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.