As the Torch is Passed From Hand to Hand*

PassingtheTorchRight now my third Joel Williams novel is in the hands of a publisher, and I’m waiting to hear whether it’ll be a go. In the meantime, I’m thinking about the direction that the series might eventually take. At some point (and I don’t yet know when that point will be), Williams will realistically retire, both from his professional position and from the series. Or at the very least, his role in the series will change if he’s to age in something like real time. And that’s fine; to me that’s realistic. The question is: how would that process affect the series? 

One possibility (and it’s got real appeal for me actually) is to ‘bring up’ another character who will eventually take the lead. I already actually have one in mind. That, to me, is realistic too. Younger detectives learn their job, become good at it and then lead investigations in real life. Why shouldn’t they in crime fiction too? And there’s no reason that can’t happen with amateur sleuths as well. 

But what does that do to a series? Obviously the series has to change as the characters evolve and develop. That’s all to the good. And there are some series where this kind of change has been successful. For instance, as Håkan Nesser’s Maardam series begins, Inspector Van Veeteren leads the investigation team. The other characters certainly play important roles, but he’s the one in charge. As the series has gone on though, Van Veeteren has left the police force and now has a different life of his own. In the most recent novels, he’s hasn’t supervised the investigation. Instead, other police detectives have started to take the lead. Both Intendant Münster and DI Ewa Moreno have had the opportunity to take charge of investigations and the results have been successful. Of course, Van Veeteren is still a part of the series, but it’s clear that the torch is being passed if I can put it that way. 

We see a similar transition in Arnaldur Indriðason’s series. Many of the novels feature Inspector Erlendur in the lead, and those stories have been both highly regarded and successful. But recent books have featured other team-mates more or less heading up investigations. Both Detective Elinborg and Detective Sigurdur Óli have taken ‘starring roles,’ and that’s been very successful too. It will be very interesting to see whether there will be any new novels featuring those detectives again, even if Erlendur doesn’t appear in them. 

Colin Dexter’s series featuring Inspector Morse ended with The Remorseful Day. As of that novel, Morse’s second-in-command Sergeant Lewis was still that: second in command. But Dexter fans will know that on television anyway, Lewis became the lead character in his own series. He was promoted, he got his own team and they pursued new investigations. That’s realistic. Lewis is smart and skilled and it makes sense that he’d move along in the ranks so to speak. I wonder what it would be like if Dexter wrote some Lewis novels… 

Fans of Louise Penny’s Three Pines novels have become accustomed to Chief Inspector Armand Gamache as the leader of the investigations in that series. I don’t want to give away spoilers for those who haven’t read these novels, but I can say that Penny has laid the groundwork for a new direction in the series It will be very interesting to see what happens as some of the other team members who’ve figured in the series continue to develop and as Gamache makes some choices too. 

Henning Mankell’s The Troubled Man is, so far as I know (so correct me if I’m wrong please), the last of his Kurt Wallander series. But what if that torch were passed to Wallander’s daughter Linda? What sort of series might that make? What about a series featuring Ian Rankin’s Siobhan Clarke, whom fans will know as Inspector John Rebus’ second-in-command. What if she featured in her own series? What about Karin Fossum’s Jacob Skarre?  In one way, it would be very realistic to have those characters assume leadership roles. They’ve evolved and developed and matured over time so it’s only natural that they’d feature in their own series. 

On the other hand, part of all of this is the author’s vision. That’s the ‘spark’ behind many series and without it characters can become flat and dull. If the author’s vision of a series doesn’t include passing the proverbial torch, then the series may not have its original appeal.  It’s also a matter of the characters themselves. They may be excellent characters in certain roles, but not as effective if they’re protagonists. So building a new series around one of them is a risk. 

What do you think? Does it make sense for a second-in-command or other character to take the lead in a new series? Or should a series end when the original protagonist stops investigating? If you’re a writer, what’s your vision for your work? Have you thought about where you’ll take your series when your protagonist no longer investigates? 

As for me, I’m thinking about it, but it’s not something I have to decide today. Joel Williams still has some good years ahead of him. 😉



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Dan Fogelberg’s Forefathers.


Filed under Arnaldur Indriðason, Colin Dexter, Håkan Nesser, Henning Mankell, Ian Rankin, Karin Fossum, Louise Penny

56 responses to “As the Torch is Passed From Hand to Hand*

  1. Great post! Having read or watched many of these sersis I think it is possible to pass the torch and still have a successful sersis . In the case of Morse and lewis, which being british I have watched since birth, I feel the sersis becomes more interesting with the change of roles and the addition of new characters. That goes to a different challenge of a sersis not becoming stuck or boring. One thing I wish lewis had done is let lewis continue to be lewis instead of giving him Morse like characteristics. Which raises the question can a supporting character be interesting as a lead character without character changes? So I think I have raised more questions than I have answered but those are my thoughtS!

    • LadyHarvey – Thanks for the kind words. And don’t worry about raising a lot of questions. That’s what conversation is supposed to be a bout isn’t it? YOu make a very interesting point about character evolution once the character takes a lead role. In some ways, I’d say a character has to change and evolve. It’s a new role with new expectations and so on. And in any case, as you say, we wouldn’t want characters to stagnate. That would end up being boring. On the other hand, as you point out, it’s interesting to ask when a character stops being that character and starts being another character. That’s a fine line and I don’t know that there is one definitive answer. But it is an important question for authors to ponder as they decide what to do about their own characters. Certainly passing the torch can keep a series fresh and interesting but as you say. But it’s not risk-free.

  2. Tony Hillerman did it too, in moving from Joe Leaphorn to Jim Chee. Good luck with the series, and deciding the future of your characters, Margot!

    • Kathy – Thanks. And you have a point about the roles that Leaphorn plays early in the series and then later as the novels go on. Interesting to me how Hillerman told their stories in a parallel kind of way.

  3. I agree with you assessment. People age and go on to other things in the real world. Why wouldn’t that happen in a series.

    • Dreamah – That’s what I think too. As long as the same author is developing a character, so that there’s some sort of continuity of style and so on, I think it makes sense. As you say, it happens in real life.

  4. Interesting post, Margot. For once, I’m at a bit of a loss, trying to think of an example from the classic era – but I can’t offhand. I can think of a few cases where, say, the police officer consulted by the protagonist-amateur evolves and changes over time, but not one where that officer or other “second banana” moves up to a series of his/hew own. (I’ll bet somebody corrects me here – which would be a good thing!)

    • Les – You know, I wanted to come up with a good classic/GA example too, but they aren’t easy to come by are they? I’d like to learn too if someone can think of an instance. I wonder what someone like Dr. Watson would be like as the ‘star’ of his own series…

  5. Perhaps the Golden Age writers didn’t worry so much about detectives realistically aging – there’s been many a joke about the ages of Poirot for example – so didn’t need to have younger ones at the ready. In the UK there is a tough, violent Scottish drama called Taggart, which has been running forever (30 years). Taggart was the tough dour head policeman in it. The actor playing him died about 10 years in, but the series has just continued with no Taggart in it. I often wonder if newcomers to the programme are completely mystified as to why it is called Taggart…

    • Moira – I didn’t know that about Taggart – thanks. I suppose it would seem odd if one didn’t know the drama’s history. Interesting! And as for GA detectives, I think you’re on to something. Certainly those sleuths didn’t age in real time in the way that many of today’s detectives do. So it makes sense that the authors wouldn’t need to worry about what’s coming up. And now you’re making me think about realism in those novels vs realism in today’s novels. You always g et me thinking, for which thanks.

  6. I Iike Lewis better than Morse, because Morse was my dad’s era, whereas I liked that Lewis was a young up-and-comer. So I guess this is a way to get a new generation interested, too.

    • Caron – You know, that’s a very well-taken point. Authors do have to take into account the audiences they want to attract. And sometimes a character who’s not identified with an earlier generation is the right choice. It doesn’t always work that way of course but I can see why you sort of identify more with Lewis than with Morse.

  7. A really interesting dilemma – for me it’s a only a question of whether the hitherto subordinate character is strong enough to bear the load. I enjoy nods to the past but the books (or TV shows) need to stand on their own in my view – look forward to hearing which was you ultimately decide to go Margot, when you eventually get there.

    • Thanks, Sergio. And fear not; I’m shameless when it comes to talking about my work. 😉 – You make a really well-taken point too about the strength of a character. When characters are not strong enough to begin with, they may fit the bill entirely as a secondary character. But that doesn’t mean they can ‘star’ effectively in their own series. But characters who are strong can carry a series. That’s an important distinction I think.

  8. There are some series where the investigator doesn’t age but I think it more realistic to have him or her age. Also, to pass the torch brings new blood to the series. Your last post was on detectives educating those under their wings and you gave some excellent examples. I think you can have a lot of fun in the transition period, especially if Williams isn’t too happy about retiring. Why does he have to retire? Will he be brought in as consultant or disappear entirely from the series? How does he feel about his successor? Where will he retire? Will he still stick his nose in the office?
    Retirement is tough, there’s a mourning period period and you might want to consider showing Williams coping with this. Or not coping.

    • Carol – Thanks very much for your ideas. I’ve been thinking about much the same sort of thing, and there’s lots of good ‘fodder’ there for moving series along as the ‘new blood’ comes in. As you say, ending a career is always a watershed time, and that too makes for solid character development. Plenty of plot lines and character evolution to be had!

  9. What a fascinating post. I often think about what I want to do with my characters as the series progresses. I like that you’re open to the fact your protagonist might change. I know that some writers become very attached to their characters. I have seen the Morse series and then the Lewis series and I think both are great so a secondary character stepping into the role of the main character can be fine. I think a writer needs to prepare the reader for the change though: making the sub-characters do more investigating, making them more interesting. Again, great post.

    • Clarissa – Thank you. I think part of the key of keeping a series interesting is if the characters develop and change over time. That’s what real-life people do. I agree with you too that the Inspector Morse and Lewis series show that that transition from one lead character to another can be successful. It’s not easy though and I think you’re being wise to start thinking now about where you might go with your characters.

  10. These are tough decisions, Margot. Although I may go back and do another Sylvia and Willie mystery some day, for now I’m more challenged by standalones….although my wip main cop character just happens to have the same home town and name of the secondary cop in my current (and hopefully contracted) novel. Sometimes those characters won’t let go of us, even when we planned on retiring them.

    • Pat – Isn’t that the truth! And when that happens I think it’s perfectly fine to with them and develop them. There’s obviously something compelling about a character who stays with you. And of course, you’ll go where your writing takes you, but I do hope we’ll see more of Sylvia and Willie sometime.

  11. Lin

    Off topic: Sort of memory lane. 😉 I hope you don’t mind. 🙂
    I bought Publish or Perish via Amazon years ago. I received the second one from you. And I am looking forward to buy your third Joel Williams.

    I remember you did the contest to give a name to one of your character in the second book and I submitted the name of something Markham. Unfortunately, mine was not chosen. When I think of that name now, it’s an old name and no young/modern people would ever use that name! Lol. 😉

    By the way, I have been following your blog since at the beginning. I remember very clearly, some of the authors’ books that you had always used as examples like Laurien Berenson, Tony Hillerman, Lillian Jackson Braun and Dicey Deere to name a few. I bought the whole set of Laurien Berenson and Dicey Deere books because of your recommendations. Although they are definitely cozy but I enjoyed(and still enjoy) reading them the most of the titles. Thank you so much! I have some of the Brauns’ and all the Hillermans’ books too.

    • Lin – How very kind of you! You’ve really made my day – no, my week. I’m so glad you’ve enjoyed what you’ve read here on the blog, and I’m really pleased you enjoyed the books. You’ve reminded me too of Laurien Berenson’s series, which I haven’t thought of in a while – thanks for that. And honestly it’s hard to beat Tony Hillerman when it comes to Southwest-flavoured mysteries with strong characters. Such a sense of culture, setting and context.
      Thanks too for the reminder of that ‘name the character’ contest. The character made his way into Joel Williams #3, so we’ll see what the publisher thinks of it. 🙂 – Who knows? Maybe some time I’ll do something like that again.
      In the meantime, thank you again for the kind words. That means a great deal to me.

  12. Lin

    Just want to add that I hope you don’t kill Joel Williams. I don’t mind if you make him retire but still active investigating the cases in many years to come! 🙂

  13. I think a series should end when the narrative has run out of interesting places to go, or moral dilemmas or unique crimes…etc…I am afraid some series continue on past their use by and that is very sad as your memory of the book/show is of something trying too hard…on the subject of Lewis – I like his new sidekick – Hathaway.

    • Carol – Oh, I think you’re quite right about that. I think a thoughtful, careful author is aware of when a series stops being interesting and moves on to something else. And if s/he isn’t, then a skilled editor should be. And yes, that’s the time to re-think things. And thanks for mentioning Hathaway – I kind of like him too.

      • I think sometimes the $$$ might just get in the way of good decisions sometimes 🙂 or pressure to keep repeating a good thing…
        Hathaway is a bit of an enigma – I like this.

        • Carol – I do too. And you’re spot on about the money angle I think. It’s very tempting to write what sells, even if it’s not good. And there probably is pressure to do things a certain way, especially when someone’s gotten a bit of a name. You know, ‘Let’s go with what works,’ or ‘Let’s do this or that ‘McPlot’ just to get that next release cranked out.

        • Yes I have read a few of those “McPlot, and I wont be again,I think it is must be hard for a writer to sustain a series for say, 20 eps, the story usually just gets stretched too far…(except Michael Connelly – his books have definite character development, add new characters, new twists, new settings…) 🙂

        • I’ve always admired that about Connelly too, Carol. His work’s consistently fine, and he innovates so effectively. From what I’ve read, he just puts his head down and writes. Whatever it is, it works for him!

  14. Lewis worked for me, mainly because I always preferred Kevin Whately to John Thaw, but generally I find when the old star leaves, so do I. Midsomer Murders is a case in point – I was addicted to it, but since the new Barnaby came along I find I can’t watch it. And Moira mentioned Taggart – oddly I got into it after Taggart died and enjoyed the new lead…but when he left and they brought in number 3, again it just wasn’t ever the same for me. I’m not so aware of it happening in books – perhaps because there’s time for a more gradual introduction of the new guy (or gal). I find it interesting that it looks like Rankin may have Rebus hand the baton on to Malcolm Fox rather than Siobhan – I’m intrigued to know why, if he does.

    Good luck with the publishers, Margot!

    • FictionFan – I think that’s an interesting and important aspect of whether a television series works. Does the actor work for viewers? Now to me, John Thaw was Morse, but I like Kevin Whately too. He’s really brought Lewis to life, so yes, I think that has a lot to do with the success of that series. Oh, and I agree with you about John Nettles. That’s the Barnaby I picture. It just is. I have to admit that I haven’t seen Taggart, but now I’m keen to take a peek at a few episodes to see what I think.
      And as to Rebus and Fox/Clarke, you may be right about that. Perhaps Rankin thinks Fox can sustain a series better. Or perhaps he just likes the character better. It may be an editorial decision too. It really will be interesting to see what happens there.
      And thanks for the good wishes. 🙂

      • The original Taggart, starring the much-missed Mark McManus, was very, very heavily influenced by William McIlvanney’s Laidlaw trilogy. I hadn’t realised quite how much till I started reading the books recently. The series has been going on for over 25 years now, so the early ones were pretty close in time to McIlvanney’s books. It’s generally considered to be one of the best series ever to have come out of Scotland, though the more recent series haven’t been up to quite the same standard as the early ones. Catchphrase – ‘Therr’s been a murrrderrr!’

  15. Lin

    Yes, at first I found it very hard to adjust myself to liking the new Barnaby. But after some time, I’ve become comfortable with the new Barnaby. And can enjoy the new series featuring Neil Dudgeon as much as the old series featuring John Nettles!

    When I reflect on why I like Midsomer Murders, I find that the main reason I watch the show is because of the settings (murder in village or rural area that depict the country life) with the good plots. Although I admit, after some time, the show has become generic but I still enjoy watching the show!

    • Lin – Now that’s interesting. That peaceful village setting really is an attractive sort of context for murder mysteries even if the plots get generic. I also like some of the offbeat and eccentric characters. Someone’s very creative in coming up with them!
      As to John Nettles and Neil Dudgeon, I wish I had your flexibility. Dudgeon’s a fine actor – nothing against him. But I have this mental picture of what Barnaby ought to be like. I should work harder at adjusting my perception perhaps.

  16. Margot: I am firmly on the side of fictional sleuths solving mysteries until they die.

    I like sleuths to age naturally. As sleuths age they can bring different physical and mental perspectives to their cases. Having reached my 60’s I see sleuths just as interesting and clever when they have reached their 6th decade of life.

    As my best example I refer to the Joanne Kilbourn series by Gail Bowen. Joanne, as with your Joel, was an academic. In the 13th book of the series, Kaleidoscope, she retired and in the 14th book, The Gifted, she has carried on solving mysteries. I have enjoyed the retired Joanne as much as the working Joanne.

    Working or retired I say Joel should solve on!

    • Bill – You’re quite right that sleuths can solve mysteries long after they retire, and Joanne Kilbourn is a great example of that. She is, as you say, just as interesting and clever now as she was in Deadly Appearnces. She’s not the only one either. There are plenty of retired fictional sleuths out there. And trust me, Joel has no intention of folding up in himself and doing nothing once he retires. He’s got lots of good years yet.

  17. Wonderful idea here Margot. I think Wallander’ s daughter would do fine. I love the TV series – even with subtitles – and am yet to read the books. I prefer Lewis to Morse who (on TV at any rate) was stiff and badly acted (my opinion) and nothing like I imagined he’d be from the books. Lewis does have a few of Morse’s characteristics but in the main is a better well rounded character so if Dexter did write about him, he would need to follow the series depiction of the character. Hathaway is great too. In Taggart it was sad to see the first actor die (in real life) and the mantle passed on and I love the series but not the new main character. Some of the supporting actors have been changed too – but the series has fabulous writing and stories and so it is still riveting. I am not too keen on the new line-up for Barnaby and co in Midsomer Murders. Neil Dudgeon seems too tongue in cheek all the time and the domestic stuff grates whereas Joyce and Tom were somehow much more realistic and I wonder what the writer of the series (books) thinks of it all.

    If you are going to pass Joel’s mantle on, to a younger character, then I am sure his build-up prior to this event, will be strong and have all the elements which will endear him to your readers. TV series of course, have to make changes to characters and stories to fit in with visual story-telling, often the book follows the series, but with a character still on paper, you have time and imagination to really prepare him (and your readers) for his emergence as the main character.

    The change in Karin Slaughter’s books from the main character Jeffery to the dyslexic Will was a shock and took getting used to – but I am OK with it now.

    • Jane – Thanks for the kind words. And you’re not alone about Lewis. A lot of people prefer him to Morse, and I think Whately portrays Lewis really effectively. He may have a few of Morse’s characteristics, but if you think about it that’s not surprising as they worked together for a long time. And it has been interesting to see Hathaway’s development. And I have to agree with you; I preferred John Nettles as Barnaby. I’m probably biased because he was the ‘original’ Barnaby, but still.
      You’ve got an interesting point too about paper vs film. When you write, you can take the time and do the work to develop the characters as you wish over time. But real-life actors move on to other things or they pass away, so the creators of filmed series don’t have as much leeway.

  18. kathy d.

    First of all, good luck with the publisher.
    Second, I would not kill off or retire Joel. He’s a good character, and he can still be very useful in solving cases as he ages. (I concur with Bill S. on the value of detectives as they get older.)
    However, consider a younger man or woman as an associate who is learning from Joel, and helping to solve cases. (Dalziel and Pascoe come to mind, even though the younger detective is certainly bright and capable.) That way a new character can be brought in and make it fresh without retiring Joel.
    A lot of fictional detectives have younger assistants or detectives-in-training who do a lot to help and who even solve cases on their own.
    And, in answer to the question about Dr. Watson, no, I don’t think he could have pulled off a book or TV or movie series on his own. He complements Holmes, who is the eccentric, brilliant detective — and who has quite an ego — and steals the spotlight. Dr. Watson does not fill that role. He’s a friend, confidante, consultant, but not a star.

    • Kathy – There’s no doubt that detection is not just something for younger people. Many really successful detectives are in their sixties or older. So whatever happens to Joel, he’s not going to just disappear when he turns 65. It’s interesting that you mention a younger associate. That’s exactly what I’ve been thinking of and as I say, I have a character in mind. We’ll see how that goes. I very much like the way Reginald Hill had Pascoe come in as a young man and learn from Dalziel as the years went on. As you say, Pascoe has his own skills, and that’s all to the good. I’d not have liked him as a hapless or stupid character.
      And I’m inclined to agree with you about Watson. He plays an important role in the Holmes stories but like you, I’m not sure he’d be the best choice to ‘star’ in a series.

  19. I thought right away of Lewis and Morse and I’ve enjoyed what the TV version has done with the show…made it modern, updated, fresh with new characters. I didn’t realize Midsomer had a new Barnaby (!) until one of your commenters mentioned it. That makes me sad.

    I do enjoy reading series where the characters age in real time…obviously, this lends realism to the books. But I’ve gotten 2 emails now from different readers, asking me to make sure that Myrtle stays frozen. I’m thinking, though, that has to do with her age more than anything. She’s definitely staying frozen.

    • Elizabeth – You’ve hit on something important. Part of the decision about whether and to what extent a sleuth ages depends on how old that sleuth is to begin with. In your case, I agree: Myrtle should stay frozen. Much as I like your other ‘regulars,’ I like Myrtle as the feature of that series. That saiid though, I think you’re right that when characters do age in something like real time, it can add realism. Both Michael Connelly and Ian Rankin have done that effectively I think with Harry Bosch and John Rebus respectively. So did Tony Hillerman with his Chee and Leaphorn characters.
      And about the change of lead actor on Midsomer Murders? I have to admit I liked John Nettles much better in that role. I’ve nothing against Neil Dudgeon as an actor, but to me, he’s not Barnaby.

  20. Very interesting, Ms. Kinberg. I haven’t really thought about this. I may be wrong but hasn’t Doctor Watson solved some cases on his own, perhaps in the absence of Holmes? I suppose a second-in-command would try and chart out his or her own course rather than be seen as an appendage of the original detective. I’d expect a new and refreshing skill and perspective from the new investigator.

    • Prashant- It’s true that different investigators have their own ways of doing things so as you say, new investigator, new approaches. And that can certainly add to a series. You ask an interesting question about Watson too. In my opinion (although I may be quite wrong), there aren’t any cases where we don’t see Holmes at all. But in a view stories (Hound of the Baskervilles is one), he does his share of the ‘leg work’ and does his share of detecting.

  21. Col

    I’ve not read into a series where the lead team has evolved and changed over time, I think I’d prefer it though. Some series have got tired for me and I stopped reading them as in my opinion the lead time was the same every time, and the author was almost writing to a formula

    • Col – I think authors such as Nesser have done a very effective and realistic job of having an investigation team change and evolve over time. That happens in real life and it just makes sense that it would happen in crime fiction too.

  22. As a writer I didn’t think ahead at all, in that sense, when writing my first book! I wonder if many authors actually do at that point?
    But I very much enjoyed the Morse TV series and the books. A Lewis series seemed a good idea, but personally I thought it wasn’t quite as good as Morse. But I try to keep an open mind about how characters can develop, and Benedict Cumberbatch as “Sherlock” brings Holmes right up to date. I don’t know if it’s on USA TV, but I suspect people will either love the series or hate it. Personally, I love it. It really makes me laugh. And, for me, that is always a plus!

    • Dawn – It’s funny, but it’s only recently that I’ve begun to think about what will happen to my series eventually. And I’m try to stay open to other ideas. I have to say I like the Lewis series, although I very much miss Morse. And I couldn’t agree more; when a show makes you laugh, that’s a good thing.

  23. Margot, finally I have an example. In the Mario Balzic series by K. C. Constantine, some of the later cases go to Detective Sergeant Rugs Carlucci when Balzic retires. Or so I have read, since I haven’t gotten that far with the series.

    I hope things go well with your third Joel Williams book.

    • Tracy – I’m glad you mentioned that series. It’s not as well known as some other series are, but it’s very well-written. And yes, Carlucci does take more of a leadership role as this series goes on. I hope you’ll enjoy the rest of the series, and thanks for the kind words.

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