Category Archives: Robert B. Parker

Someone Has Altered the Rules*

20150526_073904-1As I post this, today would have been Sally Ride’s 64th birthday. Along with her many accomplishments, one thing that’s always stood out for me about Ride is that she wasn’t bound by the cultural ‘rules’ of the time. In fact, she helped change the rules, if you will, about women (at least American women) in the sciences and in NASA. On a personal note, when my daughter was young, she did a school report on Ride’s accomplishments. As part of her report, she wrote a letter to Ride, who answered her personally and in a very gracious way. My daughter still has that letter. She didn’t choose NASA or physics for her career, but she was among a generation of young people for whom Ride changed the game, if you will.

I’m sure you could think of a long list of other people who have refused to be bound by the cultural ‘rules’ of their times. Those people can make a big difference, and they often have interesting stories. We see characters like that in crime fiction, too. I know you’ll be able to offer a lot more examples than I ever could, but here are a few examples to show you what I mean.

At the time of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, there were very strict cultural ‘rules’ that governed what men and women were and weren’t expected to do. Those rules don’t stop Irene Adler, whom we meet in A Scandal in Bohemia. The King of Bohemia engages Holmes to retrieve a compromising photograph of him with Adler; if it goes public, that photograph could put an end to his plans to marry. Holmes agrees and in doing so, matches wits against a most formidable opponent. In fact, Adler bests him at his own game. Holmes respects her for it, too, referring to her afterwards as the woman.

In Agatha Christie’s The Hollow, we are introduced to sculptor Henrietta Savernake. As the story begins, she’s involved with Harley Street specialist John Christow, who is married to someone else. But she’s hardly the stereotypical ‘kept woman.’ She’s independent, noted in her own right, and not one to wait around on the off chance her lover may stop by. In fact, that’s the one thing Christow finds irksome about her: she cares for him, but isn’t absorbed by the relationship. One weekend, Christow is shot while he and his wife Gerda are visiting some friends, Sir Henry and Lady Lucy Angkatell. Hercule Poirot has taken a getaway cottage nearby, and circumstances get him involved in the murder investigation. In the process, he gets to know Savernake, and we see that she doesn’t play by the cultural rules of her day.

Robert B. Parker’s Night Passage introduces Jesse Stone. He’s suffered some real personal and professional setbacks, so he’s ready for a change from life as an LAPD detective. When he gets an offer to serve as Chief of Police for Paradise, Massachusetts, he accepts the job. In fact, he’s a little surprised he’s gotten the offer, because he’s hardly a stellar candidate. Still, with nothing much to lose, he makes the change. Soon enough, Stone discovers why he was hired. The Paradise town council, led by Hastings ‘Hasty’ Hathaway, wanted to hire a police chief that they could control. The cultural ‘rule’ of that town has for a long time been that the chief of police is a sort of ‘figurehead’ job to lend legitimacy to whatever the council wants. When Stone learns this, he decides to change that game, and begins to look into some very dubious things that have been going on in the town. That decision to alter the rules puts Stone in danger, but it makes some big changes in Paradise.

Virginia Duigan’s Thea Farmer decides to change the game in The Precipice. She’s left her position as a school principal, with the idea of moving to a custom-made home in New South Wales’ Blue Mountains. She has her dream home built and prepares to move in. But then, some bad luck and poor financial planning make that impossible. With no other choice, Thea has to settle for the house next door – a smaller home she refers to as ‘the hovel.’ To make matters worse, Frank Campbell and Ellice Carrington move into the house Thea still regards as hers. Not only does she resent having anyone living nearby, but it’s a particular sore point that they’ve bought ‘her’ house. Still, Thea grits her teeth and tries to get on with life. Then, Frank’s twelve-year-old niece Kim moves in with him and Ellice. Unexpectedly, Thea develops an awkward sort of friendship with the girl. So when she comes to believe that Frank is not providing an appropriate home for Kim, Thea decides to do something about it. She thinks of pursuing her concerns with the police; but without actual evidence of a crime, they can’t do much. So Thea changes the game and decides to take matters into her own hands.

We see some altering of the rules in Seán Haldane’s historical novel The Devil’s Making. Chad Hobbes has recently finished his law degree at Oxford, and travels to British Columbia, where he gets a job as a police constable in the town of Victoria. Hobbes began his study in the Divinity program, but changed his views about religion. He’s interested in philosophy, though, especially the implications of Charles Darwin’s recently-published work. The nature of humanity is of particular interest to Hobbes, and as he begins his work, he gets plenty of opportunity to reflect on it. For one thing, he soon runs into the deeply ingrained prejudice against non-Whites. And as the novel begins, he doesn’t question it much. But when Richard McCrory is found brutally murdered, Hobbes begins to change his views. Wiladzap, a leader among the Tsimshian Indians, is arrested for the crime, but claims his innocence. As Hobbes begins the investigation into McCrory’s murder, he gets to know the Tsimshian better, and sees that traditional cultural ‘rules’ about men, women, and the social order don’t necessarily make the sense that he once thought they might. Throughout this novel, we see the impact of Darwin’s work and thought. Certainly his findings and perspective on them altered a lot of social and scientific ‘rules.’

People who do change the game – who alter the rules – may not always be proven right. But they do change our way of thinking, or at least invite us to reflect on it. And that, I think, can move us forward.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice’s Good Night and Thank You.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Robert B. Parker, Seán Haldane, Virginia Duigan

I Heard it on My Radio*

RadioAn interesting post on podcasting from crime writer Elizabeth Spann Craig has got me thinking about broadcasting. Her excellent writing blog inspires me; it’s a must-visit for writers and anyone interested in the process of writing. Podcasts are a very new form of broadcasting, but radio has been around for a very long time. In fact, it was arguably the first real-time medium of mass communication. And even with the advent of television and the internet, radio is still a popular and powerful tool. It’s not surprising then that radio plays a role in crime fiction. Here are just a few examples; I know you’ll think of dozens more than I can.

In Agatha Christie’s Peril at End House, Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings are on a holiday in Cornwall. There they meet Magdala ‘Nick’ Buckley, who has a house there. Poirot soon comes to suspect that someone is trying to kill Nick, although she herself doesn’t believe him at first. Then, she has a few ‘near misses.’ Poirot doesn’t want her staying in the house by herself, so Nick invites her cousin Maggie for a few weeks. Tragically, Maggie is killed during her visit. She was wearing one of her cousin’s shawls at the time of the murder; and this obvious case of mistaken identity convinces Poirot that Nick is in imminent danger. He arranges for her to be safely cared for at a hospital, where she’s told to eat nothing from ‘outside.’ When the murderer tries to strike again, Poirot has to act quickly. In this case, a radio broadcast is key to what the killer chooses to do.

The police have their own radio frequencies; and police radio plays a role in Michael Connelly’s The Black Ice. One Christmas night, LAPD cop Harry Bosch is ‘on call,’ and has his police scanner running in the background. That’s how he hears that a body has been discovered at a seedy hotel in his district. To him, it’s surprising that no-one called him to let him know, since he’s on duty. He goes to the scene only to find that the dead man is Calexico ‘Cal’ Moore, a fellow police officer. The death bears all the hallmarks of suicide, but a few things don’t add up for Bosch. The official explanation is that Moore killed himself because he’d ‘gone dirty’ and was involved in drug smuggling. In order to protect the department’s reputation, Bosch is told to leave the case alone and accept it as a suicide (in fact, that’s why he wasn’t called). Bosch fans will know that leaving things alone is not his style, so he keeps asking questions. In the end, and after a trip to the US/Mexico border area, he finds out the complex truth behind this death.

Even with the popularity of television and the Internet, there are still plenty of successful and well-known radio celebrities. Some of them are quite controversial, too. We see an example of the rise of the ‘shock jock’ in Robert B. Parker’s High Profile. In that novel, we meet celebrity radio personality Walton Weeks. His politically-charged broadcasts have made him a host of fanatic followers and enemies; his private life has been just as full of drama. So when he is found shot and hung, Paradise, Massachusetts Police Chief Jesse Stone has his pick of suspects. For one thing, Weeks’ broadcasts had inspired strong passion on both sides, so to speak. For another, his ex-wives and his current wife all had good reason to want him out of the way. Stone is working on this case when there’s another murder. This time, the victim is Weeks’ pregnant mistress. Stone finds that there were a lot of secrets in Weeks’ life, and that those secrets turned out to be fatal.

In one plot thread of Kate Atkinson’s One Good Turn, we are introduced to comic Richard Mott. He’s been invited to headline a lunchtime radio comedy show, and arranges for his housemate, crime writer Martin Canning, to get tickets. On the day of the show, Canning and several other characters in the novel are waiting for the doors to open when they witness a car accident. A blue Honda hits the back of a silver Peugot driven by Paul Bradley. Both men get out of their cars and are soon arguing bitterly. Then the Honda driver wields a baseball bat and attacks Bradley. Mostly by instinct, Canning throws his computer case at the Honda driver, saving Bradley’s life. A sense of obligation drives Canning to ensure that Bradley gets safely to the nearest hospital; before he knows it, he’s far more involved than he wants to be in a case of multiple murders, fraud and theft.

Robert Rotenberg’s Old City Hall introduces readers to Toronto radio personality Kevin Brace. He and his common-law wife Katherine Torn are both successful, and have an upscale lifestyle which includes a home in the exclusive Market Place Tower condominiums. Everything changes one morning when Torn is found dead in one of the bathtubs. Brace is quickly arrested, and indicates that he wants to be represented by Nancy Parish. Acting for the Crown will be Albert Fernandez. While the attorneys prepare for the legal aspects of this case, Police Detective Ari Green and his team investigate the crime. One possible explanation for the seemingly airtight case against Brace is that he was framed. If that’s the case, then one likely suspect is Donald Dundas, another radio personality who stands to become a broadcasting star with Brace out of the way. And Dundas might have had his own reasons for wanting Torn dead. As the police and attorneys fallow this trail, we learn some interesting things about the modern big-city radio business.

Domingo Villar’s Leo Caldas is a detective with the Vigo police. He also has a radio call-in show. The goal of the show is closer ties between the police and the community, so callers get to ask their questions (or lodge their complaints) in direct conversations with Caldas. The show is so popular that when people are introduced to Caldas, they invariably say something like, ‘Oh, from Patrolling the Waves?’ He’s actually better known for the radio broadcast than he is for anything else.

And that just goes to show that radio still has an important impact. People do listen to audio broadcasts. These are just some instances. You’re now on the air to offer more.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Queen’s Radio Ga Ga.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Domingo Villar, Kate Atkinson, Michael Connelly, Robert B. Parker, Robert Rotenberg

I’m in a Playground in My Mind*

Fictional Places that Seem RealI’m going to let you in on a little secret if I may. It’s not always easy to create an entirely fictional place when you write. On the one hand, creating a fictional setting means that you don’t have to verify street names, local landmarks and the like. You can locate buildings, parks, streets and so on anywhere you like. And there’s no end to the possibilities for the kinds of characters you create.

But on the other hand, a completely fictional setting still has to be credible. Even readers who live in the region where the fictional town or city is located have to believe the place could really exist. The climate, the kinds of businesses, the pastimes and the character types have to ring true or readers won’t be drawn into the story. And if you write a series set in that fictional place, it has to change and evolve as the series goes on. That happens to real-life places. Buildings go up and are torn down. People move in and out. Businesses open, close and change. A fictional setting has to reflect that evolution if it’s to be believed.

Some authors have created fictional settings that are so authentic that people have believed they actually exist. For example, Agatha Christie created St. Mary Mead, the home of Katherine Grey in The Mystery of the Blue Train and later of course the home of Miss Jane Marple. Interesting that in a village like that, the two women never meet. Still, St. Mary Mead is a very credible kind of English village with a cast of ‘regular’ characters who fit in there. There’s the vicar Leonard Clement and his wife Griselda, there’s Colonel Arthur Bantry and his wife Dolly, and there are others too. St. Mary Mead also changes as time goes by, as you would expect. That’s one of the themes for instance in The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side (AKA The Mirror Crack’d). In that novel, council housing and other social changes have come to the village, and some residents aren’t too happy about them. Miss Marple takes the changes in stride but it’s clear that the village is evolving as real places do.

K.C. Constantine’s Mario Balzic series takes place in fictional Rocksburg, Pennsylvania. It’s a mining town in the western part of Pennsylvania and most of the characters there fit right in. Chief of Police Balzic for instance reflects the Polish-American and Italian-American influences in that region and the town residents tend to be working-class ‘regular folks.’ It’s a fictional town but the series reflects the culture, economy, character types and climate of that area. Trust me. To my knowledge (but please, correct me if I’m mistaken), Rocksburg is completely fictional. But it might be a real place for its authenticity.

That’s also true of Ruth Rendell’s Kingsmarkham. Fans of her Inspector Reg Wexford series will know that most of the novels in it take place in this fictional town. It isn’t a real place, but it’s certainly authentic. In novels such as Road Rage and Simisola, we see the town adapt (or not) to social and other changes. The cast of ‘regulars’ is authentic; so are details such as climate, kinds of businesses and physical setting. Fans of the series will tell you that to them, Kingsmarkham might very well be an actual place. In fact, it’s said that Rendell once had to remind a reader that she created the place when that reader questioned her about it. I don’t have all of the details but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it were true. Kingsmarkham is very genuine.

So is Three Pines, the rural Québec creation of Louise Penny.  As fans of this series will know, Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec spends his share of time there. Beginning with Still Life, readers have gotten to know many of the locals very well. Gamache doesn’t live there, but he’s become one of them in his way. The place is authentic. It fits in with the region and it develops and evolves as the series goes on. Buildings change hands, people come and go, and there’s a cast of recurring characters that adds much to the authenticity of this fictional place. The climate and culture are also realistic. I would guess that plenty of people have done an Internet search for Three Pines, thinking they would find it on an actual map. Here’s what Penny says about the place:


‘I love Three Pines. I created it because I would want to live there.’


It may not be on maps, but it’s a believable town.

We could also say that about Vigàta, the fictional home of Andrea Camilleri’s Inspector Salvo Montalbano. Vigàta is located in Sicily and is based on Camilleri’s home town of Porto Empedocle. It’s not a real place, but it’s quite authentic. The trattorias, the buildings, the local culture and the character types ring very true, and that’s not just because it’s inspired by a real place. Camilleri creates an authentic sense of setting with the subtle and not-so-subtle details that make a place genuine.

There are other series too that are set in fictional towns based on real places. For example, Nelson Brunanski’s John ‘Bart’ Bartowski series is set in Crooked Lake, Saskatchewan. That town is based on a real place, Wakaw, Saskatchewan. Robert B. Parker’s Paradise, Massachusetts is the home of his Jesse Stone series. Paradise is loosely based on Swamscott, Massachusetts. And fans of Craig Johnson’s Walt Longmire series will know that Durant, Wyoming, the setting for those novels, is based on an actual place, Buffalo, Wyoming.

Plenty of cosy mystery series are also set in fictional places that feel quite real. Lilian Jackson Braun’s Cat Who… series is like that. It’s set mostly in Pickax, a small town in Moose County, ‘400 miles north of nowhere.’ And Elizabeth Spann Craig’s got two series set in fictional towns in North Carolina. But those places seem genuine. They’re populated with believable characters, the places evolve as the series goes on, and the culture and climate reflect the region.

Now if you’ll excuse me, the Tilton Sentinel’s newest edition is out and I want to catch up on the news. 😉  While I’m gone, feel free to share the fictional places that seem very real to you.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Paul Vance and Lee Pockriss’ Playground in My Mind.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Andrea Camilleri, Craig Johnson, Elizabeth Spann Craig, K.C. Constantine, Lilian Jackson Braun, Louise Penny, Nelson Brunanski, Robert B. Parker, Ruth Rendell

My Eyes Can Dimly See the Pattern of My Life*

PatternsDid you ever catch yourself in a pattern you hadn’t even been aware you had? We often have a patterned reaction to life because it’s easy, or it’s comfortable and familiar, or perhaps because it’s served an important purpose. And we get so accustomed to our patterns that we often aren’t even conscious that we have them. But sometimes our comfortable patterns don’t work any more. When that happens we have to learn to deal with life in new ways. And that can help us grow. It can also add some interest to fictional characters as they see that the same way they’ve always dealt with life doesn’t always work.

Sometimes of course, patterns of dealing with life can be dangerous. For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Murder in Mesopotamia we meet Louise Leidner. She’s the wife of prominent archaeologist Eric Leidner and she’s accompanied him on an important dig a few hours from Baghdad. The team hasn’t been at the site long when Louise begins to have what many people call irrational fears. She says that she hears hands tapping on windows and sees grotesque faces looking in at her. Her husband hires a nurse Amy Leatheran to look after his wife and she learns that Louise fears for her life. She’s been receiving threatening letters that seem to come from her first husband, who she thought was dead. Then one afternoon Louise is bludgeoned to death. Hercule Poirot is in the area and is persuaded to investigate. He’s soon faced with several questions about the murder. Was the victim really killed by her former husband? If not, were the letters a blind? Did she write them herself in order to create drama? As Poirot sorts the case out we learn that there were several patterns to Louise Leidner’s life. Her interactions with people followed those particular patterns and in part that’s what led to her death.

Robert B. Parker’s Jesse Stone has had his share of damage in his life. And one of the patterns he’s used to cope with it is that he stays at least somewhat withdrawn in relationships. In some ways that’s been a successful strategy for him. His way of distancing himself makes it easier to do the hard things that cops have to do. For instance, in Night Passage, the first in Parker’s Jesse Stone series, Stone is hired as the new police chief in Paradise, Massachusetts. He thinks it will be a good chance to start life over. Having lost both his job with the L.A.P.D. and his marriage, Stone is looking for a new beginning. But he soon finds that being a cop in Paradise is anything but an easy job. It turns out that Stone was hired because the town’s leaders thought he’d be easy to manipulate. When Stone uncovers what’s going on, he needs his ability to ‘step back’ and not trust anyone as he finds out the truth. On the other hand, that pattern isn’t so useful in his personal life. It’s part of the reason for the breakup of his marriage and as the series goes on, we see how more than once, Stone’s pattern of withdrawal gets in the way of really sustaining a strong relationship.

Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman has a negative relationship with her parents for several good reasons. While she’s not obsessive about it, she also has no interest whatsoever in any contact with them. As she sees it, she has a good life (she has her own bakery, a good relationship with her lover Daniel Cohen, and a good circle of friends). But it’s all no thanks to her parents. Then, in Devil’s Food, Chapman’s mother suddenly shows up in her life. Chapman’s father has disappeared and her mother wants Chapman’s help finding him. Chapman’s first reaction is to follow the pattern that has so far served her well: avoidance. But she soon learns that avoidance isn’t going to work this time as her mother intends to stay in the area until her father is found. What’s more, one of the other residents of the building where Chapman lives and works offers to take her mother in for the time being. With few other options Chapman grudgingly begins to help in the search for her father. Bit by bit she develops a sort of détente with her mother. She also learns what’s happened to her father. At the end of the story, Chapman isn’t exactly ‘best buddies’ with her mother but she’s been able to re-think the pattern of simply avoiding any contact at all cost.

In Paddy Richardson’s Hunting Blind, beginning psychiatrist Stephanie Anderson has to re-think several patterns in her life. When she was fourteen, her younger sister Gemma was abducted. No trace of the child was ever found despite a massive hunt. Gemma’s loss devastated the family and is partly responsible for Anderson’s pattern of withdrawing from people – of not allowing herself to get close to them. In a lot of ways she’s aware of that pattern but for her it’s been a useful coping technique. She’s able to work with her patients because she doesn’t allow herself to get close. She can’t really face her own pain and sense of loss at Gemma’s disappearance so withdrawing helps her get through life without hurting too much or drowning herself in alcohol. For Anderson it’s not a bad pattern although it has cost her at least one serious relationship. Then she begins to work with a new patient Elizabeth Clark. Clark is still suffering the trauma of losing her own younger sister Gracie, who was, like Anderson’s sister, abducted. When Anderson hears Clark’s story she decides to lay her old ghosts to rest and find out who was responsible for both abductions. To do that she has to take several emotional risks and face the difficulty of getting close to some of the members of her family again as well as getting closer to Clark than professional ethics would normally dictate. But Anderson has found that her pattern of staying removed from people simply won’t work any more. As she slowly finds out the truth about what happened to her sister, she also learns some new ways of dealing with life.

Håkan Nesser’s Intendant Münster has a pattern of relying on his boss Inspector Van Veeteren. That pattern makes sense for a lot of reasons. After all, Van Veeteren is the boss. Besides, he has real intuition for detection and an awful lot of skill. Münster is neither stupid nor lacking in insight. But he’s fallen into a pattern of discussing cases with his boss, getting Van Veeteren’s views, insights and so on and going from there. But then Münster has to re-think his patterns, at least to some extent. Van Veeteren leaves the police force and becomes an owner of a bookshop, which is something he’s wanted to do for a long time. So in The Unlucky Lottery (AKA Münster’s Fall/ Münster’s Case), Münster has to take on the murder of Waldemar Leverkuhn himself. He certainly works with a team, and as I say, he’s no mental slouch. But it’s obvious that he has gotten used to depending on Van Veeteren. And what’s interesting is that Van Veeteren has gotten used to it and to detection too. A few times during this novel he and Münster discuss the case, and he gives Münster some valuable perspective.

And then there’s Julie Smith’s Louisiana Bighot which features New Orleans PI Talba Wallis. Wallis works for E.V. Anthony Investigations when she’s not writing poetry and doing readings. When Wallis is hired to find out whether her friend Babalu Maya’s fiancé Jason is cheating, Wallis has no idea that this case is going to lead to murder, corruption and more. When Wallis doesn’t want to deal with something difficult, even she admits that she ‘turtles,’ or goes into her proverbial shell. She avoids unpleasant confrontations if she can and drags her feet as the saying goes. And she tends to freeze up emotionally when she can’t avoid a confrontation. We see that for instance when she has to tell Babalu that Jason has been unfaithful. We see it again when Babalu is murdered and Jason is accused of the crime. It’s a lot more complicated though than a case of an angry fiancé who kills the woman he’s supposedly going to marry. Throughout the novel, as Wallis deals with the various threads of this case, she has to force herself not to rely on ‘turtling’ to get her through. But as we learn a little about her backstory, we also see why she has that pattern. It’s not an irrational way to deal with life, but it doesn’t work in this case.

And that’s the thing about a lot of the patterns we develop. It’s not that they’re necessarily bad or wrong. They may in fact be very useful. But sometimes, our comfortable familiar patterns don’t serve our purpose. And that’s when we find out what we’re capable of learning.




*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Simon and Garfunkel’s Patterns.



Filed under Agatha Christie, Håkan Nesser, Julie Smith, Kerry Greenwood, Paddy Richardson, Robert B. Parker

I’m Gonna Reach*

I haven’t tried it yet (‘though I may at some point in the future) but I know of several crime fiction authors who have more than one series. Sometimes the protagonists in those series aren’t very similar at all. Other times they’re more similar. Sometimes the settings are similar and sometimes less so. It’s an interesting question really (at least to me): how much should an author “branch out” and create very different protagonists and settings. Doing so can risk losing readers who are loyal to a particular series. But not doing so can mean that readers miss out on a terrific new series and character. It’s not an easy question and it involves among other things the way authors brand themselves.

For example, in some ways, Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple novels are similar, but in many ways they’re quite different. And of course Poirot and Miss Marple are very different characters. Where Poirot is a professional detective, Miss Marple is an amateur. Poirot travels among the highest social circles whereas Miss Marple doesn’t spend as much time among the “upper crust.” Miss Marple rarely leaves her village of St. Mary Mead for long, whereas Poirot travels frequently. There are stark differences in their personalities too as well as other differences in terms of plots, regular characters and so on. One could add here too that both of those series are different to Christie’s series featuring Tommy and Tuppence Beresford. Christie kept all three series going throughout her writing life and her fans have strong loyalties to one or another of her sleuths.

Even more different are Alexander McCall Smith’s Isabel Dalhousie and Mma. Precious Ramotswe. Dalhousie is an Edinburgh philosopher and editor of the Journal of Applied Ethics. Mma. Ramotswe lives and works in Botswana, where she owns the No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. In some ways these two series have some similarities; both give the reader a strong sense of place and context, and both are slower-moving series. While the Isabel Dalhousie series is a bit more so, both series are almost philosophical in nature rather than action-oriented. And yet the two protagonists are very, very different people. They’ve had quite different life experiences and interact with people in different ways.

You could say the same thing about M.C. Beaton’s Agatha Raisin and Hamish Macbeth series. Raisin is the owner of a Cotswolds private detective agency. Macbeth is the constable of Lochdubh, Scotland. Both series offer a strong sense of place and some interesting and quirky characters. But the two protagonists are quite different. Where Raisin wants to solve mysteries, Macbeth would rather go fishing. Macbeth fits in very comfortably in his surroundings and often uses his depth of knowledge about the locals to help solve cases. It’s not that Raisin has no friends but, well, she tends to be cranky and not easy to get on with so she doesn’t have a comfortable fit with as many people as Macbeth does. There are other differences between the series too so that Beaton fans often have a preferences for one or the other.

And then there’s Martin Edwards’ Harry Devlin and Daniel Kind/Hannah Scarlett series. These two series feature very different settings and kinds of people. Harry Devlin is a Liverpool attorney whose cases often take him into some of the not-so-nice areas of the city. He’s a bit of a ‘down and outer’ himself, so he can sympathise with some of the people he encounters. On the other hand Daniel Kind is an Oxford historian who’s enjoyed some professional success, and Scarlett is a DCI with the Cumbria Constabulary. In background, temperament and outlook these sleuths are quite different. But the differences between the series don’t end there. The Kind/Scarlett series takes place in the Lakes District, a very different setting to Liverpool. And the cases the sleuths investigate are therefore also quite different. Moreover, since Scarlett heads the Cumbria Constabulary’s Cold Case Review team, the cases in the Lake District series are more closely linked to cases from the past than are the cases in the Liverpool series.

There are other authors too, such as Margaret Maron, Ann Cleeves and Val McDermid, who’ve written different kinds of series with very different kinds of protagonists. Branching out like that can win an author new fans and can allow the author to experiment.

Many authors choose to create multiple series that are a little more similar. And that makes sense. Fans of one series have a good sense of what sort of series the new one will be, so they’re more likely to stay loyal to the author. The author has an easier time of branding too. For instance, Elizabeth Spann Craig is the author of not one, not two, but three cosy series. Under her own name she writes the Myrtle Clover series that takes place in Bradley, North Carolina and the Southern Quilting Mystery series featuring former art dealer Beatrice Coleman that takes place in Dappled Hills, North Carolina. As Riley Adams she writes the Memphis Barbecue series featuring restaurateur Lulu Taylor. In some ways, these series are different. For instance the Memphis Barbecue series takes place in a large city while the others do not. And the protagonists have different sorts of personalities, job histories and backstories. But all three protagonists are educated Southern women who’ve finished raising their children and are in the second halves of their lives. They’re all amateur sleuths, and each of them is in her own way very family-oriented.

James Lee Burke is perhaps best-known for his Dave Robicheaux series and rightly so. But he’s also written a series featuring former attorney and now Texas sheriff Hackberry Holland. Fans of the Robicheaux series know that Robicheaux is a Louisiana cop, so in the sense of setting, the two series are different. There are also differences in the kinds of cases Robicheaux and Holland investigate.  But there are some real similarities between them too. Both protagonists deal with the trauma and stress of having seen combat during war. They are both widowers as well and have to cope with that loss. Both series feature not just the solving of crimes but, if I might put it this way, a search for redemption. Both Robicheaux and Hackberry are very flawed characters and in doing their jobs, they’re trying to live with themselves. And then there’s of course Burke’s memorable writing style…

What’s your take on multiple series? What about series such as Robert B. Parker’s Spenser and Jesse Stone series, or Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher and Corinna Chapman series, where there are some real differences but also some underlying similarities? Do you prefer an author’s multiple series to have a lot of similarities? If an author whose work you like branches out into something completely different, are you disposed to like that change? If you’re a writer, how far out are you willing to branch?



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from John Gorka’s Branching Out.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Ann Cleeves, Elzabeth Spann Craig, James Lee Burke, Kerry Greenwood, M.C. Beaton, Margaret Maron, Martin Edwards, Riley Adams, Robert B. Parker, Val McDermid