Mon
Jul 11 2011 10:00am

Somebody Stop Them: Wearing Out Series’ Welcome

Sometimes you just have to start fresh...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.

Beyond Reach by Karin SlaughterKarin 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.

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11 comments
1. Ann Boles
I agree with many of the examples, but Lee Child is still keeping my attention with Jack Reacher.
Ho-Ling Wong
2. Ho-LingWong
I'm sure not all of Japanese writer Nishimura Ky?tar?'s novels feature Police Inspector Totsugawa, nor are they all 'travel mysteries' (crime novels with a local flavour / much emphasis on train travel), but I know that a very large percentage of his (*looks up on wikipedia...*) 478 novels are indeed Totsugawa travel mysteries. And that's not even considering his original scenarios for TV dramas.

I am surprised about his enduring popularity in Japan, as well as the fact that he's popular at all actually though. His novels are usually not that amusing.
Laura K. Curtis
3. LauraKCurtis
I don't really consider Lee Child's book a series. They're more like...a series of one-offs starring the same character. You can walk in at any point in the series. Good? Bad? I'm not sure.

I gave up on Evanovich after 10, but I always tell people they should stop at eight--you're right, eight was enough.

The two authors I keep buying, though they are WILDLY different, are Margaret Maron and John Connolly.
4. Maxine
Agree on some egs (eg Child) but I think Kinsey (Grafton) has picked up recently. V I Warshawski could do with a rest though, she has got too much into political lecturing. Also I disagree on Slaughter, Triptych is her best book I think, but I find the Will (Sarah) books both very slow and also too torture-full. Have stopped reading them.
Series that started well but now just churn out formula - Linsday Davies, J D Robb, to name but two.
6. s.amper
Maxine: I agree about the Warshawski novels. I gave up on them long ago. Slaughter's Will and Sara novels have improved with the most recent Fallen.
7. Barb in Maryland
Loved your post--especially when you agreed with me. Thought you were off the wall when you didn't. And that is true for all readers of mystery series.
I continue to read and enjoy JD Robb and Lindsey Davis.
I thought that 3 was enough for the Stephanie Plum series, and I ditched Parker's Spenser when Susan became anorexic.
I gave up on Sue Grafton around E, but I anxiously await each new Margaret Maron/Judge Deborah book and each new Sharon McCone book from Marcia Muller.
I think that authors who kill off the SO of the main character in a long running series risk alienating a chunk of fans(Dana Stabenow, I'm looking at you!).
I was glad that Crais sent Lucy back to Louisiana rather than kill her off.(Crais and I had a rather spirited discussion about this at a long ago book signing, where I said that killing off the SO was taking the lazy way out).
I will say that I never got into the Karin Slaughter series--read the first one , didn't care for the characters and never read another.
However, Kay Hooper should have stopped her Bishop books a goodly number of books ago. Just how many psychic serial killers can we have in NC?? The first three books were great, the second three were pretty darn good, the next three were okay and now we're into to 'meh-I don't care anymore' territory.
8. s.amper
Barb: YES! to Kay Hooper. The first three books WERE great, and all the rest blah. I think what I liked so much about Karin Slaughter's killing off the SO was that she had the guts to do it. That relationship had really hit a brick wall, and she needed to do something. Spenser and Susan should have retired and been living in Florida way, way back. I think authors who drag out a series also alienate readers--Evanovich and Parker being the most obvious examples.
9. R Kirby
I agree with you about Evanovitch--way too much formula regurgitating going on there. However, Grafton's series does run hot and cold--a few dull then a few better. I think "L is for Lawless" was the best. It's just that she suffers from the bane of many women writers: the tendency to over-describe everything, even what people are wearing, when it doesn't move the story along. It makes you think a Readers Digest version would be a lot better!
Mary Saputo
10. bitsy08
While I disagree with you about Lee Child, I do so agree about Janet Evanovich. It amazes me when people who have read her latest say - it's one of the best - while I'm upchucking and swearing I'll never read another. At least I'm not paying for them. I utilize the library for all my reading. Right now I'm reading J. D. Robb's latest. Seems pretty good so far. As far as Spenser is concerned, I read Ace Atkins' version of Parker's latest and while it smacks of Parker, it just isn't up to his level. The conversation just doesn't flow as easily as it did with Parker while the conversation with Hawk flows too readily. I'll continue to read these books, though, because Ace Atkins is a good writer and perhaps he'll get better as time goes on.
11. s.amper
bitsy08--we'll have to agree to disagree about Lee Child. I won't read the Ace Atkins' version of Robert Parker. There are any number of authors and books with their own identity that I don't need to read someone trying to prop up the dead. Parker's attempt to keep Raymond Chandler's voice alive with POODLE SPRINGS was pretty crummy. If I want Raymond Chandler, I'll read R. Chandler. And if I want R. Parker, I'll read R. Parker. Having read all of both, though, I will, I think, pick up writers new to me and see what they have to offer.
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