Many crime fiction authors choose to write series (some in fact write more than one series). Other crime writers opt for standalones. And of course there are good reasons for each choice. There are also authors who do both. There are some challenges when an author writes both series and standalones. The author has to make the standalone distinctive enough to have its own character. At the same time, fans of a series likely chose it because of its unique ‘personality.’ So the author has to maintain the quality of the series. That includes characters, setting, type of plot, and even things such as marketing choices. Some authors have made it work though.
For instance, Agatha Christie is well known for her novels featuring Hercule Poirot, and for her novels featuring Miss Marple. Fans will know that she also wrote a series featuring Tommy and Tuppence Beresford, as well as some stories featuring Parker Pyne. But she also wrote several standalones, and they’ve been just as well regarded as her series. To give one example, there’s And Then There Were None (AKA Ten Little Indians). In that novel, ten people gather on Indian Island, off the Devon coast. Each received an invitation or offer of employment and for different reasons, each accepted. After dinner on the first night, everyone is shocked when each person is accused of having been responsible for at least one death. Not long after those accusations, one of the guests dies of poison. Late that night there’s another death. And then, one by one, there are other murders. It’s clear now that someone lured everyone to the island and that if the survivors are to stay alive, they have to find out who’s behind it all.
Tony Hillerman fans will know that he created the Jim Chee/Joe Leaphorn series featuring members of the Navajo Tribal Police. That series takes place in the US Southwest and its focus is often the Navajo Reservation. But Hillerman also wrote a standalone Finding Moon, which takes place in 1975. In that novel, Malcolm ‘Moon’ Mathias, managing editor for a Colorado newspaper, finds out that his mother has collapsed in the waiting room at Los Angeles International Airport and has been rushed to a nearby hospital. At first, Moon is stunned. His mother lives in Miami; what would she have been doing in LA, and where was she going? He discovers that, unbeknownst to him, his mother was planning a trip to Southeast Asia. Then he learns the reason for the trip: she was going to recover the body of his brother Ricky, who died there. What’s more, Ricky left behind a daughter, and Moon’s mother was going to try to find her. With his mother incapacitated, Moon takes on the task himself. He’s hoping to find out more about the brother he only thought he knew, and he wants to do something to mend his troubled relationship with his mother. In the process of looking for his niece, Moon finds out quite a lot about life in Cambodia and Vietnam. He also finds out quite a lot about himself. Although there’s plenty of suspense in this novel, as well as atmosphere and setting, it’s not a crime novel in the sense that Hillerman’s series is.
Ruth Rendell is very well-known for her Inspector Reg Wexford series. It’s highly regarded and popular. But Rendell fans know that she’s also written many standalones both under her own name and under her Barbara Vine pen name. And some of those standalones are at least as highly regarded as her series. For example, A Judgement in Stone is the story of the wealthy and educated Coverdale family. In the novel, George and Jacqueline Coverdale hire Eunice Parchman as their housekeeper without giving her background a very thorough check. All goes well enough at first, but what the Coverdales don’t know is that their new housekeeper has a secret. When one of the family members accidentally discovers that secret, there are tragic consequences. This novel is often thought of as one of Rendell’s best.
C.J. Box is perhaps best known for his Joe Pickett series. Pickett is a game warden in rural Wyoming, and many of the novels focus on the interplay of development, ecological and local interests. There are also plots that focus on Pickett’s family within the context of larger mysteries. Box took a different approach with his standalone Three Weeks to Say Goodbye. That novel, which takes place in Denver, features Jack and Melissa McGuane. They’re the loving adoptive parents of baby Angelina. Everything begins to fall apart for them when they learn that Angelina’s biological father Garrett Moreland never waived his parental rights, and now intends to exercise them. Garrett’s father is powerful Judge John Moreland, who at one point tries to persuade the McGuanes to give up Angelina in return for financial and court support for them to adopt another child. The McGuanes refuse this fairly obvious attempt at a bribe, and the Morelands move from bribes to threats. The McGuanes are given twenty-one days to relinquish custody of Angelina or face prosecution. The McGuanes choose to do whatever it takes to keep their daughter, with no idea of how far ‘whatever it takes’ will actually take them.
Vanda Symon has also written both a series and standalones. Her series features Samantha ‘Sam’ Shephard of the Dunedin Police. In Overkill, The Ringmaster, Containment and Bound, we follow her career as she works her way up, sometimes against very difficult odds, to Detective. The series is well-regarded; Bound, for instance, was shortlisted for New Zealand’s 2012 Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel. Symon has also written a standalone, The Faceless, which was shortlisted for the Ngaio Marsh award in 2013. In that novel, the fates of three unhappy characters come together when one ill-advised tryst gets out of control. This story takes place in Auckland and doesn’t involve any of the ‘regulars’ from the Sam Shephard series. But it’s well-thought-of in its own right.
The same is true of Geoffrey McGeachin’s work. He’s written three novels featuring Melbourne cop Charlie Berlin. Beginning with The Diggers Rest Hotel, which takes place in 1947, each novel takes place ten years after the previous one. So we get to see how Berlin evolves over time, and how his family life and his life as a cop changes as society does. Before the Berlin series though, McGeachin wrote a standalone Fat, Fifty and F***ed, which features bank manager Martin Carter. As the story begins, Carter’s been made redundant at his job. As if that’s not enough, his marriage has fallen apart. On his last day of work, Carter can’t resist the chance to get his hands on a million-dollar payroll. He escapes in a stolen police 4WD, and that’s just the beginning of his adventures. This novel is different in tone to the Berlin novels, and of course, with different characters. Yet both the Berlin series and this standalone have been very well-received.
It isn’t easy for an author to pull off both a well-done series and an equally solid standalone, but there are some out there. Which ones have you liked best? If you’re a series author, do you stick with that series, or do you include standalones?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Roy Orbison, Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne’s You Got It.