They Are Three Together*

TrilogiesAn interesting guest post on mystery novelist Patricia Stoltey’s site has got me thinking about trilogies. Before I go on, let me encourage you to visit Patricia’s blog. Interesting posts about writing, and updates on the Colorado writing scene, await you. And this particular post includes some useful input on writing a trilogy, for those who may be contemplating that.

Trilogies aren’t a new phenomenon, of course. When it comes to crime fiction, they’ve been around for quite a while. And there are plenty of examples. Space won’t permit me to discuss all of them, but the few I mention here should give an idea of what’s out there.

William McIlvanney’s Laidlaw trilogy features Glasgow police detective Jack Laidlaw. Consisting of Laidlaw, The Papers of Tony Veitch, and Strange Loyalties, this trilogy is argued to be the first example of ‘Tartan noir.’ The novels are tied together by Laidlaw’s presence and some other elements. However, each of the novels has a different case and focus. So (and this is important in a trilogy) the books can stand on their own in terms of the individual stories.

McIllvanney’s Laidlaw series isn’t the only trilogy set in Glasgow.  There’s also Malcolm Mackay’s Glasgow Underworld trilogy. The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter, How a Gunman Says Goodbye, and The Sudden Arrival of Violence offer the reader a look at Glasgow’s criminal world and those who inhabit it. Many of the main characters are professional killers, and the books show how these people go about their jobs. Again, the trilogy is held together by some of the characters’ personal stories, and by its overarching theme. But each novel tells a different story.

Stefan Tegenfalk’s trilogy features Stockholm County CID police detectives Walter Gröhn and Jonna de Brugge. Anger Mode, Project Nirvana, and The Weakest Link are thrillers that include elements of the police procedural. There are international plots, there’s high-level corruption, and so on. There are also plot threads involving Gröhn and de Brugge’s work lives. Each novel has an individual plot. At the same time, though, there are arcs that cross all three novels. And there are characters besides Gröhn and de Brugge who recur.

There’s also Carlo Lucarelli’s historical (WWII and post-WWII) trilogy featuring Commissario de Luca. In these novels (Carte Blanche, The Damned Season, and Villa Della Oche), we see how de Luca has to negotiate the landmine that is the political landscape of Italy during this time. As Mussolini’s regime slips from power and then is defeated, de Luca has to deal first with the fascist regime, and then with the backlash against it. The whole time, he has to find a way to survive the changes in power as well as do his job.

And I don’t think I could discuss crime-fictional trilogies without mentioning Jean-Claude Izzo’s Marseilles trilogy and Len Deighton’s Bernie Sansom trilogy. Both feature main characters who are, if you will, caught in the tide of larger events and movements, and try to do their best in what’s sometimes a very dark world. The trilogies are quite different (‘though both are noir trilogies), but both main characters are essentially decent but cynical people who have to do their best to survive in a climate of world-weariness and sometimes hopelessness. There are lots of other trilogies out there, of course, and they’re not just crime-fictional trilogies, either.

There are good reasons to choose the trilogy format, both for authors and for publishers. For authors, the trilogy allows for character development and story arcs along the lines of what’s possible in a longer series. There’s also flexibility, so that the author can explore different main plots within a trilogy. What’s more, for both author and publisher, a trilogy allows for a commitment without risking too much. And for the publisher, the trilogy can mean more sales, as it may motivate readers who’ve enjoyed the first book to purchase the other books.

And that brings me to the benefits for readers. Many crime fiction fans don’t have the time (or perhaps, the motivation) to read a long series. Unless one’s a real admirer of a given author, it’s hard to make that commitment to a long-running series. But a trilogy – only three books! – is easier in terms of the investment of time and reading energy. And it allows the reader to follow some stories-across-stories. For many readers, it’s an effective balance between enjoying an author’s work and making too much of a commitment.

Trilogies do have their drawbacks, of course. For one thing, they can limit both author and publisher. If the main characters in a trilogy really do become popular, ‘fleshed out,’ and of continuing interest to the author and publisher, what happens? Some publishers will agree to a fourth (or fifth, or…) outing in a series. But it can be awkward. It can be a bit confusing, too. For another thing, a trilogy means that the author has to sustain the plot threads and story arcs over three – but only three – novels. That means, in a sense, planning a series, with individual plots, but threads that tie the novels together. Those threads arguably have to be stronger than those that bind a longer series, too, since it’s a trilogy.

What do you think of the trilogy? Do you enjoy story arcs that last over three novels? Or do you prefer longer series, where the characters really evolve over time? Perhaps you prefer standalones? If you’re a writer, have you planned or written a trilogy? How is it different for you to planning a standalone or longer series?


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Crosby, Stills, and Nash’s Helplessly Hoping.


Filed under Carlo Lucarelli, Jean-Claude Izzo, Len Deighton, Malcolm Mackay, Patricia Stoltey, Stefan Tegenfalk, William McIlvanney

53 responses to “They Are Three Together*

  1. You have mentioned some of my favourite trilogies there – it’s a format that works well for me (or in some cases a quartet). Having said that, I still have to read Books 2 and 3 in the McIlvanney and Mackay trilogies, but I really liked the first one and do intend to continue.

    • It’s an effective format for a lot of people, I think, Marina Sofia. And it’s interesting you would mention quartets; that’s another development that I think has had some fine success. It’s a way to tell stories that take longer than one novel, but not as long as what most people think of as a series.

  2. Thanks, Margot. I’m getting to I prefer reading trilogies to series…and Yolanda’s post is inspiring me to write one more Sylvia and Willie mystery so I can label them a trilogy too.

  3. My own preference is for standalone novels that form part of a developing, ongoing series, like the Vera and Shetland novels by Ann Cleeve or Stephen Booth’s Peak District crime series. However, I’m more than happy to read trilogies. The Lewis series by Peter May is a particular favourite. 🙂

  4. Pingback: They Are Three Together* | picardykatt's Blog

  5. I tend to like both trilogies and long series.I’d say I probably prefer trilogies over single novels because you do get to know the characters better.

  6. Tim

    And there is this:
    BTW, I prefer books in trilogies that can be read without reading the others. Does that make sense?

    • Thank you, Tim. That’s an excellent and helpful example of the sort of thing I had in mind with this post. Much appreciated. And I know precisely what you mean about trilogies that can be read as individual stories.

      • I agree, all the books in a trilogy or series should be stand alone. You hope it inspires readers to pick up all of them, but if only one is read you want them to have gotten a complete experience!

        • Well-put, Yolanda. That’s a really important aspect of putting a trilogy together. You want the reader to enjoy all of the novels. But part of that, I think, is making each of them accessible in its own right. I think that’s more inviting to readers who may not have ‘met’ your main character, say, or don’t know your work.

  7. Interesting post, Margot. How about a duology (is that a word?)? I wrote a Civil War/Reconstruction novel that the publisher insisted on dividing into Book One & Book Two. I believe it’s the best thing I’ve ever written, but it didn’t sell well despite wonderful reviews. I argued back and forth with the publisher that some readers would feel “cheated” by having to read both books to get the entire story. They insisted and I lost.

    As for trilogies, do you know of any American mystery-crime writer who has written one (three?). I much prefer a series IF I like the main character. Raymond Chandler, Ross Macdonald, Robert J. Ray, and John D. MacDonald come to mind. I collect their books and am working my way (slowly) through them.

    It’s too late to turn my own Mac McClellan Mystery series into a trilogy. Just finished the final proofs for number four. Drats, If only you would’ve written this post a year or so ago! 🙂

    • That’s interesting, Michael, that your publisher preferred to sell your work as Book 1/Book 2 rather than just one novel. I suppose I can see both arguments, but I understand exactly what you mean about readers wanting the whole story. That’s an interesting dilemma!

      You asked about US writers who’ve written trilogies. One that comes to my mind is James Sallis. He’s written a longer series featuring Lew Griffin. But he also wrote a trilogy featuring Turner, a former (retired, actually) Memphis cop who gets drawn into more investigation. Sallis’ work is gritty and uncompromising. But there are some really well-developed characters and solid plot development, in my opinion. If you try his work, I hope you’ll like it.

      And as for your latest Mac McClellan? I’m delighted there’s a fourth. That’s good news all around.

  8. This is a great discussion, Margot. You’re right making them accessible is important. A few readers had some very emotional reactions to my MC’s, which I think is good. At least I’m going to look at it positively. 🙂 But for a first trilogy, I’m thrilled with the outcome, and hopefully lessons learned.

    • And that’s what really matters, Yolanda! And the way I look at it, if readers have strong reactions to your characters, that means those characters resonated in some way. And that means they’re ‘fleshed out.’

  9. kathyd

    Well, I’m pro-trilogy. However, I also like longer series and stand-alones.
    Am finishing up the previously mentioned Lewis Trilogy, and it’s a good one.
    There are also trilogies by Scottish phenom Denise Mina: the Garnethill trilogy, then the Paddy Meehan set.
    But the next series, which features police detective Alex Morrow, I believe began as a trilogy, but then continued.on to become a five-book series. And who knows? There may be more.
    I think it’s an excellent format, as one learns more about the main character and a mystery can either be spread out among three books or each book can be self-contained.
    The problem is if it’s a good trilogy, one misses the characters after one is finished reading the books. Maybe that’s why some turn into longer series.

    • You’re right, Kathy. The trilogy format can really be effective in that it allows for deep character development, and story arcs. At the same time, trilogies are not as much of a commitment for the reader.

      Thanks for mentioning Denise Mina. She is very talented. Not surprising that her series has been extended.

  10. My favorite trilogy (I doubt you’ll be surprised) is the three Nero Wolfe novels by Rex Stout that chronicle Wolfe’s dealings with super-villain Arnold Zeck. The three novels, in order, are And Be a Villain (1948), The Second Confession (1949) and In the Best Families (1950). They were all published together in the 1974 anthology Triple Zeck. The best way to describe Zeck, I suppose, is to compare him with Sherlock Holmes’s arch-nemesis Moriarty. Zeck is mostly a secondary player in the first two books, but most of the last book concerns Wolfe’s final confrontation with Zeck. The books are very much worth reading, IMHO, and I believe they’re still available – possibly in print, certainly as e-books!

    • I can’t say I’m surprised at all, Les. And that trilogy of stories is a good ‘un. Zeck’s certainly an interesting nemesis, isn’t he? It’s also interesting the way those stories are tied together, but are also part of the Wolfe canon, if you will. In that sense, it vaguely reminds me of the Ellery Queen Hollywood Murders (The Devil to Pay, The Four of Hearts, and The Origin of Evil). Also related to each other, but also within the larger collection of Ellery Queen stories.

  11. kathyd

    That’s a good point about Nero Wolfe and the Zeck series. I wonder how many authors who have long series set aside a trio of books with one theme or do a trilogy within a series.

  12. Margot, I don’t remember ever reading a trilogy and that’s mainly because I never read the same author right away. I may revisit an author I read and liked after a gap of some months, even years. My goal is to read at least two or three books by authors who deserve to be read in one’s lifetime. I have been meaning to read Len Deighton’s three Bernard Samson trilogies.

    • That’s a very interesting point, Prashant. That approach to reading allows the reader plenty of variety. What’s more, it gives the reader the opportunity to return to an author’s work with a fresh point of view. And that can make quite a difference when one reads. If you do get the chance to read Deighton’s Sansom trilogy, I hope you’ll enjoy it.

      • Margot, actually, I do reread some authors like Agatha Christie, P.G. Wodehouse, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Thomas Hardy, Jack Higgins, and some Western writers. Still, it’s the exception rather than the rule. Thanks for writing about trilogies: I do need a fresh perspective on reading books. I’m usually confused!

        • There are definitely some authors, Prashant, who are very much worth re-reading. And you’ve mentioned some classics. Glad you enjoyed this post.

  13. tracybham

    I do enjoy trilogies, Margot, although I often have problems with the 2nd book of the three. Deighton’s first Bernie Samson trilogy is probably my favorite, and there are two more trilogies starring Samson that follow that one. After that, my favorite would be Jo Walton’s Small Change trilogy (Farthing, Ha’Penny, and Half a Crown), an alternative history mystery series. That is a perfect example where the 2nd one did not work for me, and I put off reading the 3rd for a long time. But taken as a whole, a wonderful short series.

    • Oh, that’s one trilogy (Walton’s) that I’ve not (yet) read. But from what I’ve heard, it’s really interesting, and people I trust say it’s good. I ought to give it a try…

      I know what you mean, too, about trilogies where the first novel works very well, and the second not so well. I think it’s wise when that happens to do as you did, and wait a bit for # 3. That way it’s easier to really assess the series.

  14. kathyd

    The Kaabergol/Friis Danish series about Nina Borg started out as a trilogy, but due to readers’ demand, a fourth book was published.

    • That’s a great example of what happens when there’s a lot of reader interest, Kathy. The authors had to take their ideas (which had entailed three books) and expand for a fourth.

  15. Col

    I’m a fan – I loved Mackay’s trilogy. I should get back to the Laidlaw books and start the Izzo set as well…..not enough time!

  16. kathyd

    And then there is “the greatest trilogy ever written!” as the ads say, by Steig Larsson: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl who Played with Fire and The Girl inthe Hornets’ Nest. Excellent trilogy. Then along comes Larsson’s family which wins his estate and decides that more books are needed after Larsson’s death, so they collaborate with David Ladercrantz who writes The Girl in the Spider’s Web. I thought it was good, pretty free of violence, no sexist language or crimes, and Lizbeth Salander is the hero.
    There is controversy over this one, but what else is new Everything about Larsson and his writings is controversial, but I do empathize with his partner of 32 years, Eva Gabrielsson, who received zilch from the state, because they weren’t legally married, although she helped him for years with his writing.

    • No doubt about it, Kathy. Whatever one thinks of the follow-ons from Stieg Larsson’s series, that trilogy is one of the best-known and most famous crime fiction trilogies out there. It’s certainly been hugely influential.

  17. kathyd

    Do you think I’d like McIlvanney’s series?
    I waited long to read Peter May’s Lewis Trilogy and I love it, will suffer from post good-book-slump and post-Isle of Lewis slump and post Fin MacLeod slump.

    • I actually think you might like it very much, Kathy. There’s a strong sense of place and atmosphere, and solid character development. It’s gritty; in some places, it’s very sad, too. But I think the plots are well-drawn, and the characters are interesting.

  18. I was going to mention Jo Walton’s Small Change trilogy, but I see Tracy got there before me – fitting, because I think it was because of her that I first started on it.

  19. I agree. It can be difficult for both author and publisher. Personally I like standalones and series that don’t carry over to the next book. In other words, a series like Karin Slaughter’s and so many others where the author uses the same characters and locations but with a different crime to investigate…no overarching plotlines unless it’s a small thread. I often switch authors to “test out” different voices and I don’t want to be stuck having to read three books to find out what happens next.

    • I know exactly what you mean, Sue. In fact, that’s one of the many things I like about Agatha Christie. One can read her Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple novels in any order, and not feel one’s really missing anything. There are one or two small threads that are mentioned across stories. But overall, they are almost standalones in the same series, if that makes sense.

  20. Margot – as long as I don’t have to wait too long for the next in the series I love them all (and the standalone) you really get to enjoy and know a character in a series. You care about the characters

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

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

You are commenting using your 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