There’s a Million Different Voices*

Authors of series use several strategies to keep their series interesting over time. One strategy some authors use is to have different protagonists within the same series. It can be a challenge to balance those different protagonists’ voices with the need for a consistent context for the series. Some authors, though, have done it quite successfully.

Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad series makes use of several protagonists’ voices, and that makes sense, as the Garda Síochána’s Murder Squad is a team of people. The first novel, In The Woods, features Rob Ryan. That novel also includes Cassie Maddox, although she plays a less central role. But she takes the ‘starring’ role in the next novel, The Likeness. And, as different members join the squad and leave it, different characters are featured in the novels. And that’s realistic, as in real life, people do join units, transfer, and so on. Among other things, this strategy has allowed French to develop different characters, and provide different perspectives on the crimes that are investigated.

The central protagonist in Arnaldur Indriðason’s Reykjavík series is Inspector Erlendur. He works with a team that includes police detectives Sigurdur Óli and Elínborg. While Erlendur makes many of the decisions, he relies a great deal on his colleagues, and they know that. As the series goes on, they feature more strongly in the novels. In fact, in the ninth and tenth novels in the series, Erlendur doesn’t even appear. His colleagues do the investigation. This strategy allows readers to get to know those characters better, and it allows for story arcs and character development that might otherwise be more difficult. What’s more, it arguably adds interest to the series.

We see a similar thing in Håkan Nesser’s Inspector Van Veeteren series. At the beginning of the series (the first novel is Mind’s Eye), Van Veeteren is the leader of his investigation team. So, several novels feature him in the lead role. But he works with a team of other people, whose work he trusts. As the series goes on, Van Veeteren decides to retire from active police work, and he buys a bookshop. This means that the investigating now needs to be done by other people. And that’s what happens, for instance, in The Unlucky Lottery. In fact, that book’s original title is Münsters Fall (Münster’s Case). In the novel, Intendant Münster does the primary investigation when Valdemar Leverkuhn is murdered in his own bed, just after winning a lottery prize. Later, in The Weeping Girl, another colleague, Ewa Moreno, is the featured protagonist. The original title for that novel is Ewa Morenos Fall (Ewa Morenos’ Case). In it, eighteen-year-old Mikaela Lijphart goes missing. Moreno had met her once and hasn’t forgotten her. So, she gets involved in the case. And she finds that it’s connected to the disappearance of Mikaela’s father, two murders, and some very dark secrets from the past. It’s not that Van Veeteren completely disappears; the other detectives consult with him on a regular, if informal, basis. But the baton is passed, if I may put it like that.

S.J. Rozan has an interesting approach to featuring more than one sleuth as the main protagonist. Her series features two New York PIs. One is Chin Ling Wan-ju, who usually goes by Lydia Chin, the American version of her name. The other is Bill Smith. They’ve got very different backgrounds and are twenty years apart in age. As the series starts (with China Trade), Chin is twenty-seven. She’s from a traditional Chinese family; in fact, her mother would very much rather she give up investigating, meet a Chinese husband, and settle down like a ‘proper’ daughter. Still, she knows Chin will find her own way. For her part, Chin is just as American as she is Chinese. Yet, she respects several of the old traditions, and she works to maintain a solid bond with her mother. Smith is from a military family, so he doesn’t have deep roots. He has his own PI business, and teams up with Chin for some cases. Some of the novels in this series are written from Chin’s point of view, and some from Smith’s. This allows Rozan to explore both characters, and let readers see each from the other’s point of view. It also allows for different sorts of cases and clients.

Fans of Robert Crais’ work know that his main series features two sleuths: Los Angeles PIs Elvis Cole and Joe Pike. They have very different personal styles, communication styles, and outlooks. But they complement one another, and each respects the other’s skills. In the first novels, Elvis Cole is the main protagonist. The stories are told from his perspective, and we see Pike through his eyes. In several of the later novels, though, the stories are told from Pike’s point of view. Readers follow his movements, and Cole is less in the limelight. This strategy has allowed Crais to explore different sorts of cases, and to let his characters develop. Not everyone likes both sets of stories equally, but they have allowed Crais a lot of flexibility.

And that’s an important reason for using different protagonists in a series. It allows flexibility. What’s more, the author can develop characters, introduce a variety of cases, and keep a series engaging.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Traffic’s Hidden Treasure.


Filed under Arnaldur Indriðason, Håkan Nesser, Robert Crais, S.J. Rozan, Tana French

21 responses to “There’s a Million Different Voices*

  1. mudpuddle

    the precinct 87 novels by Ed McBain, mostly feature Steve Carella as the chief detective, but as the novels progress (there are a lot of them), different figures take the lead role…

  2. There might be an explanation for the Rozan variations….
    Carlos Dews is an American writer and university professor. He is the chair of the Department of English Language and Literature at John Cabot University in Rome, Italy. He co-writes a paranormal thriller series with S. J. Rozan under the pseudonym Sam Cabot.
    Dews and I worked together on a nonfiction project that fell apart in 2000.
    Just a bit of trivia …..

  3. I really admire the way Tana French has featured different detectives in her series. Each time I think ‘oh this is the best one, I wish she’d stick with this protagonist’, but she wins me over with the next one.

    • I like the way French does that, too, Moira. She’s so skilled at shifting the focus among the different members of the Murder Squad. And she develops strong characters.

  4. Reblogged this on Author Don Massenzio and commented:
    Check out this interesting post from the Confessions of a Mystery Novelist blog on the topic of using different protagonists for books in a series.

  5. Interesting concept. I don’t think multiple POVs would fit my particular way of writing mysteries. However, I DID write a two-volume Civil War/Reconstrution saga using three main characters, each with a distinctive voice. Once I was able to get “into” each character, it was easy enough. Getting there was the challenge. 🙂

    • I think that’s a big part of the challenge, Michael – really getting ‘into’ each character, and seeing the world from that person’s point of view. And it isn’t the best choice for every sort of novel. To me, it’s like any tool: you use it for specific situations. In your case, it isn’t the best tool to use for your PI stories. It was, though, for your saga. I think it’s interesting that you’ve done both sorts of writing.

  6. I liked the way Reginald Hill brought more of his characters to the fore as the series went on. Although Dalziel and Pascoe continued to be the main crime-solvers, we got to see things more from the point of view of Wieldy and Novello, and even Elly, in the later books. And although it’s slightly different, one of the things that I feel kept Christie’s Poirot books feeling fresh was the way she varied the “sidekick” from novel to novel so that over time we got to see the great man through a variety of perspectives.

    • I liked Christie’s way of doing that, too, FictionFan. Readers get to see different sides of Poirot, and I think it was also, in a way, Christie’s way of holding up a lens to her society. As we get to know the different sidekicks, we learn about their viewpoints, values, and so on (I’m thinking in particular of the character of Amy Leatheran in Murder in Mesopotamia). Thanks, too, for mentioning the way Hill let us get to know some of Dalziel’s staff better through the series. And, yes, we get to see more of Ellie and her perspective, too, and I like that.

  7. Alex

    I have to say I’ve not read any Tana French and, after reading your post, will have to make an effort to do so. I like when an author is skilled enough to do, as you say, Margot, show through a series, a group of people who each get a moment in the spotlight.

    • I like that very much, too, Alex. It allows the reader to get to know a group of people, and see how they interact and what makes each one ‘tick.’ It takes skill, as you point out, but when it works, it can add to a series. And I do recommend Tana French’s work if you get the chance to read it.

  8. Col

    Crais’ Cole and Pike is a series I would like to get back to. I don’t know why I stopped reading them when I did. I haven’t yet get as far as the ones where Pike is more prominent.

    • I know what you mean, Col. I have series, too, that I just kept up with as I wanted. And it’s not from disappointment in the series, either. I just wish there were more reading time in each day…

  9. I love the S. J. Rozan series for this very reason, going back and forth between the two protagonists. I have read them all. I also like the Tana French series but have only read two of those.

    • I think the way Rozan uses the two protagonists really does add to the series, Tracy. I can see why you love it so much. And I think that’s one of the strengths of Tana French’s series, too. Both series offer really interesting perspectives because they use different protagonists.

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