Sat
May 7 2011 11:00am

On the Frustration of Series

William Shatner in Star Trek Khaaan!Finding something new to read can be a tiresome and treacherous ordeal. I use a method that has served me well for many years, a sort of hunter-gatherer approach: I stalk the bookstore aisles, searching for something ripe and fresh enough to tempt me. Hunting. And there it is; the cover art attracts me, the accolades on the back assure me this author has no equal, and this particular book is her best ever, winner of the Edgar, Agatha, and Anthony Awards, and possibly even the Nobel Peace Prize.  I’m about to gather it in, when I see the dreaded words: “4th in the series”.

KHAAAAN!!!

(Oops, wrong genre.)

So, the internal negotiations commence. I’m a little bit invested in this book already, but not too much. Can I make this relationship work? I could just start with this one, although I’d be losing out on backstory and nuances in relationships. There might be jaw-dropping revelations that would be totally meaningless to me. But to go back and read three whole novels just to get to this one is a true commitment, one based on very little information. It’s like promising someone on your first date in February that you’ll be their date for New Year’s Eve.

Series seem to dominate the mystery world. And there’s not really anything wrong with that; I enjoy the comfort of going back to familiar characters and places, seeing how their lives develop, sharing their new adventures. The problem for me is finding the entry point. Do I have to start every series at Book 1? Maybe this is just a personal preference, after all. You could probably start with any of Harlan Coben’s Myron Bolitar books and not feel lost, but for me, watching Myron’s development over the course of many years has been more important than the mysteries themselves.

Cover of The Girl Who Played With Fire by Stieg LarssonIt may be my tendency to pick up books late that gets me into this mess. (I just finished reading Stieg Larsson’s The Girl Who Played With Fire, and for me, reading a book within two years of publication is the equivalent of reading an advance copy.) I recently picked up the audiobook of Sharyn McCrumb’s The PMS Outlaws. I enjoyed it so much that after I finished I went back to check if there was anything else with the same character. To my chagrin, I discovered that I had just listened to the last book in the series (and therefore knew how everything turned out) and that the series was so old, the first several books were out of print, and the library didn’t have any copies.

Swell.

A trip to Powell’s City of Books took care of that situation, but again, you have to decide just how far you want to pursue your newfound love. Maybe it’s just a crush after all. Are you free next New Year’s, by any chance?

Cover of Rules of Engagement by Bruce AlexanderAnother problem is the untimely demise of a series. Maybe it’s only untimely to you—the author got tired of writing the same characters and moved on. Harlan Coben put Myron aside for six years to write stand-alone novels before getting back to him. I was afraid I’d seen the last of my favorite wisecracking sports agent, but Coben brought him back, more mature and conflicted and interesting than ever. Sometimes, like in the case of Stieg Larsson, the end truly is untimely, and all we can do is think of what might have been. I waited impatiently for Bruce Alexander’s follow-up to the Sir John Fielding mystery Rules of Engagement, only to find out I’d be waiting a very long time (Alexander died in 2003). I got cheated on that one, because I felt Alexander had a destination in mind for Fielding’s legman, Jeremy Proctor, all along, and now I’ll never know.

(That being said, I would caution you about a couple of series. If you’re interested in Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next books, start at the beginning. Even the beginning feels like the middle. And Stieg Larsson absolutely must be read in order. Don’t worry—it won’t feel like a waste of time.)

So what’s the best way to deal with series? For me, I think the answer is to hunt, gather, and read what I want. Life’s short, and there’s not enough time for boring books.


Cindy Harkness is a librarian, an advocate for rescued animals, and totally addicted to true crime television programs. 

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6 comments
Katrina Niidas Holm
1. niidasholm
Great post! And I'm with you on the Fforde. The Eyre Affair isn't his strongest book, but it's the Rosetta Stone to the rest of the series. And a hell of a series, it is!
Laura K. Curtis
2. LauraKCurtis
Some series I feel like you can walk into in the middle of, but the problem is that you don't know *which* until it's too late! Jack Reacher, for example, never changes. You can read those in any order. For the most part, the same was true of two of my favorite mystery protagonists, Spenser and Travis McGee.

One of my current faves, Deborah Knott, however, grows a great deal from book to book and I always tell people that if they're not going to start Margaret Maron's series from the beginning (Bootlegger's Daughter), they should start with Slow Dollar, which marks a major turning point for Deborah and one that informs the rest of the series.

I think all you can do is ask people before you crack the book..."is this the one I should start with?" Luckily, I always have so many books on my TBR list that I can wait for the answer once I find a new book!
3. Maxine
I have certainly had the experience of discovering a series in the middle and then having to go back and read them all from the start, many times. I'm currently working my way through C J Box's Joe Pickett series and enjoying them a lot, though I would never have thought it would be my cup of tea. I have read the Jack Reacher and the Myron Bolitar series - though Jack is indeed always the same and one can read the books out of order, his journeying around sometimes does link into what happened in previous novels. I think the earlier books were better, the more recent ones are blander and more forumulaic. I think the same goes for Myron B, I enjoyed the first four but when he bought the character back I found the books predictable. I do like the way Coben brings minorish characters into his standalones though, eg Hester Krimstein and Little Pocohontas.
4. Michael
The problem is that every series works on its own and there's no standard rule to apply. Take Robert B. Parker's Spenser series. The first dozen really benefit from being read in order, but after that it makes virtually no difference. Another favorite is Thomas Perry, whose latest book is the third in the Butcher's Boy series. Problem is, the first two appeared in 1982 and 1992. I've read them, but that was so long ago I remember virtually nothing except that the central character is a hit man. In this case, you just have to trust the author to tell you what you need to know. Fortunately, with the internet it's pretty easy to figure out how each series need to be read with minimal effort.
Robin Bradford
5. RobinBradford
Great post, Cindy! I did pick up the Reacher series somewhere in the middle, and still haven't gotten around to reading those first books. But, I remember picking up Crais' L.A. Requiem and just hating it. The problem wasn't the book, but I wasn't ready for the book yet. Once I had gone back and read the series in the proper order, it made a lot more sense and my view on the book did a complete 180.
Clare 2e
6. clare2e
I'm a heretic about series, maybe because I also enjoy immersive sff, where I have to swim my way to the top. So if a series is new to me, I grab whichever book's premise I like best, regardless of order. I figure I may miss some great earlier moments, but if the writing's good, I won't be so lost as to make the storyline un-navigable. And if the title I grabbed doesn't grab me back, I may not go back to Book 1 to give the series another try. Wrong and bad and canonically sinful, right?
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