In true Maine Crime Writers fashion I’m reprising a relevant column since it’s July, and as much as I’d love to say I’m on vacation, I’m actually scrambling to get a ton of work on so I can go on vacation in a few weeks.
I was reminded of this September 2020 column recently at an author talk, where a reader asked if they should read my Bernie O’Dea mystery series in order.
So, I somehow just binge-read a 23-book series over the last two months. I’m not sure how — or even why — and don’t want to delve too deeply into that part of my psyche right now, so this post isn’t about that.
The books take place in a period of time quite a while back. Though they were written over the past two decades, each book is set about a month apart — until you get to number 20, which takes place five years before the first book in the series. There’s a big cataclysmic event that precedes the first book, and the 20th takes place right before that event and as the event unfolds.
[This series is not by a Maine Crime Writer, or even a New England one, in case you’re wondering.]
You know I’m usually not coy, but I’m not going into the details of the books, who wrote them or what they’re about, because this blog post isn’t specifically about these books and I don’t to distract from the point.
And the point? I came across a post on the internet, long before I got to Book 20, that suggests readers read Book 20 before they start the series, since it takes place five years before the first book.
The post was not by the author, but by a fan. Or maybe just a blogger who hadn’t even read the books. I don’t know. But it bothered me when I read it, and I had that in mind as I plowed through the series.
I admit, I’m a linear person. The first book I read in this series, without realizing it was as series before I bought the book, was actually number 19. I liked it. The next one I read was number 1. Didn’t even have to think about that. I always do that when I find out that a book I’ve just read and liked is part of a series.
When people ask me whether they should read my three-book Bernie O’Dea series in order, I tell them each book is written so it can be read on its own, but I always suggest people start with the first book.
Most series have a character arc that expands and evolves through the books. If you hadn’t read earlier books in a series — any series — it’s hard to get the same satisfaction as a reader out of the later books that you’d get if you had.
When I read Book 20 in the series I binged this summer — the one the blogger suggested be read first — it underscored my belief that books should be read in the order they were written. Even though Book 20 is a “prequel,” there’s no way readers new to the series would read it the same way as those who’d read the previous 19. Knowing what’s going to happen to the characters later adds layers for a reader. What the characters say and do, and their innocence given the horror that awaits adds a heft to Book 20 that someone reading it without reading the previous 19 won’t enjoy. I have to believe the writer intended this — while books in a series can usually stand alone, there is an arc intended by the author.
I tried this, in a way, with my second book, No News is Bad News. I felt the urge to do a prequel, but instead of a full-blown prequel, I interspersed scenes from before the series started with what was happening in “real time” in the book.
As I wrote those prequel scenes, I couldn’t help but write them with a foundation of what I already knew about the characters. Not that readers have to read the first book, Cold Hard News, to understand the scenes, but if they have, they’ll have knowledge that makes the scenes more powerful.
Most of us who write a series try to manage the tightrope of referring to things in previous books without spoiling them or being too distracting for new readers.
On the other hand, you have to mention previous book stuff. I mean, most of our protagonists, or other major characters, go through things that would cause major physical and emotional trauma to people in real life. While the books are fiction, that element of being affected by past events is still necessary.
When I did those prequel scenes in No News is Bad News, I didn’t think at all about this issue. But looking back, and knowing what I wrote, it’s obvious to me now that those scenes likely would’ve been very different if they were the first thing I’d ever written with those characters in them.
If a writer travels back in time, she’s doing it with the acquired knowledge she has of her characters as she’s grown to know them by writing about them. As much as a writer may try to make later books in a series OK to read as a standalone, they can’t help but write them in a way that’s informed by what came before.
If it has an impact on the writing, it also will have an impact on how the books are read. Reading books in order makes each subsequent one better than it would be on its own.
You’re going to do things your way. I know that. Don’t even get me started on people who read the last page before they start the book (with mine that won’t tell you who the murderer is, it’ll just spoil the emotional payoff #sorrynotsorry).
But if you’re wondering whether to read a series in order, the answer is don’t wonder, just read them in order.
If I can’t read them in order – I do appreciate the author catching me up in a way that doesn’t feel too exposition. Earl Stanley Gardner is great at that
Great topic, super interesting to read a writer’s perspective! As a reader, it comes down to case-by-case for me, but I always lean toward doing them in order, for all the reasons you listed. With the Lynely series, I mean, thank goodness I started with A Great Deliverance, because I would never have wanted to jump into the middle of the Lynely-Havers dynamic, or their personal lives haphazardly! Those aspects of the the series were as compelling as the stories themselves, and no way you can hopscotch around those characters. But with Longmire, I’ve had to go out of order due to format availability, and to tell the truth, it’s not ideal but there’s less character development, and the relationship with his deputy isn’t so interesting or substantial that I feel I must go in order. I really like the thread of Native American mysticism peppered into that series, same for the Cork O’Connor series, and easier to follow when read in order, but I find it’s not critical. I tried to do the Mike Bowditch series in order but again got stymied by format availability, and I’m kind of finding he’s a pretty static character, his love-life is not super interesting, and I’m really into the stories for their Maine-ness and nature focus, so jumping around the series doesn’t lessen my enjoyment. That “tightrope” you mention is so appreciated, and for some writers it’s focused on prior events AND character development; I think Louise Penny does that real well, thought I’d never dare go out of order with Gamache, for many aspects, but especially for crazy Ruth’s very gradual reveal. In a tangential way, I feel similarly about seeing images of the characters, whether is a cover photo or drawing, actors in movies or TV series… I shield my eyes and NEVER see the show before reading the books, because those images of the characters almost never match my imagination, and they kind of bug me forever (like having to purge Tom Cruise from my mind while reading Reacher).
I agree with you, Maureen, that I read them in order, if at all possible. When a book that I come across turns out to be a part of a series, going back to the first one is the only way! Guess that the librarian in me wants everything to be organized.
Great topic. I’ll pick up a book from anywhere in the series, but if I like the book – I start the series in order and read from there – including re-reading the first book I read.
Maureen, I couldn’t agree more, and Kaitcarson, thanks for letting me know I’m not the only one who does that!