You and Me Got Staying Power*

Staying PowerThere are some crime fiction series that really have what you might call ‘staying power.’ They last through fifteen, twenty, or sometimes many more entries. How does that happen? What is it about those really enduring series that keeps them appealing to readers even after the 20th, 30th, etc. novel?

Of course there’s the obvious answer: some authors just have a lot of writing talent. And that’s true. But beyond that (perhaps in part because of it), I think there are some things that keep a series going well beyond just five or ten novels. Here are just a few of my ideas. I’d love to hear yours, too.
 

Flexibility

The more restrictive a series is, the less durable it arguably is. A series that is less ‘rigid’ is likely to stay around longer. And there are many ways in which a series can show that flexibility.

For example, Ian Rankin’s John Rebus series has remained flexible in a few ways. As the series has continued, Rankin has addressed the changing landscape of Scottish politics and economic issues. He’s even addressed changes in the way crimes are committed, and the people who are responsible. And as the nature of Scottish life has evolved, so has the series.

Of course, this is a proverbial double-edged sword. Too much focus on one or another issue can date a book or series. But when the focus stays on the crime(s) and investigation, moving along with the political and economic times can help keep a series relevant.

There are other ways, of course, to keep a series flexible. Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct series, for instance, takes place in a thinly-disguised New York City. It’s a large metropolis that attracts many, many different kinds of people. So there are all sorts of possibilities for plot lines. Peter Corris’ Cliff Hardy novels are set mostly in Sydney, one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world. In both of those cases, there’s a lot of opportunity for flexibility just based on the setting.

The 87th Precinct series is also made more flexible by its ensemble cast. Although Steve Carella is one of the main protagonists in the series, he’s by no means the only major character. Sometimes he’s not even a ‘major player’ at all. That ensemble approach allows for a wide variety of plot threads and conflicts.

 

Evolution

Closely related to flexibility is, I think, evolution. That, too, takes lots of forms, not the least of which is character evolution. People change over time, even if their basic characteristics are stable. A well-written series that lasts 20 books or more will reflect that fact.

For example, Someone Always Knows, the 35th of Marcia Muller’s Sharon McCone novels, is due to be released this summer. Fans of that series can tell you that over time, she and the series have evolved. She started as a fairly ‘hardboiled’ private investigator, both pragmatic and hard-edged. But she’s gotten more psychological depth and, some would say, maturity over time. Interestingly enough, not everyone has celebrated the changes to her character or to the series. Some say she’s ‘lost her edge,’ and that the series now has too much focus on the domestic. Whether that’s objectively true or not, there’s no denying that today’s Sharon McCone is not the same Sharon McCone we met in 1977, when Edwin of the Iron Shoes was released.

Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourn series has evolved over time, too. When the series begins, Kilbourn is a university professor and political scientist who’s still dealing with the murder of her husband, Ian, and the realities of raising three teenagers. Over time, her character and life circumstances have changed, as they do for most of us. I won’t spoil story arcs by giving specific examples, but we can see how she has evolved over time. It’s important to note, though, that her basic character has remained stable. She’s grown and changed, but the things that make up her personality in the first novel, Deadly Appearances, are also there in What’s Left Behind, which has recently been released. That stability makes a series more credible.

 

Variety

You could argue that variety is also closely related to flexibility. It goes without saying that readers don’t want series that make use of the same sorts of plots over and over. And the best and most enduring series don’t fall into that trap.

For example, Agatha Christie wrote 33 novels, a play, and over 50 short stories that feature Hercule Poirot. Strictly speaking, they aren’t a series, although they are loosely connected to one another. But they do follow Poirot through his career. Even though they feature the same protagonist, there is a great deal of variety among them. Christie experimented with different points of view, different settings, and different sorts of puzzles. There are stories with prologues, and stories without them. There are stories with a large group of characters, and some with only a few. There are ‘country house murders,’ and there are murders that take place in London. There are…well, you get the idea. Even Christie’s most ardent fans will admit that not all of her work is anywhere near her best. But its variety is part of what made her so popular, and what has kept readers following her work nearly 100 years after she started writing.

One might say a similar thing about Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch novels The 23rd in that series, The Wrong Side of Goodbye, is due to be released in November. As the series has gone on, Connelly has integrated quite a lot of variety in it. Bosch has worked in different departments, left the force, returned to the force, gone to some different places, and so on. And there’s been quite a variety in the sorts of plots Connelly has created, too. There are ‘personal’ kinds of murders, and more ‘public’ murders. There are cases that have national and international implications, and some that are quite local. I could go on, but I don’t think that’s necessary. The variety in this series is part of what’s made it so enduring.

What do you think about all of this? Obviously if a series is to be that lasting, it’s got to be based on solid plots, strong characters and skilled writing. But I think there’s more to it than that (or perhaps there are things that fall out from that). What are your thoughts?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Queen’s Staying Power.

32 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Ed McBain, Gail Bowen, Ian Rankin, Marcia Muller, Michael Connelly, Peter Corris

32 responses to “You and Me Got Staying Power*

  1. Your elements make sense, but then I consider Georges Simenon’s achievements — especially with the Maigret novels — and I would argue he violates each of your elements but succeeds simply through good writing. In other words, every Maigret novel is a repetition of its antecedents (in so may ways but with slightly different plots and support characters), but Simenon makes each one fresh by writing fresh, crisp prose.

    • You offer a terrific example, Tim, that shows the value and importance of good writing. Without that, no series, no matter how flexible, varied, etc., it is, will do well. I also think that Maigret himself is an interesting character, and that adds to the appeal of the series.

  2. It’s interesting how the idea of a series seems to have changed over time. When I think back to the favourites of my younger years – Poirot and Miss Marple, Nero Wolfe, the Flaxborough books, Sherlock Holmes, etc – the detectives really didn’t have a story arc of their own. I loved that really – it meant every book was entirely self-contained and you could pick them up and read them in any order. I do follow several current series – Lacey Flint, Maeve Kerrigan, and of course Rebus. But I find on the whole that, for me, the detective’s story arc is a bit of a distraction from the main event, and too often becomes the major story itself. However it seems to be the way it is, now, and I’m not sure if a contemporary series author could get away without developing the central character in every book…

    • That’s an interesting point, FictionFan. We learn some things about Poirot, Miss Marple, Nero Wolfe and the like. And there are mentions of this or that case in other novels. But you’re right; you really couldn’t call those story arcs. On the one hand, a story arc can invite the reader to go on to the next novel to see how it all works out. On the other, story arcs can take away from the main plot of a novel. And they can discourage readers who want to start a series, but who don’t start at the beginning. The series that you mention have in common, I think, that the story arcs and personal histories are there without taking away from the cases that are supposed to be the heart of each novel. One of these times I’ll have to look more closely at the topic of story arcs. They definitely have their pros and cons.

  3. I hold the opposite view to Fiction Fan as one of the things that keeps me returning to the series is meeting up with some much-loved (or despised characters) although the back story will never work if the plots in themselves weren’t enthralling. One of my favourite series is Peter James’ which has been going since 2005 and yet the author keeps abreast of technological advances to keep the crime writing relevant – that in itself is no mean feat!

    • You know, Cleo, I hadn’t thought about Peter James’ Roy Grace series, but it certainly has staying power. I’m very glad that you mentioned it. And part of that is without a doubt due to James’ ability to keep up with what’s happening politically, economically and technologically. And it’s interesting how the story arcs (e.g. Grace’s wife’s disappearance), tie those novels together. As you say, arcs such as those don’t work well if the plots themselves aren’t engaging. And I think it’s most effective if the story arcs aren’t the main focus of a novel, as they generally aren’t with James’ work.

  4. I agree with Fiction Fan in that the joy of reading the Nero Wolfe series is being able to jump in anywhere in the series (although there were a few story arcs within that series). I can go either way, but it does hamper me with some series when I know I will have missed the background if I start in the middle or later.

    • A lot of people agree with you, Tracy. It can be really challenging to start a series in the middle if there are too many story arcs. And one thing the kept the Nero Wolfe series so durable, I think, is its setting. Anything can happen in New York, and there are many possibilities. And a few times, Wolfe even travels. So the series is flexible.

  5. mudpuddle

    like Cleo, i’ve had an affinity for warm detectives. Michael Innes’ inspector Appleby, in the first book, is introduced while sitting on top of the roof of a sort of veranda which is lying on part of a sunken ship in the middle of the Pacific ocean. i had to read the first page six times before i figured out what the situation was, then i was hooked. through over 30 delightful novels i came to know appleby and his relations like they were part of my family. literate, clever, nice, and it was fun to follow along until the last book, when Chief Inspector appleby continued on into the unknown future making life better for the average englishman…

  6. I’m a huge fan of several series that have staying power and I think what brings me back each time is that the authors have evolved their characters over the course of the series. In addition, most make it easy to pick up anywhere in the series and not feel you’re missing a huge chunk of information. They’ve also made the characters so realistic and likable they feel like friends you want to visit.

    • You make a really well-taken point, Mason, about main characters who are realistic. Characters who are realistic are easier to identify with, so readers are more likely to keep up with the series. And part of being realistic is growing and evolving over time. So I think you’re right that the most enduring main characters are the ones who grow and change over time. And if the writer does that in a way that allows readers to pick up on the larger story, that allows readers to start anywhere in the series without losing much.

  7. It’s an interesting question, and I bet no one has the same opinion. I read somewhere that 5 years of real life equal 1 year in a fictional world. With a series I think it’s important that your character evolve over time, an overall character arc throughout the series rather than the protagonist making huge strides in one novel. But I also believe if the author veers too far from the original character s/he may anger their faithful readers.

    • I think so, too, Sue. In fact, I know of cases where readers have stopped following a series because of changes to the main character that made that character too different. And that 5=1 idea is really interesting, too. It makes sense, since it would be very difficult to have a series of books go along in something like real time. Growing as a character – the normal sort of evolution – makes a character more human and believable, so it makes sense that readers would want that in their fictional characters.

  8. Margot, I have never read a series in continuity, not counting Harry Potter (!), as much as I have read series where only the protagonist is the same, like Hercule Poirot and Perry Mason. I usually prefer standalone novels, as I have a tendency to leap from one genre to another and quite randomly so.

    • You’re not alone, Prashant. I know plenty of people who would rather read standalones, and in different genres. It helps keep one’s reading varied. And thanks for mentioning Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason. That’s an interesting example of a series where the stories are very loosely connected, but are not what you’d call a series.

  9. Thought provoking article, Margot. I think the challenges in writing a crime series today are placing the main character into a social context, which means giving the character a story arc you can develop through the series, and exploring a variety of crimes. After all, it gets a bit boring always writing about serial killers or psychopaths being tracked down by the same detective inspector. I want my detective inspector to evolve as a person and not stay the same. I want to explore a range of reasons why people kill each other or threaten to do so. I guess we have to do all those things you have highlighted if we want to write a series. Otherwise we may just as well write standalone novels with a new detective every time.

    • You have a well-taken point, Peter. It is boring to always write about serial killers, etc., and I think readers get just as bored reading about them. And it makes sense to have your sleuth grow and change over time. That allows the writer to introduce other characters, make the sleuth more human (in real life, we all change over time, I think) and so on. That keeps one’s writing fresher, I think.

  10. Ooh, interesting topic. I think Joanne Kilbourne is one of my favourite developing characters. And I’ve loved watching Harry and Ruth develop in Elly Griffiths’ books – I hope her series goes on forever, following their lives!

    • I like the Ruth Galloway series, too, Moira. And yes, I agree that Joanne Kilbourn is a fabulous character who’s certainly evolved over time. And the way Bowen has done it, she’s evolved quite authentically, so that it really seems you’re following the life of someone who could easily exist.

  11. Margot: I find myself in a contrarian position. I love how Joanne Kilbourn has moved through life and relationships adjusting to the challenges that come her way.

    At the same time I love the predictability of a Nero Wolfe. As you have set out in some of your fun posts and I have attempted to do in my columns we can know in our minds how Wolfe will react to new situations and even what he will say because he is so consistent in his approach to life.

    I am content to be contrary in what I enjoy in reading.

    • How did comments become columns? – “Sigh”

    • And I don’t see why you should be contrarian, Bill. One of the joys of reading the Nero Wolfe series is how distinctive and predictable he is. As you say, it’s fun (and, quite frankly, easy) to imagine how Wolfe would react to different things. And the back-and-forth between him and Archie Goodwin is also a staple in the series. There are enough changes throughout that series that it isn’t stale; yet, it’s consistent.

      At the same time, Joanne Kilbourn is such an authentic character. She does grow, change, adapt and evolve as she has to, although her essential core doesn’t. That gives her such as real feel as a character, and it makes the stories so appealing. No reason one can’t enjoy both series.

  12. Keishon

    Even when a series is written well, I get series fatigue. Ed McBain and Robert B. Parker are the two longest I know about. Nora Robert’s In Death series writing under a pen name of JD Robb is heading in the same direction. I think she’s in the forties. She writes futuristic mysteries and I quit at about book six.

    I think writers who want to write a long series will often have to do something wild or different to keep readers like me coming back. Or kill off a character for the shock factor *cough*Karin Slaughter*cough* As much as i love Colin Cotterill, I still haven’t read his latest Dr. Siri novel yet. Nothing against his excellent series but I’m pretty tired. I know the routine. I know the characters and how they work together. There’s like you said a predictability to them that can be a blessing and a curse. Still, I think ten books is enough for any series says me 😉

    • And everyone’s different about that, Keishon. Some folks like the dependability/predictability/etc. of a series where they know the characters will interact, and where they know at least somewhat what to expect. That’s part of the appeal of series such as Parkers, McBains’s and others. The mysteries themselves vary, of course. But the basis of the story don’t.

      Other folks, like you, prefer series where you don’t always know what might happen (and I was thinking of Karin Slaughter, too, when I read that part of your comment). They prefer series where things are shaken up at least every few novels. And that’s the beauty of the genre. You can find plenty of series, so you can read one kind, the other kind, or both.

  13. Kathy D.

    I follow several series, but favorites are Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski books set in Chicago where I grew up. These books are fun and have interesting plots and social messages. But laughs are part of the joy.
    And also Donna Leon’s series featuring Commissario Guido Brunetti, set in Venice. The focus on investigating and thinking, while the questura’s and family’s settings and characters are stable and interesting.
    And who can forget about Salvo Montalbano, a character with global appeal, and, I gather the writer, Andrea Camilleri, is the most popular in Italy. Fun.
    I have read many of Marcia Muller’s Sharon McCone books, but actually didn’t particularly like the evolution of the character’s life because she entered into the dangerous life of her spouse, Hy Ripinsky. Then explosions, international intrigues, global security issues arose. Not my cup of tea. I have read some of those books. In fact, I am giving away much of this series to a charity shop that aids HIV/AIDS sufferers in getting housing.
    Then there are Adamsberg, Annika Bengtzon, Irene Huss, Arnaldur Indridason, the Nina Borg series and more to follow.

    • You’ve mentioned some very well-regarded series, Kathy; I’m not surprised you like them as much as you do. I’m also not surprised to learn how beloved Camilleri is in Italy; his series is, I think, very well-written and with solid wit in it. Interesting that you mention your reaction to Sharon McCone. You’re not by any means the only one who’s been unhappy with the way her character has evolved. It just goes to show that characters don’t always grow and change in the ways we wish they would. They have minds of their own.

  14. Kathy D.

    Of course I left out some favorites: Jayne Keeney, whose further adventures I await and, of course, Ruth Galloway, where the beautiful setting on England’s east coast is as enticing as the character herself.

  15. Kathy D.

    I just put everything aside, dropped tasks and read Donna Leon’s 25th book in the Guido Brunetti series, “The Waters of Eternal Youth.” Excellent. One of her best. May have to purchase my own copy.
    It is a good mystery with violence off the page, a lot of character development and reflection, not to mention interesting dialogue, at Guido’s home and office. Now I have post-good-book slump.

    • That’s a great example, Kathy, of the sort of enduring series I had in mind with this post. And Leon continues to create interesting plots, and develop her characters.

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