Yours is so Distinctive*

Distinctive SeriesThe thing about crime fiction is that there’s a lot of it. Every year, new novels are released, too. All of this means that nobody can read all of the crime fiction that’s out there. And yet, despite all of the options and all of the reading we do, there are some series that really seem to stand out. There’s something about those series that makes them unique. I’m not talking here of just an interesting plot and characters; any well-written crime series has those. I’m talking more of something special that sets those series apart.

In some cases, it’s a unique sort of sleuth. These are sleuths who are distinctive enough that if you see a caricature, you know exactly which sleuth it is. For instance, Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes is like that. He has enough eccentricities that he’s quite distinctive. And his personality and detection style are part of what set those stories apart.

One might say the same thing about Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe and Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, too. Both of those detectives are distinct from other detectives, both in physical appearance and in their approaches to solving crime. So the novels featuring them stand out, too. This isn’t to say that that mysteries themselves aren’t interesting, or that there’s nothing else appealing about those series. Rather, it’s to say that those characters are important parts of what sets those series apart from others.

For some series, it’s the cultural context that sets them apart. We see that, for instance, in Tony Hillerman’s Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee novels. Both of those characters are members of the Navajo Tribal Police, and the Navajo Nation. So, many of these stories take place in that culture. In fact, Hillerman was awarded the distinction of being named ‘A Special Friend of the Navajo’ for his thoughtful and respectful, but honest, depiction of the Navajo.

Fans of Linda Castillo’s Kate Burkholder novels will know that that series, too, is set apart by its depiction of a unique culture. In this case, it’s the Amish of the US state of Ohio. Burkholder is chief of police in the small town of Painters Mill. She is also Amish by background, although she no longer lives that life. So readers get a look at the distinctive way of life of the Amish, and that’s part of what makes this series different to others.

Many readers like a strong sense of setting in their novels. And any well-written crime series gives the reader a sense of what it’s like to live in the place where the stories are set. But in some series, that sense of setting is distinctive. I’m thinking, for instance, of Craig Johnson’s Walt Longmire novels. Longmire is the sheriff for fictional Apsaroka County, Wyoming, so in those novels, readers get a real sense of rural Wyoming. The physical setting, the climate, and the people who live there are all depicted in these novels. That’s not to say there’s nothing else about the series that makes it worth reading. It is to say, though, that for fans of these novels, the setting is one factor that sets them apart.

That’s also arguably true of Elly Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway/Harry Nelson series. Galloway is a forensic anthropologist with the University of North Norfolk; Nelson is a local chief inspector. Among many other things that fans of this series enjoy, the setting is distinctive. As the novels go on, readers learn about the history of this part of East Anglia, and about the climate, geography, and so on that make the place unique. And, of course, there’s Cathbad…

Peter May’s Lewis trilogy takes place in the Lewis and Harris part of the Outer Hebrides. Right from the beginning, readers are placed there in terms of climate, geography and so on. Certainly the character and plot are part of what appeal to fans of May’s writing. But the setting is definitely one of the things that sets this trilogy apart. May’s depiction of setting is also really clear in his standalone Entry Island.

Another element that sets some series apart for readers is the depiction of a profession. In those cases, readers learn what it’s really like to be a lawyer/doctor/paramedic/etc. John Grisham’s novels, for instance, just about always focus on an attorney or a group of attorneys. So they give readers an ‘inside look’ at the life of an attorney. And what sets these novels apart is that they go beyond the TV-and-film stereotypes of what an attorney does. The same is arguably true of Robert Rotenberg’s novels.

Katherine Howell’s novels feature New South Wales police inspector Ella Marconi. But they also include major characters who are paramedics. Among the things that set these novels apart is the way they depict the life of a paramedic. Readers get to ‘go behind the scenes’ and really see what it’s like to become a paramedic, to do the job, and to live the life. It’s interesting to note, too, that Grisham, Rotenberg and Howell are all, or have been, members of the professions that feature in their stories. This may be just my opinion, but I think that lends something to their series. And that depiction of profession sets them apart.

Of course, these are just a few examples of ways in which a series can distinguish itself from all the good series out there. As you think about the series that most stand out for you, what is it about them that draws you? If you’re a writer, what do you find easiest to do to make your stories unique?



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Sense Field’s Voice.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Craig Johnson, Elly Griffiths, John Grisham, Katherine Howell, Linda Castillo, Peter May, Rex Stout, Robert Rotenberg, Tony Hillerman

34 responses to “Yours is so Distinctive*

  1. Such an interesting question, Margot. I was runinating only a short time ago over how, all my life, I’ve been drawn to prolific writers with long-lasting series. Yes, the detective, the setting, or the plotting may be what draws us to our favorites. I also think it has a lot to do with an author’s voice, a combination of their style, point of view, and way of writing. Agatha Christie has always been my favorite classic writer because, in addition to her brilliant plotting, there’s a sort of middle-class sensibility. The rich aren’t better than the poor, men are no smarter than women. (Quite the opposite, actually.) her simple writing style belies some keen social observation. I also love John Dickson Carr, who is just as clever as Christie, but I’ve never been attracted to his work in the same way.

    Of course, it CAN be simply a character. I have read all of Louise Penny’s novels. I don’t think much of her mysteries. I even turn of her writing style. But I love Gamache and his friends, and Penny’s strength, to me, is how she depicts the struggle, both socially and internally, between good and evil. I have really enjoyed Gamache’s battles against civic corruption, even when the whodunit aspect of her books falls way short. As you put it, so many different aspects can hook us into a series and make us readers for life!

    • Oh, absolutely, Brad. And thanks for the kind words. I know what you mean about Gamache, whatever one thinks of Penny’s plotting, solutions and so on, he is a terrific character, and I do like the fact that he’s not a stereotypical demon-haunted detective who can’t function.

      As to Christie, I like her work very much, too. I think you have a well-taken point in the point of view – the outlook on life – that those stories share. Certainly that’s a bit of their appeal for me, too. And it’s a good example of the way an author’s voice can make a series stand out as much as anything else.

  2. Margot: I think of Maisie Dobbs as a unique sleuth. Her blend of psychology and detection is uncommon. What made her special to me was her ability to understand people through physically imitating how they walked and acted. It is not even easy to explain. I would not say Maisie is like any other fictional detective.

    • No need for explanation, Bill. I know just exactly what you mean. She is a unique sleuth. Her background is interesting, too, and she has a really interesting way of interacting with her clients, too.

  3. mudpuddle

    i’ve had a lot of pleasure from arthur upfield’s detective, napoleon bonaparte. he’s part aborigine. living in australia, master detective and an expert tracker with a foothold in two camps. some very clever crimesolving in all parts of australia…

    • Oh, I know what you mean, Mudpuddle. He has an understanding of both cultures, and can live in both worlds. He also has a fascinating way of getting people to trust him.

  4. You’re so right – the setting and characters, as well as the style, are what distinguish one series from another. In terms of setting, I adore the Montalbano series and Donna Leon’s series (which are at the ‘gorgeous Italian landscape and food’ end of the spectrum) but also the Aurelio Zen series (dark and grim Italy of corruption and criminal influence). In terms of character, I adored the contrast between Dalziel and Pascoe, the eccentricities of Adamsberg’s team in Fred Vargas, the fiery and independent Vic Warshawski.

    • I agree completely, Marina Sofia, about the setting for both the Leon series and the Camilleri series. We really do get to see some lovely parts of Italy. And, yes, Dibdin’s Aurelio Zen series has a solid sense of the ‘other side’ of Italy. And you’ve pointed out some really appealing major characters, too. I’m also glad you’ve highlighted the contrast between Dalziel and Pascoe; it’s partly that interaction that makes that series unique, no doubt about that.

  5. Marina I agree with your comments, and would add Peter James and his series (Roy Grace) set in Brighton, with familiar characters popping in and the locations so well known and cosily familiar. It is like reading letters from an old friend, updating you on all the goings on whilst you’ve been away.

    • I like the way you put that, Jane. Sometimes that cast of characters really does set a series apart. That’s the case, in my opinion, with Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman series, too.

      • Ah I am not familiar with this series or author Margot. I shall go online and take a look. It msut be wonderful to write a series where each character is so familiar to the reader, the local, the dynamics within groups such as the police team or the families of the main characters. I;d love to be able to do that. To make someone smile when they hear a new book is due out, anxious to find out what they are all up to. I love Peter James because all through his books you hear about his missing wife Sandy and you wonder. Later she seems to have reappeared with a whole new life, a mysterious life and a son. From book to book the thread is there and one day we shall all find out why she disappeared. Just love it.

        • I imagine you’re quite right, Jane. It must be wonderful, indeed, to have people be as familiar with one’s fictional ‘regular’ characters as that, and want to know what happens to them. Louise Penny’s characters come to my mind. And yes, I would like to know the real truth about Sandy, myself.

        • Yes she is turning into something so very different to the person imagined. Cripes, another author, Louise Penny…on the list. By the way you are either a very early riser or you never go to bed. Your family must be so understanding. Do get some beauty sleep. 🙂 xx

        • I know all about the TBR syndrome, Jane. But, honestly, Louise Penny is well worth the read. I do recommend her work highly. And yes, I do get up early.

        • The best part of the day. OK shall investigate further. 🙂

  6. I have no doubt said this before, but what makes the Rebus novels stand out for me is that they are so firmly set in the Scottish political environment of the moment of writing. I’ve held for a while that they will come to form part of the historical record of the country – snapshots of the country going through a period of immense political change. What I like most is that Rankin has kept Rebus almost entirely apolitical, so that the reader never feels preached to – it’s a view of politics as part of the national life, rather than Rankin/Rebus trying to force his own views on the reader.

    • I like that very much about the Rebus novels, too, FictionFan. For me, they provide a window into Scottish political life that I wouldn’t otherwise get, being a foreigner. And I like it that they take those political changes and their implications down to the human level. I think that’s part of what keeps them from becoming tracts, if I can put it that way. That plus the fact, as you say, that Rebus is pretty much apolitical.

  7. I’m a Wyoming native, and I love the Longmire series! I think there is a lot to them besides the setting, but it is interesting how so often it becomes its own character–especially when a winter storm adds to the drama of a chase.

    • I agree completely, JoLynne, that there’s a lot more to the Longmire series than the setting. As you say, though, there are times when it does take top billing. And I’m glad that you like the series so much; it’s good to know that it ‘feels right’ for someone who’s from that part of the US.

  8. Col

    I think character is most important to me if I’m going to immerse myself in a series.

  9. Margot, the one series that “can distinguish itself from all the good series out there” is the late British writer Oliver Strange’s SUDDEN, the Texas outlaw. Strange wrote ten novels on Sudden, otherwise known as James Green, without once crossing the Atlantic. His description of the Wild West, its landscape, people and towns, are amazing. In Sudden, Strange created a memorable hero for an impressionable teenager like me (as I was back then). I still reread his Corgi-published books, now almost priceless.

    • Oh, I can see why, Prashant. The Old West setting can be really effective, can’t it? And if you add some strong characters, too, I’m not surprised that you found that series memorable.

  10. You can tell from these comments how many different aspects readers find appealing in series. I think for me the author’s voice is the most important.

  11. Like everyone else, I love distinctive. But your post started me thinking about the opposite: what would be the most generic bland crime story? I’d say, big brutal city; 2 cops investigating; man, woman, both with a past and an issue; one of them drinks; bad relationships; crime with a link to the past and a damaged child. Oh, and throw in a cold case and a sexy but untrustworthy potential new partner for one of the cops. What do you say, sounds like a winning formula? I think you should do a blogpost on some cookie cutter crime scenarios too.

  12. Kathy D.

    In concur with several of the favorite series’ recommendations here. Donna Leon’s Brunetti books set in Venice are at the top of the list of whose I get from the library as soon as they’re in the system. Love the sense of the city and also Brunetti’s character and family and work relationships. Also, he’s a thinker.
    Also, I like the Montalbano series, much for the wit. I mean Montalbano loves to read Camilleri’s books! Who could think that up?
    And V.I. Warshawski is another character I must read about as soon as the new book hits the library. And I love the setting of Chicago where I spent formative years in my childhood, not to mention that I agree with the author’s views on social issues.
    And there is Adamsberg, whose team and cases I just enjoy almost as much as chocolate.
    But there are also Denise Mina’s gritty and intelligent series and sense of place in Glasgow; the Erlendur books set in Iceland, Annika Bengtzon’s journalist character and cases in Sweden, the Irene Huss books for character and mysteries, and the Danish Nina Borg series because, well, they’re interesting.
    I would add new writers, too, like Kati Heikkapelto’s books set in Finland, fascinating writing and main character, Anna Fekete, and Eva Dolan’s books with terrific social issues and two protagonists in England.

    • You’ve really mentioned some fine authors here, Kathy. And you’re right that they all have something special about them that really makes their work stand out specially. Whether it’s setting, tone of book, characters or something else, they all have something that keeps the reader coming back. And you’re right; there are plenty of new authors out there, too, or at least new to me, who’ve created something really special with their work.

  13. I have a few favorite crime fiction writers that I love and I will buy, pre order or acquire any way I can – and it is mostly about the characters, their back stories, their lives and the settings and it must also be the style of writing for a series as it usually takes a few books to really start to enjoy/know a character I think – so the story and writing must grab me first, then I start to enjoy the characters and look forward to meeting them again/hearing their story…Connelly, Connolly,Slaughter, May, La Plante, Fairstein, Grafton, CJ Box, McDermid, Rankin, Reichs, Sokoloff… and then the Australians, Casey, Gentil, Karen M Davis, Fox, Ford,Cavanaugh, Howell,…

    • I know what you mean, Carol. Sometimes, it’s the character development that keeps us coming back to a series. We get to like the characters, and feel we know them. So, we want to see what happens to them. In some cases, it’s the same feeling you have when you get in touch with a friend because you want to see how s/he is and what’s new. And you’ve got some great examples, there, too, of authors who’ve developed some memorable characters.

      • When i started to list the authors who I seek/read everything they write, I had trouble stopping- there are so many really good authors Margot who write the type of books I enjoy and more being discovered daily.

        • There are a lot of talented authors out there, Carol, that’s for sure. And today’s technology means we get to read more of their work than ever. Now it’s a matter of finding more hours to read!

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