I’m Taking the Reins*

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.


14 thoughts on “I’m Taking the Reins*

  1. Sometimes secondary characters have a lot to say and other times, they’re just fun to explore the world with for a wee while. 🙂 I’ve written long shorts with two secondary characters from the byte series, over the years, was challenging but fun.
    Little known fact about the series – Cait O’Hare was an FBI agent in my first four books (that reside in a bottom drawer never to be seen in public), she was Director of the FBI in the byte series. (She was too good a character to not promote!)

    You know I love Patricia Stanley and can’t wait for the next installment!!



    1. Ha! I have some ‘bottom of the drawer’ writing, too, Cat! I know exactly what you mean. And it is interesting about secondary characters. Even when they’re not strong enough to sustain a whole novel or series, they can be fun to visit. And in some novels I’ve read, they’re at least as interesting as the protagonist(s).

      Thanks for sharing Cait’s background. I like her a lot as a character, and I’m glad you included her in the Byte series. I think she adds to it. Oh, and thanks for the kind words about Patricia. Another character is telling me her story right now, but when she’s done, it’s back to sitting down with Patricia…

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Isn’t it wonderful how they talk to us?
        I do enjoy hearing from my characters and even when new ones wander in to let me know they have something to say. : )


      2. I love it when they talk to us, too, Cat! I know what you mean, too, when you think you’re busy with one character, and another comes in to add to the mix. Keeps life interesting!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Margot: Thanks for taking my review and creatively expanding upon “Uncle” moving from secondary to primary character. Your examples are interesting especially those involving Scott Turow. I was so surprised to hear “Sandy Stern” was in One-L. I have read it a couple of times and do not recall the name. Reading his article on how the “Sandy Stern” of his Kindle County books came to play an important continuing role was fascinating. I was wondering if Turow, who does not resemble the fictional Stern, is like Stern in real life. I do not know enough about Turow to know if likes Stern because they are alike.


    1. I don’t know how much alike Turow and Sandy Stern are, either, Bill. It would be interesting to know if they are similar at all. And I agree with you; that discussion of how Stern become an important character in the Kindle County series is fascinating. I like learning how characters take life like that. Sometimes they really do start out as secondary characters, but then insist on evolving into something more.


  3. I don’t think I ever came across Fat Ollie during my sporadic reading of the 87th Precinct books back in the day – must make his acquaintance! I do remember Meyer Meyer as a character who used to come to the fore from time to time though. I can’t think of any examples of secondary characters who got their own series, but your post made me think of poor Malcolm Fox, who started out with his own series and then turned into a secondary character beside Rebus. I’ve never though that was a good decision of Ian Rankin – I feel he should have continued to develop the Fox character and allowed Rebus to retire gracefully…


    1. Fat Ollie isn’t the most pleasant, polite character out there, FictionFan, but he is a strong character. I’ll be interested in what you think of him if you ever do ‘meet’ him. And thanks for mentioning Meyer Meyer – he’s an interesting character, too. As to Malcolm Fox, it is interesting that Rankin didn’t develop him more and let him keep that series. He has some interesting qualities, and I could have seen him growing. I wonder if it was perhaps an editor or publisher who thought Fox wasn’t selling enough? Or perhaps Rankin himself chose not to continue the series. Either way, it would’ve been nice to see the sort of person Fox might have become over time.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Margot, I was reminded of Margery Allingham’s Campion who appears as a secondary character in the first mystery (Crime at Black Dudley) but was liked more than the main character and so became Allingham’s protagonist. I can’t even recall the name of her first detective!


    1. Oh, yes, of course, Neeru! How silly of me to have forgotten that one! Thank you for mentioning it. If I’m right, Dr. George Abbershaw is the ‘official’ protagonist for The Crime at Black Dudley, but you’re absolutely right that he wasn’t liked as much as Campion. So, Campion took the lead in the rest of the series. Thanks for adding in that example.


  5. I think Robert Crais has developed Joe Pike into a main focus on some of his books. He kind of started as a support to Elvis Cole. It’s a series I need to read more about. I think Westlake under his Richard Stark moniker also did something a bit similar with Alan Grofield, a sometime associate of Parker.


    1. You’re right, Col, about Pike. When the series started, he was a sidekick sort of character. But in some of the novels, he’s taken the lead, and I think that’s interesting. I like it that Crais has let him grow as a character. And thanks for the reminder of Westlake’s Stark books; I need to get into those.


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