Just Take Your Place in the Driver’s Seat*

An excellent post by José Ignacio at A Crime is Afoot has got me thinking about the way fictional characters can move in and out of a series. Sometimes they even take a central role in one or another novel, even if they aren’t the series protagonists.

In the post (which you really want to read if you haven’t), José Ignacio reviews Agatha Christie’s Murder is Easy (AKA Easy to Kill), which features Superintendent Battle. Christie fans will know that Battle makes an appearance in Cards on the Table, in which Hercule Poirot is the main detective. In that novel, Battle is one of four sleuths who are present at a dinner party where the host, Mr. Shaitana, is murdered. Although he’s a secondary character there, Battle takes the lead in a few Christie novels (including Murder is Easy and The Secret of Chimneys).

There are several other characters like that in other series. For instance, Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct series follows the investigations of a fictional police precinct in the fictional city of Isola (a thinly disguised New York City). One of the occasional characters in the series is Detective Oliver Wendell ‘Fat Ollie’ Weeks, who actually works at the 88th Precinct. He joins the 87th at times to work on cases that cross jurisdiction. Usually (not always), the main protagonist of the 87th Precinct series is Detective Steve Carella. But in Fat Ollie’s Book, Weeks takes the lead. In that novel, which takes place during a high-profile murder investigation, a manuscript for a suspense novel is stolen from Fat Ollie’s car. The thief thinks the novel is an official report, but it’s not. Still, is it just a novel? Is there more to it? The focus is very much on Weeks in this story.

Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad series features different main protagonists in the different novels. That unusual approach allows the reader to get to know all of the members of the squad, and allows new characters to join (and others to leave). In the first novel, In the Woods, the main protagonist is Rob Ryan. He and his team investigate when the body of twelve-year-old Katy Devlin is found at the site of an architectural dig. One of the characters in this novel is squad member Cassie Maddox. Interestingly, she is the main protagonist of The Likeness, the next novel in that series. In that novel, she goes undercover to investigate the murder of Alexandra ‘Lexie’ Madison, whose body was found in an abandoned house not from Trinity College. The focus is on Maddox as lead investigator, although Ryan does appear in the novel.

Michael Connelly fans will know that his protagonist Harry Bosch is an L.A.P.D. detective who features in a long and well-regarded series of novels. But Bosch doesn’t always take the lead. In The Brass Verdict, for instance, another of Connelly’s protagonists, Bosch’s half-brother Mickey Haller, is the main character. Haller is an attorney who’s defended some high-profile clients as well as some notorious ones. He’s got his own successful series, beginning with The Lincoln Lawyer, and Bosch is an occasional character in those novels. And, because Bosch and Haller know each other, it’s believable that Haller would call on Bosch when he needs a police perspective or investigative help.

Arnaldur Indriðason’s Inspector Erlendur series follows Reykjavík police detective Erlendur Sveinsson and his team. Most of the novels in this series focus on Erlendur in both his personal and professional lives. He doesn’t work alone; his usual co-workers are Elínborg and Sigurdur Óli. But Erlendur is the main protagonist. That’s not the case in Outrage, though. In that novel, Erlendur has decided to take a leave of absence (that’s the subject of a story arc throughout several novels). He leaves Elínborg in charge, and she’s hoping that things will go smoothly at the office, as she has a demanding personal life. That’s not what happens, though. She gets a new case, the murder of a young man named Runólfur, whose body is found in his home. The evidence suggests that this might be a revenge killing, but to find out the truth, she will have to go to the victim’s village, and find out about his background. Black Skies, the next novel in this series, features Óli as the main investigator.

There’s a similar development in Håkan Nesser’s series, featuring Inspector Van Veeteren. He’s the lead protagonist in several novels in the series, although he doesn’t solve cases alone. As the series goes on, though, Van Veeteren gets closer to retirement. His dream is owning a bookshop, and that’s what he decides to do. At the beginning of The Unlucky Lottery (AKA Münsters Fall), Van Veeteren has left the police force, so the focus is not on him, although he makes a few appearances in the novel. It’s Intendant Münster who takes the lead here. He’s been a regular in the other novels, but this time, we follow him more closely as he searches for the killer of an older man, Waldemar Leverkuhn, who’s just won the lottery. It’s an interesting way to make a transition to another main protagonist.

These are certainly not the only novels where an occasional character in a series becomes the main protagonist. It can be an effective way to keep a series interesting. Which examples have stayed with you? If you’re a writer, do you ever let your occasional characters do the driving? Thanks, José Ignacio, for the inspiration!

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Paul Roberts’ Driver’s Seat.

Published by Margot Kinberg

I'm a mystery novelist and professor who loves to read, write, and talk about crime fiction.

12 thoughts on “Just Take Your Place in the Driver’s Seat*

    1. Good memory, KBR! If I’m not mistaken, McBain does that more than once, and it makes the series so much more authentic, in my view. In real life, there are cases that are not solved quickly, and where different pieces of evidence take time to come to light.

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    1. In my opinion, Neeru, Connelly writes some excellent crime fiction. His Harry Bosch series is perhaps the best known, although for some people, it’s the Mickey Haller novels. He’s also done some standalones and other novels, too. I hope you’ll enjoy what you read when you get to it.

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  1. Great topic. I think that has been one of the strengths of the Tana French series – the varying protagonists. Although I have enjoyed her standalones, I hope she goes back to the Dublin Murder Squad.

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    1. I hope she does, too, Moira. Her standalones are good, but there’s something about the Dublin Murder Squad series. And think part of it is the fact that we see things through different eyes at different times. That, to me, makes the series all the more engaging. It takes skill, too; it’s not easy to do that.

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  2. I think Clete Purcell features a lot in the early James Lee Burke Robicheaux books, when he’s a cop and then kind of drifts in and out of some of the later ones. Unless I’m misremembering?

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    1. That’s true, Col. Purcell is a great character, too, and I think Burke really develops him well, especially given he’s not the protagonist.

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