Like most other novels, crime novels tend to focus on a protagonist or group of protagonists. They’re often the strongest characters in a series, and we follow their development as the novels go on. But sometimes, another, secondary character is so strong that the author decides to explore that character in a separate series. The series can be a prequel series or simply a ‘branch-off’ series; either way, the author can let that strong character evolve more fully.
I was reminded of this when I read a recent post from Bill at Mysteries and More From Saskatchewan. In the post, he was reviewing Ian Hamilton’s Foresight. That’s the second in Hamilton’s trilogy featuring Chow Tung, who works in a Hong Kong-based triad. We first meet Chow Tung in Hamilton’s Ava Lee series. Lee is a Toronto-based Chinese Canadian who works for him. She’s a forensic accountant who has a special skill at tracing money. In the Ava Lee series, Chow Tung is a strong character, often called ‘Uncle.’ He serves as Lee’s mentor, and he has a profound influence on her. He’s a powerful figure, too, with worldwide connections. But it wasn’t always that way. Hamilton’s Chow Tung trilogy explores Uncle’s backstory, and shows how he came to be the person he is.
K.B. Owen’s Concordia Wells series takes place at the very end of the 19th Century. Concordia is a teacher at Hartford Women’s College, where she’s content to focus on her students. But even in a well-respected women’s college, anything can happen, so she gets drawn into mysteries. She’s new to detection, and at first, doesn’t quite know how to go about it. She has help, though. Her mentor is Miss Penelope Hamilton, a Pinkerton’s detective who’s got her own story. She’s a strong character who takes a special interest in Concordia. And Owen explores her history in a Penelope Hamilton prequel series. In it, we learn more about Miss Hamilton, and we learn how she came to work for the Pinkerton agency.
Some authors don’t go as far as a whole series featuring a secondary strong character. Rather, they let those characters ‘star’ in individual novels. For instance, fans of Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct series will know that Detective Steve Carella is the main protagonist, although several of the other characters are also ‘regulars’ who have their own story arcs. One of the recurring characters is Oliver ‘Fat Ollie’ Weeks. He’s not even officially part of the 87th Precinct, although he does work with them from time to time. He’s not exactly a nice, friendly person (he’s foul-mouthed and has racist and xenophobic points of view). But he is a strong character, and he does have a certain wit. McBain gives Weeks his own chance to take the lead in Fat Ollie’s Book. In that story, Weeks has written a novel (it’s not spoiling the story to say that his book will not be a contender for any major prize!). He thinks it’s going to be a best-seller…until someone steals the only copy of the manuscript. The thief thinks that the manuscript is non-fiction, and he wants to use it to uncover a big cache of money. Fat Ollie wants the manuscript back. This novel has more of a comic overtone than some of the other 87th Precinct novels too, and it allows Fat Ollie to be the main protagonist.
There are also some series, such as Scott Turow’s Kindle County novels, in which there isn’t just one main protagonist. The first one, Presumed Innocent, features county prosecutor Rožat ‘Rusty’ Sabich. He features again in Innocent. In both of those novels, one of the secondary characters is Alejandro ‘Sandy’ Stern, a gifted attorney who defends Sabich in both stories. Stern has his own history and his own backstory, and we learn more about him as the series goes on. He’s the main protagonist, for instance, in The Last Trial, in which he defends an old friend, Kyril Prafko. What’s really interesting about Stern is that he appears in most of the Kindle County novels, sometimes more prominently than others. He’s a very strong character with several layers. Turow writes about this fascinating character in an article that you can read right here.
I’ve actually tested these waters myself. My new Patricia Stanley series features a protagonist who played a secondary role in my Joel Williams novel, B-Very Flat. There, she was a university student whose partner’s murder Williams investigates. Now, she’s a police detective in her own right, and I’m looking forward to seeing what paths she takes as the series takes shape. The pandemic, another writing project, and other things have meant that the series isn’t getting fully underway as quickly as I’d like. But Patricia will be back. She caught my attention when I first wrote about her, and I guessed that there might be more to her story. It seems I was right.
And that’s the thing about strong secondary characters. They are sometimes interesting enough and strong enough (and persistent enough!) that the author decides to create a novel or series featuring them. Which ones do you remember?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Robert Lopez, Trey Parker, and Matt Stone’s Man Up.