Friday, September 2, 2011

Have You Had Your Serial Today?

It must be a mixed blessing to write a successful mystery series. The benefits are obvious: a built-in audience for each successive title in the series, characters who can be explored at length and in depth, and a protagonist with name recognition who may even become an icon like Hercule Poirot, Lord Peter Wimsey or Miss Marple.

But writing a series has its challenges. Readers may come to feel so invested in the protagonist and other regular characters that they are offended if the author wants to change direction. Previous descriptions of the protagonist's background restrict what the author can do with the protagonist later on. The author may come to feel the series' success is as restrictive as golden handcuffs.

Arthur Conan Doyle resented that the success of his Sherlock Holmes stories kept him from more important pursuits and he killed off Holmes in 1893, only to succumb to public demand and resurrect him in 1901. Agatha Christie's grandson says that she had many ideas for plots that were inappropriate for Hercule Poirot and wanted to create new lead characters. But Poirot was her most popular protagonist and her publishers and public demanded she continue to produce new tales featuring the little Belgian with the active little grey cells. So, despite the fact that she had come to view her creation as a bombastic, detestable creep within 10 years or so of his first appearance, she churned out her Poirot stories for more than half a century.

The challenge for the serial writer is keeping the story fresh and interesting within the boundaries created by earlier books in the series. How many series have you read that eventually appeared to be phoned in by the author, with the protagonist's character seeming to be preserved in amber and plots settled into well-worn ruts?

In the past couple of weeks, I've read three new books in successful and long-running series. These were all series I had on my must-read list from the start. How well their authors managed the challenge of sustaining interest varied.

Louise Penny's Chief Inspector Armand Gamache/Three Pines series could be a prime candidate to fall into dull repetition. After all, how much can you do with a series set in a remote, idyllic village in the forests of Québec's Eastern Townships region? How many villagers can be killed off before the town's residents would have to flee for their lives if they weren't completely nuts? Louise Penny tackles the inherent restrictions of her setting—and the incongruity of Three Pines being a place of art, friendship and hospitality and, at the same time, a locale with an appallingly high murder rate—with wry humor. In her latest book in the series, A Trick of the Light, local bookseller Myrna describes Three Pines as "a shelter[, t]hough, clearly, not a no-kill shelter."

Penny also knows it's best to mix things up a bit by moving her location on occasion. Chief Inspector Armand Gamache is a detective stationed in Québec City, which opens up more possibilities. In A Rule Against Murder (also published as The Murder Stone), Gamache and his wife are on vacation at a resort when a murder occurs. Bury Your Dead takes place almost entirely in Québec City during its winter carnival.

For A Trick of the Light, Penny returns to Three Pines, though she opens the action in Montréal's Musée d'Art Contemporain, where Clara Morrow, one of the Three Pines regular characters, is about to enter a preview of a solo show of her work. Clara is 50, far beyond the age when most artists are discovered, but after working in her successful artist husband's shadow for decades, she has become an overnight sensation.

After the preview, Clara returns to Three Pines for a celebratory party with her village friends, and artists, gallery owners and artists'agents from Montréal. In the category of friends are Gamache and his second-in-command, Jean-Guy Beauvoir. Gamache and Beauvoir have become acquainted with Three Pines and its quirky residents during their investigations of several prior murders.

The celebratory mood is swept away when, early the next morning, the murdered corpse of a woman is found in Clara's garden. The woman is identified as Lillian Dyson, a childhood friend of Clara's who cruelly betrayed her while they were in art college. But what was Lillian doing in Three Pines when Clara hadn't laid eyes on her in over 20 years?

Traditional detection methods of examining means and opportunity still leave Gamache and Beauvoir with a wide field of suspects. They shift their focus to motive, which reveals a huge gap between the type of person Lillian is widely reported to have been 20 years earlier and how she is seen contemporarily by her new circle of acquaintances.

Gamache realizes that the question of Lillian's true personality is the key to the mystery, because only through understanding her nature can the investigators learn how she inspired murderous hatred and in whom. In the course of their investigation, Gamache and Beauvoir also confront the horrors they still live with as survivors of a deadly attack on their team the year before. The experience has affected Gamache profoundly, but it has not shaken his fundamental belief in people. Beauvoir thinks: "The Chief believed if you sift through evil, at the very bottom you'll find good.  He believed that evil has its limits. Beauvoir didn't. He believed that if you sift through good, you'll find evil. Without borders, without brakes, without limit."

Clara's new-found success and Lillian's murder also bring to a boil the problems of envy and lack of understanding that have plagued her marriage for several years. In fact, envy is a persistent theme in this book, as another deadly sin, greed, was in Penny's prior book, A Brutal Telling.

What Louise Penny does best, and what allows her to write a mystery series that stays fresh, is to focus on the human heart and spirit, nature and the small pleasures and concerns of life (especially food!), rather than on forensics, timetables, violent action or gimmicky personalities. She writes about envy, resentment and fear eating away at people, threatening friendships, marriages, partnerships and even lives, but also about love, forgiveness and redemption offering hope for change and a forging of new, stronger bonds.

A Trick of the Light was released on August 30 and if I were you I'd rush right out and get it.

What do you suppose is the longest-running mystery series among currently living authors? Ruth Rendell's Inspector Wexford series must be one of them. She started in 1964 with From Doon With Death and is up to her 24th in the series, The Vault (published in the UK August 4, 2011 and to be published in the US September 13, 2011). In addition to Inspector Wexford, Rendell has 35 non-series books and 13 more written as Barbara Vine. Just thinking about her work ethic makes me want to sit down and put my feet up.

In 2009, London's Telegraph newspaper reported that Rendell didn't want to write any more Inspector Wexford novels after that year's The Monster in the Box. I was worried that Rendell was fed up with Wexford and that The Monster in the Box would show it, but my concerns were unfounded. The book was a truly enjoyable wrap-up to the series, with Wexford tackling a case that took him back to his earliest days in the police force, and his mixed-up personal life at that time.

What a surprise to hear this year that there would be a new Wexford book. The Vault finds Wexford retired and splitting his time, with his wife Dora, between their longtime home in Kingsmarkham and the coach house of their actress daughter's upmarket home in London. Retirement is good for Wexford's physical health, as he spends hours a day taking long walks in the city, but he finds himself at loose ends without his work. He's relieved when Tom Ede of London's Metropolitan Police, an old acquaintance, asks him to provide consulting assistance in the investigation of four long-dead bodies found down an ancient coal-hole on the grounds of a house in quiet St. John's Wood.

The Vault is a sequel of sorts to one of Rendell's non-Wexford novels, A Sight for Sore Eyes (1999). While it's not necessary to read the other book to understand The Vault, it might be a good idea, since it's bound to make The Vault more interesting. And that would be a good thing. While The Monster in the Box seemed to breathe new life into the Wexford series, The Vault is tired. Most of the witnesses and suspects are so one dimensional that it's hard to keep them straight. The secondary-story strand about the Wexfords' Kingsmarkham daughter, Sylvia, manages to be simultaneously lurid and dull. Some of the writing is sloppy and unclear as well.

Still, Rendell has Wexford make some interesting observations about his new role as a consulting detective with no official standing and how it affects his interactions with interviewees and the police. I wish I knew why Rendell decided to write another Wexford after The Monster in the Box made such a good series conclusion. Pressure, as in Christie's and Conan Doyle's cases? Or does she believe she still has something to say about Wexford and his cases? If it's the latter, I hope she exploits the possibilities in Wexford's new role to create a more fully dimensional and coherent book next time around.

And that brings me to the third new series book, Laurie R. King's eleventh and latest in the Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes series, Pirate King (to be published September 6, 2011). I loved the first book in the series, The Beekeeper's Apprentice, and have read every book in the series as soon as it was published.

I was delighted from the start of the series when the young bluestocking, Mary Russell, met up with Sherlock Holmes. Their partnership was filled with erudite and witty repartee, and they traveled the world together sleuthing in ingenious disguises and using elaborate ruses to escape peril. But then something strange happened. King began separating Holmes and Russell. At first, the books would describe each of the partners' doings, which were bookended with scenes of them together. Later on, though, their time together became strictly limited and Mary's separate role was emphasized.

Pirate King takes this trend even further. In this book, Holmes is entirely absent for a good two-thirds of the book and the pair are together for very few pages. I would estimate that scenes of the two of them together total only about 20 pages or so out of more than 300 pages.

Mary is persuaded by Holmes and Inspector Lestrade to go undercover as a director's assistant with Fflytte Films as they head to Lisbon and Morocco to make a silent film about Gilbert & Sullivan's The Pirates of Penzance. "How can there be a silent film about an operetta?," I hear you ask. It turns out the project is about a film crew trying to make a film about The Pirates of Penzance. The play-within-a-play conceit becomes ever-more elaborate, as Mary works with actors playing the parts of pirates, constables, British officers and coquettish daughters, and many of the actors turn out to be something other than what they seem.

Mary's task is to see what she can find out about Fflytte Films that might explain why crime seems to follow its films in ways related to the subject matter of each film, and why the previous director's assistant disappeared before the crew left England for Portugal. A series of minor disasters besets the cast and crew in Lisbon, but real danger begins as their sailing ship approaches North Africa. In this third part of the book, Holmes has joined the cast incognito, as an actor playing the Major General, and he and Mary must rescue the party from grave danger. This third part of the book, which takes up a little over 70 pages, has all the derring-do, action and spirit that are lacking in the rest of the book. It is cleverly written in a way that I could imagine as a script for a silent-film adventure story.

I'm puzzled why Laurie R. King has altered this series to de-emphasize the Russell/Holmes collaboration almost to the disappearing point. Having so much of the book devoted to Mary working alone forced it into an awkward first-person narrative that reads like a well-educated and earnest young businesswoman's travel diary. I wasn't particularly interested to read in detail about her dealings on behalf of and with the cast and crew, her seasickness, rehearsal travails and the like. (And I'll admit I was a little miffed by Mary's scornful attitude toward my beloved Gilbert & Sullivan.)

Though the book returned to the series' old form at the end, I couldn't help noticing that the subjects of Mary's investigation were mere afterthoughts in the resolution of the story. It made me wonder about the utility of so many of the previous pages detailing Mary’s sleuthing.

Has Laurie R. King come to feel so restricted by the Russell/Holmes partnership that she separated them? Is the weight of Sherlock Holmes's legendary persona so burdensome that she wants to cut him loose? She's the creator and, of course, she's free to do that. But I'm one of those pesky fans who don't like to see a change in a winning formula.

Note: I received The Pirate King and A Trick of the Light as free review copies. Also, portions of the reviews in this post appear in book reviews posted on the books' product pages on Amazon, under my Amazon pen name.


  1. And let's not forget Dorothy Sayers, who never published another Lord Peter, except for a few short stories, after the wedding. And Jill Patton Walsh's sequels aren't quite up to the originals, although I have hopes...
    Grandma L

  2. Good morning, Grandma L. Thanks for visiting us. How did you find us? You may have noticed we just started Read Me Deadly this week.

    I always wondered why Dorothy L. Sayers didn't pursue the Lord Peter Wimsey series (at least in book form) after Busman's Honeymoon. Maybe she felt it was a natural end. It's a good question. I wonder if she ever said. I'll have to see if I can find out anything.

    I read the Jill Paton Walsh continuations and I agree they're not quite up to the originals, though they're better than nothing. I liked the newest one, The Attenbury Emeralds.

  3. Grandma L, we're happy to meet you. I love Dorothy Sayers's Lord Peter books, but I haven't read Jill Patton Walsh's sequels. It's hard to carry on another author's series, I think. I wasn't crazy about attempts to keep Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe series going after Stout's death.

    Sister Mary, I looked in Mystery & Suspense Writers, Vol. 2 by Winks and Corrigan. Apparently Sayers thought Gaudy Night was to be her last Wimsey novel. Then she began working on a play with Muriel St. Clare Byrne, and Busman's Honeymoon was the result. It was the predecessor for the final Wimsey book. By that time Sayers's love of theater had returned and she wrote a religious drama, The Zeal of Thy House. After that, she devoted her life to "theologically based endeavors." She was working on the third volume of a new translation of Dante's Divine Comedy when she died.

  4. Love your blogger names! A comment from someone on Reddit sent me here. Wow, Sayers went on to write liturgical plays?

    Good luck with your blog. It's off to a good start.
    Grandma L

  5. Grandma L, thanks very much.

    We're very excited about blogging, and we're looking forward to beginning our book discussion on our Third-Degree page. It's open to everyone.

    I knew that after her Lord Peter books, Sayers had moved on to religious drama, lecturing, and writing, but I didn't realize that she had worked on translating Dante for 14 years.

    We hope you'll come back to read our blog often and join us in talking about books on the Third Degree.

  6. I have a copy of that Muriel St. Clare Byrne/Dorothy L. Sayers script of Busman's Honeymoon around here somewhere. I really need to find it. I remember I got it because I thought it might be good for a play-reading group we were thinking of forming as an offshoot of my local book club. But that idea went dormant and now the script seems to have gone into hibernation too.

    I also read about a theater group in Chicago called the Lifeline Theater that has performed new adaptations of all the Wimsey/Vane books except Have His Carcase. I wish I could have seen them.