I’m Gonna Reach*

I haven’t tried it yet (‘though I may at some point in the future) but I know of several crime fiction authors who have more than one series. Sometimes the protagonists in those series aren’t very similar at all. Other times they’re more similar. Sometimes the settings are similar and sometimes less so. It’s an interesting question really (at least to me): how much should an author “branch out” and create very different protagonists and settings. Doing so can risk losing readers who are loyal to a particular series. But not doing so can mean that readers miss out on a terrific new series and character. It’s not an easy question and it involves among other things the way authors brand themselves.

For example, in some ways, Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple novels are similar, but in many ways they’re quite different. And of course Poirot and Miss Marple are very different characters. Where Poirot is a professional detective, Miss Marple is an amateur. Poirot travels among the highest social circles whereas Miss Marple doesn’t spend as much time among the “upper crust.” Miss Marple rarely leaves her village of St. Mary Mead for long, whereas Poirot travels frequently. There are stark differences in their personalities too as well as other differences in terms of plots, regular characters and so on. One could add here too that both of those series are different to Christie’s series featuring Tommy and Tuppence Beresford. Christie kept all three series going throughout her writing life and her fans have strong loyalties to one or another of her sleuths.

Even more different are Alexander McCall Smith’s Isabel Dalhousie and Mma. Precious Ramotswe. Dalhousie is an Edinburgh philosopher and editor of the Journal of Applied Ethics. Mma. Ramotswe lives and works in Botswana, where she owns the No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. In some ways these two series have some similarities; both give the reader a strong sense of place and context, and both are slower-moving series. While the Isabel Dalhousie series is a bit more so, both series are almost philosophical in nature rather than action-oriented. And yet the two protagonists are very, very different people. They’ve had quite different life experiences and interact with people in different ways.

You could say the same thing about M.C. Beaton’s Agatha Raisin and Hamish Macbeth series. Raisin is the owner of a Cotswolds private detective agency. Macbeth is the constable of Lochdubh, Scotland. Both series offer a strong sense of place and some interesting and quirky characters. But the two protagonists are quite different. Where Raisin wants to solve mysteries, Macbeth would rather go fishing. Macbeth fits in very comfortably in his surroundings and often uses his depth of knowledge about the locals to help solve cases. It’s not that Raisin has no friends but, well, she tends to be cranky and not easy to get on with so she doesn’t have a comfortable fit with as many people as Macbeth does. There are other differences between the series too so that Beaton fans often have a preferences for one or the other.

And then there’s Martin Edwards’ Harry Devlin and Daniel Kind/Hannah Scarlett series. These two series feature very different settings and kinds of people. Harry Devlin is a Liverpool attorney whose cases often take him into some of the not-so-nice areas of the city. He’s a bit of a ‘down and outer’ himself, so he can sympathise with some of the people he encounters. On the other hand Daniel Kind is an Oxford historian who’s enjoyed some professional success, and Scarlett is a DCI with the Cumbria Constabulary. In background, temperament and outlook these sleuths are quite different. But the differences between the series don’t end there. The Kind/Scarlett series takes place in the Lakes District, a very different setting to Liverpool. And the cases the sleuths investigate are therefore also quite different. Moreover, since Scarlett heads the Cumbria Constabulary’s Cold Case Review team, the cases in the Lake District series are more closely linked to cases from the past than are the cases in the Liverpool series.

There are other authors too, such as Margaret Maron, Ann Cleeves and Val McDermid, who’ve written different kinds of series with very different kinds of protagonists. Branching out like that can win an author new fans and can allow the author to experiment.

Many authors choose to create multiple series that are a little more similar. And that makes sense. Fans of one series have a good sense of what sort of series the new one will be, so they’re more likely to stay loyal to the author. The author has an easier time of branding too. For instance, Elizabeth Spann Craig is the author of not one, not two, but three cosy series. Under her own name she writes the Myrtle Clover series that takes place in Bradley, North Carolina and the Southern Quilting Mystery series featuring former art dealer Beatrice Coleman that takes place in Dappled Hills, North Carolina. As Riley Adams she writes the Memphis Barbecue series featuring restaurateur Lulu Taylor. In some ways, these series are different. For instance the Memphis Barbecue series takes place in a large city while the others do not. And the protagonists have different sorts of personalities, job histories and backstories. But all three protagonists are educated Southern women who’ve finished raising their children and are in the second halves of their lives. They’re all amateur sleuths, and each of them is in her own way very family-oriented.

James Lee Burke is perhaps best-known for his Dave Robicheaux series and rightly so. But he’s also written a series featuring former attorney and now Texas sheriff Hackberry Holland. Fans of the Robicheaux series know that Robicheaux is a Louisiana cop, so in the sense of setting, the two series are different. There are also differences in the kinds of cases Robicheaux and Holland investigate.  But there are some real similarities between them too. Both protagonists deal with the trauma and stress of having seen combat during war. They are both widowers as well and have to cope with that loss. Both series feature not just the solving of crimes but, if I might put it this way, a search for redemption. Both Robicheaux and Hackberry are very flawed characters and in doing their jobs, they’re trying to live with themselves. And then there’s of course Burke’s memorable writing style…

What’s your take on multiple series? What about series such as Robert B. Parker’s Spenser and Jesse Stone series, or Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher and Corinna Chapman series, where there are some real differences but also some underlying similarities? Do you prefer an author’s multiple series to have a lot of similarities? If an author whose work you like branches out into something completely different, are you disposed to like that change? If you’re a writer, how far out are you willing to branch?



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from John Gorka’s Branching Out.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Ann Cleeves, Elzabeth Spann Craig, James Lee Burke, Kerry Greenwood, M.C. Beaton, Margaret Maron, Martin Edwards, Riley Adams, Robert B. Parker, Val McDermid

12 responses to “I’m Gonna Reach*

  1. In AC’s books I preferred the Poirot books to the the Miss Marple series when I was a teenager although I like both now. With most crime writers I tend to prefer a particular series – I like Lawrence Block’s Matt Scudder over the others and PD James Adam Dalgleish over the Cordelia Gray ones. I think readers tend to vote with their purse. I remember Patricia Cornwell saying at an event that she stopped writing her other books because all her readers wanted was Kay Scarpetta and the sales reflected this.

    • Sarah – I think you’re probably right that most readers do vote with their purse. And an alert author will soon get the message about which series readers want. And I’ll bet Patricia Cornwell isn’t the only author who’s dropped other series in favour of the one that’s most popular with readers.
      It’s interesting you’d mention your preference for Poirot too; I was the same way as a teen – still do have a soft spot for him. But like you I’ve come to like Miss Marple. And thanks for reminding me of the wonderful Matt Scudder series. I’ve been meaning to include one of those books in my spotlight series for the longest time and it keeps not happening. Shame on Margot!! I honestly go back and forth about Dalgliesh/Gray. I can see why you prefer P.D. Martin’s Dalgliesh novels, but I like Cordelia Gray very much too.

  2. kathy d.

    I was the same way, too, as a teen and read only Poirot and not Miss Marple or other books and then I parted company with him. I like the Bernie Rhodenbarr series by Lawrence Block and that’s it.
    And, curiously, I love Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman series and have not patience with Phrynne Fisher, while a friend loves the 1920s detective and not the Melbourne baker-sleuth and cat lover. (Maybe the reason is because the friend is shockingly not a cat lover!) And I like Cordelia Gray over Adam Dagliesh, at least on PBS specials. And then there is the issue of series’ writers who also pen stand-alones. Sometimes they’re not as good as the series; frequently they’re better. (I’m not naming names here.)
    I take my hat off to authors who write more than one series. I have enough trouble keeping track of them. I can’t imagine how authors do it.

    • Kathy – That’s really interesting that you too preferred Poirot. And it’s really interesting that you and your friend have different views on which Kerry Greenwood series you like better. I like them both but I think I have a bit of preference for Chapman, probably because I can identify a little better with her since I’m living in this era not the 1920’s. Still, I do like Phryne Fisher quite a lot.
      You make a good point about authors who do both series and standalones. I’m going to have to think that through and maybe do a post on that; it’s an interesting topic in and of itself.

  3. sue rosly

    I preferred the Dalziel books to the Joe Sixsmith books (Reginald Hill); I like both Poirot and Miss Marple in equal measure; I like all of Tony Hillerman’s detectives; I haven’t read a book by Peter Lovesey that I didn’t like – from Inspector Cribb to Peter Diamond in Bath; I like all of Joan Hess’s series and Margaret Maron’s series (especially the Deborah Knott books) I also like JA Jance’s series although there are a lot of similarities between her different protagonists. I like the Corinna Chapman books more than Phrynne Fisher. I like all of Alexander McCall Smith’s books and the different series.

    The one book I loan to friends because I want them to read it (apart from The Secret History by Donna Tartt) is The false Inspector Dew by Peter Lovesey. I love this book and I can do no better than the blurb where Ruth Rendell says, ” A masterpiece…I defy anyone to foresee the outcome” . Sorry this is a bit off track Margot, but this is such a great book.

    • Sue – No worries; a great book is a great book, and I don’t mind at all your suggesting it for readers. I agree with you about Peter Lovesey – He is a very gifted writer. Little wonder you like everything of his that you’ve read.
      Like you, I prefer Hill’s Dalziel and Pascoe to his Joe Sixsmith novels (I almost mentioned these series too but didn’t, so I’m glad you did). Margaret Maron’s quite talented as well. I too prefer the Corinna Chapman series to the Phryne Fisher series although I like the Phryne Fisher novels. And both of Tony Hillerman’s sleuths are terrific I think.

  4. I do have certain preferences (Dalziel over Joe Sixsmith, yes, anytime), but will probably read other series by the same author (and am rarely completely disappointed). Barbara Nadel has got a new series out with a private detective agency in London’s East End – I will most certainly have a look at that, although for me the Turkish setting (and cultural differences) for the Ikmen and Suleyman series is what attracted me to this writer in the first place.

    • Marina Sofia – I know what you mean about at least taking a look at a new series by an author one likes. I’m not usually disappointed either when I do that. Like you I have preferences (I prefer Dalziel and Pascoe to Sixsmith myself, for instance). But if an author writes in a way I like, that comes through even in a different kind of series.

  5. I don’t think I have any preferences about that…except for making sure fans can distinguish one series from another when they go book shopping. I like it when series have names (Wind River mysteries, Home Crafting mysteries, etc.).

    • Pat – Now that’s a very good point. For both author and reader, it is important that it be really easy to tell series apart. And you’re right: series titles such as Wind River, Memphis Barbecue, etc. are good ways to do that. Otherwise fans become disgruntled. I prefer gruntled fans. 😉

  6. A number of writers I’ve talked to about this have done it as they felt it kept their writing fresh to alternate between their two different series, or between a series and a stand alone, so by the time they had finished the book they were working on they couldn’t wait to have a play with their other characters again.

    • Vanda – I know exactly what you mean. It does give one the opportunity to try something new and I think that does allow the author the chance to come back to another series with fresh eyes. You’re right about standalones too. They can also give one that sense of newness. And then as you say, one can go back to one’s other characters with a different perspective.

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