Series versus Stand-alone

Series novel or stand-alone: which do you prefer? ‘The appeal of mystery series is indisputable,’ according to the American critic Mary Jean DeMarr, and many readers of ‘Sherlock’ would surely agree. For decades, series formed the core of the Collins Crime Club and Victor Gollancz’s yellow-jacketed list and books about long-established detectives such as Dalgleish, Wexford, Dalziel and Pascoe and Rebus continue to attract readers in vast numbers. But recent years have seen the rise of the ‘stand-alone’ crime novel. The success of writers such as Minette Walters whose books lack a recurrent protagonist has prompted a shift in approach by many authors on both sides of the Atlantic. The trend was highlighted a few months ago by ‘Deadly Pleasures’, a popular US fanzine, which provided a list of recent stand-alone crime novels by authors who also write mystery series.

DeMarr pointed out that, although series proliferate in several genres, ‘mystery series can surely claim primacy – chronologically as well as in popularity’, with Poe’s Dupin, appearing in three (short) stories more than 150 years ago, setting the pattern. That pattern was later followed by Sherlock Holmes in both the short and novel forms, and then by many other characters from the Golden Age between the world wars and later. One of the attractions of series from a marketing perspective is that the name of a memorable character – whether it is Sherlock or Scarpetta – is more likely to lodge in the reader’s mind than the name of an author. But there is more to it than that. In In the Beginning: First Novels in Mystery Series, DeMarr said:

‘Series appeal for a number of reasons, not least the comfortable familiarity they offer their readers. This familiarity relates to a number of aspects of the novels. Characters continue from novel to novel, sometimes growing and changing but always offering a known centre of interest…Individual readers find those authors and series which particularly appeal to their tastes and then happily collect the books or wait eagerly for the publication of each new offering.’

The way in which writers treat series characters has changed with the years. Holmes, Poirot, Marple and Nero Wolfe did not ‘grow’ to any meaningful extent as time passed. The great detectives were often outlandishly delineated from the start and, for all their magnificent qualities, were not sufficiently flexible to achieve steady and significant personal development from case to case. When Dorothy L.Sayers tried to transform Lord Peter Wimsey from a Woosterish amateur sleuth to a sensitive and sophisticated lover, she ran into problems of plausibility and was even accused – unfairly, to my mind – of ‘falling in love’ with her hero. In the end, like Conan Doyle, she became frustrated with the limitations of her series character, although rather than attempting to kill him off she gave him a wife and three young children - which so far as his detective work was concerned had much the same effect.

To this day, writers of series occasionally become bored with their creations, but the results can be disastrous. In A Long Silence, Nicolas Freeling disposed of Inspector Piet van der Valk, but his second string detective, Castang, never caught on and Freeling resorted to bringing van der Valk’s widow Arlette to the centre of the stage, without ever recapturing the panache of early books such as Love in Amsterdam. More prudent writers who lose their enthusiasm for a series detective simply allow the character to fade quietly out of sight, so that he or she can be recalled to duty should circumstances (or a new publishing contract) so require.

Keeping a long-term series alive in the current market usually means that the author must devote care to developing not merely the central character but also the supporting cast. Several writers have done this brilliantly. If one considers the first novels in the major series by P.D. James, Ruth Rendell and Reginald Hill, one is bound to conclude that, although they were rich in promise, they were far removed in quality and depth from later works featuring the same detectives. As the author’s confidence and range grows, so nowadays do most of the main characters in series: a splendid example is Sergeant Edgar Wield in the Dalziel and Pascoe books. Some writers, such as Stuart Pawson, creator of the Yorkshire cop Charlie Priest, who has now featured in nine books, find that a single series provides them with plenty of scope for refining their depiction of character and setting and resist the temptation to experiment further.

A series can have many of the qualities (one hopes, the more attractive qualities) of a television soap opera, but it can also do more. Take for instance the way in which Lawrence Block, recent recipient of the CWA Cartier Diamond Dagger, charts Matt Scudder’s battle with alcoholism. Similarly, Amanda Cross utilised her books about Kate Fansler to provide, as The Oxford Companion to Crime & Mystery Writing put it, ‘a polemic on feminism’. One of the most startling series projects was that devised and implemented by the Swedish couple Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo. Their 10-book series about Superintendent Martin Beck was originally planned as a 300-chapter ‘analytic portrait of Sweden’s experiment in social democracy…a coherent ideological (leftist) indictment of social justice in contemporary Sweden’ as The Oxford Companion puts it. Such an approach to writing a series seems cold-blooded, but the result was a collection of unexpectedly varied and entertaining police novels. The sheer ambition of Sjowall and Wahloo means that their work overshadows even a writer as capable as Henning Mankell, one of the hottest writers of ‘Eurocrime’ on the circuit today and author of a series about Inspector Kurt Wallander that has echoes of the Beck project.

Commercially, crime series seem to have much to offer authors, readers and publishers alike. So the theory goes, loyalty to a detective character, like loyalty to any consumer-orientated brand, will build over time. Readers are, rightly or wrongly, often inclined to prefer the tried-and-tested to the unknown. So why should any writer with an established series want to risk a stand-alone when a distinguished Scribner editor, Susanne Kirk, told ‘Deadly Pleasures’ that this causes her to groan?

The reason for experimenting with a stand-alone may be artistic. An author may have an irresistible idea that simply does not fit in which his or her regular series. I found this when the concept for the book that eventually became Take My Breath Away first seduced me. It was obvious from the outset that the story-line was incompatible with aspects of my series featuring Liverpool solicitor Harry Devlin. Although the idea concerned mysterious deaths in a law firm, the setting needed to be in London and there needed to be real uncertainty as to whether the two central characters would survive. One of the limitations of a series novel (with the exception of a few books like A Long Silence and the final Poirot novel) is that the reader can be confident that, whatever trials and tribulations the hero or heroine will face, he or she will make it safely through to the next case. Compare that with the unpredictable fate of the sometimes doomed protagonists of Cornell Woolrich’s thrillers, dazzling if wayward books which maintained high tension through relentless manipulation of the reader’s emotions.

Some of the more prolific writers find that switching from a series to a non-series novel can help to keep the series fresh. Reginald Hill is an example; until recent years he made a point of never writing two Dalziel and Pascoe books in succession. A more prosaic motive for moving away from a familiar series is an inability to think up another credible story idea for the regular character; this is especially a risk with detectives who are not professional police officers. Or (and this was certainly true in my own case) the writer may just be keen to stretch his talents in ways that the constraints of an existing series do not permit.

Major series writers who have tried their hand in recent times at the stand-alone include Americans Robert Crais, Tony Hillerman and Laura Lippman and British authors Lindsey Davis, Val McDermid and Michelle Spring. Sometimes the change of approach is a one-off. An intriguing example is Peter Robinson’s Caedmon’s Song, published more than a decade ago to little fanfare at a time when his series featuring Inspector Alan Banks was in its early stages. Now the Banks books are best-sellers and, duly republished, Caedmon’s Song has at last achieved the sales it always deserved.

Sometimes the author’s change of gear is more permanent. Ann Cleeves created two well-received series, one featuring an elderly pair of amateur sleuths, the other a police inspector, but in recent years she has focused on writing stand-alones, starting with The Crow Trap, which have lifted her reputation to the next level. Her career has lasted more than a decade and a half, but it is in the past two years that she has earned successive nominations for CWA Daggers. Likewise, Morag Joss’s breakthrough book after three series mysteries was Half Broken Things, which deservedly earned a CWA Silver Dagger. Iain Pears’ sales shot into a much higher league when he stepped away from his series about art dealer Jonathan Argyll and produced An Instance of the Fingerpost. And, entertaining as Harlan Coben’s books about sports agent Myron Bolitar were, it was only when he turned to writing stand-alones designed to have readers chewing their fingernails that he achieved true best-seller status.

Minette Walters was not, of course, the first writer of stand-alones to achieve success in the crime field. But the tendency was for the most successful exponents of stand-alones, such as Dick Francis, to focus on thrills and action rather than on the mystery element. Walters made an immediate impact with The Ice House and The Sculptress; the latter fuses characterisation and complexity of plot superbly and remains perhaps her finest work to date. The combination of critical and popular acclaim which greeted those books tempted editors looking for new talent to focus increasingly on authors offering a comparable blend of psychological suspense with in-depth characterisation. J. Wallis Martin, the late Andrea Badenoch and Margaret Murphy are amongst those who have emerged as notable practitioners of this form of crime fiction.

Nevertheless, the attraction of a series to both authors and readers is enduring. After writing Take My Breath Away, I came up with a very different concept, involving the development over time of a relationship between a historian and a police officer leading a cold case review team. I also wanted to explore a different (and extraordinarily multi-faceted) rural locale and to see what tensions might arise between someone who moves there to ‘live the dream’ and those who are native to the area. Impossible to cover all that ground in a single novel. Thus The Coffin Trail was, from the start, conceived as the first of a series of Lake District Mysteries.

So perhaps from the author’s perspective, the answer to the question posed at the start of this article is: it all depends on the nature of the story idea. Some ideas are best suited to short stories; some are ideal for stand-alones; and some have enough staying power (even if it is not apparent at first) to give rise to enough story-lines to make a series of novels aiming to attract an ever-growing readership.

(An earlier version of this article appeared in Sherlock)