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  • Writer's pictureStuart Harvey

The Art of the Crime Series Writer

How many times do you reach the end of a book only to ask yourself, “I wonder what happens next?”

Providing us readers with the answer to that perennial question, is the responsibility of the series writer.

Many authors try and provide the answer but in truth few achieve real success. Take for example the sadly lacklustre attempts to follow-up classics such as Casablanca and Gone with the Wind. The successful series is something that can be notoriously difficult to achieve.

Personally, I would argue that if there is indeed to be a sequel, then the first book should be written with that in mind. When a writer wishes this to happen, we have the emergence of the series author, an art form in itself.

There are many examples of authors who are rightly considered to be successful writers of a series of novels i.e., stories that feature regular characters. The most recent ones that come readily to mind would be Ian Rankin with his Rebus series, Harlen Coben with his books featuring Myron Bolitar and Lee Child with his Reacher novels.

But what I hear you ask, is the difference between the series and a serial?

A commonly asked question and something that annoys and confuses at the same time, the differences can be easily stated.

Put simply (and here I paraphrase the words of critic Tom Ashford), a series is a collection of books that all contain the same basic characters, which can be read in any order (because they’re each a different, self-contained story, even if they connect with one another), whereas a serial is an ongoing narrative which the audience has to read in the correct order so as to follow the plot. In essence a different type of series.

Personally, I am a lover of the crime series. However, to successfully write a crime series is not an easy task and an author who attempts to do so must first create a number of interesting characters that a reader would like to follow on whatever journey they embark upon. To fail in this basic task is a recipe for disaster, for if the characters are weak and not likeable, then no reader will follow them from one book to another.

Those who know me will be aware that I have myself tried to write a series of novels in the guise of the Charlie Sayer trilogy, where my central characters of private investigator Charlie Sayer, his wife Sally and daughter Rachel, are joined by slightly renegade PI Tony Ryan in a variety of investigations primarily initiated in Spain. I trust that I have succeeded in some form or other.

Ignoring my feeble efforts for a moment, for me there are probably three authors who stand out head and shoulders above the rest. Sadly, two are no longer with us, so we have to satisfy ourselves either with past novels or, as in one case, novels written by other, authorised writers featuring the same central characters.

So, who do I judge to be the best?

For me at the top of the tree sits Robert B Parker, although he is closely followed by John D MacDonald and Ian Rankin.

Parker is one of the very few writers of crime series who did not limit himself to one series, but expanded his repertoire to cover three separate series, all of which (for me at least) are some of the best ever written in this particular genre.

For me Parkers best creation is Jesse Stone, an alcoholic ex-homicide detective turned small town chief of police whose private life seems to be amongst the most complicated of any fictional cop. The books were later enhanced by the creation of a film version of Stone played by Tom Selleck. Personally, if you like the books then you’ll love the films too as Selleck brings Jesse Stone to life in the best way possible, something that is not always the case when the written word is transferred to the silver screen.

Parkers other two “heroes” are PI’s Spenser and Sunny Randall both of whom are creations worthy of a visit.

Of particular interest to Parker fans is the fact that although he passed away in 2010 his characters live on. I think it may well be the case, and let me know if I am wrong, that the continuation of an author’s series of books after their death, is something that does not often happen. However, the Parker estate has commissioned several authors to continue to write books featuring Stone, Spenser and Randall.

I have continued to enjoy Parker’s creations through the work of such authors as Ace Atkins, Mike Lupica, Reed Farrell Colman and Michael Brandman. Whilst all these authors may not have the gravitas of Parker, they each in their own way, keep his characters exploits on our bookshelves.

And so, I move on to John D MacDonald. Again, an author who is sadly no longer with us, but who has left a legacy that continues to entertain over thirty years after his passing.

Of relevance to this blog is the creation by MacDonald of the character Travis McGee, who featured in twenty-one novels. Unlike many characters in crime series novels, McGee is neither a policeman nor a private investigator. Instead, he is what he himself terms a “salvage consultant”. In this role he recovers what has been taken from his clients for a percentage.

It has been said that MacDonald's protagonists were often intelligent, introspective, and cynical men, and in this regard, Travis McGee was all of those. McGee made his living by recovering the proceeds from thefts and swindles, keeping half to finance his "retirement.”

And now we come to arguably Britain’s, or rather Scotland’s, best ever series crime writer, Ian Rankin. Creator of the Inspector Rebus series of novels, which in my view, and in this I am not alone, stand as the best series of crime fiction ever written by a British author.

In Rebus, Rankin created a character that we all can relate to. He is, all at once, honourable, determined, persistent and yet very flawed and infuriating. A perfect hero of our time.

But these are just three of a long list of crime series authors who I enjoy. Others worthy of a look are Robert Crais (Elvis Cole), Lee Child (Jack Reacher), L T Ryan (Rachel Hatch/Jack Noble), Harlen Coben (Myron Bolitar), Wayne Stinnett (Jesse McDermitt), Vince Milam (Case Lee), J B Turner (Jon Reznick), Anne Cleeves (Jimmy Perez – Shetland novels) and Mark Dawson (John Milton).

A final series worthy of a look is by Idaho based author Vince Milam. In what is clearly a homage to MacDonald’s Travis Magee, Milam has created Case Lee who, like MacGee, has chosen to live his live aboard a houseboat. Similarities abound as the name of Lee’s boat, The Ace of Spades, bears a remarkable similarity to MacGee’s Busted Flush. But let none of this coincidence take away from what are very enjoyable stories.

But why involve yourself in a series of novels when one might do? Simple, it is sometimes interesting and entertaining to follow a character on a journey of development. Development of both the character, and the writer, and indeed yourself.

If that takes your fancy then let yourself go and allow yourself to be taken on that journey.

So next time you are looking for a good read, take a look at one of the above authors.

As with any series there is no need to start with the first novel, but I do feel that if you are to follow the characters development then you should make sure that you start from the first novel of the series, then you can follow your newly found hero, on a longer than imagined journey of discovery.

Let me know how you get on.

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