One of the challenges for authors, especially those who writ long-running crime fiction series, is how to keep those series fresh and interesting enough for readers to keep coming back. After all, there are only so many credible motives for murder, and only so many credible main plots. One thing authors do to keep a series strong over the long run is to introduce a variety of different characters. Of course, this can be tricky, because a ‘cast of thousands’ in a series can be confusing and even annoying for the reader. But having characters come and go over time can add to a series’ interest.
For example, Evan Hunter, who wrote as Ed McBain, created the long-running 87th Precinct series. Some of these novels are arguably better than others are, but the series lasted for fifty-five novels. One of the reasons for this may be the way in which some of the characters moved in and out of the series. The main characters – such as Steve Carella – are stable presences in the novels. But as happens in real life, some of the other police characters come and go as the series moves on. Other characters also move in and out of the series as story arcs are introduced and then resolved. That, plus the fact that these police investigate all sorts of crime in a large city, helps the series to stay interesting.
A similar thing might be said of Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch series. For much of the series, Bosch is connected to the LAPD. But as the series goes on, he works in different LAPD departments and precincts. And, since Los Angeles is a large city, that makes for lots of different placements. For a time he’s a private investigator, too. All of this means that he encounters a wide variety of other characters. Some remain parts of the series throughout, but many move in and out of the series. Others are parts of story arcs, but then return later. All of this helps keep interest in the series. That’s to say nothing of the fact that Bosch is partnered with different detectives as the series goes on. So, we get to learn about those characters, too, and they add to the quality of the series. This is realistic, too, as you’d expect a police officer in a large city to have different police partners and different postings throughout a long career.
Peter Corris’ Cliff Hardy isn’t a police detective. He’s a Sydney-based private investigator. Corris wrote forty-two Hardy novels between 1980 and 2016, and although some are better than others, they’ve all found welcoming audiences. Of course in a long series like this, it’s important to create credible plots, but Corris also wove several different story arcs and characters throughout the series. The meant that Hardy worked with and interacted with a lot of people as the series went on, and readers got to know some of those characters. That’s part of the reason the series didn’t die out after just a few novels. And it makes sense if you think about it. Private detectives meet a wide variety of clients as they work their cases. They also meet plenty of witnesses, to say nothing of members of the police force. All of this means a series that allows for characters to come and go, so the series stays interesting.
There are twenty-eight novels in Ian Rankin’s John Rebus series. Beginning with Knots and Crosses, the series has seen Rebus through many investigations, some of them in parallel with other investigations. Rebus has worked with several different police detectives, too, although there is a core of people who appear in many of the novels. He’s also been transferred to a few different places and contexts, which means he’s encountered other characters who’ve been involved in his cases. The flexibility of this series, which allows characters to come and go as the story requires, has meant the novels offer variety as the series goes on.
And then there’s Martha Grimes’ Inspector (later Superintendent) Richard Jury novels. Over the course of twenty-five novels plus one omnibus, Jury has mostly solved cases with his friend Melrose Plant. Still, as the series has gone on, Jury has worked with a variety of other police officers, and with a variety of different characters who’ve been a part of his investigations. There’ve been several story arcs, too, in which different characters move in and out of the series. Since Jury is part of Scotland Yard (rather than being a police detective in one particular place), he’s also done a bit of travel and met characters in different places. All of this flexibility has meant that the series stayed interesting to readers. I know exactly what you mean, fans of Deborah Crombie’s Kincaid/James series!
And that’s the thing about long-running series. A lot goes into a series’ success, of course. But part of it is arguably that the series is flexible enough for the main characters to work with a variety of other characters who move in and out of the series. This lets readers get to know new characters, follow new plot lines and story arcs, and see how the main characters develop as they work with other characters. Which long-running series have you enjoyed?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Beatles’ In My Life.
10 thoughts on “I Know I’ll Often Stop and Think About Them*”
Well, of course the first long-running series that comes to mind for me is the Nero Wolfe series by Rex Stout which consists of over 40 books. That series has lots of continuing characters that show up now and then, in addition to Nero Wolfe, his assistant Archie Goodwin, and Theodore, the plant expert and carer of orchids, and Felix, Wolfe’s cook.
Another series like that is Jane Haddam’s Gregor Demarkian series. Gregor is a retired FBI agent that often consults with the police. He lives in an Armenian-American neighborhood in Philadelphia, and others in the neighborhood often play a part in the novels.
The only current series I can think of is Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache series, and I have only read about half of the book in the 18 books series. The focus is often on Three Pines and its residents, but sometimes the location moves to other parts of Canada.
I’m very glad you mentioned the Nero Wolfe series, Tracy! You’re absolutely right about the characters that move in and out of that series, and I think Stout did a fine job of mixing in those occasional characters with the ‘regulars,’ like Fritz and Lily.
You’re right, too, about the Damarkian series. I have to admit I’ve not read all of them, but it’s a good example of a series with solid story arcs and characters that move in and out. In fact, I believe you introduced me to that series!
As for the Three Pines series, it’s funny that that one was supposed to be only ten novels long. It’s longer now, and I do like the way Penny moves some of the story arcs along. Those characters evolve, too, which means they (and we) also interact with occasional new characters as well as some returning ones.
You are right, Margot, I got the cook’s name wrong. How could I do that? Lily is one of my favorite characters and she wasn’t in as many of the stories as I thought.
I like Lily a lot, too, Tracy. I’ve always liked it that Stout created a fairly strong female character in her, even though Nero Wolfe has his issues with women…
A really interesting post, Margot, and I’m glad Tracy mentioned Rex Stout because I’m a huge fan although I’ve still plenty unread! I think for me McBain is one of the kings of series writing. He assembled a wonderful ensemble cast which could be switched around whenever he liked them, would sometimes have a character from one book turning up several books later, and just seemed to be in complete command of his material. I’ve read the lot, and though I feel the later books were not quite so good, he was still hard to beat!
Thank you, KBR! You’re not the only one who hasn’t read every one of Stout’s books – he was so prolific, wasn’t he? – and he did write some great novels. You make a good point about McBain’s use of characters. It just makes them seem more lifelike that they came in and out of books and story arcs; that takes real talent and doing to manage the whole, that’s for sure! I like the earlier ones better, too, but in my opinion, McBain at his weakest is better than plenty of others at their best!!
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I wonder if that’s why Agatha Christie shied away from series with actual policemen as main characters? I’ve never thought about it before but by keeping her detectives private or amateur she was able to bring in so many different characters on a personal level that a police procedural type of series could not really include. She probably could not have had a police inspector slot comfortably into a house party for instance, or have someone like Lucy Eyelessbarrow inserted innocently into a household. Interesting post, Margot.
Thanks, Cath – I’m glad you enjoyed the post. You make an interesting point about Christie’s choice of sleuths. If you think about it, there are some characters, like Colonel Race or Dolly Bantry, who come in and out of the books. There are others, like Lucy Eyelesbarrow, who feature strongly in one book, but not others. It is possibly more of a challenge to do that with a police sleuth. That’s an interesting point, for which thanks.
I thought of Gail Bowen’s series featuring Joanne Kilbourn. Characters move in and out of the series. Her family is always involved but their roles increase and decrease depending on the book. Some of the politicians show up and then are gone for several books. She also holds interest by occasionally killing off long term characters. Sometimes to my frustration!
I know what you mean, Bill! I haven’t liked those deaths, either! Still, as you say, part of the continuing appeal of the Joanne Kilbourn series is the way the characters come in and out of the series, grow, move on, etc. It makes the stories more believable, I think.