Wednesday 2 October 2013

The Running Heroine - guest blog by Jessica Mann

The competing merits of stand-alone and series crime novels is a topic of perennial interest, and I'm delighted to say that Jessica Mann is today contributing a guest blog on this very topic.

"Off the top of your head how many crime writers can you think of whose books are all stand alone? In fact, can you think of any? Because even those who started with one-offs usually move on to re-using the same characters, as HRF Keating, did when the first Inspector Ghote followed five stand-alones. Authors can be bored by their running heroes, as Christie seemed to become with Poirot.  Lindsey Davis and Val McDermid  both gave themselves breaks recently , each writing a one-off novels, but then returned to their series characters, in, almost by definition, “series places”.

Other writers feature not so much series as recurring places and people. One is Michael Gilbert, of whom Martin Edwards wrote , “It is a feature of this author’s work that he regularly created fresh and engaging characters who would pop up in various novels and short stories, without any one achieving dominance.” Characters, and  places: having adopted Thomas Hardy’s cathedral city of Melchester in his first book, Close Quarters, he  revived that scene of crime thirty years later  in The Black Seraphim.   

I enjoy these surprise encounters even  more than meeting reliable old favorites. It was fun when Margery Allingham’s Amanda Fitton,  introduced  in  one of the  early, more light-hearted crime novels,  reappeared half a dozen books later in The Fashion In Shrouds,  after which she’s a fixture. Agatha Christie’s return to Hercule Poirot in her last book, Curtain, is in  a different category, as she wrote the book many years earlier and put it aside for later publication.

Minor characters reappear in my own books; and some  are connected by   series heroines.   Professor Thea Crawford,  reluctant detective in The Only Security and Captive Audience, plays a small part  in subsequent novels featuring her former  pupil,  the archaeologist Tamara Hoyland. Both of them know   Dr Fidelis Berlin, introduced  in A Private Inquiry, and taking  a minor role in Under A Dark Sun and a major one in The Voice From The Grave.

The  heroes and heroines of crime fiction  often grow up (as Margery Allingham’s Albert Campion did)  even reach retirement age, like Ian Rankin’s Rebus, but they usually remain vigorous and influential, as did Ngaio Marsh’s Alleyn. Very few  detective heroes  grow realistically old, though Ruth Rendell’s Wexford,  Peter Dickinson’s Pibble and Hercule Poirot do.

And I hope the septuagenarian Fidelis is credible  in my new book, Dead Woman Walking. One of its minor  characters, a young Isabel Drummond,  is revived forty years after her first appearance in  A Charitable End. It was my first novel – so perhaps it no longer counts as a stand-alone."


Kacper said...

Very interesting post! "Dead Woman Walking" is on my to-read list.

One writer who wrote predominantly standalones for the majority of her career is Elizabeth Ferrars. Towards the beginning of her very long career and then again towards the end she wrote some series (Toby Dyke in the 1940s, then estranged couple Virginia and Felix Freer and Professor Andrew Basnett in the 80s and 90s), but for the bulk of her career, from the late 40s to the late 70s, she wrote only standalone novels, featuring main characters of both genders - more often women than men - who are always amateurs who get caught up in murders unwittingly. Some of her heroes and heroines are virtually interchangeable - almost all of them are unfailingly sensitive, educated, introverted, reserved and highly intelligent - but I think Ferrars is an excellent writer and her standalone mysteries are exemplary. All of her best novels, like Enough to Kill a Horse and Sleeping Dogs, come from her standalone period, in my opinion.

Martin Edwards said...

Thanks, Kacper. I've read one or two Ferrars but not many. One of them actually gave me a story idea many years ago. I must try her again.

Sally Spedding said...

Very interesting! The first 3 and 4 lines pose a fascinating question. Yes, one does tend to remember the author of a crime series rather than of standalones, however for me, Friedrich Durrenmatts' The Pledge remains unbeaten, as does Mark Z. Danielewski's genre-defying House of Leaves.
Keep up the good work, Martin!