A recent conversation with Brad at ahsweetmysteryblog has got me thinking about reading a series in order vs picking and choosing in a series (and, perhaps, going completely out of order). Now, before I go any further, let me strongly encourage you to pay Brad’s blog a visit, and follow it if you aren’t already. It’s a treasure trove of rich, knowledgeable discussion about classic and GA crime fiction (with some more contemporary crime fiction here and there for added volume).
If you think about it, there are plenty of arguments for starting a series at the beginning and working one’s way through it chronologically. One is that many series have story arcs. They begin in earlier novels and are resolved as the series goes on (often, to lead to more story arcs in a longer series). Louise Penny’s Armand Gamache series is like that. I won’t spoil those arcs by being really specific about them here. But there are several that involve Gamache’s private and professional lives. And, as fans can tell you, the stories in this series feature the residents of the small Québec town of Three Pines. As the series goes on, there is more than one story arc that involves those characters. Reading a series like this one in order allows the reader to follow those arcs in a logical way, and to see how they are resolved.
Another argument for reading a series sequentially is that later books in a series sometimes refer to earlier novels/plot points/etc. For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Dumb Witness (AKA Poirot Loses a Client), Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings investigate the murder of Miss Emily Arundell, who had a fortune to leave, and several relatives who are desperate for money. That, of course, means several suspects. At one point, Poirot and Hastings are discussing the personalities of the people involved. Poirot mentions the names of four fictional murders from previous Christie novels. To be fair, people who haven’t read those earlier novels wouldn’t know they were the killers (Christie doesn’t, strictly speaking, say that they are). But if a reader happens to remember one of the names, and then goes back to an earlier novel, it’s a major spoiler to know the name of the killer.
There’s also the fact that, in a longer series, changes happen in the characters’ lives. They marry, break up, have children, move house, and go through other changes. For example, many life changes happen to Steve Carella, who features in Ed McBain’s long-running 87th Precinct series. As the novels go on, he marries, has children, and so on. Those life events aren’t always the central focus of the novels, but they are part of the story. So, a reader who starts later in the series might have a mental representation of Carella that includes his wife, older children, and so on. If the reader then goes back to the first novel, Cop Hater, that mental representation doesn’t fit quite so well. Certainly, a reader could easily make the adjustment. Still, those changes in perception can mean a reader has to stop and take stock, so to speak, even if it’s not really confusing for the reader to go back. The same is true of series in which the protagonist has one partner in the early novels, and then moves on to someone else as the series goes on.
All of that said, though, there are also good arguments for starting later in a series. For one thing, it takes many authors a few novels to really find their voices and do their best work. If I may speak personally, I think my more recent novels are better-written and more mature, if I can put it that way, than my first one. At least, I hope I’ve learned as I’ve gone along. It’s a natural part of the evolution of a writer. So, a reader who chooses an author’s later work may get to see the best that author has to offer. That can invite the reader to go back and try something else by that author. And, even if the author’s earlier work isn’t as good, the reader knows that the potential is there. So, the reader won’t be as likely to be put off by a less-than-great first novel.
Another – and probably related – thing about series is that the major characters often grow, change, evolve, and become more interesting as the series goes on. That’s certainly true of Ellery Queen. In the first novels in which he features, he’s certainly not a multi-dimensional, nuanced character. He’s smart and solves the mysteries, but many people wouldn’t consider him a warm, sympathetic character. As the series goes on, though, Queen evolves. He becomes more fully fleshed out and multi-dimensional. And that (speaking strictly for myself) makes him more appealing. So, there’s a solid argument that it makes some sense to start later in the Queen series than earlier.
There’s also the issue of availability. Sometimes, an author’s more recent books are more easily available in a library or bookshop than are earlier novels. Better-known titles are also often more easily available than are lesser-known titles. That doesn’t mean, of course, that you can’t find that first novel. But it sometimes takes more digging. And if your goal is to try an author’s work to see what you think, you may not want to make as much effort (or spend as much).
This isn’t a settled question. There are some solid arguments for starting at the beginning of a series, but there are also solid arguments for not doing that. What do you think? Are you strictly a ‘begin at the beginning’ person? If you’re a writer, how do you feel about readers beginning at different points in your work?
Thanks, Brad, for the inspiration!
*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Johnny Mandel and Alan and Marilyn Bergman.