Wednesday, March 17, 2010

A Series of Unfortunate Events

I've mentioned occasionally in previous blog entries my dissatisfaction with novel series. Publishers generally like them because they create a recognisable brand and thus an opportunity to build a readership--which of course generates sales. Some writers, perhaps, enjoy writing them because much of the imaginative spadework is already done, as well as providing a steady income. (Other writers can soon come to feel straightjacketed by them, of course).

The most dangerous series are the open-ended ones, where the writer is encouraged to go on and on, until ultimately they weary the reader's patience. Where the writer has a clear arc in mind--a trilogy, say--there is less peril; and where the identity of the protagonist changes from novel to novel (Jack Vance's Alastor series, for example*) it's easier to maintain freshness.

The format that lends itself most readily to hackwork is the open-ended, same protagonist (OESP) approach--for instance, Patricia Cornwell's Scarpetta novels, or Agatha Christie's Poirot. It's truly depressing to see an original idea and likeable protagonist rot on the vine, like Scarpetta. Poirot, being almost devoid of characterisation from the outset, has actually worn rather better.

This is brought to mind as I read Philip Kerr's If the Dead Rise Not, his sixth Bernie Gunther mystery, about a Marlowesque private eye trudging the mean streets of 1930s Berlin. It's a great idea, and Gunther is an engaging character; but I'm sensing that we're getting to the end of the road here. I don't know the nature of Kerr's contract, but it might be time to let Gunther slip quietly into the sunset.

Some writers can break the rules, and give us an OESP series which doesn't fall off in quality. Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin novels are perhaps the best example, and Ian Rankin's Rebus books pack a bigger punch at the end of the series than at the beginning. In each of these, the protagonist grows and changes over the series, and at first I thought that was perhaps the defining characteristic of successful OESPs. But Scarpetta changes too (albeit in melodramatic and rather unconvincing ways). And another of the archetypally successful OESPs, Richard Stark's Parker series, has a protagonist who really doesn't change at all across a long series of novels: Parker is still the same amoral bastard in 2007 as he was in 1960. Success is not about character growth, then.

Instead, I think what makes an OESP tolerable beyond about three or four novels is authorial voice. O'Brian and Stark are highly contrasting writers, but each can nail and maintain a compelling voice to which the reader wants to listen again and again. (Although Stark 'lost' the Parker voice for 20 years, before seamlessly picking up again in the late '90s). Kerr's Gunther novels have a distinctive voice, but in a narrow register and perhaps excessively reminiscent of Chandler, which is perhaps why we're seeing the series lose energy.

Two of my favourite Macmillan New Writers, LC Tyler and Brian McGilloway, also specialise in the OESP. In both cases I anticipate enjoying their work for some time to come: Tyler's addictively dark Herring novels fuse, as I've said in the past, Wodehouse and Calvino, a niche not richly populated; and McGilloway gives us not only a unique setting but prose of almost invisible excellence.

The success of writers like O'Brian, Stark, Tyler and McGilloway shows that the format can be artisically as well as commercially satisfying--but anyone who wants to embark on the same route should think, too, of those writers who lack the deftness to bring it off. And you may love your protagonist now--but will you be able to say the same in twenty years?

*is it immodest on my own blog to mention Mondia here?
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Len Tyler said...

Thanks, Tim, for the kind comments about the Herring Seller (Ethelred and Elsie) series. I do however agree with your general premise - though publishers, and to be fair, the reading public, like series, they all have a limited life. How long that life is depends largely on the skill of the writer, but (even) Rankin decided at a certain point that enough was enough. One problem with the amateur detective series - not an issue for Rankin or McGilloway of course - is the increasing improbability of the narrator stumbling over yet another corpse. The development of a character over a series is also tricky - particularly since people won't necessarily read the books in the order they were written, and there is the danger of giving away past plots. Poirot, as you imply, develops very little and that may be part of the appeal. The Campion of Allingham's later books is however almost unrecognisable compared with his first appearance. The best thing, as you say, is probably to decide in advance that it wil be a trilogy or quartet or whatever, though the temptation to write just one more may be irrestistable ...

Tim Stretton said...

Len, the amateur detective stumbling across bodies never worries me - it's all part of the suspension of disbelief necessary to read a crime novel. Is the murder rate experienced by the amateur Miss Marple any less plausible than the Los Angeles-style mortality we see in Midsomer Murders - or even Inspector Morse?

Murder mysteries are by their nature so artificial, with so many conventions (as you so neatly deconstructed in The Herring Seller's Apprentice), that one more doesn't really make much difference...

Frances Garrood said...

Surely all crime novels are dependent on coincidence, if you are to use the same detective/protagonist. Like you, Tim, I'm not worried by that at all. And does the character have to develop? I think if the plots are good enough, that doesn't matter much, either.

Verification word - slain. How appropriate.