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.
I’m off to Crimefest – see crimefest.com – on Thursday where I am moderating a panel on the Contemporary Cosy. This has set me thinking about my all-time favourite crime novels and I’ve drawn up a desert island selection of eight classic crime novels or collections of stories that I’d be very happy to read again. In the spirit of Desert Island Discs, that venerable radio programme, I have assumed that the complete works of Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie are already on the island. So here goes.
1. Frederic Brown, The Night of the Jabberwock. I have mentioned this fantastic novel (in very sense of the word) before. Superbly plotted, funny, and touching.
2. Sjöwall and Wahlöö, The Laughing Policeman. I also very much like The Fire Engine that Disappeared, but this is perhaps the better novel.
3. Dorothy L Sawyers, The Nine Taylors. Need more be said?
4. G. K. Chesterton, The Complete Father Brown. Similarly.
5. George Simenon, Maigret’s Christmas. Again hard to choose one among so many, so I’d go for this splendid collection of short stories.
6. Josephine Tey, Miss Pym Disposes. Many times re-read and never fails to enthrall. I love the character of Miss Pym and the atmosphere of the teacher training college is so vividly evoked.
7. Rennie Airth, River of Darkness. This is a relatively recent novel (2004) which might not be a classic yet, but deserves to become one. Set in the 1920s the trauma of World War I casts its shadow over both killer and detective. Gripping, scary, and full of humanity.
8. Michael Gilbert. Always good value, so not easy to pick out one. Among the later works, I like The Final Throw, but in the end I’ll plump for Smallbone Deceased, one of the earliest and a true classic.
It’s been fun choosing. What would you choose (you needn’t pick eight)?