What Keeps Me Reading a Long-Running Mystery Series?

Hi. Barb here. In book jail in paradise. It’s either a blessing or a curse. I can’t make up my mind.

At the end of the month, when I hand in the sixth Maine Clambake Mystery, Stowed Away, I’ll be writing a proposal for my publisher pitching the next three books in the series.

Anticipating that task has caused me to think about what keeps me reading a long series of mysteries. It’s something I haven’t been analytical about in the past. I either keep buying and reading a series, or I drift away.

I’m not talking about what attracts me to a series in the first place, though that would, perhaps, be a good post for another day. Or why I’m attracted to series mysteries generally. I’m talking about what keeps me buying new books intentionally, often the day or month they’re released.

After pondering, here’s what I’ve come up with.

(1) The series has a strong moral center. Across crime fiction’s sub-genres, most main characters have a belief in, and a quest for, their personal definition of justice. But I find I am drawn to series where many characters live their own morality. Not in a preachy way. Nothing turns me off faster. But in a way that is tolerant, kind, and most of all, generous toward their fellow humans.

Louise Penny’s Armand Gamache comes to mind, as well Alexander McCall Smith’s Mma. Ramotswe. Both are towers of quiet moral strength. But in these series, and others I love, all the regular characters have their own strong moral sense, even if it is in some way opposed to the main character’s. When they are tested, sometimes these characters rise to the occasion, other times they betray themselves, but they always demonstrate their own truths.

It takes time, I find, and several books, for characters to demonstrate their baseline, not circumstantial, morality. This is one thing that keeps me coming back.

(2) The story opens outward. At the New England Crime Bake in 2015, interviewer Julie Hennrikus asked Elizabeth George about her most famous plot twist. Elizabeth said something like, “Always resolve story questions in ways that open the story up, not shut it down.” That seems like a good lesson.

The first part of what she said is important to me. Somewhere, over the course of a series, I need the main character to chose the good guy or the bad boy, to make peace with her mother or decide she never will. I need that thing that happened in the past to be revealed, if not resolved. I’m patient about it. String me along for several books if you think you can, but it has to happen.

And when it does, just as a single book does with smaller, internal story questions, the resolution should make me want to go on, not close the covers.

(3) I’ve grown attached not just to the main character, but to secondary characters as well. I had dinner with Deborah Crombie recently. Since she was on a book tour in support of her seventeenth Duncan Kincaid and Gemma James mystery, I asked her for advice about sustaining a series. She recommended elevating the role of a secondary character. For example, when she split up her main couple, a necessity because their personal attachment overtook their police jobs, she gave them each new partners. Reading the latest book, I realized I cared almost as much about what was going on with these new characters as I did about the main characters. As Gemma and Duncan’s personal stories have been resolved, and their back stories mined, new avenues have opened up via these new characters.

It’s one way of addressing Elizabeth George’s challenge above, though certainly not the only one.

(4) The mystery still matters. I’ll devote an hour to a TV police procedural so screamingly obvious the killer is the biggest guest star. But I won’t devote the time it takes to read a book to a plot that moves from A to B to C. I’m a pretty passive reader of mysteries. I don’t try to outguess or outrun the author. But I require some complexity, something that makes me think. The best mysteries are the ones where the reader’s reaction at the resolution is, simultaneously, “I never saw it coming.” AND “Of course!” Not even my favorite series authors achieve that every time. But they achieve it frequently enough that I can’t wait to get the next book.

Readers, what keeps you coming back to a series? Try to stay on the positive things that draw you back, not the negative things that drive you away. Check out the Wicked Cozy Authors blog on Monday for that discussion.






About Barbara Ross

Barbara Ross is the author of the Maine Clambake Mysteries. Her books have been nominated for multiple Agatha Awards for Best Contemporary Novel and have won the Maine Literary Award for Crime Fiction. She lives in Portland, Maine. Readers can visit her website at www.maineclambakemysteries.com
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24 Responses to What Keeps Me Reading a Long-Running Mystery Series?

  1. Richard Cass says:

    Interesting questions, Barb, and answers. Seems these all come back, at some level, to the close connection of character to everything else.

  2. C.T. Collier says:

    To keep me coming back, I want to learn something new with every book, along with the protagonist. Maybe the protagonist ventures into unfamiliar territory or grapples with a character type that’s beyond his or her comfort zone. Maybe it’s confronting false assumptions that shake his or her foundation. Whatever it is, it requires resources to work harder than ever and results in new knowledge. Maybe that goes back to the days when I liked the Hardy Boys adventures more than Nancy Drew because the guys were forever trying a new sport (ice boating, spelunking, whatever) or visiting another area of the country (remember the adventure in the Southwest where they encountered drawings on the earth only visible from a plane?). They fully embraced the learning and the challenge of the mystery they encountered therein. –kate

  3. Heidi Wilson says:

    Barb, I love the characters with a ‘strong moral center’ too, especially those whose center is decidedly eccentric. When I want the moral center without the challenge of eccentricity, I go to Patricia Wentworth’s Miss Silver for nursery certainties and a muffin with my tea.

  4. Gram says:

    I love to watch the characters grow and their live evolve. Dell Shannon did that for me, under all of her names and with each series.

    • Barb Ross says:

      My editor believes this, too, Gram. He says the series that do best are ones where the readers watch the characters grow both emotionally and chronologically.

      • Elizabeth says:

        I completely agree with your editor. Following recent political events, I needed an escape – a place to go where I felt safe. I decided to reread all of Deborah Crombie’s books in order. It has been such a pleasure for me to dive deep into the world of Gemma and Duncan for a sustained period (17 books). When I saw the title of your post I asked myself why I am so attached to her series and the answer that immediately came to mind is definitely my attachment to her characters. There are many things I love about her books but watching her characters and their relationships grow and change over time is the primary reason I keep coming back for more. I don’t know what I’d do if she stopped writing!

      • Barb Ross says:

        What a lovely tribute to Deborah’s books, Elizabeth. I’ve read them all, too and will keep reading.

  5. Kate Flora says:

    On the flip side, I am easily turned off by stories where there is no moral center or the character/writer asserts morality but lets the character off the hook. That will make me stop reading very quickly.

    And I agree…we become attached to more than just the central character. Many years ago, several series writers killed off their protagonist’s significant other, and I started getting letters saying if I killed Thea’s Andre they would stop reading. It is important for us to recognize the contract that exists between writers and readers of a series–they have expectations and a relationship that we need to respect. I was surprised to learn this.

    Another surprise is how we, as the writers, become attached to our characters just as readers do, and as we write, we’re curious to see how they evolve.

    Good luck with writing jail.

  6. Monica says:

    What keeps me coming back is the desire to find out how the continuing characters are faring. And, yes, sometimes it’s the the secondary character’s story that is more compelling. The main character must have personal growth. S/he should not be the same 5 books in. We should see the changes that time brings.

    The storytelling needs to be engaging. When I can think to myself, ‘ah, the writer is moving the plot along,’ I’ve lost my concentration.

    Love your choices of authors! I’d move to Three Pines in a heartbeat.

    • Barb Ross says:

      Yes, the quality of the writing is important to me, and is often a big part of my decision to commit to a series in the first place. But it has to be consistent or nearly consistent through the series. (Every series author gets to have one clunker of a book in my world.) I hate it when you can hear the plot gears turning.

  7. Lea Wait says:

    Location, location, location is something I check … I love to learn abut new places, or revisit those I already love. My favorite characters live in places I’d love to visit. And, yes, a few secondary and slightly quirky characters are important. And pieces of backstory explaining reactions, goals, and attitudes really intrigue me and keep me reading to find out more. Good luck with the deadline! I can identify!

  8. Sandra Neily says:

    OK! Barb Ross! That deep dive into what keeps you in a series was a gift to us all. Thank you. And it set off a whole chain of other good advice and experiences shared. Thanks again. Just to add: Louise Penny quote I recently found as I an inhaling her series: “I’m trying to make every book slightly different. The challenge and danger of writing a series is writing the same book over and over again. What needs to change is the theme and the tone.”

    Her point about tone was really arresting to think about. So how to keep the a strong and unique narrative voice (especially if first person) and morph the tone?

    • Barb Ross says:

      That is interesting. I try to change it up with every book, mostly to keep me engaged. I’m only now, at book six, realizing how repetitious things could get for the reader, too.

      I’ve never thought about changing tone, or how that connects to voice. That is really intriguing.

  9. Insightful list, Barb. Especially useful for newbies like me, I think. Thanks, Charlene

  10. I usually don’t try to guess the who dunnit either. I’m along for the ride. On that ride I want an interesting setting and characters who are cardboard. Great post!

  11. Christi King says:

    One thing that keeps me coming back to a series is the characters. I agree that this includes the secondary characters. I have to like the characters. Well-written series keep me coming back also.

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