Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Back to Square One

Have you ever wanted a do-over for some parts of your life? Or at least an opportunity to choose a different one of Robert Frost's paths? Many of us, if given the opportunity, can at least dream about it. But dealers in fiction have all the tools at their fingertips to create salad days in a well-established mature character, or at least present a more youthful portrait of their protagonist. Authors do this by writing a prequel.

The word "prequel" is of recent origin. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word "prequel" first appeared in print in 1958. It was used by the well-known Anthony Boucher of mystery writing and Bouchercon fame. He used it in an article in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction when he referred to a specific work. In the 1970s and 80s, it came into wider use when describing movies like The Godfather: Part II, which took place temporally before The Godfather. I knew this word was not listed for any spelling bee in my school.

I really enjoy prequels, because they give the readers an insight into the development of a favorite character. Some readers don't care if books in a series are read in order, but I prefer orderly progression of aging, relationships, and career development.

Undersheriff Bill Gastner is a favorite character of mine in Steven Havill's Posadas County series. In the more recent books, he has retired from law enforcement and Estelle Reyes is the new Undersheriff, but in One Perfect Shot, the eighteenth book in the series, Havill takes us back to a time before the first book in the series took place. We've gone back a decade or so earlier, when Gastner is Undersheriff. Gastner is called to the scene of Larry Zipoli's death, a county road in broad daylight, where Larry has been shot and killed while working grading a road. The case is one that fits Bill to a tee; a dead man in unusual circumstances, no apparent clues, but a puzzle for which the pieces are out there and he will find them and put them together.

In this case, he also has at his side Estelle Reyes, who is on her first day in the job of Deputy for the Posadas County Police. We learn she is gorgeous, which is something not focused on in other books in the series.

The story foreshadows her special intuition and very sharp eyes when it comes to incongruities at the scene of the crime. Bill Gastner is as solid and unflappable as ever, and he walks her through the initial points of good law enforcement.

Kurt Wallander, Henning Mankell's solitary and somewhat morose Inspector is not exactly mysterious, but The Pyramid, which was written after eight earlier books in the series, tells the story of Wallander's beginnings and explains some things about Wallander that we might have wondered about in other books. This collection of five stories explores Wallander's early career as a rookie cop. It also details his relationship with the girlfriend who later became his wife. Some things were predictable: no one could have spent much time with that woman without coming to despise her. She kept Wallander under her thumb, but somehow he still loved her, years after their divorce.

It became easier for me to understand his relationship with his daughter, Linda, and the pattern of self-denigration when he mentions it in the books. One cultural tidbit I found interesting is that when his daughter went to college at 18 years of age, she was considered on her own financially. Really! Where was this man's head? Solving murders of course.

I consider The Chalk Circle Man by Fred Vargas a prequel only in a sense. It was the first in the Chief Inspector Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg series, but it was published in the U.S. after five years and four other books.

Adamsberg is a very unusual but very engaging character. He is somewhat of a genius at getting to the heart of a pattern. He has a distinct intuition about weird events and people. On the other hand, he loves one woman deeply but treats her badly. His main mission in life––besides his work––is to find his Camille and then drive her away. He is now the head of the Paris murder squad.

In The Chalk Circle Man, we get to meet Adamsberg as he is leaving the small town in the Pyrenées where he spent his childhood as a barefoot boy running around the foothills, and where a police inspector once told him he was not cut out to be a policeman because there was no room for wild creatures like him. By this she meant his curious way of solving murder after murder by a combination of uncanny instinct and intuition.

Now, at the age of 45, he has the respect of those around him because of his intuition for solving crime, but as a newcomer to Paris he is still an outsider. His charm is insidious, though, and when strange chalk circles begin appearing on the pavements overnight––all of which encompass bizarre objects––his squad believes Adamsberg's assurance that one night the chalk will encircle a murder victim. And the search for the culprit is on.

Reading this book before the others adds a new dimension to the Adamsberg character that augments the enjoyment of the rest of the series.

Sometimes when I start a new series, I look at the website Stop, You're Killing Me! to check out the order the series' books are written in, and if there is a prequel I read it first. I did this with Cactus Heart by John Talton. In it, David Mapstone, who is a former history professor, has just been hired by the Sheriff's office in Phoenix. His job is to be related to the investigation of cases in which the history of the area is a factor.

His first case begins after the chase of a thug into a warehouse exposed the bones of a decades-old child murder that has little fingers reaching into the present, as well as to the past of some very important people in the city. This early story introduces us to a bit of Mapstone's past and lays a nice foundation for the future books, although they would have been fine without it.

There are history lessons in all of Talton's books that I find fascinating. They are mostly about the evolution of Phoenix from cattle town to the fifth largest city in the country, and about how Arizona has morphed to its present state.

If you were to write a prequel to the mystery that is your life, how far back would you go? I think a person's life in their twenties is the perfect place to start. There is still dampness behind the ears, but it's a decade of great change and usually a time when future paths are set upon. Mankell talks about these years. On the other hand, there are those who think that life begins at 40 (I never met one of these people, mind you)––in which case, some of these prequels are set in the right time.


  1. Don't forget The Song Dog, prequel to the Kramer/Zondi novels by James McClure.

  2. Bonnie,

    I had forgotten that book. I will have to reread it and soon because I have begun reading the series in the Soho editions.