I spent last weekend at the Virginia Festival of the Book in Charlottesville, VA, where I was one of about forty mystery authors who made up the Crime Wave portion of the event. The luncheon speaker was multiple award-winning author Julia Spencer-Fleming, whose readers are champing at the bit for the seventh installment of her traditional but far from cozy series, which combines murder, serious issues such as the environment vs developers in her small-town upstate New York setting, and the star-crossed relationship between Episcopal priest Clare Fergusson and police chief Russ Van Alstyne.
In the course of her remarks, Julia touched on an aspect of mysteries that is crucial to an appreciation of the genre: the series, in which the story arc of each novel falls under the umbrella of the bigger story arc of a series. The arc of the novel is the solving of a mystery, or, if it’s a thriller, the foiling of a villain. In many cases, there’s another arc or subplot, whose resolution may involve secondary characters or some issue in the protagonist’s life and relationships. The series arc has a broader scope. Indeed, in a long-running series, the arc may be like the rainbow with a pot of gold at the end of it: you can start at the beginning and follow it...and follow it, and follow it. But you may never reach the pot of gold. Nor do you want to. When you get the pot of gold, the story will be over.
What is the pot of gold in a mystery series? Not the solution to the crime in a single book. Not the success of the quest for a MacGuffin, crime fiction’s equivalent of the Holy Grail. Happily ever after? That’s the pot of gold in a romance novel, and the reader closes the book with a sense of satisfaction. But in a series, the author must avoid the kind of closure that leaves no room for the story to continue. For several books, Spencer-Fleming’s Clare and Russ were divided by his marriage and the highly developed consciences of both characters. At the end of the last book, they are finally free to be together—just as Clare is deployed to Iraq. The unabashed romantic in me grinds her teeth in frustration. But the mystery reader is gleeful, because now there has to be another book.
To switch genres for a moment, I recently opened the new novel by Elizabeth Moon, author of the classic fantasy trilogy The Deed of Paksennarion. For the past twenty years, Moon has published a substantial number of bestselling hard science fiction novels, while I’ve been reading and rereading Paks’s story. Now she’s returned to her fantasy world with Oath of Fealty, which not only takes us back to Paks’s world but picks up exactly where she left off twenty years ago. At the end of the last book, as Moon puts it in her foreword, our heroine “rode off into the fictional sunset.” But all the other familiar characters have returned. (Even Paks makes a brief appearance, since we return to the same moment of crisis that ended the trilogy.) Moon makes the same point Spencer-Fleming did: that even if one character’s story ends, the world of the series may include other characters whose stories still need to be told.