Friday 26 November 2010

Where to begin a series?

When reading a series of crime novels, is it necessary to begin at the beginning? In the past, it hardly mattered. Poirot and Sherlock Holmes don’t exactly ‘grow’ as characters. Nor, really, do Father Brown or Gideon Fell or Jane Marple. But Lord Peter Wimsey did develop, in the books featuring Harriet Vane, and Dorothy L. Sayers set the trend for treating detectives as people who would change over time, almost (if not quite) in the way that people do in real life.

Now, it is common for detectives’ lives to change as the series goes on. In fact, many readers love this aspect of a crime series – I do myself. But it raises the question – should one read the stories in the chronological order in which they were written? And to complicate matters, some authors write ‘prequels’.

I have read many crime series, but very few have I read in the order in which they were written. An exception is Ann Cleeves’ books about Jimmy Perez, the Shetland Quartet. And that is a series where, in my opinion (but for reasons I won’t explain – no spoilers here!) it is best to read them in order. Often, though, this is a luxury which a reader does not have. What if the early books are out of print (like my early Harry Devlin books), for instance?

As a rule of thumb, I am relaxed about reading a series out of order, and I think most readers should be. But the author’s side of the bargain is that it’s important to bear new readers in mind even when one is writing, say, book six in a series – one needs to sketch in the backstory, but with great economy, so that spoilers are avoided, and long-time readers do not become bored by repetition.


Anonymous said...

Martin - That's such an important question for an author. How to tell the story of a character and have that character grow and change, but the same time, welcome new readers who don't start with "Book 1." I think you do it well with your Lake District series. It's perhaps the fullest experience if one reads them in order, and that is what I suggest to people. But it's not necessary for a real enjoyment of each story.

Bernadette said...

I think I have decided I can't go backwards. So, if I start a series at book 4 then I am highly unlikely to go back and read books 1-3. This is mostly due to experiences where important 'spoilers' for previous stories are given away in subsequent books - often quite legitimately I might add because an author can't ignore major events that have occurred in their ongoing characters' lives but even so when you know what the big surprise it some of the enjoyment is missing from a reading experience.

So I will generally read chronologically/in order these days but I don't always start at the first book or I sometimes read number 1 and then skip a few, especially if it is a new author to me who has a dozen or more books to his or her name.

I must admit to wishing fervently for a few more short series such as the one you mentioned where you know there are only 4 books so even if you discover the author after everyone else you don't have 6 months worth of reading to catch up on (though rumours persist that Jimmy Perez will feature in a 5th book)

lyn said...

I usually like to read a series in order but sometimes I read a book in the middle because I come across it at work & love it & then have to try to find the earlier ones. I read Sue Grafton's F is for Fugitive first but then went back & read A-E & have continued with Kinsey Millhone ever since. By the way, I think Grafton does a really good job of filling in the back story for new readers without boring those of us who know it already. But, I read the last book of the Shetland Quartet first & I still have two to read (they're on the tbr pile at the moment). Although I know the ending, it hasn't spoilt the enjoyment of reading the other books to fill in the pieces. so, I don't have a hard & fast rule except that if I find a series I love, I really do want to read the whole series even if I've started in the middle.

Sarah Hilary said...

Great post, Martin. I agree that it doesn't matter over much to a reader, but to a writer there must be some fairness and, as you say, care taken over major spoilers. I recently read Mo Hayder's "Skin" and "Ritual" back to front, without realising at the time of reading the second one. These two books take place within 20 minutes of each other, so it was impressive to me that the first book wasn't ruined for me by having read the second one first. (But I wish I'd read them in the right order, for optimum effect!)

Fiona said...

Oh, I have to read a series in order if it's at all possible! I'm collecting Harry Devlin and am desperate to find the next one because I already have the one following. I love Elizabeth Peters' Amelia Peabody stories which, like the Shetland Quartet, really do need to be read in chronological order...only she has written several which fill in gaps in the sequence and one of them has a 'teaser' chapter for the next-to-be-published which gives a HUGE spoiler! When I lent the series to a friend I fastened those pages together with a clip and added a note 'Do not read this!' Once again, I claim this is why I became a librarian...I arrange everything possible in alphabetical or numerical order (except our own bookshelves!)

Minnie said...

Fascinating question and, as ever, enlightening: of course one should start at the beginning with series which offer character development (or 'proper novels' as a friend calls 'em). The point had never consciously struck me, but guides my reading of crime fiction nonetheless.
I always try to begin at the beginning, and used to get terribly annoyed if I found I was starting with the second or third in a sequence. Now sedulously check for publication daes!
You're absolutely right: the developmental factor's The Key - and brief back-story explanations are helpful in general; not just for the new 'joiner'.

Dorte H said...

Because of this ´modern trend´; letting protagonists develop quite a bit throughout a series, I try to read as many series as possible in order.

But if you find another great series (which happens to me almost every month with all the fabulous blogs I read) and find out there are ten or fifteen books before the book your friend recommended, I usually give up moving back. For most series it is possible to jump into it and move forward from that point.

An example: Seana recommended a Harry Bosch story last week which really made me curious. I bought no 17 in the series, and it didn´t matter that I had only read one or two very early ones. So I´ll probably pick up the series from there.

Martin Edwards said...

I've found these varied comments very thought-provoking and I suspect this is a subject I may come back to. Thanks very much, everyone.