Tuesday, April 5, 2011

A Writer/Reader Considers the Mystery Series

By Elizabeth Zelvin

[Originally published online at www.PoesDeadlyDaughters.blogspot.com]

Most mystery readers of a certain age first discovered the genre through series, whether they cut their eyeteeth on Sherlock Holmes or Agatha Christie, Nancy Drew or Erle Stanley Gardner. In these early series, the protagonist never changed: Holmes always smoked his pipe and played his violin, Poirot applied his little gray cells to every problem, Miss Marple found a parallel to every evil in the world in the village life of St. Mary Mead. When Nancy got into trouble, she always had the perfect tools for the emergency about her person. Perry Mason always stood up in court to object and grandstanded a confession out of the true villain. (I’ve heard that counsel used to say, “I object!” during a trial and that “Objection!” originated with Perry Mason. Anyone know if it’s true?)

Then, in the Golden Age of mysteries, when the airtight, fair-play puzzle was at its height, Dorothy L. Sayers changed the rules by developing Lord Peter Wimsey from a Bertie Wooster-like flat character into a complex and very human being over the course of the series. And mystery reading got a lot more interesting to readers like me, who want to fall in love with their characters, root for them in adversity, and cheer when they triumph, not only by solving the murder but by resolving some genuine personal dilemma. My favorite characters feel real to me. I’ve said before that I’d like to play my guitar and sing with Judge Deborah Knott’s family and have dinner with the Vorkosigans.

What we read has changed precisely because the fashion in what we write has changed. For example, Patricia Wentworth’s Miss Silver, who appeared in dozens of mysteries in the 1940s and 1950s, was always described in exactly the same words, as was her home. Encountering the familiar phrases was part of the pleasure of reading the series, which is still on my list of comfort reads. Now we wouldn’t dare repeat even the most clever way of describing a protagonist that we’ve already used. Today’s writers are exhorted to kill our darlings, not repeat them in book after book.

No longer does every mystery series, even a successful and popular one, go on ad infinitum. Part of this is due to the changing face — and economics — of publishing. In the paperback cozy world, an author may get a three-book contract. She brings her protagonist and setting to life, thousands of readers eagerly anticipate Book Four—and the publisher decides it's not satisfied with sales and drops the series, perhaps inviting the author to start a new series under a pseudonym.

In the world of hardcover mysteries, a debut author is typically offered a contract for one book or two — and the publisher’s decision not to let the series go on may be based on sales before publication of the first or second book, or as little as a month after the book comes out. It is notoriously hard to get another publisher to pick up a dropped series — again, for business reasons — so readers who have become attached to a series protagonist and his or her world are left disappointed and dissatisfied.

Perhaps as a result of the precarious nature of series today, many mystery writers have adopted a pattern in which, once the series gets going, they try their hand at a standalone. Until recently, I would have said that I never liked an author’s standalones as much as her series, because my love of and loyalty to the series was based on the development of the series protagonist and the family, friends and colleagues who had sprung to life around her.

Writers with successful series have written some fine standalones — and maybe I’m also getting used to the new fashion. Some standalones by accomplished series writers that I’ve loved in the past few years include Nancy Pickard’s The Virgin of Small Plains and The Scent of Rain and Lightning, Earlene Fowler’s The Saddlemaker’s Wife, the late Ariana Franklin’s City of Shadows and Laurie R. King's Touchstone.

Another consequence of how things have changed is that writers may now conceive their series as having a limited story arc, rather than going on indefinitely. Charlaine Harris’s Harper Connelly series comes to mind. When the unresolved personal dilemma that underlies all Harper’s professional dilemmas gets resolved in Book Five, the series comes to a satisfying conclusion. With two other series behind her and the Sookie Stackhouse series going on and on, thanks to the success of the TV adaptation, "True Blood," it makes sense for Charlaine to move on. And now it seems that Harper Connelly is coming to TV, so her story may continue after all.

Elizabeth Zelvin, a psychotherapist in New York City, is the author of a three-book mystery series featuring Bruce Kohler, a recovering alcoholic. The newest title in the series, Death Will Extend Your Vacation, will be available in 2012. Her short story, “The Green Cross,” (Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, August 2010) a current Agatha Award nominee, marks her third Agatha nomination.

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