Just the Few of Us*

There are only so many ‘regular’ characters an author can weave into a series without confusing readers. That’s why, even in crime fiction series that are set in large cities, there’s a relatively small group of ‘focus characters.’ That’s just as true of police procedurals as it is of other sorts of series.

It’s easy enough when a series takes place in a small town. Such places may only have one police station with a relatively small number of people who work there. It’s a bit trickier for series that take places in larger cities. Readers couldn’t, for instance, keep track of every fictional police officer in Sydney, Toronto, London, Los Angeles or Moscow. So, how do authors face this challenge?

Some focus on one geographic area. For example, Ed McBain’s long-running police procedural series mostly features the police who serve in the 87th Precinct of Isola, a thinly-disguised New York City. That precinct has a limited number of officers, and serves a limited geographic area. Fans of the series know that there are occasional forays into other parts of the city. But, because the 87th is a finite group, it’s easier to keep track of Steve Carella and the rest of his team. The reader isn’t faced with the challenge of trying to remember the thousands of fictional police officers who might actually serve in such a large city.

Henry Chang’s Jack Yu series also has a geographic focus: New York City’s Chinatown. Yu was born and raised in that part of the city, and in Chinatown Beat, he’s stationed there. The series does see him temporarily assigned to other places, but he basically stays in Chinatown. This allows readers to get to know the area, as well as the various characters with whom Yu usually interacts. Fans of Fred Vargas’ Commissaire Jean-Baptsite Adamsberg will know that that series, too, focuses on one small geographic part of Paris.

That’s certainly not the only way to address the challenge, though. Some authors focus on just one department (such as Robbery, Homicide, etc.). That’s what Michael Connelly does with his Harry Bosch novels. Fans of this series will know that Bosch has been a member of several L.A.P.D. departments. He’s been a part of Robbery/Homicide, Open/Unsolved, and Homicide Special, among others. This choice has given Connelly (and his readers) some real advantages. One is that, as Bosch works with one team (say, Open/Unsolved), readers get to know that team, and don’t have to try to remember the many other members of other teams. As the series has gone on, and Bosch has been with other departments, it’s kept the series from being restricted to only one small group. This has allowed for different sorts of plots and characters.

Helene Tursten’s Irene Huss also works with a departmental team. She is a member of the Göteborg/Gothenberg Police‘s Violent Crimes Unit. It’s a relatively small unit, with a focus just on murder and other violent crimes. This choice has allowed Tursten to develop her characters over time, as different members of the department evolve. It’s also allowed (as happens naturally) for members to leave and join.

The same thing’s true of Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad. That team, has a small number of members. So, we get to know them. And different members of the squad ‘star’ in the different novels of the series. So, as members leave, join, and so on, we get to see how the team operates in the real world of a large city like Dublin.

Sometimes, police teams are gathered for a specific purpose. For example, at one point, P.D. James’ Adam Dalgliesh heads up a squad set up specifically for investigations that are likely to attract a lot of media attention. That’s the case in A Taste For Death, when Crown Minister Paul Berowne is murdered. He’s well known and ‘well-born,’ so of course the media take note when he’s killed. The squad, which consists of Dalgliesh, DCI John Massingham, and DI Kate Miskin is assigned to the case. They slowly put the pieces of the puzzle together, and find that this is as much about the victim’s private life as it is about his public life.

There’s also Jussi Adler-Olsen’s ‘Department Q.’ Part of the Copenhagen police force, Department Q is tasked with cases ‘of special interest.’ It was set up in part to appease the government’s (and the public’s) demand that the police show they’re looking into all cases, even those that have ‘gone cold.’ This group is headed by Carl Mørck, a homicide detective who has a reputation of being difficult. In fact, he’s so hard to work with that that’s the reason he was given the department in the first place – to keep him off others’ teams. Mørck is crusty and sometimes truculent. And the department has few resources and only a very few members. But the team gets the job done.

And then there’s Christopher Fowler’s London-based Peculiar Crimes Unit (PCU). That group, led by Arthur Bryant and John May, is tasked with solving strange crimes that the regular police homicide units haven’t been able to solve. It’s a very small group, but that makes it easier for readers to follow the team and get to know the members well.

These small units, whether they’re based on geography, on department, or on special assignment, allow the author to develop characters. And they make it much easier for readers to follow along and keep track of those characters. I’ve only mentioned a few; which ones have stayed with you?


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Stephen Sondheim’s It Takes Two.


Filed under Christopher Fowler, Ed McBain, Fred Vargas, Helene Tursten, Henry Chang, Jussi Adler-Olsen, Michael Connelly, P.D. James, Tana French

32 responses to “Just the Few of Us*

  1. I suspect in real life the borders of a team are remarkably fluid and you are constantly working with new people and with lots of people. Easier to remember just a few characters, though, especially if they are quirky. Fred Vargas’ Adamsberg and his team come to mind.

    • I think you’re right, Marina Sofia. In real life, a police detective really does have to get used to working with many different sorts of people. People come, they go, they get trained, they move on, etc… But I think in fiction, it is easier to have a stable cast of characters. And you’re right; quirky – or at least, not ‘cookie cutter’ – helps when it comes to remembering characters. And Fred Vargas does those sorts of characters really well.

  2. I haven’t spoken that highly of Elizabeth George or Louise Penny lately, Margot, but I think the greatest strength of both authors has been their core circle of regular characters. Even when I found their cases problematical, both reeled me in with the latest personal crises facing these characters. I think it’s telling that what really roused me to anger about George was her choice to kill off a major character and to make that death so random and futile.

    • I didn’t like that death either, Brad. At all. In fact, I think Elizabeth George upset many, many readers with that event. But, as you say, that aside, she has created an interesting small group of characters that have drawn readers in and kept them interested for years. So has Louise Penny.

  3. Col

    A few years since I read the books, but I enjoyed Dave Robicheaux and his side-kick Clete Purcell. Not sure how many books Clete lasted as a serving officer but he continued to pop up now and again.

  4. So good to see P.D. James featured here – and thinking about the series I love all the successful ones keep the cast tight – for instance the Camilla Lackberg books are set in a small area. They are such a small team they use Erica Falck’s services as a writer as assistance when solving their crimes.

    • I think P.D. James created a very solid team, Cleo. And you know, you have a point about small, tight police teams. I think it’s easier to follow along and really care about them team if there’s a small, stable group of members. And Camilla Läckberg has created an interesting team, too. As time’s gone on, they’ve evolved, too. To me, that makes them all the more believable.

  5. Catherine Aird has a tiny cast of characters: Sloane and his hapless sidekick, Crosby, Sloane’s boss (whose name escapes me) and the pathologist. That is about it!
    Andrea Camilleri also has a small cast of very memorable characters and encountering them again is one of the pleasures of reading his books.

  6. Spade & Dagger

    The ‘Chapman’ series of historical mysteries by Kate Sedley, feature the wandering haberdashery saleman (a chapman) who has a small cast of friends & relatives at home, but in each book is sent off around the country on his own to investigate on behalf of King Edward IV. All the fictional mysteries take place within real events/characters & in each book the chapman spends most of his time with an entirely new set of characters.

    • Thanks, Spade & Dagger. That’s a really effective way to focus on a small cast of character, but at the same time, keep the different stories interesting and fresh. And there’s that great historical angle, too…

  7. The thing with real homicide teams, for instance, and fictional ones are that the real ones are so much larger but readers wouldn’t be able to hold that amount of characters in their heads so we have to make it so that it’s only a small team working a case. Well, I’m saying that. It’s the case in the U.K. where murder is still reasonably uncommon. From watching U.S TV dramas they only have a couple of cops working a case because they’re so busy. Funny how geography changes things.

    I love the Lacey Flint series by Sharon Bolton. She’s an individual officer who Bolton has randomly moved at will around different areas of the police to please her storylines and I like the fluidity of this. She still manages to have some key characters stay with Lacey Flint as she works though. I’m looking forward to (hoping there’s) another one!

    • Thanks, Rebecca, for sharing what it’s like with real UK homicide teams. Hey, folks, Rebecca writes a fascinating regular series on what real UK policing is like. You’ll want to visit her blog and check that out. You’re right, too, about the differences between real life and fiction…

      And thanks for mentioning Sharon Bolton’s Lacey Flint series. I like the way Lacey has developed as a character, and part of that, I think, is that she’s worked in different units. That also, as you say, adds to the interest of the series. I hope there’ll be another soon, too.

  8. Hello, Margot! I’m not sure I’d like my fictional police sleuths and inspectors moving out of their jurisdiction to solve cases, unless I’m reading crime or spy fiction on a broader canvas. I prefer detective-mysteries where both crime and closure take place in small towns or mid-size cities, or in a single geographical setting.

    • Hello, Prashant! Delighted to see you back. And I think you have a solid point about crime novels that take place in a smaller geographic area. Stories like that allow the reader to really get to know the characters, I think.

  9. I love JD Robb’s Eve Dallas series. It’s a rather small unit, as I’m sure you know, and it lets the reader really get to know the characters.

    • That’s a great example, Sue. And it’s interesting to see how those characters have evolved over time, too. Thanks for mentioning that series. One of these days, I need to do a spotlight on one of those novels…

  10. I guess it’s probably unrealistic to have such small teams in police procedurals but it does work so much better in books. I like Maeve Kerrigan’s little team in Jane Casey’s books – I enjoyed the way the character of Josh took off, largely due to reader demand, so that he’s gone from having a small, quirky role within the team as resident male chauvinist piglet to becoming one of the main characters and pretty much Maeve’s partner.

    • I like that, too, FictionFan. And I’m very glad you mentioned that team. It is a well-developed set of characters, and really shows exactly what I had in mind with this post (so thanks). You make a well-taken point, too, about the size of teams. It may not be realistic, but it does help readers to get to know the team members, and invest enough in them to care what happens. I think that’s part of the secret to making a series work.

  11. I am looking forward to how that is handled in the Rebus series by Ian Rankin, since Rebus is pretty much a loner. I have only read the first one.

    • Oh, I think you’ll like it, Tracy. In my opinion, Rankin does a fine job of keeping the focus on a few major players, so to speak, rather than trying to work in too many characters.

  12. Margot: I just finished Robert Rotenberg’s latest book, Heart of the City. He has used an ensemble cast over the series he has set in Toronto. Until the latest book there was a group of police and lawyers who had continuing roles that varied in importance from book to book.

    • I’m very glad you mentioned that series, Bill. I like it very much (‘though I’ve not yet read the latest). And you’re right; he uses a solid ensemble cast of characters, and has allowed readers to get to know them.

  13. Fascinating reading again. I think the teams investigating are dependent upon the scope of the remit for investigation in UK. The Rotherham Sex abuse cases have had a huge number of investigators involved. There are 3,500 people at least under investigation and over 300 active cases apparently. Imagine the numbers required to look into this. The investigation has spread across the country to other towns and cities and is increasing all the time. The Savile investigations must have numerous resources active all the time too. Of course in a book this would be impossible to portray. If anyone comes to write these on-going investigations as fiction, it will be quite a challenge.

  14. kathyd

    I like several of the teams in series mentioned on the blog, Irene Huss’s, Tana French’s and Michael Connelly’s characters. Also, I agree about Fred Vargas’ team, too, especially Danglard as well as Adamsberg.
    Andrea Camilleri’s team is so much fun, especially Catarella, in addition to Montlbano. Fazio is interesting, too, the details’ guy.
    And also Guido Brunetti’s team, with Vianello and Elettra Zorzi. Am just watching the German-made TV series, set in Venice. Much fun.
    Connelly just began a new series with Renee Ballard, in which she has a partner and other cops are brought into the story. Riveting.
    Always a good idea, a team.

    • I agree with you, Kathy. Teams allow for a lot of things that can keep a series strong. They allow the author to develop a variety of characters over time, so that the reader can get to know them. They also allow a variety of different sorts of plots and sub-plots. It’s realistic, too, that a case wouldn’t be solved by just one person. Too large a team is too hard to follow, but a small team can add a lot to a series.

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

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

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com 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