For the reader, one of the advantages of standalone novels is that each one is a different experience. And that means it’s less likely that a reader will get tired of a given author’s work. At the same time, though, standalones may not give the reader the opportunity to really get to know a group of characters, and see how they evolve. For that, a series can be very appealing.
Developing those characters – especially secondary characters – over time can be tricky. Crime fiction fans generally want their stories to focus on crime at hand. And an effective series welcomes new readers, whether they start at the first novel or not. That said, though, there are plenty of series out there that people read as much for the ‘regular’ characters as they do for the individual plots. In fact, there are too many for me to discuss in one post. But here are a few.
Rex Stout’s main sleuths are, of course, Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin. Most of the attention in the novels is on them, and the way they go about solving mysteries. The mysteries at hand – the central plots of the stories – are the focus, too. And yet, there are other regular characters we get to know over the course of the series. For instance, Wolfe employs Saul Panzer, Fred Durkin, and Orrie Cather – the ‘teers – to do freelance work for him when he needs information. There are also Fritz Brenner, Wolfe’s world-class Swiss chef, and Theodore Horstmann, his orchid expert. Lily Rowan, Goodwin’s sometimes love interest, is also a regular character. And then there are various police detectives, like Inspector Cramer and Sergeant Purly Stebbins, who also play roles in the series. For many people, these other characters, and their interactions, are as important to enjoying the stories as are the actual mysteries.
A similar thing might be said of Alexander McCall Smith’s Precious Ramotswe series. As fans can tell you, Mma Ramotswe has the only female-owned private investigation business in Botswana. Each novel features a few mysteries that she solves. But there’s also a set of other regular characters that readers have come to know well. Those characters arguably add much to the novels, and are part of the reason readers keep coming back. For example, Mma Ramotswe doesn’t investigate every mystery by herself. Her associate is Grace Makutsi, who started as the company’s secretary, and has proven herself a capable detective. On the home front, Mma Ramotswe is married to Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni. He’s the proprietor of Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors, and is quite handy at fixing all sorts of things. He employs two assistants, who also sometimes figure into the stories. There’s also Mma Sylvia Potokwane, Mma Ramotswe’s friend, and proprietor of the local orphanage. All of these characters develop over time, and sometimes figure into the mysteries that are featured in the novels. And for many readers, they’re an important part of enjoying the series.
The same is arguably true of Andrea Camilleri’s Inspector Montalbano series. Montalbano is the lead character, and the novels are told, much of the time, from his perspective. But the series also includes a group of other regular and recurring characters who add to the novels. One of them is Montalbano’s second-in-command, Mimì Augello. There are also Giuseppe Fazio and Sergeant Agatino Catarella, among others, who are Montalbano’s police colleagues. And then there are the people in Montalbano’s personal life: his partner, Livia Burlando; his friend, Ingrid Sjostrom; his housekeeper/cook, Adelina Cirrinciò; and his friend, Nicolò Zito, for instance. All of those characters add layers to the stories, and many fans of this series read the novels as much to keep up with their doings as to read about the crime(s) at hand.
Louise Penny’s Three Pines series features Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec. Each of the novels has a focus on a particular case that Gamache and his team investigate, and those cases are central to the novels. But the novels also follow the lives of Three Pines’ residents, and readers get to know them. Gabri and Olivier, who own the local B&B; Clara and Peter Morrow, both artists; resident poet Ruth Zardo; and psychologist-turned-bookshop owner Myrna Landers are just a few. As the series has continued, there’ve been several story arcs involving those characters, as well as Gamache’s wife, Reine-Marie, and his daughter, Annie. And for many fans of this series, those characters add a great deal to its appeal.
And then there’s Kerry Greenwood’s work. One of her series ‘stars’ 1920s socialite Phryne Fisher. The other ‘stars’ modern-day accountant-turned-baker Corinna Chapman. They’re quite different, but they have some things in common (besides their Melbourne settings). One of them is that they each have a cast of regular and recurring characters. In the Phryne Fisher series, Phryne solves cases with the help of several people. One of them is her assistant, Dorothy ‘Dot’ Williams. She also gets help from her friends, Albert ‘Bert’ Johnson, and Cecil ‘Cec’ Yates. They’re taxi drivers and wharfies who also do quite a lot of ‘legwork’ for Phryne. Phryne shares her home with her adopted daughters, Jane and Ruth, and her staff, Mr. and Mrs. Butler (yes, that’s their name). And, of course, there’s Inspector John ‘Jack’ Robinson, as well as Constable Hugh Collins, who do the police investigations.
Greenwood’s other series also includes a cast of regular characters besides Corinna. There’s her assistant, Jason Wallace, and her two other employees, Gossamer Judge and Kylie Manners. And of course, her lover, Daniel Cohen. Corinna’s home and shop are located in a large, Roman-style building called Insula. The other residents of Insula are also regular characters, who add quite a lot to the series. Professor Dionysus ‘Dion’ Monk, herbalist and Wicca shop owner Miriam ‘Meroe’ Kaplan, and Andy Holliday and his daughter Cherie are just a few of the other people who live in the building. In both series, the novels feature mysteries that form the central plots. But the regular characters are arguably just as important. And many fans will tell you that they follow the series in part because of those characters.
There are many other series, too, that readers follow as much for the cast of characters as for the mysteries. That’s one thing that a well-written series can provide that a standalone can’t always pull off. What about you? Are there series you follow as much for the cast of characters as for the plots? Which ones?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Rolling Stones’ She Saw Me Coming.