Agatha Christie is perhaps most famous for her stories featuring Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple, and Tommy and Tuppence Beresford. They’ve become iconic characters with millions of fans. Perhaps less well-known are some of Christie’s standalone novels. The Man in the Brown Suit, for instance, does feature Colonel Race, who appears in more than one of Christie’s other novels. But the story is a standalone. So is The Boomerang Clue (AKA Why Didn’t They Ask Evans?). So are some of her other stories.
Christie’s not alone. Many authors who have successful series also have written standalones. And that can have some advantages, both for reader and for author. For the author, writing a standalone allows for some exploration and the creation of characters who might not have the ‘staying power’ for a whole series. It also allows the author to reach new readers. For the reader, a standalone can offer a solid introduction to an author’s style without needing to invest the time (and money) in a full series (especially a long-running series). And readers who might not care for a particular series protagonist might enjoy a novel that doesn’t feature that character. So it’s not surprising that many authors write standalones, even if they have one or more series in print.
For example, Arthur Upfield wrote a well-regarded series featuring Queensland police detective Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte. He is a half-white, half-Aborigine police inspector who’s thoroughly familiar with what he calls ‘the book of the Bush.’ He knows the land well, and that often helps him solve cases – that and his ability to communicate with all sorts of different people. Plenty of fans learned a lot about that part of Australia through reading this series, and the mysteries themselves have earned plenty of praise. Upfield wrote standalones, too. One of them is The Beach of Atonement. It’s the story of Arnold Dudley, who discovers that his wife, Ellen, is having an affair with an acquaintance named Edmund Tracy. Dudley shoots Tracy, and then, knowing that the police will be after him, he leaves his home, He goes into a self-imposed exile, hoping that he’ll find some safety there. But the loneliness becomes as suffocating as the guilt is. The novel’s focus is on the aftermath of a murder, and how it impacts Dudley.
Fans of Tony Hillerman’s Jim Chee/Joe Leaphorn series can tell you that they take place mostly in the Navajo Nation. Both Chee and Leaphorn are members of that nation, and members of the Navajo Tribal (now Nation) Police. I’m among many readers who have enjoyed the books as much for their authentic cultural and physical contexts as for the mysteries involved. And Hillerman won many prizes for his work. He’s so closely associated with the American Southwest that not everyone knows that he also wrote Finding Moon, a standalone novel that takes place mostly in Southeast Asia. In it, Malcolm ‘Moon’ Mathias lives a fairly ordinary life, working for a Colorado newspaper. It’s 1975, and the war in Vietnam has wreaked havoc. In fact, Mathias’ brother, Ricky, was killed, as was Ricky’s Vietnamese wife. When Mathias’ mother ends up in a hospital with a heart attack, he finds out that she was on her way to try to find the baby daughter that Ricky and his wife left behind. Mathias takes her place, and travels to Asia. As he searches for the truth about his niece, he also confronts his own ghosts.
Michael Connelly has written the highly successful Harry Bosch series and Mickey Haller series. More recently, he’s added the Renée Ballard series. Those are probably his best-known novels, and they’ve won millions of fans. But he’s also written some standalone work, including Chasing the Dime. That novel features computer genius Henry Pierce. When his life is upended by a breakup with his lover, he decides to start all over. Trouble soon finds him, though. His new telephone number formerly belonged to Lilly Quinlan, who worked for an escort service. When Pierce starts getting telephone calls for her, he learns that she seems to have disappeared, and there’s quite a lot of mystery about her. Little by little, he gets drawn into her life as he tries to find out what happened to her.
Sulari Gentill is probably best known as the author of the popular Rowland Sinclair novels. Set in the 1930s, the novel follows the lives of Sinclair and his close friends during the difficult years of the worldwide Great Depression, and the leadup to World War II. The series has won a number of awards and nominations, and several entries have been shortlisted for other awards. Gentill has also written a standalone, Crossing the Lines (AKA After She Wrote Him). In the novel, we meet Madeleine d’Leon, an author who’s in the process of writing a murder mystery. Her protagonist, also an author, is Edward ‘Ned’ McGinnity. At first, her novel is about the murder and its investigation. But as her story starts to take shape, Ned becomes more and more real to her. For Ned, Madeleine is becoming real, too, and he finds it hard to stop thinking about her. As the two lives start to intermingle, it’s hard to know exactly what is real and what is an author’s creation. It’s a story of psychological suspense as much as it is anything else.
There are a lot of other authors, too, who’ve written well-liked series, but have also written standalone novels. Those novels can be engaging introductions to an author’s work. They can also allow authors to ‘stretch’ themselves – sometimes even to create new series. Do you read your top authors’ standalones? If you’re a writer, do you write standalones?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Steve Perry’s I Stand Alone.