First: my book group chose A FAR CRY FROM KENSINGTON and I am pleased because that is the one I really wanted and I am looking forward to rereading it.
So, series characters, or should I say detectives, as I’m thinking mostly of crime fiction here. On the whole I like them. If you are reading for pure pleasure and relaxation it can be nice to know what you are getting into. It’s like meeting up with old friends: Morse, Travis McGee, Kinsey Milhone, we know some of their history, we’re look forward to seeing them again and finding out what they’ll get up to next. There are advantages for the writer too. You have done the spade work and have brought your fictional terrain and its characters into being, you’re at home there, and you too want to know what these people will do next. Now that I’ve nearly finished a stand-alone, I can’t wait to get back to my Cassandra series.
But there are disadvantages too. Sometimes the readers go on loving Hercule Poirot or Sherlock Holmes when the writer is heartily sick of them and could happily murder them and of course that’s just what Conan Doyle did. It is hard to maintain the same high standard in novel after novel and perhaps it’s more obvious in a series novel when you don’t. I read a couple lately that were a little disappointing, though I am a fan of both writers. In Donna Leon’s THE GIRL OF HIS DREAMS and Qui Xiaolong’s THE MAO CASE, Commissario Brunetti and Inspector Chen retain their old charm, but in the first the plot was a bit thin and the second was paced too slowly.
To end on a positive note one series that is going from strength to strength is Stieg Larsson’s Millenium series. THE GIRL WHO PLAYED WITH FIRE is terrific and shows that he was just getting into his stride with THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO.
One of the disadvantages of becoming a writer is that you lose your innocence as a reader. I used to love to dive into a crime novel, suspending my critical faculties as I was swept along by the excitement of it all. That doesn’t happen so much these days. Now that I produce the stuff myself, I can see just where the writer has tried to covered up an enormous hole in the plot, or where they have painted themselves into a corner and something implausible has to happen to get them out. I find myself muttering, ‘she wouldn’t have done THAT’ or ‘no, no, the solution can’t be as obvious as all that’. This happens with TV crime shows, too, and it annoys the hell out of my husband. The converse is that when something is really good, there is an extra dimension to my enjoyment: I can relish the skill and the craft of it.
So, did Stieg Larsson’s ecstatically reviewed novel, THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, pass this test? ‘The ballyhoo is fully justified, wrote Marcel Berlin in THE TIMES. But was it? Not quite, perhaps. The friend who passed it on to me warned me that it took a long time to get going and it did. Still, eventually I did find myself being carried along by it. It’s dense and complex and thoughtful. Though I was never all that surprised by the way things turned out, I did enjoy it and I’ll read the next one. It’s sad, very sad, that Larsson died soon after delivering the manuscripts of three novels to his publisher and didn’t enjoy their great success. Maybe too if he had lived, he would have revised it and made it even better