I was not among the 218,000 first-day buyers of Janet Evanovich’s Smokin Seventeen. Sixteen was enough for me. In fact, eight was enough.
Writing book after book with the same characters and gimmicks is a difficult proposition. Arthur Conan Doyle set an unfortunate example. He tired of Sherlock Holmes and tried to kill him off. But his audience wanted more, and Holmes went on to play the violin for an additional 25 years.
More often, authors keep writing long after their detectives have worn out their welcome.
Sue Grafton wrote 22 Kinsey Millhone novels in 29 years. She should have stopped at M for mercy.
Robert Parker ground out 40 Spenser novels in 37 years. He got so burnt out he stopped finishing Spenser’s sentences.
Lee Child typed 17 Jack Reacher novels in 14 years. Whoops—bad example: he should have stopped at one.
Authors recognize the problem and deploy various devices to try to keep their books interesting. These rarely work.
Consider recurring gimmicks, like Stephanie Plum destroying her car; it was funny the first 12 times. After that the wrecks worked as metaphor for the novels. Same with Evanovich’s other gimmicks. I found myself reading in constant dread of the next doughnut or Cluck-in-a-Bucket run.
Another ploy is to give the detective a love interest. The mistake is in thinking that an evolving relationship will add interest to the story. But it doesn’t work that way, as the authors soon discover. Kinsey Millhone had a few brief relationships, but in later novels, Grafton wisely dropped the romance. Elvis Cole had something going with Lucy Chenier, but she was dragging down the plots, and Robert Crais sent her back to New Orleans.
Karin Slaughter did it best. She got so sick of the sturm and drang of the relationship between Sara Linton and her husband that in Beyond Reach, Slaughter bumped him off and had Linton start all over again in a new city.
Partnerships, unlike relationships, do work. Sherlock Holmes and Watson, Elvis Cole and Joe Pike, Spenser and Hawk, Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin, Nick and Nora Charles. Their interactions don’t grow tired precisely because they do not evolve.
Then there’s Philip Marlowe, who didn’t have a partner at all. Raymond Chandler wrote in his essay “The Simple Art of Murder” that he did not care about his detective’s private life.
In everything that can be called art there is a quality of redemption. It may be pure tragedy, if it is high tragedy, and it may be pity and irony, and it may be the raucous laughter of the strong man. But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero; he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor—by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world. I do not care much about his private life; he is neither a eunuch nor a satyr; I think he might seduce a duchess and I am quite sure he would not spoil a virgin; if he is a man of honor in one thing, he is that in all things.
He is a relatively poor man, or he would not be a detective at all. He is a common man or he could not go among common people. He has a sense of character, or he would not know his job. He will take no man’s money dishonestly and no man’s insolence without a due and dispassionate revenge. He is a lonely man and his pride is that you will treat him as a proud man or be very sorry you ever saw him. He talks as the man of his age talks—that is, with rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness.
The story is this man’s adventure in search of a hidden truth, and it would be no adventure if it did not happen to a man fit for adventure. He has a range of awareness that startles you, but it belongs to him by right, because it belongs to the world he lives in. If there were enough like him, the world would be a very safe place to live in, without becoming too dull to be worth living in.
Of course, if you can write like Chandler, you don’t have to worry about wearing out your welcome. He wrote seven Philip Marlowe novels in 20 years, and everyone wishes there were more.
Susan Amper, author of How to Write About Edgar Allan Poe, still mourns the loss of her Nancy Drew collection.