Crime 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.