There 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.
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.
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.
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.