Writing a Series that Can Be Read Out-of-Order

As a reader of mysteries (and, to a lesser extent, fantasies), one of the difficulties I run into is finding a series where I don’t have to start at the beginning — like if the library or bookstore doesn’t have a copy of the number I need. And, sometimes I just wanna grab a book, read it, enjoy it, and not feel either guilty or unsatisfied because I “have to” wait for the next one.

As a writer, I appreciate what a difficult task this is to accomplish.

Quite frankly, no mystery-series author I’ve read (including the late, great Agatha Christie) has done as well in creating recurring characters, in a single location, working together in a single police unit, than Tana French.

I know this because I didn’t read her books in anything like the “correct” order. I did start with the first book, In the Woods, but then I jumped to the fourth, Broken Harbor. Followed that up with the fifth, The Secret Place, then hit the third, Faithful Place, and finished up with the second, The Likeness. I feel like I’ve missed nothing by skipping around like that.

“And why is this?” I ask myself.

Myself has come up with some reasons:

1. French focuses each novel on a specific character.
With the exception of The Secret Place (#5 for those keeping track) and a chapter here and there, all of the Dublin Murder Squad books are told entirely in first person. Even The Secret Place is predominately in the first person. This keeps the focus very tight on a single experience and covers a single arc. This can probably be accomplished in a strictly third person narrative, but I imagine you’d have to be really disciplined in order to avoid the siren’s call of other characters taking their place on the page stage.

2. French has not repeated POV characters as POV characters.
In the Stephanie Plum series by Janet Evanovich, the first person POV is always Stephanie Plum. (I’m not knocking the Plum novels — I really dig them as a matter of fact, but you can’t really read them out of order.) What this does is create a lot of self-referrential moments, so unless the reader is familiar with the previous Plum novels, they’ll have a hard time following relationship entanglements and even some bad guy plot points. French avoids this by bringing a new character to the forefront every time. So, wherever you pick up, you are getting to know a new character.

3. The recurring characters become Easter eggs. 
“But,” you may be saying in my imaginary conversation, “the reason to read a series is because we become invested in the characters.

Point taken.

With French’s series, characters do recur, sometimes to play significant parts in other novels, but the filter changes with the POV character, which makes these repeating characters more interesting and more well-rounded. (In fact, I’m so fascinated and impressed by the effect French creates that I’m going to try to explore it in a couple different ways — stay posted!)

For example, the most-recurring character is Frank Mackey. In The Likeness he’s a stubborn, Undercover Squad legend who pushes a protege too hard. In Faithful Place he’s a broken-hearted daddy with some serious family problems who deals with his high-school sweetheart’s murder. In Broken Harbor he’s an asshole who gets in the way. In The Secret Place he’s an overprotective cop-daddy who “doesn’t get it.” And every facet is just as cool and fascinating as the last.

4. A single arc per book — the story is started and completed.
Tied to the single POV character, there is only one story arc per book. It starts at the beginning of the novel and it goes through to the end. No cliffhangers.

5. French doesn’t feel pressured to give all the answers.
Here’s something interesting that French does: she doesn’t always solve every bit of the mystery. (This epically pissed off some readers of her first novel.) Strangely enough, this doesn’t make you feel like you have to read the book immediately following in the series. It feels like a fact of life. As an individual without omniscient abilities, you just can’t know everything. The Dublin Murder Squad books feel like that — and generally it’s a little bittersweet and beautiful.

***Are there other series that you don’t have to read in order? What makes them stand out? Do you prefer having a series move from A-Z, or do you like the freedom to move around?

New Year, New Mentors: Tana French

Welcome 2016!!

New years are for new starts and I’m gonna kick of 2016 with a brand new batch o’mentors.

First up, we have Tana French!

Tana French is one of my very favorite authors. Based in Dublin, Ireland, French trained as a professional actor at Trinity College. She’s worked in theatre, film, and voiceover. She’s well-traveled. But, most of all, she’s a spectacular writer.

Her books are all based around the Dublin Murder Squad. No, that’s not a squad of murderers…though that would be interesting too….It’s the squad of detectives who solve homicides in Dublin. There’s plenty of murder, darkness, and angst to be found in her books.

However, if her novels were just mysteries, I don’t know if I would be as interested in these stories. Instead, the murders/mysteries tend to serve as triggers for the internal struggles of whichever detective French is focused on in a particular novel. She creates real people dealing with some troubling circumstances…which the main characters themselves are often responsible for.

Plus, in a feat that’s verrrrrrrrrrrrrrry difficult to pull off, French manages to make each book in the series stand alone. There’s no need to read any of the series in order. Every story is complete within itself. The fact that you recognize characters and get different perspectives on those characters is just a delightful bonus.

I’ve read every one of her books:

  
 

There’s lots to admire here and there’ll be a lot more of Tana French talk coming at you.

If you haven’t read her yet. Please, do yourself a favor and grab any one of these.

As for the rest of 2016, the mentor line-up is as follows:
(Every Tuesday and Friday)

Tana French: January — March
Robert Louis Stevenson: April — June
Sarah Ruhl: July — September
Cormac McCarthy: October — December

So, it’s a packed year. Hoping for lots of good conversation!!

Two Different Ends to Two Different Series

I just finished reading Curtain, Poirot’s last case. (I promise I won’t give away the end.) And recently I’d also read Sleeping Murder, which is Marple’s last case. In both cases the books were written years (decades) before they were published.

Also in both cases the sleuths are still sharp, still the same old human-observers, and still fun to read.

But, oh, how the sleuths are treated differently by their creator.

Miss Marple is the same as always. The story hinges on the case itself being unique. A “murder in retrospect.” The idea of a murder in retrospect is that the case has laid dormant, but still has the power to affect people. I think that this was a very poetic way to end the Marple series.

Inspector Poirot, however, is not the same as always. He is much older, wheelchair bound, and his comically dyed hair seems that much more pitiable, according to his buddy Hastings who returns for the final act. The end of this series is cyclical in a more direct way than the end of the Marple series. Hastings returns. The whole thing takes place at Styles — which has been transformed into a hotel. The characters take their old bedrooms. The difference is in the characters and not necessarily the plot.

I’m not certain how I feel about this. I’ve read in various places that, like Arthur Conan Doyle with Sherlock Holmes, Agatha Christie got tired of writing about Poirot. She apparently preferred writing the Miss Marple series, even though there are almost twice the Poirot stories/novels out there in the world. Somehow I sensed that preference much more in the final books than anywhere else where it’s easy to compare the two (like in the first books–but those are always much more hopeful anyway, aren’t they?)

Marple gets to be whole and the hero. Poirot, still heroic, gets a ton more difficulties added to his plate.

Do authors have to be fair to their series’ characters? As an author, of course I say no.  After all, we’re only human and we will inherently like one character over another. It can feel monotonous to write one character over and over again, and if we don’t feel particularly close to a character, or we don’t identify with a character, they’re harder to write.

Seems to me, as Christie got older, she would naturally identify more with her spinster, sharp-lady creation than her foreign, male counterpart. It only makes sense.

But authors also have to answer to their fans, and as a fan, I’ll admit to being a little bothered by–what I am perceiving as–the unbalanced aspect of the two endings. It almost seemed mean. The end was written way before it was published…so she knew what was going to happen to Poirot for years before the readers got to see it…so how could she avoid the images of Poirot incapacitated in her head?

I know, life isn’t fair. But this is fiction, cozy mysteries as a matter of fact, and it can be more fair than real life.

The reading for me was a bit jarring, I’ll admit, and my impressions are probably just that: impressions. After reading Sleeping Murder, my expectations for the Poirot story were different than what I was presented, so it took some adjusting. In the end, as Christie shows with Poirot, it is all about mind over matter. (Something Jeffrey Deaver explores with his Lincoln Rhyme character, right?)

Plus, he goes out with a bang:
Poirot deserves his place in crime fiction history and this was certainly achieved on his death in 1975; Poirot became the only fictional character in history to be honoured with an obituary on the front of The New York Times!“~from the Agatha Christie website

What do you guys think? If you have parallel-style characters, is it fair to expect fairness in their treatment? Or does the difference imply implicitly that you should present differences?

Thursday Reviews: Sleeping Murder by Agatha Christie (A Mentor Review!)

Sleeping MurderSleeping Murder by Agatha Christie

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book was written waaaay before it was published in 1976. It sat in a deposit box waiting for the light of day. So there may be some inconsistancies with the rest of the series…but Miss Marple is not a series that you have to read in-order, in order to enjoy it.

That being said, I can see why this book was slotted for the end. The crime is two decades old, a “sleeping murder” or a “murder in retrospect” that is triggered by the main character’s (Gwenda) childhood memories. Today we’d call a case like this a ‘cold case’. By utilizing a murder-in-retrospect as the central mystery, Christie creates a reflective element that enhances the book itself, and also her series in general.

Let me clarify that last statement a little bit. Miss Marple is a character who has solved, and survived, many different cases. At the opening of this particular case, she is hesitant to wake it up. “Let sleeping murder lie.” But there’s no way the two main characters, Giles and Gwenda, will let it rest. It doesn’t matter how old the case, it needs solving. Miss Marple, of course, joins them in the investigation in spite of her reservations.

By focusing on this type of case, Christie seems to emphasize that no case is unimportant, no case it too old to ignore, and therefore, all of Miss Marple’s cases are important, and no book or puzzle is too old to ignore. As a final book, Sleeping Murder gives the Marple stories a certain gravitas. It’s worth reading just for that.

View all my reviews

The Literary Portion of the Detective Novel

Strange that I should be talking about the accusations leveled against genre and literary writers when, lo, I come across an article by George Grella entitled “Murder and Manners: The Formal Detective Novel,” published in NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction, which contains an example of exactly the type of rhetoric aimed at genre writing in general, and the mystery genre in particular that I talked about on Monday:

It is one of the curiosities of literature that an endlessly reduplicated form, employing sterile formulas, stock characters, and innumerable clichés of method and construction, should prosper in the two decades between the World Wars and continue to amuse even in the present day. More curious still, this unoriginal and predictable kind of entertainment appealed to a wide and varied audience, attracting not only the usual public for popular fiction but also a number of educated readers.” ~George Grella, “Murder and Manners: The Formal Detective Novel”

In this 1970 article (see? this debate can be picked out of any year, any era), Grella attempts to explain the ‘curious’ appeal of detective fiction in particular. The article proceeds to explore the potential reasons for the popularity of the detective novel. Grella looks at, and ultimately discards, the ‘puzzle defense’ (readers like a puzzle, even super-educated ones) and the resemblance of the detective story to the Greek tragedy, and he latches onto the idea that detective fiction is a modern comedy of manners.

I like this idea because, as Grella puts it: “the detective novel’s true appeal is literary.”

Literary? Whoa. What?

Okay, he’s not saying literary like Literary vs. Genre. But the argument that the appeal is literary – meaning it’s not the puzzle and it’s not the catharsis that a reader gets and it’s not the vicarious thrill of violence – implies that there’s something about the stories that should be studied. Popular appeal aside. The novels themselves are worthy of exploring…and they have a tradition.

That gives some weight to Christie’s work that’s not from the Populace. It gives us a place to start dissecting a little closer. In that frame of mind I came up with some questions to think about the next time I read Christie in particular, and detective pieces in general:

1. Who is the hero? Is it the same as the sleuth? If they are different, how so? What role does each character play? In Christie, I’ve noticed that there’s often a character that is easy to cheer for – and it’s not always Poirot or Marple, though we like them, their safety and prosperity is not necessarily the reader’s main concern. She builds select characters and tells their stories.

2. Is the place a factor in the story? Does its history add weight? How familiar are the characters with the setting? Do they move around the ‘stage’ gracefully? What purpose does the setting serve? Does it trap? Does it offer answers? With Christie, a lot of times it’s easier to figure out who the villain is if you pay attention to how she describes things. The last few books I’ve been able to pick up on the villain not from any clue that Christie understands, but through the language she uses to describe how things are.

3. What ‘literary’ authors have written books with a similar structure? (Grella points out Jane Austen. And I see the limited settings, the interactions of the characters, and the gossip-laced ‘evidence’ all playing a part in Christie’s novels, as well as Austen’s – and no one knocks Austen.) Wodehouse is king of the comedy of manners…but his is not considered literary, mores the pity. =(

I realize it reads like a list of book club questions…but I think that close readings will reveal that there is more than meets the eye. (Appropriate for mysteries, dontcha think?)

The Observant Character

The key to Miss Marple’s sleuthing is her insight into human behavior. Regardless of the violent act that has occurred, there is a simple, human reason/motivation behind it. By observing people and comparing those observations to other observations of human behavior in her history (which Miss Marple has quite a store of….), Miss Marple manages to click all the pieces into place.

I think the key word is “observant.” — Note the use of the word over and over again in the above paragraph. =)

The whole reason readers want to follow Miss Marple’s mysteries is her skill at observing things. It’s a trait she shares with Poirot, though her style of observation is more relateable, in my opinion. It indicates that the only thing keeping us everyday folk out of the sleuthing world is the ability to pay attention.

Regardless of genre, I think readers appreciate a character who can pay attention. As a reader, I certainly don’t like spending time with a character who is navel-gazing or whining and, all the while, this other, more interesting stuff is going on. I think that kind of behavior makes an unlikeable character. 

The Character Who Got Away…Maybe

The first Miss Marple novel is Murder at the Vicarage. It’s narrated by the Vicar Leonard Clement and the entire story centers around a murder that – as the title so elegantly shows – happened at his vicarage (a.k.a his home…talk about a rough night!). The reader is introduced to his family, spends time with his ‘flock’ of neighbors, and goes along with him as he works with the local constables to solve the mystery. It seems that Clement is set to be a main character in much the same way as Hastings in the Poirot novels.

Yet it is Miss Jane Marple, one of a plethora of nosy widows/spinsters in the small village, who gets an entire series. I mentioned before that Clement is a character who had to go – his wife is pregnant, he has a steady job of tending to the misfits in town, and, probably the biggest reason, if murders keep occurring in his small village, he’ll be held responsible. After all, how can a spiritual guide be any good if his villagers keep killing one another?

There’s a pretty large publishing gap between the Murder at the Vicarage and Marple’s second novel appearance in The Thirteen Problems. A little over a decade, though she does appear in short stories along the way.

These things tell me that Miss Marple is probably a character who got away from Christie.

What I mean by that: Imagine Christie sitting there with her notebooks, working out how a vicar will solve the case – and out pops this old lady who snoops and pries and annoys the main character. To top it off, she solves the case before cops and the makeshift sleuth of the vicar. I’m guessing Marple played a bigger part in that case than Christie originally meant and, lo!, she continues to do so through short story after short story and novel after novel.

As a writer, can you see these kinds of characters coming? Agatha Christie wasn’t an old spinster when Miss Marple showed up…so it’s not like with the Ariadne Oliver character – by which I mean there wasn’t some kind of self-referential statement being made about Christie. Who could’ve predicted that such an unexpected character would show such voomph and audacity?

We’ve all read the books that say “Let the characters speak for themselves,” or some author lamenting the way “That character was supposed to be the bartender.” I have no idea if this is the case with Miss Marple – whether or not she was intended to be a very useful side character, or whether she was supposed to take over, only Christie can tell us…but I have my suspicions. If you guys know of a spot where she said “Yes, Miss Marple was to be my piece de resistance!” Please let me know – or vice versa.

In the meantime, has anyone gotten away from you as writer? I’m working on a novel right now and an upstart young doctor has come onto the scene and I’m thinking “Where the heck did this dude come from?” Guess I’ll find out….