Friday, January 17, 2014

Jumping the Shark

Lady Jane Digby, painted by
Joseph Karl Stieler
Today we welcome a guest writer, who calls herself Lady Jane Digby's Ghost. Read a little about her inspiration, 19th-century Lady Jane Digby, here.

Lady Jane Digby's Ghost: I'm a history jock and a voracious reader, which combine to make me a prodigious consumer of European and American mysteries. I don't like cozies, but appreciate that others less hard-boiled than I do. I often consult Wikipedia while reading to get the 411 on people and places referred to in the text. After retiring––honorably––from several careers, I live in Santa Fe where I review books for Amazon, participate in our local adult education group,, and hang out with my cats. I was born in 1951–you do the math.

I like series books. I really do. I like returning to old friends and accompanying them on their new adventures. And I particularly like mystery series. Give me a new volume in British author Susan Hill's masterful series starring Chief Inspector Simon Serrailler and I'm a happy clam.

But all too many authors have hung on to their once-interesting characters for one or two books too many, and it's the reader who pays the price. Literally "pays the price," as in money spent and time wasted on a book in a series that, once upon a time, was good reading but has degenerated into a mishmash.

When the author loses interest, the reader does, too. But all too often, the author doesn't realize he's lost both the series and the readers until the books stop selling.

So, who's still "got it" and who should hang the characters out to dry? These are my picks, based on years and years and years of reading.

Daniel Silva has been writing his Gabriel Allon books since 2003. They feature an Israeli spy/assassin who wants to leave Israeli intelligence and make his avocation, art restoration, his trade. But, like Michael Corleone in The Godfather III, just when he thinks he's out, they pull him back in. In Silva's case, this happens annually, as a new series book appears every summer, like clockwork.

The books are getting a bit repetitive, but they could be improved by further character development. Give Allon a kid––one who is not killed in a terrorist attack. Let Chiara, Allon's younger Italian wife, age a little, and become a little less gorgeous. Give her a haircut. Finally, kill off Shomron, who seems to be a pain in everyone's side in Israeli intelligence. Silva needs to move forward to keep me reading.

Jacqueline Winspear is the author of the "Maisie Dobbs" series. While the series started off well, Ms. Winspear seems to be losing interest in her character and the plots are becoming rote. It's difficult to explain, but Maisie was originally a nuanced creation. She was mentored by Dr. Maurice Blanche, a noted psychologist. After serving in World War I as a nurse in France, she returned to London to set up a detective agency, where she used psychological insight to solve cases. The cases in the succeeding books were well thought out. The past few books seem slapdash, though, without the careful writing Winspear is noted for. She seems to be going through the motions.

Winspear is publishing a new book in April, The Care and Management of Lies: A Novel of the Great War, that does not seem to be part of the Maisie Dobbs series. I think it's time she created another leading character and series. She's a really good writer.

"Charles Todd" is the mother/son writing team who have two World War I series, one featuring Inspector Rutledge, and the other Bess Crawford. Rutledge has been keeping my interest, but the Bess Crawford character seems to be stuck in time. She needs a major shake-up––maybe marrying her father's adjunct, who's been in love with her forever. Maybe as the Great War draws to a close, so should the Bess Crawford character. Or, as the two series are placed in two slightly different times, maybe the final book should be Bess meeting Rutledge. They do seem to have a common friend, Melinda Crawford, who is Bess's cousin and a friend of Rutledge's family, and who appears in both Todd series.

British author David Downing has run out of Berlin train stations with which to title his John Russell series. Masaryk Station, in Prague, was his last book in the series. His main characters, journalist/spy John Russell and actress Effi Koenen, have reached a natural end to the World War II and post-war period, and Downing has gracefully tied up his loose ends in a good final book. He has a new series set in World War I, with the first book, Jack of Spies, published last year. I thought it was a bit overwritten, but otherwise a good start to a new series.

Philip Kerr, with his Bernie Gunther series, keeps his character interesting by not writing the series in timely order. The books are set everywhere from 1930s Berlin, to Cuba in the 1950s, to the Russian front during World War II, and more. The reader never knows where––or when––Bernie will turn up next. That keeps me buying and reading the books. I think that his first three books, now combined in one large volume, Berlin Noir, are his best; some of the best writing about 1930s Berlin available.

Alan Furst will continue writing as long as he wants. He has built up such a following that his books sell well to readers who love everything he puts in front of them. Because he also alternates time and place and characters, his books stay fresh––though look out for his standard scene in a French bar in every book, no matter where otherwise set.

I'm a big fan of British author John Lawton, who writes the Troy series, set in London. Like Philip Kerr, he ranges his books throughout a vast period of time and there are enough characters in the Troy family that the storylines are kept fresh. (Note to American readers who also read British books: Beware when ordering Troy books from the UK. For some odd and unknown reason, Lawton's books sometimes have different titles in the UK and the US. You might see a book on a British seller's site, think you haven't read it, order it, and then be disappointed when it arrives because it is a book you've read, under a different title.)

Many readers have not yet discovered the Billy Boyle series, set in World War II, by author James R. Benn. There are eight titles in the series––like Daniel Silva, Benn publishes a book every summer––and are beginning to get a bit tired. Billy is a former Boston police detective who is a sort of enforcer for his uncle, General Dwight D. Eisenhower.  As befits Billy's background, he "looks into things" for "Uncle Ike" in the European theater.

Benn has improved greatly as a writer, but he's beginning to lose me as a reader due to the repetitious plot lines. Benn also tries to write Billy a love interest, which seems to be spurious at best. He doesn't need one, and her presence drags down the story. (This is a major pet peeve of mine; love interests in books where they're not needed, but are there because the publisher feels they should be, to juice up sales.) Still, every September, I'll look to see if Benn has a new Billy Boyle title. If you haven't heard of James R. Benn, look him up; you might like his wartime mysteries.

There are many other series of mysteries and police procedurals set in England, Canada and the United States that I'd like to cover in future guest posts.

So, what authors and series will you continue to buy and read? And which ones just seem to have petered out, but the author doesn't know it? Let us know.


  1. Ghost, I think you're my reading twin! I've been raving about John Lawton and Philip Kerr here forever, and I've grumbled a few times about Jacqueline Winspear and Charles Todd.

    Unlike you, though, I've given up on the Rutledge series too. I definitely can see the appeal of that series, because the mysteries are well constructed, but I want to see the Hamish "character" fade away and for Rutledge to develop more.

    I really need to catch up on the David Downing "stations" series and to check out his new book, so thanks for that prompt.

    It's nice to have you as a guest and we hope you'll return!

  2. Lady Ghost,

    I tend to gravitate toward series as well. I agree with you on the sad progression in such series as the Maisie Dobbs cases and those of the Ian Rutledge series. I can tell my interest is waning when the publication of new books seem to pass me by.

    I still look forward to new mysteries by Chris Grabenstein in the John Ceepak series, and the Sheriff Walt Longmire in the Craig Johnson series. I have a great stockpile of Michael Pearce’s Egyptian series and his Dead Man books, and I still look forward to opening one of them. I would reread all of the Kathy Mallory chronicles if I could find the time.

    On the other hand there are several series that I have given up on over the years. While I always enjoy a Sue Grafton book when I read it I haven’t added one to my collection since L. unlike you the first three of the Simon Serrailer books were enough for me. Lastly Elly Griffiths and Ruth Galloway have replaced Patricia Cornwall’s Kay Scarpetta in my TBR.

    I could go on and on, but I won't.

  3. Lady Ghost, I also enjoy series because they enable authors to develop characters and their worlds. Many do get stale if the characters don't mature.

    I read lighter series. Cora Harrison's Mara, a judge in 16th century rural Ireland, is a current favorite. The early books give a clear picture of her practice of Celtic law and its differences from the more punitive English system.

    The late Tony Hillerman's Leaphorn and Chee series stayed fresh for me throughout, and I still look forward to a new Serailler book. I can't wait to see where Louise Penny is taking Gamache; according to her newsletter she is working on another book. I agree that Bess Crawford has grown stale.

    Sister, another guilty pleasure are the three books to date in Emma Jameson's Lord and Lady Hetheridge series, which may be available as ebooks only. They are short and very funny, and I enjoy the characters.

    MC, I haven't read any of the John Ceepak or Walt Longmire books; I'll take a look at them.

    Thanks, all, for the interesting discussion.

  4. Georgette, that would be a very good topic: standalone book characters we'd like to see return. Right off the top of my head, number one for me would be Joe Spork, from Nick Harkaway's Angelmaker. (Yes, yes, I brought up Angelmaker for the umpteenth time!)

    I have to vote with MC on Susan Hill. I read the Simon Serrailler series through #6, The Betrayal of Trust, but that was it for me. I just got sick and tired of a protagonist whom we never get a handle on, except for his propensity to pursue unavailable or inappropriate women. But the kicker for me was that book's incredibly heavy-handed treatment of its assisted suicide theme. Well, and the fact that she put a secondary character in mortal danger and just left her there.

    Like Periphera, I'm always impatient to read Louise Penny's Armand Gamache/Three Pines books as soon as they appear. The latest, How the Light Gets In, earned the nomination it just got for a Best Novel Edgar Award.

    Reginald Hill's Dalziel & Pascoe series could have gone on forever, as far as I was concerned. It's sad that Hill himself couldn't.

  5. How could I forget the Peculiar Crimes Unit mysteries by Christopher Fowler? I'm always very excited about them. And for audiobook fans in the US, the last couple have been available on audio (and in an excellent performance) before being available in ebook or paper form.

  6. Ghost, fellow Material Witnesses, I'm enjoying our discussions about series past their expiration date. For me, it's the Stephanie Plum books by Janet Evanovich. I loved up to Book Four, and then I felt as if I were trapped in a world of deja vu.

    I agree with the series assessments here, although I can't comment on the Maisie Dobbs books, since I never started them.

  7. Great Discussion Ghost and regulars. I enjoyed the Billy Boyle character and did not realize he was in a series. I'm off to find another Billy adventure.
    Generally I enjoy seiries to get a better feeling for the characters.
    I too am looking forward to the new Armand Gamache, if I could only find Three Pines. Series character development occassionally take turns that makes me glad Im not the guy next door to the characters. Just a little scarry. I;m thinking Kay Scarpetta and Jean Guy, Armand's second. Oh well back to my cozy.
    Keep readin Keep discussin

  8. I've been mulling over this question today. One of the keys to successful longevity is the protagonist's career. If a writer hopes to write a series about crime, it's almost imperative for the sleuth to be a PI or a cop. How often can an amateur realistically become involved in solving a crime? The additional advantage to a PI or cop is that scenarios can change. Thomas Perry is a great writer but his Jane Whitefield is hampered by her occupation: helping people disappear. There are seven books in that series and there are only so many scenarios for the plot.

    Michael Connelly has two long-running series: cop Harry Bosch and criminal defense attorney Mickey Haller. They're strong characters who deal with a variety of cases. Connelly's books involve good plotting and an excellent use of Los Angeles settings and cultural details to make the books seem real and fresh.

    I'm with Sister Mary on Reginald Hill's Dalziel and Pascoe series. The books were becoming more complex all the time and I too wish they could have gone on forever.

  9. Hi everyone great series discussions. !

    I will add that I love series books, it's a great way to learn about the characters lives. Although some get a little stale after the first couple books. Always a challenge to find a series that keeps me interested.

    A series I like presently is Charles Todd's BESS CRAWFORD. I haven't read them on order, and I don't think it matters. They follow the same uncomplicated path of Bess. These appeal to me for just that reason. I can follow the series and Bess will be doing pretty much the same thing in different settings. These are good for when I want a less complicated story to follow. I tend not to read cozies that often, just for holidays, so the Bess Crawford series is that middle ground book for me. I will select one of the Crawford books after reading a more intense mystery. Then alternate. The Rutledge series works the same for me, although I prefer Crawford now.

    I felt the same with Elly Griffiths Ruth Galloway Series, I loved the first books, THE CROSSING PLACES and JANUS STONE and SEA'S END, but by the time I read ROOM FULL of BONES, the series went south for me.

    I am always looking for series suggestions, and like historical mystery series. All the books you have talked about are books I would read too. Thanks !

  10. Ooops, I forgot to check back on my post and see if there were any comments! I guess there are. I'm so new to this and I didn't know if anyone would consider responding to what I wrote.

    The point about what standalones might make good series books is an excellent one. Maybe I'll think about writing about that. Thanks again for commenting and I'll check back to see if anyone else has commented. Lady Jane Digby's Ghost.

  11. A series I keep meaning to try is the Vera Stanhope series. I did see the first episode in the miniseries, starring the marvelous Brenda Blethyn, and liked it very much.

    LJDG, I hope you'll come back with another guest appearance soon.

  12. LJD's G, I echo Sister Mary when I say we hope you'll be joining us to blog again soon.

    I've come down with a whopper of a cold, and that might explain why series set in the bitter winter are popping into my head. Louise Penny was mentioned; some other Canadian series I like: Inger Ash Wolfe's Hazel Micallef, Giles Blunt's John Cardinal, and Owen Laukkanen's Stevens and Windermere (Laukkanen is Canadian, but his series is set in Minnesota). These books stay interesting because there are ongoing issues that these characters deal with over time. Det. Inspector Micallef is a woman in her 60s whose husband of many years left her, she became dependent on painkillers after she hurt her back, and she's being replaced by a younger man as the police force consolidates in an effort to save money (THE CALLING begins the series). John Cardinal lost his wife, who struggled with bipolar disorder, and I'm looking forward to seeing how he copes with his new situation (FORTY WORDS FOR SORROW is the first book). Kirk Stevens is a happily married, middle-aged BCA officer who longs to be partnered once again with FBI special agent Carla Windermere because the cases she investigates are so exciting (begin with THE PROFESSIONALS).

    Also, Paul Doiron's Mike Bowditch books, featuring a game warden and set in Maine, are great because that rural Maine way of life is under such pressure to change by Big Money interests on the one hand, and environmentalists on the other. Bowditch, a young single man who hates sidewalks under his feet, is an appealing character (first book is THE POACHER'S SON).

    It seems to me that a character's issues—whether personal or professional—are as important as the crime that these protagonists set out to solve. I became a little weary of Ian Rankin's John Rebus. Although I love this series, I felt that Rebus's drinking/rebellious against authority stuff had gone about as far as it could go. Now that Rebus has come out of retirement but is holding a subordinate position in the force, this might be the shakeup that the series needed.

  13. Thanks for the note. I am working on a couple of ideas. Your point about Rebus - I'm reading his latest on my Ipad when I travel - is spot on. I wish I had included him on the list of those series that need the chopping block.

  14. Sister Mary,

    Vera Stanhope is well worth ready.

    I have been rereading some of the early Martha Grimes' Richard Jury series. The characters were interesting at the start but here again was a classic case of main protagonists stagnating in their personal lives.

  15. I don't know, MC, I think I might argue that the fixed-in-amber nature of Martha Grimes's series is suitable. There is something so very comforting about journeying back to Long Pidd and finding everyone still hanging out at the Jack and Hammer, scheming to thwart Vivian's marriage to her Italian count while Withers mops and Dick sends around more drinks. I never want Richard Jury to find contentment or Melrose Plant's Aunt Agatha to stop pestering him.

    On the other hand, I'm always ready to grab Tommy, Simon, Deb, and Barbara and crack their heads together when I read Elizabeth George. Those characters could use a session with a practitioner of the "snap out of it" school of psychotherapy.

  16. Ah, the "Snap out of it" school of psychotherapy. It really should be used more!

  17. Georgette,
    You have made the correct diagnosis in re the Lynley crowd. I do enjoy the old gang of Martha Grimes but I want Jury to stop mooning around , and Plant as well and show a little caveman tactics towards their women instead of acting lovelorn for decades. Aunt Agatha is a pill I can swallow in the books but in the audio versions I choke on her.

  18. Georgette,
    I also like Paul Dorian , Mike Bowditch series. I have read the first 2 books and looking forward to the rest of his books. Unlike the C.J. Box series although they both do the same job one in Maine the other in Wyoming. I tried a couple of the C.J. Box books and somehow they don't ring true for me. They start out great and then go down hill.

    I am now reading Steven Booth's Blood On The Tongue. A Copper Fry Mystery. I just started with this one and was impressed with the writing.This is a series so I hope to read more of his books.