Tuesday, June 24, 2008

On the overlap of different series by the same author

I don't know how applicable this is to authors other than the one in question simply because few have written as many crime fiction series over so many years. So think of this post as some interested comments on the ways of Donald Westlake.

Dirty Money is the twenty-fifth in the long-running series of novels about the thorough, amoral thief, Parker, that Westlake writes under the name Richard Stark. The novel is given to bits of grim humor of the kind not found in the earliest Parker books:

"`You kill a lawman,' [Parker] said, `you're in another zone. McWhitney and I are gonna have to work this out.'

"`But not on the phone.'

"Parker yawned. `Nothing on the phone ever,' he said. `Except pizza.'"
Earlier incarnations of Parker never would have cracked wise like that. Now would they, upon being told by a bounty hunter that "The last time I saw you, you were driving a phony police car," have replied: "The police car was real. I was the phony. You were there?"

Similarly, Comeback, the 1997 novel that revived Parker after a twenty-five year hiatus, opens with the sort of farcical touch far more characteristic of Westlake's comic caper novels about John Dortmunder than of the pre-hiatus Parkers. The tone is grimmer, but the comic touch is decidedly present.

Elsewhere in the sprawling Westlake/Stark oeuvre, recent novels seem touched by the sombre sympathy for the economically hard-pressed that marked Westlake's novel The Axe. That book's protagonist is a laid-off executive driven to extreme acts by his induced unemployment. In the 2006 Parker novel Ask the Parrot, Stark/Westlake drops the earlier device of having Parker assemble a string of specialists to pull a robbery. Instead, Parker joins forces, against his will at first, with an embittered recluse to rob the racetrack that laid him off unfairly.

The cross-series boundary jumping also marks what might be Westlake's finest work, Walking Around Money, the Dortmunder novella that forms part of the Transgressions series edited by EdMcBain. The goings-on are farcically funny, as they usually are with Dortmunder, but the vignettes of a troubled upstate New York town are touching.

So, what about it, readers? What other crime writers have, if not quite borrowed from themselves, let one corner of their work influence another?

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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18 Comments:

Blogger Sandra Ruttan said...

Don't they all, in some fashion?

Brian and I were just talking about this, about how when you look back on someone's body of work you begin to see parallels within it. One of the things I like about writing a series is that it keeps it in your mind, first and foremost, to write a different book and not just recycle the prior one. Writing standalones, you actually have to remember the same thing.

But ultimately, I think authors are usually interested in certain themes/topics/writing styles and so you'll find those things sneaking in on some level. More general than the specific case of Westlake, perhaps.

June 24, 2008  
Anonymous Wade Ogletree said...

Foreign mystery. I'm so glad I'm not the only one. I notice you haven't reviewed "The Eye of Jade" by Diane Wei Liang. The author fled China after the Tiananman Square incident and now, living in London, sets her detective series in Beijing.

I read this, the first in the series, while on vacation in China. I mention it in the blog post, linked here, at my site, betterfiction.com

June 24, 2008  
Blogger GJG said...

time and events affect each and everyone of us---are concepts of fairness, evil etc all are in constant update and revision, as such it only seems natural this would be refected in any authors continue characterizations, in short the character evolves along with the authors real life views to some extent. Art imitating life maybe?

June 24, 2008  
Blogger Dana King said...

No other authors come to mind. Robert B. Parker has a lot of characteristics in common among his three series, but that's not an evolution so much as all three series are essentially the same, with different characters.

I agree about WALKING AROUND MONEY. Great story; maybe my favorite Dortmunder.

June 24, 2008  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

Hmm. I'm trying to think about J.A. Jance's two major series characters, Joanna Brady (Bisbee, Az's chief of police) and J. P. Beaumont (former Seattle cop, now Washington State investigator). There's loss of a spouse in common in the first book of each series, but as to similar viewpoints bleeding over from one to another? I'm not so sure.

June 24, 2008  
Anonymous John S said...

Laura Lippman's PI Tess Monaghan lives in the same semi-fictional Baltimore as the characters in her three stand-alone novels. "The paper" is always the fictional Beacon-Light and not the real Baltimore Sun, for one thing. And after the police detective Nancy anchored EVERY SECRET THING, Lippman had her chat with Tess Monaghan about a case in the next Tess book.

June 24, 2008  
Blogger John McFetridge said...

http://www.elmoreleonard.com/index.php?/forums/viewthread/94/P195/

Elmore Leonard uses many characters (usually minor) in all his books so that while he has never written 'series' books, taken together they now make up a single series with a through line from the westerns to the modern-day books.

June 24, 2008  
Blogger Martin Edwards said...

There are many fascinating overlaps and subtle cross-refernces in Andrew Taylor's books - including the latest, Bleeding Heart Square.

June 24, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Westlake makes an interesting field of exploration because of the length and breadth of his bibliography. I'm not sure how many crime authors have written as many series as he has. Stuart M. Kaminsky, maybe.

It's easy to understand an author exploring certain themes for a book or two in a series. It's even more interesting when the exploration crosses lines not just betweeen series, but between different types of series, comic and hard-boiled in Westlake's case.

June 24, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

John S.: Laura Lippman is someone I've been thinking of reading. If I read multiple books of hers, I'll be interested in seeing how her standalones differ from her Tess Monaghan books (other than having different protagonists, of course), and whether there is such thing as a "Lippman touch" or at least themes and concerns common to both types of books.

Sandra: You talked about parallels one sees when looking back over a body of work. Such parallels have a greater field on which to play themselves out in a body of work the size of Westlake's. I think he's written more than a hundred novels.

June 24, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Wade: Thanks for the note. I don't generally read reviews before I read a book, but I just glanced at a discussion of The Eye of Jade. The author found a fertile theme when she decided to write about antiquities surfacing after the Cultural Revolution. I wonder if someone will write about Iraq in the same way.

June 24, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

GJG: Yep re art imitating life, and perhaps especially in Westlake's case. If I'm not mistaken, he lives in upstate New York. A number of the scenes that I had in mind when I made this post, scenes of of people and places not exactly fallen on hard times, say, but rather scuffling to keep up, are laid in upstate New York and in Western Massachusetts.

Such concerns were not unprecedented in his writing when they began turning up with greater frequency. Dortmunder has always been a kind of working-class thief, smart but not always lucky, and certainly not living high. But it's hard not to notice that Westlake started paying more attention to phenomena like layoffs, not-terribly-prosperous businesses and the like during times when the U.S. was supposedly going through an economic boom. Westlake is never overtly political, and perhaps not even covertly so. Perhaps he is just doing a writer's job of keeping his eyes open to what he sees with his own eyes and not just to what he is told is happening in his own country.

June 25, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dana: Both Parker's other series are spin-offs of Spenser, are they not?

It's easy to enumerate differences between Walking Around Money and the other Dortmunders, starting with the stripped-down cast of characters. It's not as easy to figure out how Westlake makes it all work so well. But Walking Around Money has one of the great last lines ever, all the more impressive because it works as a comic punch line and as a dramatic one at the same time.

June 25, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

And finally, to the stirringly named trio of Linkmeister, Martin and John, I realized that I have just begun reading a novel by a writer whose breadth, variety and longevity might fit him for consideration here: Peter Lovesey. I don't know his work nearly as well as I know Westlake's. I do know that he has a wonderfully light comic touch and that he can bring that touch to bear even on the darker Peter Diamond stories.

I wonder what sorts of comparisons people who have read as much of J.A. Jance as I have of Westlake might make between her handling of the loss of spouse in the two series.

The only complete Leonard work I have read, believe it or not, is the stunning "3:10 to Yuma," a story that makes it very easy to imagine connections between Leonard's brand of Western on the one hand, and noir on the other.

Martin, tease me into wanting to read Andrew Taylor. What are some of those overlaps and cross-references?

June 25, 2008  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

Equal angst in both, but compounded by the circumstances in which each dies. Brady decided to run for election to her deceased husband's job as sheriff after learning who killed him. Beaumont had a more direct role in his wife's death, and she wasn't an innocent bystander or investigator anyway (I'm trying to avoid spoilers here; that's why that's such a convoluted sentence).

Another example to be studied might be Laurence Block's Matt Scudder character versus his Bernie Rhodenbarr character. Bernie's a fairly lighthearted burglar, Scudder's a recovering alcoholic (or becomes one halfway through the series). I've read a couple of the Scudder books, but I've read all the Bernie ones. I'm not qualified to make comparisons between the two.

June 25, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I've read a few of the Scudder books and the Rhodenbarr short stories. I have no observations along Westlake lines about them, but throw in Block's books about Keller, Tanner and Chip Harrison, plus his standalones, and he has certainly written enough for someone to make such observations.

June 25, 2008  
Anonymous Michael Walters said...

In terms of character recurrence, Phil Rickman's books spring to mind. His early novels were standalones, rather in the Stephen King style, but various characters from those books have reappeared in his more recent Merrily Watkins series. And there's also John Harvey's introduction of Charlie Resnick in walk-on parts in his Frank Elder books.

June 25, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I realize I have taken upon myself the task not just of reading a few new books, but rather of exploring entire new fictional worlds. I haven't yet read Rickman or Harvey. I may read John Harvey first, since he's coming to the U.S. in the fall.

June 25, 2008  

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