Sometimes, authors set the scene in one novel for what’s going to happen in the next. This often (but not always) happens in a series, where the author wants to lay the proverbial groundwork for another story or novel.
It’s tricky to give such hints. For one thing, readers don’t usually like stories to end with real cliffhangers. Most readers want some sense of resolution to the main plot. For another, changes can happen, even in a series, and even where the author has planned future novels. Creating a context for the next novel, when that novel might change, is risky. But, when it’s done well, that sort of groundwork can be an effective segue between novels. It can also invite readers who enjoy a novel to try the next one, too.
In Agatha Christie’s short story The Double Clue, Hercule Poirot is called in by antiques collector Marcus Hardman. It seems he hosted a tea party at his home, and during the party, showed his guests some precious jewels he’d collected. Later, his safe was rifled and the jewels went missing. There are only four suspects, and Poirot uses two clues in particular to find out who the thief is. One of the ‘people of interest’ in this story is Countess Vera Rossakoff, a refugee from the Russian Revolution. Poirot finds himself quite impressed with her. In fact, this is what he says about her to Hastings:
‘‘A remarkable woman. I have a feeling, my friend – a very decided feeling – I shall meet her again. Where, I wonder?’’
He does, in The Big Four.
In Stuart Kaminsky’s Bullet For a Star, 1940s Hollywood PI Toby Peters gets a new case. Someone’s blackmailing film star Errol Flynn over a very compromising photograph taken with a young girl. The blackmailer threatens to go the press with the photograph unless Flynn pays. Producer Sid Adelman has decided to pay, rather than risk that sort of publicity, and he wants Peters to be ‘the go between.’ All Peters needs to do is hand over the money, get the photograph and negative, and return them to Adelman. Peters agrees, but during the exchange, someone attacks him, steals his gun, and shoots the blackmailer. The photograph and negative are stolen, too. Now, Peters has to find out who the killer is (since his own gun is involved, and he’s a suspect). He also has to find the photograph and negative. In the end, and after another murder, Peters finds out the truth. At the very end of the novel, he gets a call from another star, Judy Garland, who has another case for him. That lays the groundwork for the next novel, Murder on the Yellow Brick Road.
As Simon Beckett’s Written in Bone ends, forensic anthropologist David Hunter faces physical and mental trauma as a result of the case he’s investigating. This lays the groundwork for Whispers of the Dead. At the beginning of that novel, he’s decided to get out of London for a while as a way of dealing with that trauma. He opts to spend some time at Tennessee’s Anthropological Research Laboratory, also known as the Body Farm. His plan is to do some research, spend some time getting well, and connect with his mentor, Tom Liebermann. Very soon after Hunter’s arrival in Tennessee, a decomposed corpse turns up near a disused cabin not far from the lab. Hunter finds himself drawn into the case, and it’s a wrenching one.
Cathy Ace’s The Corpse With the Silver Tongue introduces her sleuth, Caitlin Morgan. Morgan is a criminologist and academician who teaches at the University of Vancouver. Occasionally, she also consults with the Vancouver Police. When a colleague breaks some bones in a bicycling accident, Morgan is asked to take his place at an upcoming symposium in Nice. It’s just a matter of going to the symposium and delivering her colleague’s lecture, so she agrees. Besides, it’s a beautiful location for a symposium. At first, all goes well. Then, by chance, Morgan meets up with Alistair Townsend, a former employer. He insists that she attend the upcoming birthday party he’s having for his wife, Tamsin, and there’s really no way for Morgan to back out of it. She’s extremely reluctant, because her relationship with Townsend wasn’t a pleasant one. But she finally agrees to go. At the party, Townsend suddenly collapses and dies of what turns out to be digitalis poisoning. In part because she’s a suspect, and in part because she wants to finish this trip and go back to Vancouver, Morgan starts to ask questions. In one sub-plot of this novel, Morgan gets very concerned about her friend, Bud Anderson, a detective with Vancouver’s Integrated Homicide Bureau. He seems to be facing a serious problem, and she tries to help. The main plot in the novel, the murder of Alistair Townsend, is resolved. The sub-plot, though, leaves open the possibility for more development in future novels, and that’s exactly what happens. It’s an interesting way to move to the next novel in the series, but at the same time, resolve the main plot.
And then there’s Paddy Richardson’s Hunting Blind. That’s the story of Stephanie Anderson, who’s just beginning her career as a Dunedin psychiatrist. When she gets a new patient, Elisabeth Clark, things don’t go well at first. She can’t seem to connect with Elisabeth, and they don’t make much progress. Then, Elisabeth tells her that, years ago, her younger sister, Gracie, was abducted and never found – not even a body. This story is eerily similar to Anderson’s own past. Seventeen years earlier, her younger sister, Gemma, also went missing and was never found. Anderson decides to lay her own ghosts to rest and try to find out who was responsible for both abductions. She returns to her home town of Wanaka, where she hopes to get some answers. Along the way, she is faced with a personal choice, and at the end of the novel, she makes that choice, and it lays the groundwork for a further novel. I hope we see that novel at some point.
It’s not an easy task to use one novel to build a context or provide a motivation for another. But when it’s done well, it can be effective. And it can build interest in that new novel.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Justin Hurwitz, Benj Pasek, and Justin Paul’s Audition (The Fools Who Dream).