How To Read Detective Novels

images.jpgThis month I am dedicating my reading to a wide variety of mystery or detective novels, some classics, some contemporary, and even a couple of pincher-hit authors. As I was collecting the list I noticed two things: first, twenty novels is woefully insufficient to cover the genre; and second, so many of the titles I selected were purposely early examples of narratives which developed into series consisting of numerous titles over many years.

Back in the 1980s I was introduced to the Travis McGee series and ate them right up. I also enjoyed Matthew Hope, Jason Bourne, Spenser with an “s” like the English poet, the 87th Precinct, the nameless detective, Hercule Poirot and Miss Jane Marple, Albert Campion, Sherlock Holmes, Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn, and several of the spy novels like James Bond, George Smiley, and even Modesty Blaise. I pretty much burned out on the mystery and suspense genres, only reading Georges Simenon on a regular basis for years.

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Books In a Series

There once was a website that itemized the many series’ found in the mystery genre, giving the titles, main characters, publishing dates, and even the chronological order of all the books. I’ve lost track of this site but suspect that it still exists, maybe in a “for-fee” arrangement. I don’t think I got involved with these mystery series until the 1980s when my wife (the librarian) introduced me to the likes of Fletch, Travis McGee, Monsieur Pamplemousse, Joe Leaphorn, and Spenser. I have followed these series mysteries somewhat faithfully, along with many others that at least held my interest for a few novels. There were definitely many low points in the series’ but I usually allowed the author an occasional dud and continued reading when the next book was published. Even the long-running Spenser slipped into mediocrity when Susan moved to Los Angeles, but she came back eventually and the series improved greatly.

I noticed a list of the most disappointing books of the year posted on the internet and wasn’t surprised to see that they were for the most part series novels and the common complain was that the author seemed to be just going through the motions, tossing a bunch of disjointed episodes into a book and calling it a novel. True, it could have been an off day for the author but it could also be the first sign of those maladies that affect series authors—as long as they keep pumping them out, the publisher is going to pay for them and the fans are going to buy them, so why worry about how good the novel is … just git ‘er done.

Another way the authors of series novels begin to show signs of literary exhaustion is that the novels begin to sound the same and rely on the same turns of plot or characterizations as earlier works with only slight changes. So either the narratives become repetitious and boring or the writing becomes sloppy and uncaring. In both instances, I believe the complaint of “Just going through the motions” is justified. Is this the inevitable direction of series novels, especially those in genre fiction, like mysteries?

There is also a conundrum that affects series novels—the author has to stick closely to the formulae but at the same time has to make it seem new and fresh. I remember reading the Anthony Hope novels and recognizing that each book started out with the same introductory comments. I forgave the author by associated the beginning of his books with the inevitable introductory scenes of many television shows (“This is the story of a man named Brady …”). Hillerman and Parker mixed things up in their fiction so I generally didn’t get the overwhelming sense of boring repetition, but John D. McDonald seemed to have come up with a blueprint for Travis McGee and all of his novels began to sound the same. Does anyone who read even one of the Travis McGee novels need an explanation of Travis’ line of work, his attitude toward retirement, or how he came to own the Busted Flush?

Not all series novels are genre fiction but in the more literary books,they tend to go by collection names like “trilogy.” Although for the most part these collections do not suffer the limitations of series novels, they do have their high and low points. Also, there must be some magic in designating three books a trilogy. I can accept The Cairo Trilogy since the three novels follow the same family through the years, but the trilogy of Joyce Carol Oates’ early novels still escapes me (and now I understand they have added her next book, making it a quadrilogy which, presumably, generates even more magic for the publisher). I like to think that these collections are more important because they are excellent candidates for becoming a boxed-set on the Christmas table.

What mystery series’ have you been following? Remember, although Sue Grafton did not write, “D Is For Dud,” still, not every book in an extended series is finest-kind.

Another question I often ask:  Have you read the d’Artagnan series and do you remember the names of all the novels?