Friday, January 07, 2011

Lone wolf or cast of thousands?

Yesterday's post, which asked Who is the hero in a Sjöwall and Wahlöö novel?, has given rise to a vigorous, ongoing discussion that suggests some practical advantages to deploying a cast of protagonists rather than a lone-wolf hero in a long-running crime-fiction series:

"As I.J. notes, it's simple common sense. The "lone wolf" detective (à la Harry Bosch), as appealing as this type can be, is not very realistic. Eventually, it's a dead end."
and

"another `why' might be: to keep characters and plots from growing stale."

Do multiple protagonists make it easier for an author to keep a long-running series fresh? How? Why? How do series with lone-wolf protagonists compensate?

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

Labels: , , , , ,

47 Comments:

Anonymous Elisabeth said...

"How do series with lone-wolf protagonists compensate?"

One way, as Michael Dibdin did with Aurelio Zen, was to place his detective in a different city/province of Italy with each new book. So, the scenography and (most of) the cast of supporting characters changed with each new book.

Other authors tinker with the "facts" of the personal and professional lives of their main protagonists--death in the family, relationship/marital break-ups, new boss/new co-workers, promotion/demotion, etc.

January 07, 2011  
Blogger Bernadette in Australia said...

I must admit that of the series/authors I've followed for a while my preference seems to be for the team approach. I think perhaps if Patrica Cornwell had put Kay Scarpetta in a team instead of making her the maverick loner she is we might not have seen the series jump the shark by bringing characters back from the dead and having the hero be targeted by every serial killer on the planet. That kind of unbelievable nonsense just tends to creep in more with the lone wolf approach I think.

January 07, 2011  
Blogger seana said...

I don't think it matters much, to tell the truth. People who write single protagonist series that catch on may strain internally to find the next story, but the public clamors for more. Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum, Sue Grafton's Alphabet series, and so on speak to the possibility of keeping a lively series going without ceding the title role. But partnerships and ensemble casts seem to work as well.

It's interesting that television crime stories seem to rely on large casts to tell the story rather than a central character more than novels do. Both the Law and Order franchise and the CSI franchise seem to have a central character or two, but devolve the story on to a large cast of extras fairly frequently. The original Law and Order switched out characters quite frequently, and was none the worse for wear for a long time.

January 07, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Elisabeth, Dibdin's strategy also took nice advantage of the national scope of Italy's police, as I think Simenon sometimes did with the similar national scope of French police in the Maigret novels.

The tinkering with protagonists' lives can also include altering their relationships with alcohol, as in the case of one of the series illustrated in this post.

January 07, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Bernadette, I have not read Patricia Cornwell, but your comment is a nice illustration of the phenomenon that sparked this post. I have also seen the occasional complaint that Lawrence Block's Matt Scudder became less interesting once he stopped drinking. This struck me as one possible hazard of the lone-wolf protagonist. Once one removes a defining trait, what does one replace it with in the asbence of another character to whom one can shift the focus?

January 08, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, Janet Evanovich may be another good illustration. You know that she has the writing chops, and I may have mentioned that I laughed out loud at the humorous family set pieces in the first four books. But when she introduced a psychotic boxer a nemesis for Stephanie, I thought, Evanovich can write this character, but what the hell is he doing in these books? He seemed too calculated an effort to shake things up.

January 08, 2011  
Anonymous Linkmeister said...

MacDonald added Meyer to the McGee books, but he was a specialist.

Stout had both Wolfe and Archie, and even Cramer got a book of his own (Red Threads, I think).

I never really got going with Sue Grafton's books, or with Sara Paretsky's Warshawski novels.

I think the TV cop show which started the ensemble idea was Hill Street Blues; CSI and Law and Order are following in that tradition. Hawaii Five-O went along with the idea of one major character surrounded by subordinates that first showed up on American TV (I think) in Dragnet.

I think the author has a choice to make depending on his/her feeling about the character(s). Evanovich clearly adores Plum; the rest of the characters are necessary but as foils rather than as principals. Bochko and his crew on Hill Street seemed to be as fond of Belker, LaRue, Washington, Bates, Coffey and Bobby Hill as they were of Furillo and Joyce.

January 08, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Linkmeister, didn't Doll Bonner get a book or two of her own, too? Stout also made wonderful use of Wolfe's cast of pay-by-the-hour operatives to change things up from time to time.

Hill Street Blues is certainly the show that popularized the ensemble approach to police procedurals, though you'll know that Ed McBain once thought of suing Steven Bochco over alleged theft of the idea.

Incidentally, I have just read the even McBain did come to the ensemble approach right away. Apparently the early 87th Precinct novels focused more strongly on Steve Carella.

I was fond of Belker on Hill Street Blues, to the point of occasionally slapping a wool-glove-clad fist to my mouth and growling.

January 08, 2011  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

V.I. Warshawski and Harry Bosch are lone wolves (?), which works, however Michael Connelly has introduced the attorney Mickey Haller, so Bosch and Haller did a duet in the last book, "The Reversal."

I think single protagonists and teams work, depending on how the author does it.

Sara Paretsky does change V.I.'s personal life around, and Connelly drastically changed Bosch's in "The Nine Dragons."

One thing about Donna Leon's books is that Brunetti does turn to others to help in investigations, although he solves the crimes, as is true with most series with a lead protagonist, even with a team.

January 08, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Kathy, I don't think anyone would doubt that lone wolves work well. The interesting question, and one I had never considered before, was whether such an approach is more difficult to keep fresh over a long series.

January 08, 2011  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

Of the series I read, there are changes--V.I. Warshawski makes changes in her personal life, Harry Bosch has serious changes now, Sharon McCone had family changes.

January 08, 2011  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

Evanovich created a construct adapted to a very specific female audience. She came at her mysteries from a romance background and decided to appeal to both camps. There are additional twists that were included to make the books bestsellers. Of course, there's nothing realistic about any of the books, but a few were funny.

My preference is for police procedurals, but with a protagonist who also works with a team. My favorite author is R.D.Wingfield. Inspector Frost is somewhat of a loner though there are other police officers, but Frost's character is so powerful that he doesn't need sidekicks.

I do use a sidekick, and may add new ones in the future. I also shift locale. But my protagonist is the most important character to me, and his personal life and his personality play a big part in the novels. Since life isn't static, I trust that the novels aren't either.

January 08, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Kathy, at least two authors have made interesting changes related to their lone-wolf protagonists' alcoholism, Lawrence Block's Matt Scudder gives up drinking and, in one of the novels at least, is periodically stopping in at AA meeting at odd hours -- a poignant touch. Ken Bruen's Jack Taylor gives up dinking, and in one book he lacerates himself by lining up a row of drinks -- and not touching them.

January 08, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I.J., I knew about Evanovich's background in romance writing. That's where the whole Morello, will-they-or-won't-they-get-together subplot comes from, I imagine, and also the later tension with Ranger in later book comes from (I read just the first four novels.) I'm not a romance reader, but I though Evanovich handled that aspect well, and occasionally with a bit more spice than I'd have expected. Another thing in Evanovich's favor is that she can write. Her likening of Trenton in the summer to the inside of a pizza oven in the fourth book sold me on her, and the opening of the first book, I think it was, reads like a screwball Jane Austen. The woman can write.

In re your preference for a protagonist who works with a team and your own use of a sidekick for your own protagonist, I wonder idly who the most lone-wolf of lone-world protagonists is. It could well be someone in noir.

January 08, 2011  
Anonymous Linkmeister said...

"who the most lone-wolf of lone-wolf protagonists is."

Jack Reacher? From Wikipedia: "a drifter, the only possessions he carries are money, a foldable toothbrush and, after 9/11, an expired passport. He wears his clothing for 2–3 days before discarding it"

'Course, there's Eastwood's Man with no Name in the Leone movies, too.

January 08, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

No sidekicks for Reacher, or friends on the inside?

January 08, 2011  
Blogger Dana King said...

I hadn't thought about it much until I read your post (funny how often that phrase comes to mind when i read this blog), but you're right. Either the lone wolf or the ensemble can work, and either can last a good long while, but the ensemble can draw from different characters fort different story elements. I sometimes think of authors who write ensemble casts sitting down like peter Graves at the beginning of an old MISSION IMPOSSIBLE episode, going through the head shots of his "team," picking the ones he'll need for this caper.

I've often wondered why authors haven't spun characters off into their own novels more, like Robert Crais does with Joe Pike. What Spenser fan wouldn't have read a book where Hawk was the lead? Sean Chercover won several awards for a story in which he spun Gravedigger Peace off from his Ray Dudgeon character.

January 08, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dana: I had not thought about this question until some commenters raised it in a previous string. And that's a nice image, of authors deciding whom to deploy for each caper.

January 08, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I.J., make that Morelli and not Morello in the Evanovich books, of course. My apologies to all Plum-lovers.

January 08, 2011  
Blogger Yvette said...

Yes, a good combo of lone wolf with a varying cast of characters is author Lee Child's Jack Reacher. Same lone wolf knight in every book, surrounded by a different cast of characters. Possibly why his books are so popular. (Besides the fact that they are well written and well conceived.)

Peter, I'm glad to read your appreciationg of Janet Evanovich. I've always thought that the cast of characters was vitally important in this series. Without the loonies serving back-up, Stephanie's adventures would not work nearly as well OR be as funny.

I like a well thought out, interesting cast of characters backing up the protagonist, but I'm not fond of going away from the main character's point of view. Rarely do I like this. Though a couple of authors do it all right.

Rex Stout never went away from Archie and I never tire of reading and rereading those books.

January 08, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yvette:

Nocturne, one of the two Ed McBain novels I've read, alternated points of view as it told parallel stories, and the action was orchestrate brilliantly. It's one of the most impressive performances by an author I've read.

I suppose a lone wolf always needs some kind of supporting cast, though such other characters in, say, a David Goodis novel serve only to emphasize how alone the protagonist really is.

Rex Stout deployed his supporting characters beautifully. I love this bit from then ovella "Counterfeit for Murder," part of Homicide Trinity:

"He spoke. `Saul and Fred and Orrie. At eight in the morning in my room.'

"My brows went up. Saul Panzer is the best operative south of the North Pole. His rate is ten dollars and hour and he is worth twenty. Fred Durkin's rate is seven dollars and he is worth seven-fifty. Orrie Cather's rate is also seven dollars and he is worth six-fifty."

January 08, 2011  
Anonymous Linkmeister said...

And we all know (or those of us who read A Family Affair know) what happened to Orrie!

January 08, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

What happened to Orrie was stunning, ingenious and daring for series crime fiction.

January 08, 2011  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

This is nostalgic for me.

My high school days, sitting in my room with the huge branches of a tree tapping at my window, with sun streaming in, devouring Nero Wolfe's books, among others. But these were favorites. (Also, our family name is the same as one of the detectives in this series, a hoot for a teenaged reader.)

I think I will have a period of revisiting Archie and his detectives, especially since Yvette wrote a list of suggested titles. (Now to find them at my library which maddeningly puts "classic" books into a noncirculating system!)

January 08, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Kathy: Your family name also occurs in the title of a popular Irish folk song. "Linkmeister" is a king of Nero Wolfe who I think has helped prepare Wolfe bibliographies. You might also seek advice from him.

January 08, 2011  
Anonymous Linkmeister said...

Peter, that's kind of you. I actually merely helped compile a list of books mentioned in the "canon" which Wolfe had read/was reading. That list along with a whole slew of other Wolfe material is now available at The Wolfe Pack site (somewhere -- it was part of a major fan site which was taken over by the Pack when Yahoo discontinued Geocities where it had formerly resided). That site has tons of material and is fun to browse.

January 08, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

You're still a Wolfe king and my go-to guy for the big man.

January 08, 2011  
Blogger Yvette said...

I cannot bring myself to read A FAMILY AFFAIR. It's the only book in the canon, I don't reread. It's too upsetting.

Daring, yes. But heartbreaking, aggravating and just plain sad. Especially since in DEATH OF A DOXY, Wolfe and Archie saved Orrie's bacon.

I reread all the books every few years. All except this one.

January 08, 2011  
Blogger Yvette said...

Peter, Stout uses this line about Saul, Fred and Orrie every now and then. There was also another detective in the beginning, Johnny Keems, I think. He was killed on a case in a particularly nasty way.

And it was doubly interesting because Wolfe and Archie never really liked Johnny, so of course, they had to try doubly hard to find his killer.

January 08, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yvette, the story certainly hits hard for precisely the reasons you suggest. How many authors would dare to take such a step in a long-running series? I respect Rex Stout greatly for having taken it.

January 08, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yvette, I've only read the line about Saul, Fred and Orrie in the one book, but if I came up with a line that good, I'd be tempted to reuse it, too.

Interesting that that earlier detective should have been killed "in a particularly nasty way." I recall the interesting comment I once read the Stout fused the English tradition of the eccentric detective, in the person of Wolfe, with the American hard-boiled tradition, in the person of Archie. A nasty killing would be another expression of Stout's hard-boiled side.

January 08, 2011  
Blogger Yvette said...

Yes, I agree Peter. I've heard that description of the roles of Wolfe and Archie. It is apt. You could almost say that Wolfe and Archie are two halves of the same self.

I've often surmised that Archie and Wolfe love each other, just not in a sexual way. Their devotion to each other is certainly the glue that holds this series together.

January 08, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yvette, it's male bonding of a kind unique in crime fiction, as far as I know. I wonder if Stout deliberately blended the English and American styles in the manner that that comment suggested.

January 08, 2011  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

I hate Stout. Those horrid solution scenes in his office with N.W. as the poseur and the suspects lined up in chairs before him! Don't care for the orchid crap either.

I do like Reacher. He is a grand creation of the loner with an almost mythic quality. The books are, alas, thrillers, but I have a notion that the mythic thing is getting stronger and we may be heading for a quest-type series.

January 09, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Stout does not top my list, but I can appreciate some of what he does. Apropos some recent subjects here, he seemed both to give longtime readers what they want and had come to expect, while throwing in the occasional surprise. And the one alluded to above is a real surprise.

I've never read Lee Child, though the Reacher books have been the subject of some recent eye-rolling from people whose judgment I respect. My conclusion? De gustibus non disputandum est.

January 09, 2011  
Blogger Yvette said...

The male bonding worked for Sherlock Holmes and Watson. Works for Robert Crais excellent Elvis Cole and Joe Pike series, even now when he's gone over to a series of books in which Pike takes the lead. Last year's book THE FIRST RULE was superb. I hear that this year's book THE SENTRY is even better. I can't wait to read it.

I don't read Latin, but I will say that I am a big fan of Lee Child.
The two Jack Reacher books in 2010 were incredibly good.

I love Rex Stout.

January 09, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yvette, that was the Latin for "There's no accounting for taste."

Did you see Guy Ritchie's recent Sherlock Holmes movie. Speaking of keeping series fresh and of male bonding, I thought the movie did some interesting things with Holmes and Watson, namely making Holmes more dissipated than usual and depicting greater friction between him and Watson.

January 09, 2011  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

Male bonding is so much a part of the mystery genre I couldn't even begin to list examples from Donna Leon to Robert Parker, Stephen White to Peter Temple, Sjowall and Wahloo and so many more, and of course, as has been said Arthur Conan Doyle.

January 10, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yes, the examples are countless. One interesting spin on the device is that Ken Bruen's Jack Taylor and Jo Nesbo's Harry Hole have had trusted female companions and colleagues.

January 10, 2011  
Blogger Yvette said...

It's interesting, I'm not fond of male/female bonding pairs in mysteries. All except for Laurie R. King's Holmes and Russell series, that is.

Otherwise, I can't bring myself to believe that a male detective with experience will ever trust a woman as back-up. No matter how much tv shows try to MAKE me believe it. It just doesn't compute for me. Oh I believe men and women can be pals, but I'm not sure it's all equal when it comes to life-saving moments where physicality is key. This is my own particular prejudice and I admit it.

Peter, if you are not reading Lee Child, you are missing out on some terrific writing.

I did see part of the Guy Ritchie movie. Hated it.

January 10, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yvette: One thing I like about the male-female pairs I mentioned is that romantic tension plays no role. They don't feel like set-ups to create a romance subplot, in other words.

I figured the Guy Ritchie movie might be a bit much for some Holmes-lovers. I don't as much vested in Holmes and Watson, so I was able to enjoy Ritchie's changes.

January 10, 2011  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

I really must try to think of male/female investigating teams which appear to be of equal partners. I've read such books, just have to think it through.

I think that Commissario Brunetti has total respect for Signorina Elettra (pardon my Italian), though they are not equals. In fact, he's in awe of her computer skills.

Otherwise, in life-and-death situations, don't know. What about in Vanda Symon's books?

This is an assignment I have to ponder.

January 10, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Kathy, Jack Taylor's female partner in Ken Bruen's novels is not exactly a partner. Taylor is an ex-cop who left the force after he punched his boss in the mouth. The "partner" is a fellow outcast -- a woman who not only faces the hardship of being a woman in the male-dominated force, but is also a lesbian who gets breast cancer in one ot the books. She prefers her Irish name; he taunts her by using her English name. So it's not exactly a romantic pairing or conventional male bonding with a simple sex change.

January 10, 2011  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

No. This doesn't sound like an equal partner set-up.

But I know I've read of equal working relationships. I have to look at my past reading lists.

I'm too distracted by the horrors in Arizona right now to think about this, but will.

January 10, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Not an equal-partner set-up, but a nice spin on the protagonist-sidekick relationship.

January 10, 2011  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

Asa Larsson has a good, equal partnership between a female and male police detectives, and they do use firearms and are in danger.

S.J. Rozan has the Bill Smith/Lydia Chin detective partnership, but they are not cops.

Michael Connelly has an equal relationship between police officer and FBI agent, and between journalist and aforementioned FBI agent.

January 11, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Your remark about firearms reminded me of Jassy Mackenzie's Jade de Jong, who both wields a mean gun and has a male former colleague as an integral part of the action.

January 11, 2011  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home