What makes a series work?
I love mystery series. I want to fall in love with a protagonist and get to know his or her family and friends. I want my favorite series to go on and on. I wish that Dorothy L. Sayers hadn’t stopped writing books about Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane—even though my rational side knows that the arc of their love story had been completed, and later books might have been disappointing. I don’t want Laurie R. King to give up on Kate Martinelli, even though I know the Mary Russell books, which I also love, are more popular. I don’t want Charlaine Harris to give up on Harper Connelly, even though the whole world now knows Sookie Stackhouse, whom I also love, thanks to the success of True Blood on TV. I’m in there for the duration with Margaret Maron’s Judge Deborah Knott, Marcia Muller’s Sharon McCone, Dana Stabenow’s Kate Shugak, and Donna Leon’s Commissario Brunetti.
There are two kinds of series: those in which the characters stay the same, and the reader derives pleasure from the familiar voice and characters and satisfaction from the way the new story meets their expectations, and those in which the characters change as their lives unfold and as they mature emotionally. Some of the “same” series are phenomenally successful. Stephanie Plum is always going to destroy a car and never going to choose between Joe Moretti and Ranger. Spenser is always going to crack wise with Hawk and blow away some bad guys at the end without so much as a slap of the wrist from the law.
Guido Brunetti falls into this category in that he’s always going to solve the crime, but justice will elude him, thanks to some aspect of the way things are—corrupt, bureaucratic, irrational—in Leon’s Italy and Venice. However, the richness of Brunetti’s family life and relationships with his colleagues at work draws me back time after time, to see what Paola is going to make for dinner, what Brunetti is reading (I heard Leon speak at a New York book launch a couple of years ago, and she says Brunetti reads whatever she is reading while she writes the book), and what aspect of officialdom or technology Signorina Elettra will sabotage next.
Most of my favorite series have protagonists who go through enormous changes from book to book. Sharon McCone started out as an investigator in a Sixties-utopian law commune and has ended up with her own state-of-the-art agency and a lot of real estate. She’s held onto her circle of old friends—one of the traits that endear a character to me—and gone through some disappointing relationships to get to her current unconventional but happy marriage.
Deborah Knott, though, takes the prize for an endearing social circle. When I’m reading one of Maron’s books, I find myself longing for eleven brothers and the kind of family that sits on the back porch playing and singing traditional music. (I do sing and play guitar, but my mother’s reaction to high lonesome was, “Can’t you play something more cheerful?”) Kate Shugak’s circle of friends has also stood the test of time as she’s gone through some agonizing times as well as some hilarious ones.
One of my goals, or let’s say dreams, in my own first book was to create not only one believable character, my recovering alcoholic Bruce Kohler, but three—his best friend, Jimmy the computer genius, and Jimmy’s girlfriend, Barbara the world-class codependent. Barbara and Jimmy have their own relationship, which I hope to develop as the series goes on. And the friendship among the three of them is my fantasy ideal of friendship, just as I imagine Deborah Knott’s family may be to Maron. (I believe the fiddling-on-the-porch family she modeled that aspect of the Knotts on is a cousin’s, not her own.)
In the second book, Death Will Help You Leave Him, out this fall, Bruce will leave the struggle with drinking mostly behind and make some hard choices about his relationships. In the third...no, I won’t tell you. I hope by that time you’ll be attached to my characters and want to read the whole series.