Reading a Crime Fiction Series

Posted: March 21, 2012 in Agatha Christie, Conan Doyle, England, France, Iceland, Italy, Scotland, Sweden, USA

Reading a crime fiction series can be a bit tricky at times because:

1] The author has written the series out of chronological order.

James Lawton’s Troy series and Liza Marklund’s Annika Bengtzon books are two examples of this particular quirkiness. At the moment I am reading Exposed by Liza Marklund, the first chronologically of the five books published in English, and the young inexperienced Annika is feisty but obviously immature in comparison with the Annika of Red Wolf [number 5]. This is the fourth of the Bengtzon series I have read and I have tackled them in the order 4, 2, 5, 1 -reading The Bomber [4]  some years ago before I began blogging. New readers to Liza Marklund will be able to read the series in the correct order, and not become confused. 

2] The publisher has had the series translated in the wrong order.

The worst example of this foible was the Harry Hole series by Jo Nesbo, where book 5 [The Devil’s Star] in the Oslo trilogy of connected stories was translated before book 3 [The Redbreast] and book 4 [Nemesis]. 

This happens fairly frequently, or the publisher dives into book 11 of a 15 book series for some unknown reason. So for once it is a pleasure to read a long running series in order such as the Montalbano books by Andrea Camilleri.

3] The author switches perspectives between characters

The multi award winning S.J Rozan writes each book in her series alternately from the different perspective of her two protagonists Lydia Chin and Bill Smith. When you are not expecting it such as in Outrage by Arnaldur Indridason, where his usual lead character Erlendur does not appear and Elinborg takes over it can be a pleasant surprise, and give a new lease of life to the series. Hakan Nesser even had his Inspector Van Veeteren retire to run an antiquarian bookshop, but still have his advice sought by his former subordinates. When you have a team of investigators as in the Martin Beck series [Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo] or a cast of quirky characters as in the Adamsberg books by Fred Vargas the author can alter the emphasis from book to book, or within each book. This must make it much more interesting for the writer and ensures a better experience for the reader.

I particularly like this method of continuing to keep a series fresh.

4] The reader comes to a series late.

Some series have been running for so long that if one comes to them late and decide to catch up you face a marathon reading session, and have to absorb a lot of back story about the character. Diamond Dagger winner Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Milhone alphabet series started with A for Alibi in 1982, and has reached V for Vengeance in 2011. But Sue Grafton is a beginner when it comes to keeping a protagonist going on and on for years. 

Ruth Rendell, Baroness Rendell of Babergh, began her Chief Inspector Wexford series back in 1964 with From Doon with Death and last year the 22nd Wexford, The Monster in the Box was published. In the new Wexford The Vault the former Chief Inspector is enjoying his retirement. Ruth Rendell could be almost considered the first Scandinavian crime writer to make it big in the UK as her mother was born in Sweden, and brought up in Denmark. 

5] The characters do not age in real time

Some characters age for example Ian Rankin’s Rebus in the 17 book series which ran from Knots and Crosses [1987] to Exit Music [2007]. This series did not really take off until the 8th book Black and blue which won the CWA Gold Dagger, and Exit Music is set during the period before Rebus is due to retire. 

Hercule Poirot, probably the best known Belgian in the world, was imagined by his creator Agatha Christie as an old man in her first book The Mysterious Affair at Styles published in 1920. He had been a policeman in Belgium for many years, retired and a refugee in the Great War. 

‘That is not true,’ said Poirot. ‘I had a bad failure in Belgium in 1893.’  [Peril at End House]

Elephants can Remember was published in 1972, and Curtain: Poirot’s Last case was published in 1975, although that was written in the 1940’s and locked away to be published after Miss Christie’s death. A disconcertingly long  career for the great detective, but hours of pleasant reading for crime fiction fans. 

A crime fiction series can raise a lot of questions for readers.

Do you continue to read them even when they have lost their early promise? Should authors take their characters to the Reichenbach Falls, or allow their protagonist to quietly retire to tend their vegetable garden, or run a bookshop? Do authors run out of plots and just rely on their idiosyncratic characters to carry a book? Do authors eventually get bored, or even begin to hate their creations? When authors who are best known for a series write a one off  will a fan of the series buy that one off, or wait for the next book in the series? What is the ideal length for a series? What part has television played in the popularity of crime fiction series? ……………

  1. Margot Kinberg says:

    Norman – You raise such good points about series! I must admit to having a real “pet peeve” about books in a series being translated out of order. I’ve gotten “lost” in more than one series because I didn’t read the books in the order the author intended.
    As your questions, I’ve read that Agatha Christie got quite fed up with Poiriot, but kept writing him because the public demanded it. And the public demanded the return of Sherlock Holmes, too, when Conan Doyle was prepared to let him remain at the bottom of the Falls. My point here is that I think public demand can play a role in a series if it’s caught on. Underneath it all, I think the author has to pay close attention to what’s happening to a series and work to keep it fresh. There are various ways of doing that but I think an author who doesn’t is not treating readers with respect.

  2. Maxine says:

    what an excellent dissection, Norman. I read all the Henning Mankells as they came out in the UK, completely out of order, quite confusing to keep up with Wallander as his life situation changes quite a bit over time. The Nesbo is perhaps the most egregious, though Don Bartlett has pointed out how K O Dahl has been spoiled for English-language readers by the order of translation (the first 4 are now translated so new readers are in a better position). Nesser was translated out of order until about #4, now they are proceeding in an orderly fashion. A recent victim is Jorn Lier Horst, whose excellent Dregs is #6 in a series but first and so far only to be translated.

    Another type of example, a variant on (3), is when a sidekick or other minor character becomes suddenly more major, or has a book of his/her own without the main protagonist. Examples include C J Box’s Joe Pickett series (Nate) and Robert Crais’s Elvis Cole series (Joe). Michael Connelly does variants, with several recurring characters appearing in addition to Harry Bosch, sometimes in their own books and sometimes in characters in Harry books. (And Harry may be a minor character in their books! eg The Lincoln Lawyer).

    I don’t like series to become formulaic, and only stick with them if there is some degree of development, either to the characters themselves or to their life-situations. I find the “rigid formula” approach of, eg J D Robb (Nora Roberts) soon palls, and too much “sameiness” (eg the Falco ancient Rome series) also soon loses its appeal.

  3. Rebecca says:

    Once I’ve read three or four in a series, I usually feel compelled to keep reading just because I’m a completist. I may not get back to a series for a couple years, but I do get back to it. I usually keep going even if I think the series has gotten a little boring, but I do give up series that get too gruesome or too harrowing or too-something-else for me.

    I like Laura Lippman’s stand-alones more than the Tess Monaghan series, and I think she’s pretty much finished with the series.

  4. kathy d. says:

    Very astute points on series writing and reading. I’m not sure what you meant by saying that Sue Grafton is a beginner when it comes to keeping on a protagonist going for years. Did you mean her books are fresh?
    I liked V is for Vengeance and enjoy her later books more than the earlier ones.
    One other thing is that often good series get very stale or boring, with the author stretching very far to try to write an book with new ideas. I’m not mentioning any names but it happens, as we all know. I hate to give up a favorite character but I’ve had to do that.
    I enjoyed Elinborg substituting for Erlendur so much that I wish that Erlendur would go out of town more often but that’s probably not what Indridason had in mind — except for the next book featuring another police colleague.
    And some writers whose series have become hackneyed end up doing better with stand-alones.

  5. Norman Price says:

    Thanks Margot, Maxine and Rebecca.

    Kathy, I meant that Sue Grafton’s A for Alibi was published in 1982, and I was comparing her with Ruth Rendell’s Wexford books that started in 1964. My mind has been a bit preoccupied at the moment I should have made it clearer.

  6. Excellent point about Rendell, Norm.I wonder if she should be given more credit for introducing UK readers to the Scandinavian mindset?

  7. Peter says:

    I’ve read all 28 of Bill James’ Harpur and Iles novels, all 24 of the Parker novels Donald Westlake wrote as Richard Stark, all 15 of Westlake’s Dortmunder books, and all 13 of Janwillem van de Wetering’s Grijpstra and De Gier novels. Westlake was probably best at keeping things fresh because he would try all sorts of experiments that were amirable even when they failed. He’d use the same chapter told from different point of view as the starting point for two books, for instance, or he’d have the normally laconic Parker shoot his mouth off in one book.
    Detectives Beyond Borders
    “Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home”

  8. Norman Price says:

    Rhian, until I looked at her wiki entry I had no idea she was part Swedish. That’s where those dark psychological Barbara Vines come from.

    Peter, I am impressed, those Bill James are difficult to get hold of, and all 39 Donald Westlake books! Can we expect you to write a definitive guide to Westlake’s books before too long?

    • Peter says:

      Norman, last time I counted, I had read around fifty-five of Westlake’s books, somewhere around half his output, maybe a bit less. I’m a long way from being the definitive Westlake expert.

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