edwards and Val McDermid have created some terrific characters, haven't they? That's what I love so much about the No. 1 Ladies' Dective Agency series, too, among others - the characters.

  8. My name is Virginia and I am a die hard John D. MacDonald fan.

    Who doesn't love Travis McGee??? Once upon a time I was a Trav McGee snob, and I didn't read any MacDonald stand alone novels. I've since become a huge fan of not only his stand alone books but also his short stories.

  9. Virginia - Oh, I think Travis McGee is a great character! He has a very interesting backstory, he's a thinking man (which I happen to admire in a sleuth) and he sticks up for the underdog. What's not to like? I know what you mean, too, about series versus standalones; I've got authors like that, too, whose standalones I didn't want to read at first. I was missing out.
    And you're right; MacDonald writes terrific short stories. In fact, I'm reading a collection of stories now that includes some of his.

  10. Like Dorte says, in a series where you love the characters, you are willing to excuse a slightly weak plot. There are some standalones that I like, but by and large, I love series, because I like to watch the characters grow.
    Looking forward to starting Black Ice- I am going to be travelling for two days next month (alone), and thought that was the best time for me to initiate myself in Harry Borche.

  11. Well, what can I write - you have identified all the symptoms of addiction as well as nailed the main factors for why I like series, I must say. (Would the same points apply to an author who does not write series? I think so?)

    You and other commenters have already identified some of my favourites - M Connelly, A Camilleri, Sjowall/Wahloo, Theorin, Tursten, A Larsson, Crais and many others. Michael Connelly's latest seems to be out today, and although I've been offered a copy by the publisher, it hasn't arrived yet and I am trying to stop myself from buying a copy as I can't wait - how bad is that?! (And it is a hardback....)

  12. Rayna - I think you're absolutely right, and so is Dorte. When you love a series and its characters, you can forgive an occasional weak plot or other failing because the characters are so important; they become like good friends. Standalones are a bit different; they can be wonderful but I do use slightly different yardsticks to decide if I like them.

    And I really hope you and Harry will get on well. He's kind of irresistible....;-)

    Maxine - LOL! Yes, that's a true sign of addiction that you're tempted to buy a copy of Reversal. But it is Haller and Bosch working together, and, well, who can blame you? That's completely understandable.

    You've mentioned some fantastic authors, too, and it's really little wonder that they are so popular. You ask an interesting question, too, about whether we get addicted to authors who write standalones and not series for the same reasons. They are different kinds of books but I honestly think that in the end, it comes to very much the same thing.

  13. I enjoy the series where the writer gives you just a little more information about the protagonist with each book. There are a number of wonderful series out there. I'm one of those who can't wait for the next in a series. When the newest book comes out, everything else has to wait. LOL

    Thoughts in Progress

  14. Mason - LOL! I know exactly what you mean! There are series that I like so much, too, that I put everything else aside when the new release comes out. And part of the appeal of those series really is that you learn just a bit more each time you read a new novel.

  15. I agree with Mason - one of the best things about a series is learning more and more about the returning characters. I'm surprised I'm the first to mention Thomas Lynley and his cronies, but I'm sure it's not a surprise to you, Margot!

  16. Elspeth - No, it's not a surprise that you've brought up Lynley & Co., Ltd. ;-). We were saving them for you :-). Elizabeth George has most definitely done much to develop those characters over the years, and you're right; every time there's a new book out, we learn more about them...

  17. Margot sorry I did not thank you for your kind reference.

  18. José Ignacio - It's my pleasure :-). You have an excellent blog, and your write-ups of Gunshot Road are outstanding.