A question popped up today within the pages of my favourite Facebook group, Golden Age Detection; a gentleman has been asked to lecture to a group of writers about series mysteries and asked for our thoughts. Thanks, Dan Andriacco, for prompting my thinking processes; I had more to say than would be appropriate in that terse context, and so I’ve moved my efforts here. I hope my thoughts will be useful to you and your group. I am assuming that this group intends to write mysteries that are sold to publishers for large sums of money, and thus my considerations are addressed more to marketability than to artistic considerations.
First of all, one ground rule; I believe that “series mysteries” require “series detectives”, so I’m going to address the idea of series detectives and use them interchangeably with series mysteries. Series mysteries, of course, are pretty much written by the same author about the same protagonist(s); some sort of detective figure who solves various cases (exceptions definitely exist for any of these terms). A few names at random are Jane Marple, Sherlock Holmes, Jessica Fletcher, and Ellery Queen. The most important thing in a series is its detective character; if that doesn’t catch the interest of the reading public, you won’t be selling a very long series.
I can certainly understand why writers would want to know more about series detectives. As I understand it, no major publisher will currently look at a stand-alone mystery from a fledgling author. One author told me that she had been told that she’d better come in with a written outline for at least an eight-book series, and that package should contain a publishable manuscript for volume 1, detailed outlines for volumes 2 and 3, detailed character sketches for the detective and any continuing characters, and a sketch plan for where volumes 4 through 8 should take the protagonist. My first reaction was, “Wow.” My second reaction was, “Thank goodness.”
I’ll explain that last snarky remark 😉 but first I have to divide series detectives into two major groups, because the two groups have different characteristics and are treated differently. I’ve invented these terms, but let’s call them static detectives and evolving detectives.
Static detectives are how series detectives began in the earliest days of detective fiction; back in the days when writers were staking out the basic principles of detective fiction by making it up as they went along, the reading public wanted exactly the same experience of the detective character in each story. The detective is pretty much the same person at the same level of personal development at every stage of every novel. Sherlock Holmes never changed in any major detail. He did not apparently age. He did not fall in love, court the object of his affections, and get married, and produce children who enter the family detective business. He never suffered any major trauma that caused him to renounce his former avocation halfway through his series and devote his further efforts to being a storefront social worker, or move to Paris. Or, indeed, change his apartment or his deerstalker or his Persian slipper or have those bullet holes in the walls filled in. Nothing ever changes. Occasionally a continuing character like Watson gets married, but their relationship does not change much.
In many instances other than Holmes’s, the life events of subsidiary characters in the lives of static detectives sometimes form the basis for specific novels — the detective is the maid of honour at her girlfriend’s wedding at which the best man is murdered. One of Nero Wolfe’s detective assistants is accused of murdering his girlfriend, and Wolfe must take the case.
And of course evolving detectives are the other ones. I can’t precisely identify the first evolving detective, but I think there’s a strong case for the first important one to have been Lord Peter Wimsey. In the course of Dorothy L. Sayers’s oeuvre, Wimsey started as a single dilettante / wealthy aristocrat / Wodehouseian Silly Ass, met Harriet Vane, had a number of exciting adventures with her, grew as a human being and a fallible man, and finally married Harriet and produced children. I believe that one of the reasons why this series has had an enduring major presence in the history of detective fiction is that readers, many of whom seem in my experience to be female, enjoy very much the process of watching the romance, proposal, and honeymoon and are prepared to experience it again and again, re-reading the books again and again. Peter and Harriet are a great love story with detective interruptions, to misquote the subtitle of Gaudy Night, and the readers loved to see him change. He grew more subtle and more powerful as time went on. Today’s champion of the evolving detective is Elizabeth George, but Anne Perry is giving her a run for her money, and I bet a bunch of other authors with whom I’m not familiar are also on the best-seller list with this kind of Great Big Romantic Series.
In Lord Peter’s case the subsidiary characters did not change much at all; Bunter doesn’t change one iota during the course of the novels. People get older, like Viscount St-George, and the characters react to world events. But the subsidiary characters are used to serve the development of the character of the detective. Either they remain absolutely static, like a rock of stability to whom the detective turns in times of personal crisis, or they have dramatic things happen to them, like being murdered or accused of murder.
So those are the definitions, and you can probably at this point pick up any mystery novel with which you’re reasonably familiar and say, “Oh, this is a static detective,” or “This is an evolving detective.” At least I hope so; it’s pretty straightforward. Occasionally a static detective makes the jump to an evolving detective, like what happened when Dorothy L. Sayers decided to give Lord Peter some “guts”, as I remember she put it.
What’s interesting for a writer is, first of all, that the choice of a static or an evolving detective affects the way that the book should be structured; and second, that certain kinds of detectives require certain kinds of plot structures.
As far as how the book should be structured — I’ll suggest that my friend, above, got the right advice from her agent. If you are trying to sell a series detective today, it doesn’t really matter if it’s static or evolving, but you have to demonstrate to your prospective publisher that you know what you’re going to be doing eight books from now and are capable of committing to it. There’s no point in them putting together huge cardboard displays for bookstores that say, “The latest Harley Footsnoot mystery!!” if there are only ever going to be two Harley Footsnoot mysteries because you’re out of ideas. And the reason why they want the last five roughed out for them is, perish forbid, you get hit by a truck and they have to hire Eric van Lustbader to finish the series 😉
If you’ve decided you want to write an evolving detective, you absolutely must know what’s going to happen eight books from now; this is what the publisher will want to know. It’s also the kind of thinking that the reader has a right to expect that you’ve done when you start. If you want to tell the long story of a slow courtship, or how detective Harley Footsnoot realizes that her first husband is wrong for her but his best friend is her true love, over a dozen novels, I want to know that you know what happens in the long story arc and how it happens. You have to structure the first eight books before you write the second one; that way, if you need something to happen in book two that reverberates in book six, you’re always there in advance. You cannot just make it up as you go along; you’ll produce an unsatisfying series.
And if you want to write a static detective, these days, that’s just fine too. Despite my saying above that it was a tradition from the beginnings of the genre, it’s still very much used today in the entry level of series cozies. Harley Footsnoot is a single mother, she runs a yarn store, and seems to get involved with a lot of local murders that somehow involve yarn. One of her two boyfriends is a cop and the other one is a handsome professor. Can you see how this goes? The books are always the same, Harley never changes, she can’t decide between her two boyfriends who themselves never change, and the yarn store rolls along at the same level. So what the publisher wants to see is how you’re going to come up with eight vaguely reasonable murder mystery plots that have something to do with yarn.
The idea that certain kinds of detectives require certain kinds of plot structures works this way. First, for an evolving detective; you have to know where you are in the character’s development over a dozen novels. For instance, the one I invented, the detective divorcing her first husband and marrying his best friend over a dozen books — somewhere around book three or four, you need a book where the detective’s husband does something untrustworthy that causes her to first consider that she might end up divorcing him. How that affects the structure of the book is that you have to have a murder plot that is based around trustworthiness. Say, a small software company turns out to have someone unexpected looting its bank accounts from the inside. The evolving Harley Footsnoot gets to think about trust while she’s solving the case, and how it has reverberations in her own life, because she might be just as oblivious to untrustworthiness as the CFO whose husband stole her passwords. And readers like this sort of thing very much; they will be pleased that you have created these interconnections between the detective’s personal life and her cases.
For a static detective, you need to give a different kind of consideration to structuring the plots. Brainstorm for a minute and see if you can think of eight different murders that have something to do with a yarn store. Well, an employee of the yarn store has a double life and gets murdered and Harley is suspected … someone opens up a yarn store across the street and gets murdered and Harley is suspected … a noted yarn collector comes to town to sign her book about yarn, gets murdered, and Harley is suspected … that’s three, and I’m fresh out. My point is that it gets more and more ridiculous that eight mysteries should happen in the same little town and all of them connected with yarn. Just like the good people of Cabot Cove should have been very, very reluctant to have dinner with Jessica Fletcher, it’s nearly impossible to keep doing the same type of plots over and over. She might be static as a character, but she can’t be as a detective.
If you’re going to write eight books or more about a static yarn expert, you have to structure the life of the detective so that she moves around. Don’t put her in a yarn store — that’s your fantasy life talking, not novelistic necessity. Instead, think of a reason why she interacts with different yarn situations. For instance, she is in charge of acquisitions for the world’s only yarn museum, run by a wealthy eccentric. So she goes to San Francisco and visits a yarn collector, she goes to London for a yarn exposition, she goes to rural Louisiana to acquire a collection of antique yarn. The structure doesn’t have to involve physical motion; for instance, one great static detective was Emma Lathen’s Wall Street banker, John Putnam Thatcher. Each book took him into a different area of business; automobiles, biotech, real estate. He was always meeting new groups of people who had a murder to deal with, but at the same time his group of workers (perfect secretary Miss Corso, and his three wildly different subordinates Trinkham, Bowman, and Gabler) remained dependable and unchanging subordinates.
So both evolving and static detectives have sets of static subsidiary characters who rarely change. The difference is that in a static book, the excitement and emotions come from strangers, and the continuing characters are the refuge (and the readers’ favourites). In an evolving book, the excitement and emotions come from continuing characters, and frequently the strangers are the refuge (the bitter unhappy detective throws herself into her work).
But it’s important to note that your static subsidiary characters need to have a constant utility in the plot; you can’t just give your detective a best friend because everyone has a best friend. Remember how Static Harley had two boyfriends, a cop and a professor? That’s because the professor is always doing research for her and coming up with crucial information to move the plot forward, and the cop bends the rules and gets her information she shouldn’t be able to access (arrest records) and protects her physically if people get violent. Holmes had Watson because he needed someone to whom to speak aloud, so that the reader could follow his thoughts to some extent. But Watson was also a doctor, and that occasionally came in handy with fainting clients or on-the-spot autopsy reports.
There’s one other crucial difference between static and evolving detectives that may affect a writer’s decision to focus on one or the other style; it might depend on how generally cheerful a person she is. That’s because static detectives are allowed to be happy — evolving detectives cannot be. Even Harley Footsnoot’s switch to marrying her first husband’s best friend cannot be allowed to flourish in perfection; either he gets killed in book eight (which results in her third marriage in book sixteen), or she discovers that he too has terrible flaws that cause her to be agonized for another eight books before deciding to go it alone and lonely. If you run a yarn business, though, you frequently get the opportunity to spring your brother-in-law from jail in the second-last chapter and then the book ends as you explain at a jolly family picnic how you figured it all out from the mismatched yarn strands. If you’re naturally a depressive type, you might want to do your mental health some good by working on books where people are occasionally happy.
So why, when my friend told me she’d been asked to plan eight books in advance, did I think, “Thank goodness!”? Because I read — until I pretty much gave up reading most modern mysteries, for reasons not unconnected with these ideas — far, far too many books where the author lost his way. Evolving detectives who just sit around and are gloomy without learning anything from it (I’m talking to you, ScandiNoir authors). Static detectives where the 32nd consecutive murder at the same charming Cape Cod B&B should have had the proprietor locked up on general principles years ago. Evolving detectives who hardly bother with the murder plot because they’re too busy quarrelling with their romantic partners; static detectives who apparently ignore the necessities of everyday life at the drop of a hat to go off and track down a clue. Evolving detectives with personal lives that make Dynasty look sedate, and which would likely get them suspended from the police force; static detectives whose perfect lives are wish-fulfillment fantasies of motherhood, business ownership, and the Kama Sutra with her chiseled cop hubby. And very particularly the protagonist’s best friend who is chubby and a figure of fun, but at the 2/3 point of the novel says something witty that turns out to give the detective the idea needed to solve the case. Because every subsidiary character will have a strong function in the plot that will allow them to be memorable without making them two-dimensional. Not like the works of some authors (I’m talking to you, Charlaine Harris) whose books are so cluttered with subsidiary characters left over from other books, and with no functions at all, that there’s barely room for anything other than a round of howdy-dos.
If you plan eight books ahead, you will know where you are at all times in the progress of your evolving detective’s tumultuous life, and you won’t clutter the books with vivid but useless characters. And in the progress of your static detective, you’ll have arranged to have plots that naturally take the protagonist into contact with lots of strangers who murder each other, while the detective’s home life remains non-violent and cozy. You will have planned out the continuing characters so that they’ll be useful and consistent and do what you need them to do. And you might actually get my $8.95 in a bookstore — times eight.
October 8 Challenge
Whoops! Some hours ago when I posted this, I forgot to claim it for a square in my own challenge; see below. This is about square 2D, a group of GAD mysteries linked by a style of detective or detection. (In fact, two different styles.)