Like a Worn-Out Recording of a Favorite Song*

All series – even truly great series – end. Sometimes they end with the author’s passing. Sometimes they end because the author has moved on to other projects. They can also end when there’s no longer enough interest (or sales of the series) to continue it.  When it comes to ending a series, there’s always a dilemma. If the series is well-regarded, continues to stay well-written and generates lots of sales, it’s quite hard to walk away. That’s especially true if the author’s got a lot of fans and has created a niche for her or himself. On the other hand, we all know of series that have gone on for too long. Such series become tired, pale imitations of their former selves. That’s not good for an author’s reputation, and it’s certainly not fair to readers, who at the very least deserve well-written, interesting novels. One effective way to resolve this dilemma is to plan the number of novels in a series from the beginning.

There are some real benefits to a planned series. One is that the author can develop characters, plots, stories-across-stories and so on so that the series remains interesting throughout. At the end, the author can move on to another series. This can make the prospect of writing a series much less daunting to an author. Readers know the series is limited, and this may make the series that much more appealing, especially for those who start the series later and don’t want to have to “play catch up” with twenty or more books.  And if readers become fans of the author through that series, they’re likely to at least give the author’s next series a try. There’s a sense of closure, too, to a series that’s purposefully limited. Quandaries are resolved, truths are discovered, and so on.

That said, though, planned series have their drawbacks. Suppose the series really becomes very popular, and readers want more, even knowing there will only be, say, four or five books in that series? This means that publishers risk losing the sales they’d have made if the series had continued. Authors risk losing fans and royalties. Limited series can restrict the author’s creativity, too. Even if it’s the author’s idea to write, say, only five or six books, if her or his ideas change, it’s hard to act on that creativity if one’s committed to a limited number of novels.

Even with those shortcomings, limited series can be an effective way to make and keep a series fresh and interesting, so readers will truly enjoy them. They can also free the author for other projects and free readers to enjoy other books by the same author (or other authors). One of the best-known limited series is Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s ten-novel Martin Beck series. Beck is a Stocholm homicide detective whom we first meet in Roseanna and whose last case is The Terrorists. Throughout the series, we see the evolution of the characters, the changes in their personal lives and other stories-across-stories. We also see the sociopolitical themes that Sjöwall and Wahlöö explored throughout the novels. There are also, of course, the individual cases that are the focus of each novel. All of these (and this is just my opinion, so feel free to differ if you do) come into sharper focus because the series is limited.

Åsa Larsson’s Rebecka Martinsson series is also a limited series (of six books). In these novels, we follow the lives of Stockholm tax attorney Rebecka Martinsson and police investigator Anna-Maria Mella. They’re first drawn together in Sun Storm (AKA The Savage Altar) when Martinsson returns to her hometown of Kiruna to help a friend who’s accused of murder. Mella is the head investigator on this murder and each in her own way the two sleuths get to the truth of the matter. As the novels go on, we learn Martinsson’s backstory and we see her character evolve and develop. We also follow Mella’s personal and professional life. Several of the secondary characters develop throughout the series, too, and Larsson ties events in the stories together. Each novel in the series is focused on one particular case or set of related cases, but the series has stories-across-stories as well. Four of the novels (Sun Storm (AKA The Savage Altar), The Blood Spilt, The Black Path and Until Thy Wrath be Passed) have been translated into English. I’m eagerly awaiting the translation of the fifth, Till offer åt Molok, and the publication of the sixth.

George Pelecanos has written more than one limited series. One is his three-novel Nick Stefanos series. When we first meet Stefanos in A Firing Offense, he’s the advertising director for Nutty Nathan’s, a Baltimore chain of electrical-goods stores. One day, Stefanos gets a strange call from James Pence, a Nutty Nathan’s customer. Pence’s grand-son Jimmy Broda works at Nutty Nathan’s warehouse, but he’s disappeared. Pence has asked around and been told by a salesman at his local Nutty Nathan’s that Stefanos is good at finding people. So Pence wants Stefanos to find his grand-son.  Stefanos is reluctant to get involved, but agrees to at least meet with Pence. That meeting leads Stefanos into a major East Coast drug operation – and ultimately to a career switch into the world of private detection. The other two novels that focus on Stefanos are Nick’s Trip and Down by the River Where the Dead Men Go. However, he also makes appearances in other Pelecanos novels.

There’s also Dicey Deere’s four-book series featuring American ex-pat Torrey Tunet. Tunet is originally from Boston, but has relocated to the Irish village of Ballynagh. She travels extensively for her work as a translator and uses Ballynagh as a “home base.” Throughout the series, we get to know Tunet and bit by bit, we also get to know the other villagers. We see how their lives intersect, and we see the ongoing friction between Tunet and Inspector O’Hare, who resents what he sees as Tunet’s “meddling” in investigations. This series, which includes The Irish Cottage Murder, The Irish Manor House Murder, The Irish Cairn Murder and The Irish Village Murder works very well as a limited series. We see how some stories-across-stories evolve, but the series isn’t overly long. That’s effective because the setting is a small village, where it wouldn’t be realistic to have a long run of murders.

There are other examples, too, of authors who’ve planned a limited series of books. Ann Cleeves has done this with her Shetland Quartet, for instance. Other authors such as Agatha Christie may not have specifically planned the length of their series, but instead, plan their end. Christie wrote the last novels in her Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple series during World War II and stored them safely so that no-one else would be able to continue the series if she were killed in the war. Limited series do have their advantages and despite the drawbacks to that kind of finite planning, they can work well. But what’s your view? As a reader, do you enjoy limited series or do you prefer not to have your series end after a set number of books? If you’re a writer, have you planned the length of your series? What are your thoughts on this?



Now…we all have read series that should have been more limited than they are. Wondering if you’re reading a series that has gone on too long? Check out these…


Signs That A Series Has Gone On For Too Long


You know exactly on which pages the first, second and third bodies will be discovered… before you’ve even started reading the newest release.


The series, which started out as a “village cosy” series, now features aliens, vampires and evil “Dr. No” – type characters because the author has used every other possible plotline.


The sleuth has now gone through four marriages, innumerable lovers, half a dozen hospital stays and a series of stints at rehabilitation clinics… and you couldn’t care less any more.


You’re on page 32 of the newest release when you suddenly realise this is exactly the same story the author told in the fifth novel of the series… and the tenth.


Every one of the sleuth’s friends, colleagues and relations has at one point or another been trapped, abducted, caught in a gunfight or otherwise put at grave risk.


Ordering the series back catalogue, even if you wanted to, would cost you half a year’s salary.


While I remove my tongue from my cheek, do you have any signs you’d like to add? 😉




*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Rupert Holmes’ Escape (The Piña Colada Song).


Filed under Agatha Christie, Ann Cleeves, Åsa Larsson, Dicey Deere, George Pelecanos, Maj Sjöwall, Per Wahlöö

24 responses to “Like a Worn-Out Recording of a Favorite Song*

  1. Philip Kerr’s Berlin Noir trilogy must be unique because he returned to the character of Bernie Gunther after a gap of sixteen years to write four more books.
    John Lawton’s Troy series jumps around in time because he decided to fill in the gaps. It was the only way he could expand the series.
    I think with some very enjoyable series by Sue Grafton, Donna Leon and Reginald Hill, for example, you just have to accept the fact that there are too many books to read every book.

    • Norman – You’ve got a well-taken point. It’s very unusual that an author would write a trilogy and then wait such a long time before writing more. Fortunately, the Bernie Gunther series is a good one, and I’m glad Kerr returned to it. I’m glad you mentioned John Lawton, too. Filling in gaps by jumping around in time can be very tricky; one doesn’t want to confuse readers or muddle up the overall timeline of the series. I give Lawton credit for doing something like that that requires a deft hand.
      And I agree about series such as Grafton’s, Leon’s and Hill’s. They’re long series, but most of the entries in them are worth reading. That means it’s impossible to read each one.

  2. Haha. My pet peeves are these:

    The sleuth has now gone through four marriages, innumerable lovers, half a dozen hospital stays and a series of stints at rehabilitation clinics… and you couldn’t care less any more.

    Every one of the sleuth’s friends, colleagues and relations has at one point or another been trapped, abducted, caught in a gunfight or otherwise put at grave risk.

    Ordering the series back catalogue, even if you wanted to, would cost you half a year’s salary.

  3. Always forget Ann Cleves. Thanks for putting in my head again.

  4. I must admit that I’m holding a grudge against Elizabeth George for killing off a regular and loveable character. I think she just had to keep upping the ante – the thing is – she lost me with that one. I don’t want my heart broken in that particular way. I know I’m a baby but it is my heart and I’ll take care of it as best I can!

    • Jan – You are by no means alone! What happened in With No One as Witness got many, many people upset. There are a lot of people who’ve stopped reading the Lynley/Havers novels for that reason. And if that’s the way you take care of yourself, well, why not?

  5. Did you get this idea from Harry Potter? I think many didn’t want this series to end, especially the way it did.

    As a reader, do you enjoy limited series or do you prefer not to have your series end after a set number of books? I don’t like a set number of books, especially if I like the series. I don’t think a writers should end a series. But, then again, I don’t think they should allow it to die either. One example of a dying series is the Lynley novels written by Elizabeth George. I think with each book she writes, the readers become more and more disappointed. I don’t think the series went the way the readers wanted it to. For me, I will read each new book, hopeful that it will be great but usually I’m disappointed.

    I love your “Signs That A Series Has Gone On For Too Long”

    • Clarissa – Actually, no; I wasn’t even thinking of Harry Potter when I wrote this post. I do know you’re right, though, that a lot of people didn’t want that series to end.
      You’ve put your finger, too, on a real dilemma. Does an author limit the number of books, so as to avoid a series dying pitiful death? Or does the author continue the series, knowing that it is beloved, but knowing too that there are real risks of the series going bad? It’s really not an easy question to answer, is it?
      …and thanks for the kind words about my Signs That a Series Has Gone On For Too Long. I had fun with that ;-).

  6. When the villain, the one-off perky sidekick and the red herring character are the same in each book, just with a different name, you know you’ve outstayed your welcome 😉

  7. Those look like good signs to me! Especially when it becomes the same old story…bleh. 🙂

    • Elizabeth – “Bleh” is just exactly the right word for it! I’d frankly rather see an author try a new sleuth or series…or just about anything other than the same old thing.

  8. Your signs indicating a series has gone on too long made me laugh! Referring to Jan’s comment, I, for one, still read the Lynley/Havers novels. Was that incident upsetting? Of course. But no one’s life goes as planned. I was shocked at the ending of that novel – but wasn’t that the point?

    • Elspeth – You make an interesting point about the purpose of that event. Life never does go as one planned it would, and that event probably was intended to shock. Certainly it pulled people out of their “comfort zones.” You know, it’s interesting, too. Most people are not neutral about that. Either they got very upset and stopped reading, etc., or they admired it as an example of boldness.
      And I’m really glad you enjoyed those signs. I enjoyed doing writing about them ;-).

  9. kathy d.

    I like and agree with all of your scenarios for when a series should end — before the author resorts to desperate moves.
    I have read ALL of Donna Leon’s series, and like every book, though some more than others. I don’t think she’s lost her creativity — or Guido Brunetti’s energy, although he is now thinking of aging.
    Andrea Camilleri still has Montalbano carrying out interesting investigations and being hilarious, but some of his “social skills,” as with women, are subjected to mid-life crises, a bit annoying, but not boring.
    Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch went off-track a bit in Nine Dragons, which became a global thriller with tons of violence, far less introspection and issues, the killing off of an important character and the acquisition of a relative. These could be signals of the demise of Bosch, but I read that his role will change. It could be interesting, and Connelly now has Mickey Haller to write for.
    Marcia Muller has changed Sharon McCone’s life a few times, with more brutal violence, big explosions and more. The character is shot and in a semi-vegetative state in “Locked-In,” which actually was an interesting book, but where she will go now is unclear.
    Arnaldur Indridason’s series is good and seems to get better.
    Fred Vargas did get to Serbian vampires, but with a lot of wit and the inspector uses deductive reasoning to solve the crime — but he does inherit a new relative in the recent book.
    Sara Paretsky pulls it off with each book. V.I. Warshawski’s job is changing, dealing with more global issues — war, military contractors, but to me, that series is still fresh. They both have a lot more to say.
    I think that Dana Stabenow’s Kate Shugak series, which I adored for years, has gotten tired and I stopped reading it. In one plot twist several books back, a major character was killed off, someone readers liked a lot. There was outrage. One reader, as I recall, burned a copy of that book and buried it in his backyard — and duly told the author.
    Do we all take our characters seriously or what?

    • Kathy – LOL! You know, I think it’s a sign of a popular series when readers get that outraged if a beloved character is killed off. You make some very interesting points about the series you mention, too. There are several authors (Paretsky, Grafton, Connelly, Camilleri and Leon) who just about always seem to create an interesting and enjoyable read, even after a long series. Not to say each of their books is perfect, but these authors try new things, develop their characters, and do other things so that they don’t have to resort to some of the things I put on my list.
      I think that when a series starts to get tired, the author is best off ending it gracefully and either starting a new series or turning to standalones or other writing projects. Of course, that’s easier said than done when a series is making a mint of money. Still, I think it’s unfair to readers and does no good to the author’s reputation if s/he does not pay attention to “signs of aging.”

  10. Margot: I appreciate authors who have changes in characters through the years. While I miss characters who die (they never seem to just move away) it makes the series more real to me. We all lose people in our real lives.

    I prefer authors who continue their series. I have enjoyed early and late Nero Wolfe stories.

    I wish Henning Mankell would continue Wallander into the future.

    I hope you are able to continue writing your novels until you are 90+ like P.D. James.

    • Bill – That’s very kind of you -thank you :-). You’re quite right that series that include things like character deaths are more realistic than those that don’t. As you say, in real life, we lose people. It causes grief and is very painful, but it happens. It happens in good crime fiction, too.
      I think most of us have series that we wish would continue because they’re so good. You’ve mentioned two very fine examples, and I feel that way about several authors, too. The fact is, though, that even very good series end. That’s why I think it’s so important that they end on a strong note (i.e. rather than fading into pale imitations of their former selves).

  11. kathy d.

    Yes. Yes. Yes. I agree with your points in reply to my post.
    I’m glad Nero Wolfe was raised here as an example of a good series.
    I started reading the Wolfe pack when in high school in the Middle Ages. I moved on to other books over the decades, but recently I read a wonderful blog which promotes this series, so I took the advice and revisited them.
    I have read three books about Archie Goodwin and the gang, one from 1934, one from 1940 and seriously anti-Nazi and another.
    I was enrapt and laughing out loud. What well-written, hilarious and timeless books.
    I bought another today for an elderly relative, and I’m reading it first.
    Rex Stout aka Nero Wolfe was a national treasure to still be enjoyed.
    One classic line from Wolfe to Archie: “Archie, I am a genius, not a god.” Need I say more?

    • Kathy – LOL! Yes, that is a classic line! Rex Stout’s series is definitely a classic set of stories and Nero Wolfe is an unforgettable sleuth. Of course, Archie Goodwin is a great character, too, and sometimes doesn’t get the credit he deserves. I’m glad you found that blog that promotes those books.

  12. Kreisler

    Do you know for sure there will not be another Torrey Turnett book?

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