Monday, July 16, 2007

How do authors keep interest alive in a long-running series?

How does a writer preserve continuity while avoiding stagnation?

Readers of Donald Westlake's comic Dortmunder novels know that Dortmunder and his gang begin planning each heist with a meeting at the O.J. Bar & Grill on Amsterdam Avenue. We know the impassive bartender Rollo and the bathroom doors marked "Pointers" and "Setters." We also recognize the addled cast of regulars who bellow hilariously garbled questions and answers at one another.

The thirteenth Dortmunder novel, What's So Funny?, preserves the traditional opening by eliminating it:

"When John Dortmunder, relieved, walked out of Pointers and back to the main sales floor of the O.J. Bar & Grill on Amsterdam Avenue a little after ten that Wednesday evening in November, the silence was unbelievable, particularly in contrast with the racket that had been going on when he'd left. But now, no. Not a word, not a peep, not a word. The regulars all hunched at the bar were clutching tight to their glasses as they practiced their thousand-yard stare ..."
That works for readers new to Dortmunder, who may wonder what the silence is all about, and it was delicious for me, letting me relive memories of previous trips to the O.J. Bar & Grill while jolting me with a delightful surprise.

This got me thinking of the things authors do to keep a long-running series new while preserving its best features. How do your favorite crime writers do this? Pick a series that's been around awhile, preferably for eight or more books, and tell me what the author does to keep it fresh.

(Click here and here for previous posts on how series change over time.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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10 Comments:

Blogger Uriah Robinson said...

Hey, Peter that was the theme of my review of The Patience of the Spider.
Andrea Camilleri does not really have to freshen up the Montalbano series the characters are so strong and quirkily loveable that his readers accept slight plot weaknesses. Well at least I do!

July 16, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Where did you review The Patience of the Spider? I couldn't find a review on your blog or on Euro Crime.

In any case, I had noted in an earlier comment about how series change over time that Camilleri and Montalbano seem to have become more sympathetic and tender-hearted as the series goes on.

I probably thought of that more as a changing view of life on Camilleri's part than as a strategem to retain readers' interest. Westlake is especially good at the latter. Like any author, he has his "what if? moments. More than most, he turns his into books.

July 16, 2007  
Blogger Uriah Robinson said...

I have just posted the review of The Patience of the Spider it needed a rewrite. It was difficult to write anything about the plot without giving away a rather obvious twist.

July 16, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Ha! I was in the middle of a comment telling you that I had just found the review. Thanks.

July 16, 2007  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

Jane Haddam uses social and political commentary on current events to keep the Demarkian series fresh.

McDonald did that with Travis McGee, too. Stout and Wolfe, occasionally.

Trouble is, I don't read much crime fiction which takes place outside the US. I haven't read enough of the Scobie Malone series by Jon Cleary to know whether he keeps up with Aussie politics or not. Scobie seems like he might approve of John Howard.

July 21, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Thanks for the comment, and welcome to DBB.

I haven't read any Travis McGee stories, believe it or not, but the question of current events is interesting and perhaps worth a separate discussion. The trouble with current events is that they don't stay current; any author invoking them had better make sure the writing can hold readers who may be ignorant of the events involved. Of course, here we are discussing McDonald and Stout decades after they wrote, so they apparently succeeded. Reading your comment, I do seem vaguely to recall Rex Stout using current events. But his characters were so strong that he didn't have to rely on easy topical references.

What sorts of commentary does Jane Haddam include? In the matter of Australian politics, I wonder what Murray Whelan has to say in Shane Maloney's newest. Also, I've read just three Ian Rankin novels and one story, but I think he used scandals and other issues surrounding the construction of the Scottish parliament building as a hook in at least one of his books.

July 21, 2007  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

Haddam uses politics. In Hardscrabble Road, a right-wing radio commentator is on trial for possession of illegal drugs (not unlike a certain real-life radio ranter). In Glass Houses it's homeless policy.

Demarkian is based in Philly; the early books in particular have the Main Line rich as victims and perpetrators.

July 21, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Thanks. Based in Philly is all the more reason for me to take a look. And a pompous, self-promoting, cynical blowhard could make a good character, even if a reader has never heard of the commentator on which the character is absolutely not based, because any resemblance to real persons depicted in this work of fiction is purely coincidental.

July 21, 2007  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

Well, there are so many of that kind around it would be easy to mix them up.

I gotta get off the 'Net and go read that oh-so-British boarding school mystery, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Maybe you've heard of it? ;)

July 22, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Yeah, but how many of them went on trial for prescribing drugs illegally?

Harry who?

July 22, 2007  

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