Book Notes: Long-Running Mystery Series

An author of mystery series always runs into the problem of writing more slowly than the time runs. The detective that the series revolves around simply gets too old to do any detecting long before the author is ready to retire.

Some authors simply pretend that human chronology doesn’t exist. This is the case with Elizabeth George who’s been writing for two decades about characters that have aged just a few years in the meantime. It’s all pretty weird given that the technology changes massively while the characters seem frozen in time.

Other writers try to transition to younger lead characters. This almost always fails. One such writer is John Lescroart whose recent novel Poison I finished today. Lescroart had tried to ditch his series’ protagonist Dismas Hardy for a young character Wyatt Hunt. The result was so bad that Lescroart is now back with Hardy, even though the poor fellow is well into his sixties. Because of the smart move of going back to the old and trusty Hardy, the novel is quite good. But not as good as the series was in its heyday.

Lisa Gardner’s Look for Me that I also just finished revolves around detective DD Warren who is one of those extremely typical heroines of female procedurals. She’s a manly gruff workaholic who suddenly remembers how old she is at the exact age of 39, gets married, has a kid, and then spends the next five million novels avoiding the painful need to spend any time with the husband and the child. There are so many such characters that I keep getting confused among them. But in spite of all this, Gardner’s most recent novel is enormously better than her horrible Find Her where a character gets repeatedly raped inside a wooden box for 350 endless pages.

The author who pleasantly surprised me with her effort to transition from an aged series protagonist is Aleksandra Marinina. The Russian author has recently published Cost of the Issue where she shrewdly displaced attention from the lead detective to exploring a specific theme her readers might find more interesting than any character.

I also recently finished her 3-volume Return Power. The first volume was do horrifically bad that I didn’t even finish it. But the second volume is the most powerful writing this author has ever done. I always avoid any novels or movies about the Holocaust because they all massively collectively stink. But somehow Marinina managed to come up with a novelistic treatment of the Holocaust that is actually good.

I have two more releases by mystery writers to catch up on. OK, it’s actually three but one is not a series, so it doesn’t count.

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7 thoughts on “Book Notes: Long-Running Mystery Series”

  1. There is Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse, who is gradually superseded by his younger sidekick Lewis. Ruth Rendell’s Inspector Wexford’s kids grew older, but he didn’t seem to much. Likewise Peter Robinson’s detective Alan Banks, though he did seem to age along with his kids to some extent.

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    1. For some reason, the most recent Robinsons have left me so indifferent I couldn’t even finish. It’s strange because I used to love the series.

      And the Wexford series was paradoxical in that, as you say, the Inspector didn’t seem to age while the whole series was about the historic transformations in rural Britain. Time was both central to the series and absent from the protagonist’s life.

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  2. I feel like this is a common problem with long-running series, but especially with mysteries, since the genre tends to be fairly formulaic. I wonder if it’s a conscious decision to disregard long-term character development in favor of genre, or if they’re just continuing to write what they have in the past because they think it’s easier to sell.

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  3. I recall that Rex Stout (the Nero Wolfe writer) said that he decided explicitly at the beginning that his main characters wouldn’t age (they remain basically unchanged from the mid 30s through the late 60s/early 70s.), because he wanted the books to focus on the mysteries rather than the detectives. Which is kind of funny, because I think the main characters are just about all that anyone remembers after reading the books, the mysteries themselves just aren’t all that inventive.

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  4. Speaking of “delayed chronology” what about a lot of comic strips?
    You know…Peanuts? …The Family Circle? …Hi and Lois? …Blondie? …Beetle Bailey?
    …to name a few.

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    1. I remember liking John Byrne’s take on the Fantastic Four and saw an interview where he said the characters’ wouldn’t age while he was on the book.

      It makes sense, I just regard an unaging series protagonist as part of the suspension of disbelief.

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  5. I never read the whole series but I remember reading a later installment of Sue Grafton’s alphabet series and wondering why people were acting so weird until I realized that it was still set in early 1980s California at which point it made sense.

    I just saw Grafton died and now I’m bummed, the books I read were uneven but I really liked the main character Kinsey Millhone (a lively and fun sociopath rather than a dull and dangerous one).

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