I’m Going Back to the Start*

PrequelsSome fictional detectives become so popular that we don’t want to let them go, even when the series clearly ends. And let’s be pragmatic: if a publishing company sees financial mileage in a detective, it’s natural to want to create more stories about that sleuth. The same is true of filmmakers. Authors too are not blind to the value on many levels of continuing to write about a particular detective. So it shouldn’t be surprising that publishing companies, filmmakers and authors have turned to prequels.

It makes sense, really. Fans are interested in knowing more about their beloved sleuths. There’s definitely a market out there too. And a well-written story is a well-written story.

On other hand, to a lot of fans, the stories are the stories. Prequels, especially if the author isn’t the character’s original creator, just aren’t the same as the ‘real’ stories. And it can be annoying for readers who prefer to enjoy a series in order if a prequel pops up. This really isn’t a settled question and I suppose that’s what makes it an interesting one.

At the end of its run, H.R.F. Keating wrote a prequel to his popular Ganesh Ghote series. Inspector Ghote’s First Case takes readers back to the beginning, when Bombay Police Inspector Ghote had just been promoted to that rank. In the novel, his boss Sir Rustom Engineer asks Ghote to travel from Bombay to Mahableshwar to investigate the suicide of Iris Dawkins. Her widower Robert Dawkins wants to know what drove his wife to suicide and he’s a friend of Engineer’s. So Ghote makes the trip despite the fact that his wife Protima is about to give birth to their first child. When he gets to Mahableshwar, Ghote asks routine questions about what happened. Gradually he begins to suspect that Iris Dawkins didn’t commit suicide. If she was murdered of course, the obvious questions are why and by whom? So Ghote begins the process of looking into the victim’s background and relationships to see who would have wanted to kill her and why.

Liza Marklund wrote Studio Sex (AKA Studio 69) as a prequel to her novel The Bomber. In the prequel, Annika Bengtzon has just started her career as a crime reporter. She’s working as a summer hire for Kvellspressen. When the body of a young woman is found in Stockholm’s Kronoberg Park, Bengtzon is eager to join the media ‘feeding frenzy,’ hoping that her angle on the story will give her a good chance at a full-time job. The body is identified as that of nineteen-year-old Hanna Josefin Liljeberg and at first the case seems straightforward enough as Bengtzon slowly starts to find out bits and pieces about the victim’s life. But before long Bengtzon discovers that she’s been misled about the case and that someone is trying very hard to discredit her. In the end, the case is connected to a coverup that leads to highly-placed people in the Swedish government.

Sometimes a prequel is only a prequel for those who read translated editions of a series. That’s because some series are translated out of order, as in the case of Jo Nesbø’s very popular Harry Hole series. The Bat is the first in that series, originally published in 1997. But it wasn’t translated until 2012, so for English-speaking readers, you really could call it a prequel as we get to know the Harry that came before The Redbreast. In The Bat, Hole travels to Sydney to help investigate the murder of Inger Holter, a Norwegian woman whose body’s been found in Gap Park. It shouldn’t surprise fans of this series that Hole soon makes a connection between Inger’s death and other murders. It’s an interesting example of how some of the ‘vintage Harry Hole’ trademarks have their origins.

There’ve also been hints that Arnaldur Indriðason may write a prequel to his very popular and well-regarded Inspector Erlendur series. It’ll be very interesting to see if that actually happens.

Not all prequels are written by the characters’ original creators. For instance, there’s Spade and Archer, which chronicles the meeting of Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade and Miles Archer. In this novel, Spade hangs out his shingle in San Francsico soon begins getting all sorts of clients. He’s working on a case when he happens to run into Archer, who, we learn, moved in on Spade’s girlfriend Ivy. The two of them develop an interesting partnership that turns official as the book goes on. This novel was written by Joe Gores, with the support and consent of the Hammett estate, and lots of people think it’s an excellent story.

Television and film executives have not been blind to the possibilities of prequels. Two series that have become quite popular are Endeavor and The Young Montalbano. Endeavor tells the story of the young man who would later become Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse. With Shaun Evans in the title role, the series began with five episodes that were popular enough that a second series was commissioned.

The Young Montalbano chronicles the early career of Andrea Camilleri’s popular sleuth Salvo Montalbano. Starring Michele Riondino, we learn how Montalbano got started as a cop, and we follow his first cases. The first series of The Young Montalbano was successful enough that a second series has been planned. Both this one and Endeavor were scheduled to start filming their second series in late 2013, so it’ll be interesting to see what the new episodes are like.

Prequels can give readers a chance to really get to know their beloved sleuths better. And the potential for financial success with prequels is undeniable. Besides, they can make for interesting stories. But for lots of people, prequels just aren’t the same as the originals, and they aren’t keen on them.

What about you? Do you like prequels? If you’re a writer, would you do a prequel for your protagonist?



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Coldplay’s The Scientist.


Filed under Andrea Camilleri, Arnaldur Indriðason, Colin Dexter, Dashiell Hammett, H.R.F. Keating, Jo Nesbø, Joe Gores, Liza Marklund

26 responses to “I’m Going Back to the Start*

  1. Do I like prequels? In general, I would say no, for series that I have read. But I am sure it depends on the author. I just read a prequel (Judgement Call) which is the 20th book in Nick Oldham’s Henry Christopher police procedural series. But I had not read the earlier books so I could not tell how it compared and what it added to the series. Robert Goldsborough wrote a prequel to the Nero Wolfe series by Rex Stout (called Archie meets Nero Wolfe) and I enjoyed that, although no one can compare with Rex Stout’s storytelling.

    What I like to do is go back to the beginning and reread the series. Nowadays it is hard to find time to do that, but I have started rereading the Inspector Wexford series by Rendell and the Gregor Demarkian series by Jane Haddam, even though neither series is done yet.

    • Tracy – I couldn’t agree more. A lot of whether a prequel works or not depends on the author. With all due respect to Robert Goldsborough, he isn’t Rex Stout and I can see your point about Stout’s storytelling. Oh, and thanks for mentioning that prequel; I had intended to include it in the post and just didn’t. I appreciate your filling in that gap.
      I like to read series from the beginning too. Like you I don’t always get the chance. There’s just too little time and too many good books to read for that. But I do try. I hope you’ll like the Wexford series and you’ve reminded me I need to dive more deeply into the Demarkian series.

  2. I can take or leave sequels – but perhaps it will be a way out for Sue Grafton when she reaches Z in the Kinsey Milhone series? And, the Young Montalbano is very good-looking in the TV series and his asparment and the scenery are gorgeous!

    • Moira – You’re quite right about Young Montalbano. Lots to look at in that series. And now you’ve got me wondering just exactly what Sue Grafton will choose to do after Z is For…. She certainly has options and I’d reckon the publisher will give her lots of latitude. We’ll have to see.

  3. kathy d.

    Well, as a fan of Salvo Montalbano’s at any age, I will say that, yes, I like the TV prequel episodes with the young detective — and Michele Riondino is not only great at the role, but he’s adorable, too. As a friend of a certain age said, “the younger detectives are a lot cuter than the older, balding detective and his colleagues.”
    That said, I stayed up half the night watching two episodes featuring the older Sicilian detective — and could not turn off the TV/dvd set. They are just excellent — and some of Montalbano’s usual crustiness and impatience give way to a sentimental and caring side of his personality. Anyone who is a fan of the books should definitely watch the TV shows. And the scenery is just beautiful.
    I have not read many prequels, though. I imagine if they’re written by the same author they would be good.

    • Kathy – I think you’ve got an important point there. If a prequel is written by the author of the original series, that’s one thing. If it’s not, that’s another thing entirely. And I couldn’t agree with you more about both Montalbano series. They’re richly and beautifully filmed, and the characters are solidly done I think. Folks, if you haven’t yet had the chance to check out those series, you may wish to do that.

  4. In general, I’m not enthusiastic about prequels, especially when it means that a series that’s been set in the present day suddenly has to be set in the past. It makes the feel of the series different somehow. But I did enjoy Jane Casey’s novella-length prequel to the Maeve Kerrigan series recently, ‘Left for Dead’ – I think because it’s a fairly new series so it didn’t have to look very far back in time.

    • FictionFan – Now that’s an entirely new angle on the topic: how far into the past one has to go for a prequel. I think you have a point that if one’s used to a series set in one time, going too far back into the past can jar the reader. I’m glad you enjoyed that novella prequel though. It has the added advantage that Casey herself wrote it, so she was able to work the story into the overall portrait of Maeve Kerrigan’s life more or less seamlessly. And you’ve reminded me that I ought to spotlight one of those novels.

  5. Only if it’s written by the originator. And even then, not sure. I really don’t care much for the ENDEAVOR series on Morse’s early years especially. Not the original writer and Morse is best as a craggy, cranky old guy.

    • Patti – I know what you mean about the original creator of a series. The person in the best position to know the characters and their origins is the person who first created them. So if there is going to be a prequel, that’s the person who ought to do it if possible. I’ve gotten used to the older Morse myself.

  6. I’m not keen on prequels, especially if they’re not by the original author. Unlike Patti though the exception for me is the Endeavour series, which I do like. This may be because I haven’t read many of the Morse books and only watched the TV programmes – and I do like the young Morse character (and actor).

    • Margaret – Interesting about Endeavor. I hear from some folks like you who like it, and others who don’t. It doesn’t seem to be a sort of ‘neutral’ show. And I think you have a point that if one’s really accustomed to the novels and the older Morse portrayed in them, it’s a bit harder to get used to the younger character. Maybe that does affect the way people see the TV series.

  7. Great post, thanks! I wasn’t sure I was going to like Young Montalbano but it was well done and apart from Catarella being even more of a pantomime character I thought the series really worked well. Looking forward to the next series! Lizzie

    • Liz – Thanks for the kind words. I know what you mean about the Catarella character. He generally serves as comic relief, so he doesn’t get the depth that some of the other characters get. Still, I think both Young Montalbano and Montalbano are really nicely done series. And I do love that setting.

  8. Introduced to the young Montalbano and loved it.Quirky and beautiful settings. The first of the ‘old’ was a bit of a shock then,hooked again and rationed ourselves to one episode per evening to make the dvd last! I’d never seen this approach before but in the end it worked for me. They say it is the characters in a book which remain in the mind rather than the plot so it is always a risk to run prequels but Montalbano pulled it off. Apart from the two Montalbano’s, both Catarella’s were wonderful characters. I believe five more episodes are in preparation.
    Very interesting post. Thank you.
    Harry Dunn( Author, Smile of the Viper from Caffeine Nights.)

    • Harry – Thanks for the kind words. Glad you enjoyed the post. And I agree with you that both Montalbano series have been nicely done. As you say, the character development and the settings are well-crafted (they are in the book series too). I can see how you’d end up rationing yourselves. As you say, it’s really not easy to any television series work, let alone a prequel series. But it seems to have been successful here.

  9. I do wonder if there is something about the term ‘prequel’ that automatically puts readers and viewers on the back foot? It assumes, I think, that authors, publishers or broadcasters are ‘cashing in’ and so usually we have to be won over? And yet, as you point out, there are so many great examples where this has been successful, so why is there still a kind of in-built resistance? Conan Doyle, Simenon, EC Bentley etc did it for their celebrated sleuths after all, as did Forester with his Hornblower books and CS Lewis with the Narnia series. And yet, deep down, we are wary of anything that feels second-hand, warmed over and that is targeted too clearly at the marketplace. It is certainly a little dispiriting when in film and TV we have constant ‘reboots’ that ‘re-imagine’ a character so that younger actors can be cast to entice mass audiences, on the (apparently well-founded) assumption that cinemagoers tend to have very short attention spans. It can work, as in the case of the current James Bond and Godfather II was better than the original for me frankly. But the search for a new Spiderman for instance seemed unseemly in its haste! Fascinating topic Margot – no easy answers, are there?

    • Sergio – No, there aren’t easy answers. I suppose that’s part of what makes this an interesting topic. I think you make a really interesting point that the term ‘prequel’ itself can be off-putting. Fans want to feel that what they’re reading or seeing on film is authentic and genuine. That word suggests that it won’t be. That’s a really clear example isn’t it of how a word can have a lot of power. You’ve given some terrific examples too of authors who did very successful prequels and readers loved them. Lots of authenticity there. And as you say, it’s been done very well in film, too (I agree with you that Godfather II is a superb film. Folks, I recommend it if you haven’t seen it). And yet there is this push to use prequels, especially in film, to get new audiences and therefore of course, more profit. Little wonder that we’re wary of that term.

  10. I’m not a fan of prequels. They have the feeling of taking me out of the loop of what I already know and love rather than adding to it. I watched an episode of Endeavour and all I could see is what it was supposed to be (in the future) and it didn’t hit the mark so I just couldn’t watch it.

    • Rebecca – I know what you mean about prequels taking one out of the loop. They do change the order of things and can be jarring, especially if not done well. And I really find it interesting that Endeavor is one of those shows that one either really enjoys…or doesn’t. It doesn’t seem to be ‘neutral’ at all.

  11. I actually don’t mind prequels. Often they appear after a subsequent book finds a publisher or is translated. Irene by Pierre LeMaitre is about to be published here and is a prequel to ‘Alex’ apparently.

    • Sarah – You make an interesting point about publisher agreements and translations. Those definitely affect whether/when a book is released and whether there’s a prequel. I’ve not read Irene, but I heard it might be a prequel. I wonder whether it would change one’s experience of Alex to read the other first. Hmmm….’food for thought,’ for which thanks.

  12. It is hard to find another series one enjoys. I know the authors move on to new projects, retire, die, etc. I hope in this modern day more classic and the obscure would be made available. But there are the copyright laws and such. i wish some of my favorite authors would come back in some shape or form.

    • Scott – That’s quite true. Authors do retire/move on/die, and that means the series ends. And if it’s a series one’s particularly loved, that leaves a void. Of course as you say, one can hope that certain series come back. But sometimes you just can’t get around the fact that there will be no more books from a given author.

  13. Col

    The OCD within me doesn’t really like them, as I prefer a chronological progression in the series I read. That said, my OCD would still compel me to go and read – just for the sense of completion.

    • Col – You’re by no means alone. I think a lot of readers prefer to read series in order; I know I do. And it’s interesting that the same desire for order that leads readers to want to complete a series can also make them not like prequels. Still, as you say, they can give a sense of completing a series.

What's your view? I'd love to hear it.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s