Thursday, March 24, 2011

A writer/reader’s take on mystery series

Elizabeth Zelvin

Most mystery readers of a certain age first discovered the genre through series, whether they cut their eyeteeth on Sherlock Holmes or Agatha Christie, Nancy Drew or Erle Stanley Gardner. In these early series, the protagonist never changed: Holmes always smoked his pipe and played his violin, Poirot applied his little gray cells to every problem, Miss Marple found a parallel to every evil in the world in the village life of St. Mary Mead. When Nancy got into trouble, she always had the perfect tools for the emergency about her person. Perry Mason always stood up in court to object and grandstanded a confession out of the true villain. (I’ve heard that counsel used to say, “I object!” during a trial, and that “Objection!” originated with Perry Mason. Anyone know if it’s true?)

Then, in the Golden Age of mysteries, when the airtight, fair play puzzle was at its height, Dorothy L. Sayers changed the rules by developing Lord Peter Wimsey from a Bertie Wooster-like flat character into a complex and very human being over the course of the series. And mystery reading got a lot more interesting to readers like me, who want to fall in love with their characters, root for them in adversity, and cheer when they triumph, not only by solving the murder but by resolving some genuine personal dilemma. My favorite characters feel real to me. I’ve said before that I’d like to play my guitar and sing with Judge Deborah Knott’s family and have dinner with the Vorkosigans.

What we read has changed precisely because the fashion in what we write has changed. For example, Patricia Wentworth’s Miss Silver, who appeared in dozens of mysteries in the 1940s and 1950s, was always described in exactly the same words, as was her home. Encountering the familiar phrases was part of the pleasure of reading the series, which is still on my list of comfort reads. Now, we wouldn’t dare repeat even the most clever way of describing a protagonist that we’ve already used. Today’s writers are exhorted to kill our darlings, not repeat them in book after book.

No longer does every mystery series, even a successful and popular one, go on ad infinitum. Part of this is due to the changing face—and economics—of publishing. In the paperback cozy world, an author may get a three-book contract. She brings her protagonist and setting to life, thousands of readers eagerly anticipate Book Four—and the publisher decides they’re not satisfied with sales and drops the series, perhaps inviting the author to start a new series under a pseudonym. In the world of hardcover mysteries, a debut author is typically offered a contract for one book or two—and the publisher’s decision not to let the series go on may be based on sales before publication of the first or second book or as little as a month after it comes out. It is notoriously hard to get another publisher to pick up a dropped series—again, for business reasons—so readers who have become attached to a series protagonist and his or her world are left disappointed and dissatisfied.

Perhaps as a result of the precarious nature of series today, many mystery writers have adopted a pattern in which, once the series gets going, they try their hand at a standalone. Until recently, I would have said that I never liked an author’s standalones as much as her series, because my love of and loyalty to the series was based on the development of the series protagonist and the family, friends, and colleagues who had sprung to life around her. Writers with successful series have written some fine standalones—and maybe I’m also getting used to the new fashion. Some standalones by accomplished series writers that I’ve loved in the past few years include Nancy Pickard’s The Virgin of Small Plains and The Scent of Rain and Lightning, Earlene Fowler’s The Saddlemaker’s Wife, the late Ariana Franklin’s City of Shadows, and Laurie R. King's Touchstone.

Another consequence of how things have changed is that writers may now conceive their series as having a limited story arc, rather than going on indefinitely. Charlaine Harris’s Harper Connelly series comes to mind. When the unresolved personal dilemma that underlies all Harper’s professional dilemmas gets resolved in Book Five, the series comes to a satisfying conclusion. With two other series behind her and the Sookie Stackhouse series going on and on, thanks to the success of the TV adaptation, True Blood, it makes sense for Charlaine to move on. And now it seems that Harper Connelly is coming to TV, so her story may continue after all.


Sheila Connolly said...

You captured well the way many of us (of a certain age) were drawn into reading mysteries, and how the market has evolved over time.

I think few of us look at either reading or writing as a business. It hurts us writers to think that our beloved characters can be terminated because of some publisher's bottom line, that we never even see. Yes, we may find that we've said all we wanted to about those characters, their relationships, etc., but it's still something like a death when they just stop.

Are we less emotionally invested in a standalone? Or more, because we have to make our protagonist and cast memorable with only one chance?

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Sheila, it hurts readers too when a beloved character disappears with the end of his or her story untild. The sad part is that many readers still don't realize it's seldom the author's doing.

As for emotional investment, I'm inclined to say both. We almost have to fall in love with a character in order to spend a year of our time telling his or her story.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

untold :) Don't you wish Blogger would let us edit comments?

JJM said...

There are series characters who, were they killed off (as opposed to the series's being killed off by the publisher) would send me into real mourning. I'm sure you've met a few like that, too. The problem with changing the writing style away from the formulaic descriptions is that the characters become deeper, realer, more well rounded, and our (the readers') emotional investment grows correspondingly stronger.

But, as we both know, some authors, even established authors, are now self-publishing straight to e-books. Tim Hallinan comes to mind, with his Junior Bender series. (I enjoyed the first Junior Bender; after the second, Tim had better damn' well continue on, I like Junior.) Has this possibility already been discussed earlier on PDD? (Yes, I know, I should look, but lunchtime is already over ... [sigh]) If not, do you think this new development could help save the series model, especially given that there is already an established audience for them (however small) by the time the publisher drops them? What do you feel are the implications for the publisher, for the author, and for their relationship?

--Mario Rups

Jeri Westerson said...

It's the character development that brings me to series. That's probably what I didn't like about Christies' characters and loved so much about Sayers', even subconsciously when I was a teen.

Diane said...

I started reading mysteries at 10 yrs old. And I started with the adult ones you mentioned, along with John Dickson Carr, Rex Stout - and others. Because of the current publisher attitude - which I realized about 6-7 years ago - I've become a huge fan of ebook publishing. Frankly, I think publishers have 'greedied' themselves out of a future. Writers - and readers - both deserve better, and maybe that is going to mean the death of - at least - large, mainstream publishing houses.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Yes, I think that among the great strengths of the new option of independent publishing of e-books is that they're a vehicle for authors to get not only additional books in a dropped series but also out-of-print backlists to their readers. As for creating a series for e-book distribution, I've heard several times recently that the more titles you have available as e-books, the better you're likely to sell, ie multiple titles are more visible online than single titles.

lil Gluckstern said...

I may have said this before, somewhere, but I am delighted that the e-book option has happened. I think the vagaries of publishing are hard for me to understand-paper, sales, numbers, which I'm not good at-but I actually get angry when I hear that a publisher has put a stop to a beloved sleuth. I know readying a book for e-pub is a lot of work, and I never thought I would say this, but it is wonderful that the characters I care about are available to me, electronically. I don't think paper will ever disappear, but I hope my sleuths won't either.