Alive and Kicking: Series That Hold Up

Michael Connelly, The Reversal
The sixteenth Harry Bosch, the fourth Mickey Haller
A few weeks ago my To Be Read pile had a Michael Connelly, a Jonathan Kellerman, and a Dick Francis (well, Felix Francis, at least) on the stack. As I looked at those spines I realized that despite breaking up with my fair share of authors, I seem to have more than a few that I have stuck with for decades. Have I really read over forty books about steeple chasing? And over fifty written by the same family? (I might enjoy the Kellerman’s son’s writing the best of all!) How have these, and others like Marcia Muller, Elizabeth Peters, Sue Grafton and Elizabeth George not jumped that damn shark? And why do I forgive them a bad book or two when I can so easily cast aside my affections for, say, Patricia Cornwell, and never go back? (Susan Amper wrote not long ago about the multitude of series she felt the need to drop.)

What makes for long term success? I feel that most important component is that the characters stay true to themselves. I don’t mean that they don’t grow and change—but that their behavior in thosecircumstances stays consistent (or at least explainable). Nothing can turn fans affections faster than when their character starts acting out of character. One of the biggest internet broohahas I have seen surrounded Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake. Most of you are rolling your eyes right now! For those who don’t know, Anita went from being a slightly prudish but tough necromancer to being all powerful and sleeping with well, everyone and everything. As the series progressed, fans vented more and more. Again, it wasn’t so much that her circumstances were changing, but that her values—her Anitaness—had become unrecognizable. When a beloved protagonist says and does things that “they would never do!” even the best plot can’t win over fans.

A Night Too Dark by Dana Stabenow
The seventeenth Kate Shugak novel
It’s great to pick up and move your character to a new setting. Let them forge new relationships. Create new families. Get new jobs. But their voice has to stay the same. Readers of Dana Stabenow’s Kate Shugak books have seen Kate through many tragedies and joys. But we know her. We know she’s not going to start wearing makeup and heels. If she did, I know I would toss the book across the room. The plots twist and turn, but Kate stays her same tough and loyal self. And the tone of the books stays the same. I don’t expect comedy or campiness in this series. I expect realism and believability. A werewolf isn’t going to show up in Stabenow’s Alaska.

Good series also need strong supporting characters. An ensemble cast, if you will. In fact, I read Martha Grimes’ Richard Jury books because of Jury’s friend Melrose Plant. And I love it when he gets to take the lead in stories of his own. trong secondary characters can keep the books fresh and interesting.  They give the leads someone to bounce ideas off of. To crack jokes with. To be back up and to assist with things the leads don’t know how to do. Readers know that often times the leads’ romantic partners can come and go, but friends and co-workers stick around, and enjoying them as much as the leads enriches series in so many ways. I enjoy Jonathan Kellerman’s books and appreciate the author’s insight into crimes involving youth. But I adore his supporting characters. Milo Sturgis, big, homely, sloppy but whip smart cop is both delightful and irritating in equal measure. He’s the perfect foil to lead Alex Delaware and their dynamic is a huge part of these books.

Even if the plot and the main character are strong, flat or stereotypical supporting characters cause series to get stale before their time. As much as I still like Janet Evanovich’s humor and writing, her supporting characters often ruin the books. Seventeen titles, and there are characters that get tons of real estate in the books but are still not fleshed out. I’ve invested hours and hours in these people. I want to know them. I want them to be more than just stock characters.

Ultimately, I don’t know the exact recipe for keeping a series going. I don’t know why some get stale and samey while others remain surprising yet familiar. And, believe me, I realize that authors don’t owe us anything! They can and should try new things, write what and when they want to and end series even if they are still great or keep writing series that stink. All I do know is that these long-running series are precious to me and I’m so glad that I’ve spent decades in their company.


Amy Dalton is a buyer for a large, Midwestern library system. She has written news and reviews for several book and film sites over the years.

Comments

  1. CKL

    I’m a huge fan of series books. My current faves are John Sandford’s Prey series, J.D. Robb’s In Death series, Patricia Cornwell’s Scarpetta series (sorry, I still love the books!) and James Patterson’s Alex Cross series (I know, I know!). If I get good secondary characters, I’m happy, but the main draw for me is that the main character is someone I can get behind. I love Janet Evanovich and unless Stephanie Plum becomes a hooker who is good with firearms suddenly, I’ll always read her books. Yes, the last few haven’t been stellar but I still laughed and enjoyed them. I can’t see myself not reading any of these series even if future installments aren’t the greatest books in the world. It literally broke my heart when Laurell K. Hamilton turned Anita Blake into someone unrecognizable. I was so mad (and still am, actually) that the author herself not only didn’t care about fans’ misgivings, but also went so far as to tell us longtime, loyal readers not to bother reading the books. I’ve obliged her on that point. There are too many other great series out there by consistent authors worth reading. Now that I’m thinking about it, the secondary characters in the series’ that I read are strong as well. I’ve been lucky in that way. I agree with you: if the main characters stay true to themselves, the series will continue to thrive.

  2. bungluna

    I seem to follow about 35 series. The only reason I’ll stop reading is if the world gets too convoluted for me or if the end-of-the-world scenario gets draged on and on. Everything plus the kitchen sink mythology is just not for me.

    I like series with well ploted overall arcs, like the Dresden Files. If the author keeps changing their world rules to fit their current plot, I’m gone.

    I have to confess that I just love some series regardless. Anita Blake is still in my auto-buy list.

  3. Laura K. Curtis

    @bungluna –

    Holy cow, 35 series! You go, girl!

  4. Lynn Ristau

    I hate to admit it but I still read the Anita Blake series, mostly because it’s such a trainwreck and I can’t quit rubbernecking! I’ve read most of Sanford’s Prey series but I started getting burned out on Lucas Davenport so I haven’t read like the last five but will eventually. I’ve also discovered other new writers (to me) so I don’t always have time for my old favorites. I am reading the latest in the Dresden Files right now.

  5. Nishita

    I gave up on the Janet Evanovich and Patricia Cornwell. In the first series, nothing ever changed, and in the second, there was just too much change. I could no longer relate.

    One of my favorites has to be Harry Bosch, Lucas Davenport, and to a lesser extent Kinsey Millhone.

  6. Laura/Readerwoman

    I love Dana’s books – because of the fleshing out of secondary characters, and because she grows and evolves her characters. I stopped Stephanie Plum. Hate the fact the woman can’t get her love lift straight!
    Other series I follow, religiously, Laurie R. King’s Mary Russell Series, Susan Wittig Albert’s China Bayles Series, and Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs series among others. I like to have an element of learning mixed up in my fun reading – know a lot more about Alaska, for example, thanks to Ms.Stabenow!

  7. Jim Sterling

    I =loved= Stephanie in the beginning, but gave up when she demonstrated that she was terminally =stupid!= Milo makes a great foil for Alex; Lucas and “that fuckin’ Flowers” go together like ham and eggs, and Kate and Mutt . . . who could =ever= get tired of them?

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