Monday 15 February 2010

When Should a Series End?

One of the fascinations about the fast-paced conversations that blogging and social networks facilitate is that a single contribution to debate can create a fresh and intriguing direction for the discussion. The way in which these cyberspace conversations mimic, yet differ from, spoken conversations would be a good field for research.

But today my focus is on a thought-provoking comment made on this blog by Paul Beech in relation to detective series. He asked: when should a series end? Let me quote directly from him:

‘The author running out of steam or simply fancying a change doesn’t quite justify a “never again” ending with a popular character, surely? After all the author might discover a fresh head of steam after a break. But what if the series was conceived thematically as a cycle and this is now complete? Or if the character’s personal goal is achieved – a relationship (Daniel Kind / Hannah Scarlett), reconciliation with a daughter (John Harvey’s Frank Elder), etc. Is it then time, regretfully perhaps, to move on?’

Series can come to an end, or an apparent end, in a variety of ways. Conan Doyle decided to dispose of Sherlock Holmes because he became frustrated that detective stories were getting in the way of his other activities – but, of course, public pressure forced him into a re-think. Nicolas Freeling, presumably bored with his finest creation, killed off Van Der Valk, but then had the detective’s widow investigate subsequent cases.

More commonly, an author decides upon a change of direction, but prudently avoids killing off the detective – just in case. It's still relatively uncommon for series to be conceived thematically as a cycle, although as Paul says, it does happen. Increasingly in the money- and sales-driven business climate of the modern publishing world, the decision is taken out of the author’s hands when the publishers simply decree that they will not produce any more books featuring a particular detective. If the author is lucky, the publisher will accept further books with a different set-up. But often, nowadays, the author is cut adrift. I can think of several friends who have suffered this fate, and it is a great shame.

Oddly, an unsuccessful television series can so disappoint a writer that they are reluctant to write about the character again – the protagonist has, in a sense, been ‘spoiled’ in their eyes. I can think of two British writers, one male and one female, of whom this could be said.

Sometimes, it’s simply the case that the author’s focus switches, and the framework and characters he or she has created in the series do not accommodate a more ambitious approach. This is, you might say, the Dorothy L. Sayers conundrum. Lord Peter Wimsey began almost as a Bertie Wooster type of character, but became a much more serious and substantial figure in later books. Arguably, she might have created a major new series detective, but she preferred to stick with Wimsey. Likewise, Margery Allingham’s Albert Campion evolved quite remarkably as the years went by. Today, I think publishers would prefer their authors to make a fresh start.

In my own case, I wrote seven successive books featuring Harry Devlin, as well as a number of short stories. I then decided that I wanted a change, even though it would have been possible to take up a further contract offer. By the time I’d written a non-series book and was ready to return to Harry, my editor had moved on – and my new editor suggested a series with a rural setting. Hence The Coffin Trail and the beginning of the Lake District Mysteries.

However, I never lost my enthusiasm for Harry, and when Liverpool was European Capital of Culture in 2008, it provided the perfect opportunity to revive him in Waterloo Sunset. It was a book I really enjoyed writing, and I think it is possibly the best of all the Devlins. But commercially, there is not as much demand for that series as for the Lake District Mysteries, so it will (unfortunately) be some time before Harry returns. But I hope he will, one day.

As for Paul’s question about Hannah and Daniel getting together – we’ll just have to wait and see! But here's a hint: their developing relationship is the spine of the series, but I didn't conceive the series in cyclical terms. In my mind, it's very much open-ended. A journey without a particular end in sight....



Fiona said...

Interesting post Martin! I've recently seen this with a series I've been following for many years, the Mitchell & Markby books by Ann Granger. A major point of interest in the books was the relationship between the eponymous couple and 'will they, won't they marry?' The last in the series ended with the resolution of the question, and Granger's next publication has as the main character one who previously appeared in a supporting role - just as Peter Lovesey has done with Hen Mallinson from the Peter Diamond books. Personally I like the ploy - it's a gentler transition to a new series which doesn't require a complete change of loyalties to brand new characters.

Anonymous said...

Martin, you've written some good thoughts on the life of a series. I know that I am always sorry to see a favorite series seem to come to an end. However, I also know that sometimes, it is time. What is hard for me to adjust to is when an author begins to write faster and faster and the stories become formulaic or trite. Yes, the character appears more often and we, the readers, get to experience the fun at a faster pace, but often it's to the detriment of the characters or stories. And then I find that I'm ready for the series end. Interesting question.

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Great points, Martin! Like Fiona, I follow the Granger books and thought it was interesting the way she's ended her series. I like the idea of a "spin-off" of a supporting character into their own series.

Mystery Writing is Murder

Ann Elle Altman said...

You put a thought-provoking question out there, Martin. I have two recurring detectives in my novels and at his point I dont have an end in mind. I have other books that are stand alone but I know when their books are done, I feel a sense of loss. For me, I think I'll just know when it'll be the end. I hope anyway.


Rob Kitchin said...

Michael Connelly keeps his series of Harry Bosch novels fresh by rotating in a set of three of other characters to take the lead in different books - Mickey Haller, Terry McCaleb, Jack McEvoy, with Bosch playing a supporting role. Philip Kerr rested Bernie Gunther for a good few years and then thankfully resurrected the series. If the character works for both writer and reader then it's worth continuing, but there is nothing worse for a writer than scripting something one is tired of or no longer believes in, or for a reader in spending time on a series that has lost its sparkle and has become formulaic and dull. I know I've stopped reading a couple of series because I felt the author was simply treading water.

Anonymous said...

Martin - That's a really interesting question to think about (as all of your questions are). There certainly are a lot of reasons for which an author might want to end a series, and there are just as many reasons to continue a series. As I read your post, I thought about the number of authors, like Agatha Christie and Colin Dexter, who've killed off their protagonist. As you say, the danger of that is that it is a bit final I think I prefer what you've done, which is to simply start another series.

Anonymous said...

I was actually just thinking about this topic last night as I watched David Tennant's last turn as The Doctor in Doctor Who: The End of Time. Although that's television, it is a series and of course they're keeping the series, but with a regenerated, 'new' Doctor.

I think it's important for a series to end 'on top', and killing should only be done as a last resort. Christie killed off Poirot, but then again, she was nearing the end of her own life, so this is very justifiable.

For my own 'series', I've three books planned with my main character, Miranda, a possible spin-off including her brother. I then plan on leaving the series alone for a while, ending it, so to speak, but with the possibility of picking it back up in later years.

On this side of the pond there are a series of 'cozy' mysteries by Rita Mae Brown which started off as wonderful character studies, though in later book, the characters changed dramatically and the books became a platform for the author to espouse her personal and political views.

Of course, the author can do what she likes, but this ruined the 'cozy' aspect of the series for me. Such themes would have been better in a different series.

Great topic, Martin! Thanks for posting.

Maxine Clarke said...

Very enjoyable post and discussion. Sometimes a series gets past its sell-by date, for sure, but I think that some readers enjoy the annual predictability even so. I like series which develop and have themes that build up and evolve, and indeed branch out along the lines Rob describes, along the way - a mix of familiarity (building up a back story of a character, or a future for them), and added freshness. Robert Crais is another author who has injected his series with new characters via initially "standalone" novels in this way (Demolition Angel) that Rob describes for Michael Connelly. Other authors who have done this include Karin Slaughter (Triptych) and Jonathan Kellerman (forget the title, but book about a female cop called Petra, now integrated into the Alex/Milo novels).

I did read the first several of those Ann Grainger novels, but for me they were just too formulaic to continue with after the first half dozen or so. I did like her more gritty series, featuring Fran Varaday, though.

Some series just end before their time - we've mentioned before Liza Cody and Anna Lee (I don't know whether that was a TV effect as you mention for some other authors, Martin).

Ann Cleeves, who blogged here the other day, has said she will return to her Shetland quartet in some way even though she has written all four books- I am glad because I am sure there is life in that series. As there is, very much, in your Lake District series, Martin. I know that The Serpent Pool is barely out in the UK yet, but already I am very eager for the next installment! Hannah and Daniel are certainly on a slow burn!

R/T said...

In most cases, I am indifferent about the demise of series (novels). And, in most cases, it seems to me, the author who chooses to move on in a new direction does so for a variety of acceptable reasons, not the least of which is the author's desire to find new challenges with different characters and settings.

Now, with that generalization out of the way, I contradict myself by saying that I was very disappointed by Colin Dexter's decision to "terminate" Morse. His reasons for doing so remain inexplicable to me. It is almost as though I have lost a close acquaintance or family member. Does this mean, perhaps, that I became overly fond of the irascible Morse? Perhaps.

In any case, I've read all of the Morse books except the last, which I refuse to do because of the "termination." I guess that means I am in denial about Morse's fate.

This leads me to challenge you and others with the question: Has any series provoked you as much as Dexter's Morse has provoked me.

Dorte H said...

Oh, there are so many interesting questions and comments both in your post and the discussion.

Personally I love series and had not nearly had enough of Inspector Morse. I second Maxine; one of the joys of all those great series is that I know I will get more. Still, Nicole is right that a series should end on top. One of my pet peeves is Cornwell´s Scarpetta series which began so well but has grown absurd years ago.

I suppose one way of making sure you will not have to kill off a popular protagonist is to focus on varied and compelling plots, not let (the private life of) an interesting protagonist carry the whole burden. So if a crime writer wants to write a bildungsroman, he or she had better write stand-alones, not series.

lyn said...

Thanks for such an interesting post, Martin. I love detective series & I'm always sorry when an author changes characters. I enjoy getting to know the characters & reacquainting myself with them in each book. (I'm glad you have no plans to end the Lake District series just yet). Sometimes it's the publisher who decides not to go ahead & that can be devastating for author & readers. Kate Charles' Psalms series ended abruptly this way. She wrote some excellent stand alones & has now started a new series with an Anglican setting. So, all is not always lost.

Martin Edwards said...

Many thanks for these fascinating comments. They are very thought-provoking, and I will respond more fully once I've had a chance to mull over the ideas about the nature, as well as the appeal, of a series.