An interesting guest post on mystery novelist Patricia Stoltey’s site has got me thinking about trilogies. Before I go on, let me encourage you to visit Patricia’s blog. Interesting posts about writing, and updates on the Colorado writing scene, await you. And this particular post includes some useful input on writing a trilogy, for those who may be contemplating that.
Trilogies aren’t a new phenomenon, of course. When it comes to crime fiction, they’ve been around for quite a while. And there are plenty of examples. Space won’t permit me to discuss all of them, but the few I mention here should give an idea of what’s out there.
William McIlvanney’s Laidlaw trilogy features Glasgow police detective Jack Laidlaw. Consisting of Laidlaw, The Papers of Tony Veitch, and Strange Loyalties, this trilogy is argued to be the first example of ‘Tartan noir.’ The novels are tied together by Laidlaw’s presence and some other elements. However, each of the novels has a different case and focus. So (and this is important in a trilogy) the books can stand on their own in terms of the individual stories.
McIllvanney’s Laidlaw series isn’t the only trilogy set in Glasgow. There’s also Malcolm Mackay’s Glasgow Underworld trilogy. The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter, How a Gunman Says Goodbye, and The Sudden Arrival of Violence offer the reader a look at Glasgow’s criminal world and those who inhabit it. Many of the main characters are professional killers, and the books show how these people go about their jobs. Again, the trilogy is held together by some of the characters’ personal stories, and by its overarching theme. But each novel tells a different story.
Stefan Tegenfalk’s trilogy features Stockholm County CID police detectives Walter Gröhn and Jonna de Brugge. Anger Mode, Project Nirvana, and The Weakest Link are thrillers that include elements of the police procedural. There are international plots, there’s high-level corruption, and so on. There are also plot threads involving Gröhn and de Brugge’s work lives. Each novel has an individual plot. At the same time, though, there are arcs that cross all three novels. And there are characters besides Gröhn and de Brugge who recur.
There’s also Carlo Lucarelli’s historical (WWII and post-WWII) trilogy featuring Commissario de Luca. In these novels (Carte Blanche, The Damned Season, and Villa Della Oche), we see how de Luca has to negotiate the landmine that is the political landscape of Italy during this time. As Mussolini’s regime slips from power and then is defeated, de Luca has to deal first with the fascist regime, and then with the backlash against it. The whole time, he has to find a way to survive the changes in power as well as do his job.
And I don’t think I could discuss crime-fictional trilogies without mentioning Jean-Claude Izzo’s Marseilles trilogy and Len Deighton’s Bernie Sansom trilogy. Both feature main characters who are, if you will, caught in the tide of larger events and movements, and try to do their best in what’s sometimes a very dark world. The trilogies are quite different (‘though both are noir trilogies), but both main characters are essentially decent but cynical people who have to do their best to survive in a climate of world-weariness and sometimes hopelessness. There are lots of other trilogies out there, of course, and they’re not just crime-fictional trilogies, either.
There are good reasons to choose the trilogy format, both for authors and for publishers. For authors, the trilogy allows for character development and story arcs along the lines of what’s possible in a longer series. There’s also flexibility, so that the author can explore different main plots within a trilogy. What’s more, for both author and publisher, a trilogy allows for a commitment without risking too much. And for the publisher, the trilogy can mean more sales, as it may motivate readers who’ve enjoyed the first book to purchase the other books.
And that brings me to the benefits for readers. Many crime fiction fans don’t have the time (or perhaps, the motivation) to read a long series. Unless one’s a real admirer of a given author, it’s hard to make that commitment to a long-running series. But a trilogy – only three books! – is easier in terms of the investment of time and reading energy. And it allows the reader to follow some stories-across-stories. For many readers, it’s an effective balance between enjoying an author’s work and making too much of a commitment.
Trilogies do have their drawbacks, of course. For one thing, they can limit both author and publisher. If the main characters in a trilogy really do become popular, ‘fleshed out,’ and of continuing interest to the author and publisher, what happens? Some publishers will agree to a fourth (or fifth, or…) outing in a series. But it can be awkward. It can be a bit confusing, too. For another thing, a trilogy means that the author has to sustain the plot threads and story arcs over three – but only three – novels. That means, in a sense, planning a series, with individual plots, but threads that tie the novels together. Those threads arguably have to be stronger than those that bind a longer series, too, since it’s a trilogy.
What do you think of the trilogy? Do you enjoy story arcs that last over three novels? Or do you prefer longer series, where the characters really evolve over time? Perhaps you prefer standalones? If you’re a writer, have you planned or written a trilogy? How is it different for you to planning a standalone or longer series?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Crosby, Stills, and Nash’s Helplessly Hoping.