Agatha Christie’s work sold as well as it did (still does, really) and remains as popular as it is arguably because she was willing to try new things, revamp her style here and there and create new and different characters and situations. For instance, her best-known sleuths, Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple and Tommy and Tuppence Beresford get involved in all sorts of different mysteries. They travel, they meet with all sorts of characters and their investigations run the gamut from quiet “personal” murders to international espionage to psychological crime. Had she written only traditional “English village murders,” or only “country manor murders,” it’s quite possible that her work would have turned stale.
But it’s more than that. Christie also featured other sleuths in some of her novels. For instance, in Ordeal by Innocence, we meet Dr. Arthur Calgary. He re-awakens interest in the murder of Rachel Argyle when he is able to prove that her son Jacko, who was convicted of the crime and died in prison, was innocent. Calgary wants to find out who the real murderer is and clear Jacko Argyle’s name, but the rest of the family is all too eager to let the matter rest and assume that Jacko Argyle was guilty. In this novel, we get a fresh perspective and a fresh sleuth, so to speak. Christie wrote other stories and novels, too, of course, that do not feature her most popular sleuths. That willingness to try new styles no doubt challenged Christie as a writer and certainly challenges readers. That challenge in itself adds freshness to an author’s writing.
Dorothy Sayers took a different approach. She completed eleven novels featuring Lord Peter Wimsey, seven of which also featured mystery novelist Harriet Vane. As Wimsey and, later, Harriet solve mysteries, Sayers also tells the story of their evolving relationship. In Busman’s Honeymoon, the last of the novels Sayers completed, Wimsey and Vane finally marry and begin their lives together. At that point, the series ends (although there are some short stories that refer to the Wimseys’ married life).
Sayers was faced with the difficult decision of what to do with this series when she’d finished telling the story of how Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane met, worked together and eventually married. In fact, she began a novel that takes place after their marriage. But she presumably knew that the series had come to a graceful ending point with Busman’s Honeymoon and in fact, wrote that she didn’t much like the follow-up to that novel, so she never completed it. Sayers’ decision was to end the series at a natural place. No doubt she could have gone on with her Lord Peter series, but she chose to end it while it was still strong.
Other authors have also chosen to let a series end naturally. For example, Ian Rankin’s final Inspector Rebus novel, Exit Music, has as its background Rebus’ retirement from active duty. He’s nine days away from his last official day and busy wrapping up some of his cases when dissident poet Alexander Todorov is murdered in what looks at first like a mugging gone very wrong. What’s interesting about this novel is that, although Rebus and Siobhan Clarke and their team investigate the murder and find out who killed Todorov and why, this doesn’t change the fact of Rebus’ retirement. At the end of the novel, Rebus doesn’t suddenly decide he wants to remain on the force. Rather than go on and on with the Rebus series until it gets too repetitive, Rankin decided to end it gracefully – well, as gracefully as John Rebus ever acts ;-).
Colin Dexter opted for a different way to end his Inspector Morse series. Throughout the thirteen Morse novels, we see the development of Morse’s character and the evolution of the character of Sergeant Lewis. As they investigate cases, readers also see the relationship between Morse and Lewis evolve and change over time. One of the recurring themes in this series is Morse’s refusal to take care of his health. He’s far less concerned about his diet and his habit of drinking more than is good for him than he is about solving cases. So, in The Remorseful Day, it makes sense, although it’s sad, that Morse’s lifestyle catches up with him. In that novel, in which Lewis and Morse investigate the two-year-old murder of a nurse who actually treated Morse at one point, we also see, if you will, the torch being passed to Lewis. It’s Lewis who does most of the work on this case, and at the end, readers feel the series coming to a natural end.
One of the most interesting ways that a series ended was the end of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes series. In The Adventure of the Final Problem, Holmes is facing off against his arch-enemy, Professor Moriarty. He’s about to be responsible for the arrest of Moriarty and most of his criminal gang, but Moriarty finds out about it. Holmes’ life is now in danger, and he and Watson have to flee England for the European Continent. They end up in Switzerland, but Moriarty finds them. He and Holmes have a final confrontation and both end up going over the Reichenbach Falls. Conan Doyle imagined that this would be a fitting end to Holmes’ brilliant career. The only problem in Conan Doyle’s logic was that the public wouldn’t allow an end to the Holmes stories. There was such an outcry after the publication of The Adventure of the Final Problem that Conan Doyle felt forced to resurrect his creation. Holmes returned for another series of adventures and didn’t really end his career until His Last Bow, in which he and Watson solve a case of espionage that takes place just before World War I.
Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch series is still ongoing, but Connelly hasn’t let that series get stale. He’s created a new protagonist, attorney Mickey Haller, who is Bosch’s half-brother. Haller, of course, has his own backstory, characteristics and so on. But he and Bosch work together in some of Connelly’s novels, and readers can see how that’s given Connelly several options. He can continue having both protagonists; he can choose to end the Bosch series and carry on with Mickey Haller (who’s already got a strong fan base); he can also choose to end both series and begin something completely different. But not now, please: I haven’t read The Reversal yet ;-).
It’s really difficult to know, sometimes, exactly when a series should end. Readers sense it, though, when enough is enough. So do authors who work hard at what they do and want to continue to write well. Although I’m only into the third entry in my own Joel Williams series, I’m already thinking about how the series might eventually evolve, move on and later end; I don’t want it to go on too long, nor end too abruptly.
What’s your view? How do you know that a series has gone on long enough? If you’re a writer, have you thought about what you might do to end your series and perhaps move on to a new one?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from REO Speedwagon’s Time For Me to Fly.