My Quantum of Solace

Paul Doiron here—

I am an unapologetic defender of the two James Bond movies starring Daniel Craig. There’s little to defend with Casino Royale, which most Bond watchers rate among the best in the fifty-year old film franchise. But I’ve had to stick up for Craig’s second outing, Quantum of Solace, on more than one occasion. It’s an uneven movie, no doubt; the female characters are not very well drawn; the villain isn’t particularly villainous; and it definitely flags in its second half. But some of the action scenes near the start—particularly the rooftop chase in Sienna—are fantastic and the staccato editing that seems so jarring at first acquires real power on subsequent viewings.

Mostly my defense of Quantum of Solace centers around its uniqueness as the only true sequel in the twenty-two EON films. You can watch it without having seen Casino Royale, but in my opinion, the movie benefits from being understood as a follow-up. Why is Bond so cold and driven by a need for revenge in Quantum? Watch that wicker chair scene from Casino Royale again, and you’ll get the full picture (if not the full monty).

One of the many things I’ve learned in my short career as a crime novelist is that sequels are tricky things. As I was writing my own second novel in the Mike Bowditch series, I was prodded by my editor to make the book more accessible to readers who hadn’t yet encountered The Poacher’s Son. The accepted wisdom when you’re writing a  mystery series is that you never know which of your books a prospective reader will discover first, so you should make each one as welcoming as possible.

The challenge for me was that I really love serial stories. As a television viewer I gravitate toward shows like Lost and Breaking Bad and, yes, Downton Abbey, because one of the pleasures of TV is that you have hours to get to know characters and watch them struggle and grow. Shows like the various versions of CSI, which are written so that you can watch any single episode without knowing a thing about the characters or their backstories, leave me cold. They make smart financial sense for their producers and networks in that they require no investment from new viewers. But they are not for me.

As a reader, I often feel the same way. If I had lived in the nineteenth-century I am sure that I would have been one of those people waiting on the docks for the next installment of The Old Curiosity Shop to arrive by boat, desperate to hear whether Little Nell had indeed died. I am currently wading through George R.R. Martin’s hyper epic, A Song of Ice and Fire, and have come to see how much that sprawling story gains from its expansiveness. I defy anyone to pick up the fourth book in that series and make heads or tails of what’s going on with Daenerys and Tyrion and all the assorted and afflicted Starks.

The fantasy genre leans resolutely in the direction of  serials; it’s what readers weaned on Tolkien and Lewis and Rowling seem to expect. Not so with crime novels. Recurring characters are common in mysteries, of course. But most series don’t require you to go back and start from the beginning. Lots of writers will make nods to events in their earlier books, but it’s not necessary to know the ins and outs of Dave Robicheaux’s romantic history to gather that the dude has had some bad luck with the the ladies. You don’t need to read A Is for Alibi to enjoy V Is for Vengeance.

There are mystery authors who write what I would call true serials—Elizabeth George comes to mind, as does our own Julia Spencer-Fleming—writers whose later books are genuinely haunted by the echoes of past stories. But they (or should I say “we”) seem to be in the minority. It’s true that an author pays a price for putting new readers in catch-up mode. It can be a disorienting experience to be dropped into the middle of a saga, unsure of where you are. But I would argue that the benefits of writing, and reading, novels that demand to be read in sequence outweigh the costs.

As it turned out, my wise editor was correct: a number of readers did come to Trespasser without having first read The Poacher’s Son. Many of them seem to have found the experience satisfactory (although I wouldn’t recommend it). Others have struggled. That doesn’t surprise me since Trespasser is a book about a man with undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder. Mike Bowditch hasn’t been strapped naked to a chair and whipped across his private parts, but he does suffer a multidimensional beating in The Poacher’s Son. Exploring the after effects of that harrowing experience was what drove me to write Trespasser. I’m probably not giving anything away when I reveal that my third book, the forthcoming Bad Little Falls, will heavily reference the second. For better or worse, the story of Mike Bowditch wants to be told this way.

I’m curious to hear about your own reading preferences. Serials or stand-alones: which do you prefer? When I tell people that I write a mystery series, where should I put the emphasis—on the first word or the second?

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7 Responses to My Quantum of Solace

  1. Sarah Graves says:

    While the freshness of a one-off is hard to beat for me as a reader, there are some series authors, like the (in my opinion) underappreciated Sue Grafton, that rank right up there in wow-factor, too. So in answer to the question posed, I’ll offer a firm “it depends.” Having produced over a dozen in the Jake Tiptree series myself, as a writer I agree that orienting the new reader to what’s gone before while not boring the series followers is a challenge. But an intriguing one?

  2. MCWriTers says:

    It’s always a challenge to incorporate enough of the previous books without giving away their plots. I struggle with the issue all the time. In the Joe Burgess series, each book clearly builds on the prior one, and I think it will be a richer reading experience if readers picking up Redemption have read Playing God and The Angel of Knowlton Park. But Redemption, true to the conventions of our genre, stands alone. In part, this is because each story is not just about our character, it is someone else’s story. In each case, the story of the victim–the who they were and the how and why of they were killed–and the story of those left behind and the reverberations of that crime.

    Still, we always face the issue of PTSD for our characters. Thea is particularly wary of duct tape and injuries to her nose. And Burgess is an absurdly tough play-through-the pain type who tries to ignore the fact that his real pain is psychic, deeply imbedded, and pretty much comes with the job.

    Welcome, Paul, to the world of the series character. As I contemplate book eight for Thea, I worry that so much damage in the past may suddenly bring her to a halt, when she has to plunge on to solve the crime. In the way we worry about our characters, we are forced to make them deeper and more complex.

    Kate

  3. Barb Ross says:

    I, too, love series (Downton now and I am counting the days until Mad Men begins again) and believe firmly that if Dickens were alive today he’d be writing for series TV.

    As a reader I love it when I find a book, any book in a series, and then realize I love it and can go back and get caught up–the more in the series the better!

    My pet peeve is when authors feel like every single character we’ve met along the way has to be dragged forward to the next book. Martha Grimes did this so much I couldn’t keep track of them all and eventually gave up. (I know we shouldn’t diss fellow mystery writers, but I think Martha can handle it.)

  4. Sherry says:

    I agree with Ms. Ross. I’m a fan of many authors, but I particularly love the characters in series. When I find someone I like, I go out & buy every book in the series & read them from start to finish (I hate it when books are out of print – Gerry Boyle – but that’s one good thing about e-readers: getting to read older books, even if I can’t get the actual book). I find I really become invested in the characters, which is great until someone is killed off. The pain is real even though I know the characters are not. Which is not to say that I don’t read stand-alones – a good author is a good author & a good book is a good book.

  5. lil Gluckstern says:

    I find myself enjoying series more as I get a older. I love the idea of characters growing, and shifting as the series goes on. I guess for me the people and the setting really make the book. I enjoy a good plot too, (sigh). I guess I just love good books.

  6. Gram says:

    RIP Dorothy Gilman. Her Mrs. Pollifax was a wonderful series character. Maybe that is my opinion because we were in the same age group, but I think not. It was a series you could start anywhere, but that would prompt you to go back and start from the beginning.

  7. Kate says:

    I agree with Sarah Graves – it depends. Different stories need to be told differently; as a fan of both the serials you mention, I’m happy to hear that yours will have that same characteristic. I enjoy picking up the next installment in a serial, to see what’s developing in characters’ lives (and what choices the author is making); I also have times when I’m in the mood to read something that was created to be read on its own, whether part of a series or not. The most important thing is for the book to be written as well as the author can (requested the reader, humbly).

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