Saturday, January 1, 2011

Something Tells Me I'm Into Something Good*

One of the things that keeps a series strong is innovation - when the author does new things with the series. One way authors add that innovation is by introducing new characters. New characters allow readers to, if you will, make new friends (or enemies ;-) ). They can also subtly or obviously change the dynamics in the series. They change relationships among the other characters and of course, there's the relationships that the other characters develop with the new character. As we begin a new year, it seemed like a good time to take a look at the way crime fiction authors introduce new recurring characters into their series.

Arthur Conan Doyle introduced Inspector Stanley Hopkins into his Sherlock Holmes series in the cases that followed
The Adventure of the Final Problem. Hopkins is a young detective who has great respect for Holmes and his deductive methods. Unlike some of the other Scotland Yard inspectors Holmes has worked with, Hopkins doesn't have a contentious relationship with Holmes. In fact, he tries to emulate Holmes' methods when he's on a case, although very often he doesn't employ them well. For his part, Holmes has a liking for Hopkins. For instance in The Adventure of the Golden Pince-Nez, Hopkins pays a late-night visit to Holmes asking him to help investigate the mysterious stabbing death of Willoughby Smith, secretary to Professor Coram, an elderly invalid. The strange thing about the murder is that there seems absolutely no motive. Smith had no enemies, no secrets and no fortune to leave. The only clue to his murder is a gold pince-nez, which Holmes quickly uses to deduce what the owner must be like. He uses that clue and others to find out who Smith's murderer was and how the killing happened. In that story, Watson describes Hopkins as,

"…a promising detective, in whose career Holmes had several times shown a very practical interest."

Hopkins adds an interesting dimension to the Holmes stories and his character allows for a more amicable relationship between Holmes and Scotland Yard.

Agatha Christie added a few recurring characters to her series. In
Cards on the Table, she introduced detective novelist Ariadne Oliver, who was said to be a caricature of Christie herself. In that novel, Oliver is one of four sleuths, including Poirot, who are invited to dinner by the very eccentric Mr. Shaitana. Also at that dinner are four other guests who Shaitana believes have gotten away with murder. After dinner, Shaitana is stabbed. The only possible suspects are the four guests who are, according to Shaitana, already guilty of murder. Ariadne Oliver and the other sleuths work together to find out which of the guests committed this murder, too. Oliver is a very interesting character; she's got all sorts of unique characteristics and through her, Christie is said to have expressed some of her feelings about her characters and about writing. Oliver has a contralto voice, is addicted to apples, is constantly trying out new hairdos, and strongly believes that a woman should be the head of Scotland Yard. She's got great faith in "women's intuition." At times she seems a little muddled, but she is, as Poirot himself says, a very shrewd judge of character. Her appearance in the novels adds a very interesting (and sometimes quite humourous) dimension to them.

P.D. James added DI Kate Miskin to her Adam Dalgliesh series in
A Taste for Death. In that novel, Miskin joins Commander Adam Dalgliesh and DCI John Massingham on a special task force that's been set up to investigate high-profile murders that could generate a lot of media interest. Their first case as a unit is the brutal murder of Crown Minister Paul Berowne, whose body has been found in a church along with the body of Harry Mack, a local tramp. Together, Dalgliesh, Massingham and Miskin examine Berowne's background and meet the various people in his life. They uncover the clues and find out who killed Berowne and Mack and why. Kate Miskin is an interesting addition to this series. Unlike Dalgliesh and Massingham, she's got a working-class background. She's had to fight hard to be respected as a woman in a "man's environment," and she has some resentment about what she sees as the easy life that Massingham and Dalgliesh have. She brings a fresh perspective to the novels and she has her own set of skills. She's feisty, but not at all rash or even particularly impulsive. She's intelligent, too, and has good detective skills.

We first meet Janet Evanovich's part-time bounty hunter Lula in
Two for the Dough. That's the story of the search for Vinnie Mancuso, who's skipped bail after shooting a gas station attendant who's also Mancuso's former best friend Moogey Bues. Along the way, bounty hunter Stephanie Plum, Evanovich's sleuth, also uncovers an arms-smuggling conspiracy, a murder and the mysterious disappearance of several caskets from local funeral homes. In this novel, Plum's cousin Vinnie Plum, who owns the bail bond agency for which Plum works, has had to hire a file clerk/receptionist, and Lula gets the job. She's a fearless, loudmouthed former prostitute who dresses outrageously, loves fast food (or just about any other kind of food) and says exactly what she thinks. Lula goes out occasionally on cases and even when she doesn't go, she gets involved. She provides comic relief, but she also adds an "in your face" attitude and a solid strength of character to the series.

Michael Connelly has added more than one recurring character to his Harry Bosch series. Some of them, such as FBI Agent Rachel Walling (we first meet her in
The Poet), are introduced in one series (or standalone) and also appear elsewhere. In The Poet, Walling works with Denver crime reporter Jack McEvoy to track down a serial killer dubbed The Poet. That relationship ends at the end of the novel, and Walling goes to Italy for a leave of absence. Walling is introduced into Connelly's Harry Bosch series in The Narrows, in which Bosch is investigating the murder of ex-FBI profiler Terry McCaleb at the request of McCaleb's widow. Bosch's search for the truth puts him into contact with Rachel Walling, who's been the subject of several messages sent by the person Bosch suspects of murdering McCaleb. He and Walling begin a relationship, but Bosch ends it towards the end of the novel. Walling returns in Echo Park, and her romance with Bosch seems to be re-ignited. At the end, though, Walling breaks off her relationship with Bosch and rekindles her relationship with McEvoy.

And then there's Mickey Haller, whom we meet in Connelly's T
he Lincoln Lawyer. Haller's an attorney who finally gets his chance at a high-profile case when he's hired to defend Louis Ross Roulet, who has been charged with the brutal beating and sexual assault of an aspiring actress. Roulet is a wealthy playboy and real-estate developer, and despite appearances, he just might be innocent of the charges against him. As Haller investigates the murder, he finds out that there's much more to it than a simple date gone horribly wrong. Mickey Haller is also half-brother to Harry Bosch, and he becomes a recurring character in that series in The Brass Verdict, in which he and Bosch investigate the murder of another attorney, Jerry Vincent. Haller also appears in The Reversal, in which he and Bosch investigate Jason Jessup, who's been cleared of the brutal murder of twelve-year-old Melissa Landy, but who Haller suspects is really guilty. Haller adds a great deal to this series, not only in terms of different plots and a new perspective, but also in terms of what his presence in the stories tells us about Bosch's past and his personal history.

And then there's Detective Sergeant Greg Wharf, who's introduced into Martin Edwards' Lake District series in
The Serpent Pool. Wharf joins DCI Hannah Scarlett's Cold Case Review team after the departure of her longtime assistant Nick Lowther for Canada. At first, Hannah doesn't think much of Wharf, although she determines to give him the benefit of the doubt. For his part, Wharf doesn't think much of his new assignment, either. The two of them get off to a rather rocky start, especially since Scarlett had developed a very strong working relationship with Lowther. However, they're both professional enough to know they have to work together, in this case, to solve the six-year-old drowning murder of Bethany Friend. As the team investigates this death, Scarlett and her friend and colleague Fern Larter come to believe it's related to two more recent deaths that Larter and her team are investigating. Despite their difficulties, Wharf proves himself to be a capable sergeant and steps in at a critical point in the story. Wharf brings to the series an interesting dynamic, since he's still somewhat of an "outsider," and he puts Hannah Scarlett on her mettle as she has to determine how she's going to work with him.

Space doesn't allow me to mention all of the other new recurring characters introduced in series; these are just a few. Which new characters have you most enjoyed? What do you think they've added to your favourite series? If you're a series writer, do you introduce new recurring characters? How do you see their purpose?

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Herman's Hermits'
I'm Into Something Good.


  1. Lula is a terrific character in the Plum series - so much fun! I like so many of them in the In Death series by JD Robb - she creates terrific characters :)

  2. Kate Miskin is definitely a good balance to Adam Dalgleish. And Elizabeth George's Lynley would be less interesting without the wonderful character of Barbara Havers.

  3. Jemi - You've got a good point about Lula! She just adds so much to the Plum series, doesn't she? And it's certainly true that Robb has added some very interesting characters into her In Death series. Good points!

    John - Oh, absolutely! Barbara Havers has added very much to that series and she's a very effective counterpoint to Lynley. Very well-taken point.

  4. I agree with Jemi about the wonderful characters in JD Robbs' Eve Dallas series. They add color and flavor to the hard-core detective helping to show a different side of her.

    Thoughts in Progress

  5. Ariadne Oliver is my favourite. She is the perfect counterpoint to Poirot, and the man is almsot as scared/ bewildered with her as he is with Vera Ra-whatever-off.

  6. Mason - You've got a very interesting point. When an author introduces new characters to a series, that certainly does show us all sorts of different sides of the sleuth, doesn't it?

    Rayna - LOL! I think you're right. Ariadne Oliver is, indeed, a terrific complement to Poirot. He becomes fond of her, and he certainly has respect for her judgement, but yes, he is bewildered by her, I think. He's not attracted to her the way he is to Countess Vera Rossakoff, but both women are handfuls for him.

  7. Oh, I loved Ariadne! She was brilliant - thanks for reminding me of her. I love the feeling one gets as a writer when a minor character takes off - it is frightening and thrilling. I'm reading The Weed that Strings the Hangman's Bag right now by Alan Bradley - it is the second in his series about the eleven year old Flavia de La Luce and every character is so wonderfully drawn and usually fairly funny.

  8. Especially interesting is Tana French's focus on a different member of a crime team in each book.

  9. Jan - Oh, Alan Bradley's Flavia de Luce is a wonderful character and so are her sisters and the other characters. I really do enjoy her quirky take on life. And yes, I enjoy Ariadne Oliver immensely!

    I hadn't thought about it, but you have a point about minor characters taking off and that process being just a little scary. I'm actually thinking about that because one of the characters in my second novel just might play a very important role in the one I'm planning (after my current work in progress is done). Much food for thought....

    Patti - Agreed. French does a solid job of showing us the different members of the crime team and showing us how each of those disparate members have to work together.

  10. To respond totally off topic (I'm easily distracted by catchy lyrics), I saw Herman's Hermits in a live disco nightclub performance way, way, way back in the 70s. I'm still a fan...

    Your post reminds me that I'm so far behind in reading Evanovich and Connelly and my other favorite contemporary writers. I need more time. Do you have any you'd be willing to loan me?

  11. Patricia - If you mean time? Nope. Sorry. Fresh out. I do have empathy for you, though. There are so many series I want to read.. Far too many... Oh, and you know, I've been wanting to tell you that I like the fact that your Sylvia Thorn is a Sue Grafton fan. It's a realistic depiction of a mystery fan and I like Kinsey Millhone, myself.

    And yeah, Herman's Hermits were terrific!