I’m currently reading a very enjoyable series, Ellie Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway books. I read the first, The Crossing Places, a few years ago and it didn’t really take, but after the series was recommended by my friend Moira over at http://Clothesinbooks,com, I tried again with A Room Full of Bones and this time it did. I am now reading The Janus Stone and I’ve downloaded another one for when that’s finished. It’s a pleasure to come across a new series and know that there is a lot more good reading ahead.
At the same time I am working on the second in a series myself, and it’s got me thinking about what makes a successful series. The attraction for the reader is that cosy sense of catching up with people who have become friends. You know roughly what to expect. It’ll be the same but different. And that’s a very comforting feeling at the end of a long day when you’re settling down to read in bed. It can be very enjoyable for the writer too. You know your characters inside out and have got fond of them. Over a long series characters have time to develop. Indeed they must develop, because one of the dangers of a series is that it can get repetitious and run out of steam. The detective’s troubled love-life can get tedious and you risk the reader thinking ‘why doesn’t the guy just get a grip?’ Sometimes the writer gets fed-up before the readers, as Conan Doyle did with Sherlock Holmes, and Agatha Christie with Hercule Poirot.
Is there a case for limiting the number in a series as Swedish crime novelists, Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö did – and Henning Mankell after them? In both cases the writers decided that there were only ever going to be ten. Nicholas Freeling may have gone too far in bumping off his detective Van Der Valk half-way through a novel, shocking and dismaying many readers (Trollope did something similar in The Last Chronicle of Barset). Another approach is to keep things fresh by starting another series to run parallel with the first, as Ellie Griffiths has done with The Zig-Zag Girl. Or simply to switch to a second series, as Martin Edwards has done so successfully with his Lake District mysteries.
I’m not going to name those writers who stayed too long at the party (it must be a temptation) and we’ll probably have different views about who they are. But I will list just a very few of my favourite series. They include Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s Martin Beck novels (10), Magdalene Nabb’s Marshall Guarnaccia books set in Florence (14), Martin Cruz Smith’s Renko novels (8). And then there’s Maigret. Simenon breaks all the rules. There are dozens of Maigret novels, but I can never feel there are too many.
The school holidays have started. I don’t expect to do much writing, but I plan to do plenty of reading. First on the list is my book group’s big read, Middlemarch, and I am so much looking forward to it. It’s a long time since I have reread it from cover to cover, and I’ll be reporting on that.
Then there are the crime novels that I’ll be tackling either at home or abroad. I am a big fan of Martin Cruz Smith, so I’ll be packing his new novel, Tatiana. I recently reviewed The Hunting Dogs by Jorn Lier Horst, which I loved, so I’ll follow that up with Closed for the Winter, the only one in English that I haven’t yet read. I plan to try Johan’s Theorin’s The Quarry. He comes recommended by Barry Forshaw in his guide, Nordic Noir, and the novel’s set on the Swedish island of Oland, which I’ve visited on the Swedish trip I recently wrote about here: http://somethingisgoingtohappen.net/ and http://bit.ly/1jRNrnk
We’ll be in northern France part of the time, so I’ll be brushing up my French with Simenon’s Maigret et l’inspecteur Malgracieux and maybe Alphonse Daudet’s Lettres de mon moulin. Adrian Magson’s series featuring Inspector Lucas Rocco are set in 1960s Picardy and I’ve downloaded the latest, Death at the Clos du Lac.
I’ll be blogging, but maybe not quite as regularly as usual. We’ll see.
Meanwhile, I’ve been rash enough to agree to list my five favourite Agatha Christie’s after being challenged by Moira at ClothesinBooks. She’s doing the same and we’ll both be posting our lists on Thursday.
It is a feature of crime fiction as a genre that a lot of writers are expected to produce a book a year, often featuring the same detective. It’s not surprising that some of these series get a little tired and even the sainted Agatha wasn’t exempt from this. I’ve just read one of her later novels, At Bertram’s Hotel, and, sad to say, it is pretty thin stuff. It was published in 1965, a full forty-five years after her first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles. By then Christie herself was 75. Her last novels are really not up to much in comparison with her dazzling prime. That isn’t to say that crime-writers can’t write successfully in old age: look at P. D. James. However P. D. James doesn’t write a novel a year, and other writers who have maintained the quality of their work by letting the time stretch out between books include Martin Cruz Smith and Sue Grafton. I found myself musing on this as I read Ian Rankin’s new novel, Saints of the Shadow Bible. He is one of those writers who does pretty much produce a book a year, but the standard shows no sign of slipping. Exit Music was supposed to be the last Rebus novel, but Rankin did not make the mistake of killing him off, so letting him return from retirement hasn’t been too problematic. It is rather surprising though that Rebus is in such good form, considering the quantities of fags, alcohol and junk he has consumed over the years. Does a vegetable or a piece of fruit never pass his lips? In this novel he finds himself teamed up with the teetotal Malcolm Fox, Rankin’s new series character, who has appeared in two novels of his own. He is am much a straight arrow as Rebus is a maverick. That’s fun, as is the development of Rubus’s friendship with Siobhan Clarke, once his protogee and now his senior. The novel’s intricately plotted, and there’s some terrific dialogue. Perhaps it doesn’t quite reach the heights of Rankin’s best – The Falls is my favourite – it’s still a very good read.
. . . they just lose the plot. Which I am afraid is what has happened in the case of a recent novel by a writer I have often enjoyed – and have very much admired – in the past. I was well into the book, when I stopped and put it down a sigh. I simply did not believe a word of it. No senior police officer would behave as this one was behaving, even allowing for the fact that fictional detectives often don’t behave like real ones. This was just too implausible. The poor old boy would have been put out to grass long ago. And there was something else: the young people in the novel didn’t ring true. This can be a problem for any writer over forty if they don’t have children or otherwise rub shoulders with the younger generation, but it is something that has to be overcome by the conscientious writer. Perhaps this writer just didn’t have the energy or appetite to do the research. Writers don’t have to retire – it is one of pluses of the writing life – but sometimes they should.
However, one writer who has been in the writing game for quite a while and who just goes from strength to strength is Martin Cruz Smith. I read GORKY PARK when it first came out years and years ago, but hadn’t read much more by him until I picked up another of the Arkady Renko series, STALIN’S GHOST, at an airport bookshop a couple of years ago. It was excellent, and even better was WOLVES EAT DOGS, which I have read more recently. It is set in the blighted hinterland around the Chernobyl nuclear power station. Superbly researched, gripping throughout, convincing in every detail, sad, yet exhilarating: I put this novel down with a sigh, too, but this time it was a sigh of admiration. WOLVES EAT DOGS is a great read and a masterclass in writing crime fiction.
PS. Sorry to have absent: technical problems which it has taken a while to sort out.