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”.
(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.
It 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.
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?
Another 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.