Part of the Story, Part of the Same*

Stories in Serial FormCrime writer and fellow blogger E. Michael Helms has taken the interesting step of sharing his Dinger, PI story in serial form. You can check out the first instalment right here. Dinger lives and works in post-WWII Las Vegas – a very effective context for the sort of noir stories that Helms writes. And while you’re at it, check out Helms’ terrific blog. And his ‘Mac’ McClellan novels. You’ll be glad you did.

The novel-in-serial-form has a long history, of course. And you’ll no doubt know that several famous novels were originally published that way. One of the benefits of the serial format is that it gets readers interested in what’s going to happen next. That builds circulation for the magazine that prints the story. And fans get to read a story in smaller doses as it were, a much less daunting prospect than a very long novel. For the author, the serial story allows flexibility as s/he sees how readers respond to the different instalments.

There’ve been many crime novels that were originally published in serial form. For instance, Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone, which was published as a novel in 1868, began life that way in Charles Dickens’ magazine All The Year Round. The novel tells the story of the Verinder family, and the troubles that befall it when Rachel Verinder receives a valuable diamond, called the Moonstone, for her eighteenth birthday. The legend goes that there’s a curse on the diamond, and it certainly seems that way. First, the diamond is stolen from the Verinder home. Then, one of the maids goes missing, and is later found to have committed suicide. Sergeant Cuff is assigned to recover the diamond, and after two years, he traces what’s happened to it. Those who’ve read the novel will know that’s it’s broken into parts told from different points of view. It’s not difficult to see its origins as a story told in serial form.

Fans of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes will tell you that a lot of his work was published in serial form in The Strand Magazine and other publications. For instance, The Sign of the Four, the second full-length Holmes novel, was published in instalments in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine. The novel’s focus is a pact among four prison inmates in India, and two corrupt prison guards, to share stolen treasure. That pact, and the treasure, have implications decades later and thousands of miles away in London, when a young woman named Mary Morstan begins receiving a series of pearls, one each year, sent by an anonymous donor who claims that she is ‘a wronged woman.’ When she takes her case to Holmes, he finds that long-ago link. And Dr. Watson finds a bride.

Margery Allingham’s first detective story, The White Cottage, was first published in 1927 as a serial in The Daily Express. It’s not one of her Albert Campion mysteries. Instead, this one features Chief Inspector W.T. Challenor and his son, Jerry. It all begins as Jerry Challenor is on his way to London. He happens to see a young woman struggling to carry a heavy basket. He pulls over and offers her a lift, which she gratefully accepts. She tells him her destination is the White Cottage, and Jerry takes her there. He starts on his way again, but pulls over to put the hood on his car when an oncoming storm threatens. He’s finishing the task when he and a passing police officer hear the sound of a shotgun. Shortly afterwards, the parlourmaid from the White Cottage runs up the road, hails the police officer and says there’s been a murder. The victim is Eric Crowther, and it’s not surprising that he’s been shot. He’s got a nasty history of finding out people’s secrets and using that knowledge as a weapon. So the Challenors have no shortage of suspects as they investigate.

The Daily Express was also the first home of Agatha Christie’s A Pocket Full of Rye. In that novel, wealthy businessman Rex Fortescue is poisoned, and Inspector Neele takes the case. Neele begins his investigation with the members of Fortescue’s family, and in this situation, that makes sense. The family was far from a happy one, and more than one member has a motive. But a family connection doesn’t explain the rye seeds found in Fortescue’s pocket. Neele’s trying to make progress on the case when there’s another murder. This time, the victim is housemaid Gladys Martin. Miss Marple takes an interest in the case, since Gladys used to work for her. In fact, it was Miss Marple who prepared Gladys for domestic service. As it turns out, this murder has its roots, as murders often do, in the past.

And then there’s James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity, which was first published as a serial in Liberty Magazine in 1936. Insurance salesman Walter Huff finds himself in Hollywoodland one day, and decides to pay a visit to a client, H.S. Nirdlinger, to try to get a policy renewal. Nirdlinger isn’t at home when Huff arrives, but his wife, Phyllis is. Huff is immediately smitten with her, and she does nothing to discourage him. Before long, they’re having an affair. Then, Phyllis tells Huff that she wants to kill her husband. She’s decided to take out an accident policy so that she can benefit from his death. Huff is so besotted with Phyllis that he goes along with her idea, even writing the right sort of policy for her. The two plot the murder carefully, and the night for it finally arrives. When the deed is done, though, Huff finds it very hard to cope with the guilt he feels at having killed a man. And it’s not long before he learns he has more problems than just that guilt…

Stories have been told in serial form for a very long time, and it’s not hard to see why. Which ones have stayed with you?


*NOTE:  The title of this post is a line from Balkan Beat Box’s Part of the Glory.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, E. Michael Helms, Margery Allingham, Wilkie Collins

28 responses to “Part of the Story, Part of the Same*

  1. Great topic Margot. It never ceases to amaze me how some authors started out. I think with the rise of self-publishing we’ve become more interested in it. Almost like X-Factor everyone’s looking for the correct formula. Perhaps serialisation is the way to go. I’ll be interested to know how Helms gets on 🙂

    • Thanks for the kind words, D.S. And you’re right about looking for that formula! Traditionally published, indie-published, or self-published, there’s always the search for the best way to get one’s work ‘out there.’ Of course it all starts with a well-written story. But beyond that, it is a matter of trying to get the word out. I’ll be interested in knowing how it goes with Helms’ Dinger character, too. He’s well-established with his ‘Mac’ McClellan series; it’ll be interesting to know how Dinger does.

  2. PS love the pun in the picture 😉

  3. I can’t imagine having to wait for the next episode but that said newspaper’s here used to get writers to create a story set over a few days at Christmas time although I doubt that happens anymore…. But waiting weeks to get to the next bit when I can’t read two books at once would be torture!

    • Well, that’s definitely the down side of serial stories, Cleo, no doubt about it. We do get spoiled, don’t we, being able to read as much as we have time for, without having to wait. I didn’t know that papers had gotten writers to do that sort of story set. It’s certainly a way to sell papers…if readers can wait that long ’til the next instalment.

  4. Wow, what a surprise, Margot! Dinger, PI is a work in progress. I’m still learning more about his character, background, and what makes him “tick.” I’m writing these stories as I can, and seeing where they go. I might try to write enough to publish as a collection, or do the necessary changes to the storied to meld them into a novel. Either way I have a ton of research to do on post-WWII Las Vegas. Thanks for featuring Dinger as a lead-in to serialized novels. I know of a couple favorites that were written/published that way, but darn if they don’t escape me right now.
    Very interesting post featuring “name” writers who published piecemeal. Double Indemnity was a surprise to me. I believe I have the movie recorded. I might just watch it again soon. 🙂

    • It’s my pleasure to feature, you and Dinger, Michael. Those stories are the perfect example of the way to share a character in instalments, and I look forward to seeing what happens next with him. I think he’s really interesting. And I know what you mean about research. Every time I start a new project, I feel like it’s back to the drawing board as far as that goes! As far as Double Indemnity goes, I think it’s one of those films you can see more than once. 🙂

  5. Pingback: Part of the Story, Part of the Same* | e. michael helms

  6. Reblogged this on e. michael helms and commented:
    Dinger, PI & I are featured on mystery writer Margot Kinberg’s blog. Check it out!

  7. I knew that novels were often serialised in Victorian times, but I wasn’t aware it still happened when Allingham and Christie were writing – intriguing! I’ve often wondered how I’d have got along with serialised novels – I’m a bit of a binge reader and can’t imagine waiting a month or a week for a new section. I suspect I’d have waited till the last section came out and then read the whole thing – a bit like watching box-sets rather than trying to follow a series on TV! But then I wouldn’t have liked to be out of the loop when everyone was talking about the cliffhanger in the previous instalment…

    • That’s the question, isn’t it, FictionFan? Do you wait for the whole story, or do you content yourself with the little bits and pieces. Hmm…. I’ve done both, and I honestly can’t say one is ‘better’ than the other. I suppose both have their advantages. For ‘binge readers,’ my guess would be serial stories would be difficult, especially if people spoiled them for you by talking about them when you hadn’t gotten the final bit yet. On the other hand, it is hard to wait for that next instalment…

  8. Margot, I read one part of Michael’s Dinger, PI story and liked his narrative style, which I thought was crisp while the sentences were crafted carefully, short and without wasting words. I need to read the story from the beginning. I have read a few serialised novels in early American magazines I found in public domain. I think many writers, well-known today, established their careers as novelists through this route. It was probably the way to go about it.

    • Oh, I think so, too, Prashant. And I’m glad you had the chance to read those stories in their original form. You’re lucky to have found them, and sometimes, those old magazines are really interesting to read in and of themselves. I agree with you, too, about Helms’ writing style, It adds to the Dinger, PI stories.

  9. I can enjoy a story this way as long as it doesn’t take too long in between segments. Waiting a month or so probably won’t be too bad. Interesting topic, Margot.

  10. I think the Saturday Evening Post was printing serials when I was a kid…or maybe I was just reading old issues. Grit Newspaper had serialized stories as well. But it was a long time ago so I can’t remember any specifics on authors I might have read there. Serialized novels on the internet, such as those published via, have had some success. I’m thinking of Hugh Howey’s novellas that led to the publication of “Wool” (which I liked a lot).

    • I vaguely remember reading that the SEP did serials, Pat. I don’t think I’ve read any, but it makes sense. And you’re right, too, about what some authors have done on Amazon. And if it works for them, well, why not?

  11. kathyd

    I don’t recall reading serials. I’m assuming both Edgar Allan Poe and Charles Dickens had serialized versions of their books in newspapers.
    However, a term arises for ants in the kitchen cabinets: “cereal killers.”

    • Ha! I love that term, Kathy! And I think you’re right about both Edgar Allan Poe and Dickens. Both of them had their novels serial form in newspapers and magazines. I sort of have the feeling we don’t see that as often as we used to.

      • “Cereal killers” IS a doozy! Somebody with a good comedic bent should take that and run with it. Sad to say, today’s public has such a short attention span they don’t have time to sit and read a continuing story. Cell Phones and tablets et al are wonderful inventions, but at the same time are producing a generation of “gotta have it now!” people. Most people I know, even adults, don’t even subscribe to newspapers. I receive two dailies. Poor Edgar and Charles would be out of luck these days. 😦

        • I couldn’t agree more about ‘cereal killers,’ Michael! It’s great. And you make a solid point about attention spans. For many reasons, people find it harder than ever now to really focus for a long time, unless they make a real effort. You’re right, too, about newspapers. Many people I know who used to subscribe to them, don’t any more. So whether a serial story in a newspaper would work the way it used to, I’m not sure. You may have a point there…

  12. Great post, Margot, on a fascinating aspect of mystery publishing. Double Indemnity was a surprise to me. I didn’t know this part of the novel’s history. Then there’s The Maltese Falcon, which was first serialized in Black Mask before it appeared as a novel.

    • Thanks, Bryan – glad you enjoyed the post. And thanks for telling me about The Maltese Falcon I hadn’t known that, and I appreciate your filling in that gap. It is interesting, isn’t it, that so many stories started life that way. They just don’t seem to as much anymore – well, not in magazines, at any rate.

  13. Not a crimestory, but I get a section of a novel delivered to my inbox every Sunday evening – it’s part of the Lindchester Chronicles by Catherine Fox. There is a continuing story, with several plot strands, but the author also comments on current events and politics, and the weather this week, and anything else that takes her fancy (via her characters). It makes for a unique reading experience, and one that I enjoy very much.

    • It’s good to hear that there are still serial versions of stories coming out, Moira. Thanks for sharing this. It does sound interesting, too, and the book seems well suited for this sort of approach.

  14. tracybham

    It has been very surprising to me to read that so many authors started by serializing their books. Rex Stout published most of his novellas first in magazines, then combined together in books.

    • I’m glad you mentioned Stout, Tracy. He’s another author who started by publishing work in magazines. There really are a lot of them, and It’s an interesting approach to getting work published.

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