Who needs to hang it up?

by Michelle Gagnon

This is an ongoing discussion on one of the message boards I frequent, and I thought it was an interesting one. How long can a series continue before it sinks under its own weight?

When readers have latched on to a character or series, and whatever book follows in the progression is guaranteed to make the bestsellers’ lists, both publishers and authors are loathe to say Sayonara. But there are popular series out there that are starting to look a bit long in the tooth. And would those writers be better served by branching out into new territory? After all, if their name is established, wouldn’t most of their fan base follow them on whatever new venture they chose?

I’ll preface this by saying that I’m playing devil’s advocate here. I’m a huge
John Sandford fan, and if he were to suddenly announce that Lucas Davenport was vanishing into the ether, I would be disappointed. Same with Jack Reacher, but for different reasons. What I like about Sandford’s books is that he has managed to keep them freash and interesting by varying the plots: some are more like spy novels, other focus on heists or serial killers. Plus, Lucas Davenport is one of the rare series characters who has actually evolved. I liked him at the beginning, but by allowing him to age and learn from life experience, I’m far more invested in him than I would be otherwise.

Paradoxically, the opposite holds true for Jack Reacher. He never changes. Thirteen books in, he still travels with nothing but the clothing on his back and a fold up toothbrush. And apparently he’s discovered that mythical fountain of youth, since he can still destroy pretty much anyone in a fight regardless of the fact that he must be approaching fifty by now. And yet, I don’t care. (I will say, however, that I secretly hope Lee Child someday branches off into a side series featuring Frances Neagley. Particularly after Bad Luck and Trouble, I want to know more about her and that company she runs). It’s the reason the Law and Order franchise is so consistently successful: you know what to expect, and Child always delivers it. He has the added liberty of being able to take Reacher anywhere in the world, from small towns to metropolises, and there’s no reason for him not to be there since he’s not locked into a job, tied to anyone or anything.

Others, however, have not been as fortunate. There are series whose books I devoured for five, ten, even fifteen books. But they gradually devolved into something that was either implausible or just plain silly. How long can you maintain a love triangle that never gets resolved? And for series set in small towns, how are we supposed to swallow the fact that their homicide rate rivals Detroit’s? I loved Karin Slaughter’s Grant County series, but after six books it was starting to suffer from Cabot Cove Syndrome: how could so many terrible things happen in a rural Georgia county? Who would ever move there with that level of crime? Property values must have been in the basement after the third serial killer in as many years passed through. Moving the series to Atlanta and combining it with her other series revitalized it for me.

So let’s hear it: who needs to hang it up? And what series have defied the odds and held your interest?


20 thoughts on “Who needs to hang it up?

  1. I love Kathy Reichs, but after learning way more than I wanted to know about leprosy, I kinda didn’t want to learn anything else. Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake series started out as a decent little paranormal mystery series, then devolved into who’s she having sex with THIS week? Good Catholic girls don’t do it with, like, 7 guys -er – vampires – er – everything in between. Kathy Franklin

  2. I’m a big Matthew Scudder and Bernie Rhodenbarr fan. Lawrence Block has kept them the same but different enough to keep them interesting. Donald Westlake’s series characters Dortmunder and the Gang that can’t shoot, steer, walk, or think straight got on my nerves because they were so inept that you’d think that they would either learn, quit, or go to jail. Unfortunately Mr. Westlake died recently, so maybe I’ll appreciate Dortmunder on a re-read knowing no more antics are forthcoming. With a nod to Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlings my favorite series characters are easily Ross Thomas’ MacCorkle, Padillo, and Granville Haynes. Other characters–main characters in other Ross Thomas novels–meander in and out of various Thomas books. Always welcome.

    Rob Loughran

  3. Interesting question. I’m not sure if looking at the bookshelves is the best way to see which series I’ve persevered with, but if it is, then the answer if ones that do, sort of, have an end in sight – Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden for example.

  4. I find that it seems to be about Book 7 before the author starts running into trouble. There isn’t a single series that I read much beyond book ten because the books start losing quality. I usually make it to ten, hoping the author will improve. My addition to the list: Sue Grafton and Clive Cussler.

    I’d like to say there are series that had defied the odds, but nearly every one has has gone past book seven and ran into trouble. I would have said Vince Flynn, but his second to last book was just okay, and his last one was a flop. I would have also said Preston/Child, but their last three have not been very good. Jim Butcher has been one so far that’s holding his own.

    My own personal thoughts on this is that the authors need to do a little more than have characters who stay the same throughout the series–but not change them so much they lose what people like about the characters. I don’t care if the need is great–if your character has been established as being someone with definite moral boundaries, torturing someone by cutting off their fingers is taking the reader away from what they like about the character. I think that was the greatest betrayal of that author to the reader–and it signaled a slide of the series.

    Linda Adams

  5. I can hardly wait for each new book by Robert B Parker. Spenser is my absolute favorite character, but I’ve learned to like Jesse Stone and Sunny Randall. Now Parker has added westerns to his repertoire, and although I never liked westerns before, doggoned if I’m not hooked. Maybe it’s not the lead character so much as the writer, and rotating among the various ones keeps things fresh.

  6. It’s not about the characters, it’s about the money. If it’s pouring in (e.g., Child, Evanovich) the publisher is not going to want that messed with. The author is hard pressed to give it up, too, even though it may be best from a literary standpoint.

  7. I have long been known as a huge Robert Crais fan. Elvis and Joe never get/got old. However, I think what has helped him is that he’ll mix in a few standalones, then bring those characters back. And now he’s doing books from Joe’s perspective (3rd person, can’t possibly go first person from Pike’s POV, just wouldn’t be the same).
    I used to think Harry Bosch could go on forever, especially with the way he grew and changed. But I gotta admit, there for a little while (*cough*TheClosers*coughcough*) I was worried. Of course, when even your not-so-good books are still very good, it just means you’ve set your own bar through the roof.

  8. One series that keeps getting better and better is Julia Spencer Fleming’s. The latest in the series, I Shall Not Want, is one of the best books I ever read. The way she’s developed the characters and made them grow in sometimes unexpected ways is outstanding.

    One thing I dislike in some series is when the crimes (and the characters) become more and more unbelievable. It’s almost like the author is trying to one-up the reader (or other authors). I can almost hear them thinking, Ha! Try topping that one!

  9. As much as I’m a Sue Grafton fan, I haven’t been all that thrilled with anything past N or maybe O. U’s coming out in December and I’m sure I’ll buy it, but the books just don’t seem to be working for me like they used to.

    I’m still a Robert B. Parker fan, and the Spenser novels still have their moments, but he sort of lost me with the Sunny Randall books with the serial killer a book or two ago.

    I just finished reading Even Money by Dick Francis and Felix Francis and although technically not a series, I agree with, I think it was a Washington Post review, that said all the ingredients of the earlier books are there, but since Dick Francis is about 91 years old now, it’s clear that his son, Felix, is writing the books and whatever magic Dick brought to them just wasn’t there. And that’s how it felt. It seemed like a long slog just to finish it.

  10. I haven’t read enough of her books to judge, but I have a friend who used to be a huge Patricia Cornwell fan. She said she felt shocked and betrayed because Cornwell had changed the style of her writing significantly, and my friend found the later ones to be unreadable. She even suspected that they had been written by someone else. She had a great sense of mourning about the whole thing, like she’d lost a writer friend.

  11. Louis L’amour, my favourite childhood author, ran the Sackett series through nineteen books and it was good all the way to the end. But that was because characters got old and died and their children took over as the main characters. It covered a three hundred year period from 1590 – 1890 and had me addicted to the end.

    One of my favourite adulthood authors, Jack Higgins, ran the Sean Dillon series from 1991 until now through seventeen books so far. I quit reading it about three books ago when I could not take it any longer. The problem is that the Dillon character, followed from being a 19 year old IRA terrorist to a forty-something British operative, ran out of oomph about the tenth book. He became at that point little more than a cliched advert for Krug champagne, Walther PPK, and Bushmills whiskey. All of which I like, but I want my characters to have more substance than that of being an alcoholic ex-terrorist who speaks in cliches.

    Anyway, sometimes it can work long term, sometimes it can’t. Choose wisely oh author who seeks this path.

  12. Patricia Cornwall lost me (and I loved the first few books) – there’s only so much a character can go through before the author loses credibility. I’m intrigued by the 7 book thing – I think theyre may be something to this. I’m thinking of Robert Jordan’s wheel of time series – sometimes even the most dedicated fan starts to flag after about 7!

  13. Patricia Cornwell almost lost me when she killed off Scarpetta’s lover. I made it through another book or two, but when she switched to present tense, that was it. Done. I heard she brought the lover back. Seems he wasn’t dead after all.

  14. Robert Crais and James Lee Burke always get it done for me, but the all-time master has to be the late Ed McBain. He wrote 87th Precinct novels for 50 years and the latest were some of the best. He had the knack of growing the characters enough to keep them interesting, but slowly enough to keep things familiar. A genius who doesn’t get enough recognition so soon after his death.

    As for series that have run their course, I stopped reading Robert B. Parker after HUNDRED DOLLAR BABY. I’ll re-read an old one occasionally, but he started mailing them in several years ago. It also doesn’t help that Spenser and hawk still kick all comers’ asses, even though Spenser sometimes refers to his time in the Korean War, which would put him, at best, in hs middle 70s.

  15. I have to confess, I never read the Spenser series.I love that quote from Parker, though.Cornwall lost me on Blowfly- it had one of the oddest endings of any book I’d ever read.

  16. Patricia Cornwell used to be one of my must-read authors. But the last book of hers I read–I don’t even remember the name–was horrible. I was angry at her when I finished it. It will be a long time until I pick another up again. Aside from what she did to the characters, the story just wasn’t good.

    I absolutely love Spenser and I look forward to every book, but it used to just make my month when a new Spenser came out. Not so much any more. But then again, Spenser’s been around for about a zillion books.

    Lee Child always delivers, of course.

    A lot of the author’s I’ve started reading are still relative new…Brian Freeman, JT Ellison, and Zoe Sharp come to mind. It will be interesting to see how their characters age.

  17. I forgot to mention a series author I have loved for a long time and followed through many series.

    Bernard Cornwell.

    I know he’s not technically a thriller writer, but the historical fiction he writes are in essence thrillers on a fact based timeline. And very good.

    The Richard Sharpe series, Vikings, Arthurian thrillers. He follows with numerous novels in sequence and all are pretty intense stories.

    anyway…I’ve talked too much for a friday already….over and out.

  18. Walter Mosley is one author who decided to throw in the towel with one of his popular characters, Easy Rawlins’. Mosley moved on to a new present day detective series. Mosley also writes outside the mystery genre and has written science fiction. Although I will miss the Rawlins’ series, I understand the author’s need to move on to new adventures.

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