I wonder how many authors, when they begin their first novel, go into it with the intention of writing a series based on the same set of characters, or at least the same protagonist.
How many bad guys was Jack Reacher meant to see off? How many crimes was Inspector Morse supposed to solve? Come to that, how many clients was Sherlock Holmes going to take on?
There’s a school of thought that suggests that series fiction is a publishing invention, and not the authors’ idea at all. It has all kinds of marketing advantages: a loyalty factor will kick in; backlist will sell to readers who come in halfway through and want to catch up; it can be promoted as a ‘brand’, with family-feel covers and a ready-made strapline for the front; the author will probably work more quickly (and therefore produce more books) because some of the key elements of fiction are already in place; TV producers with an eye to an ongoing franchise might take an interest... you see where I’m coming from with this.
So more power to authors like Ann Cleeves, one of my favourite Brit crime writers, for stating right at the start that her Shetland series would be four books and not a syllable more. Four major crimes is pushing the suspension of disbelief on a remote group of islands where in real life shoplifting is enough crime to make headlines; stringing it out any further would have risked looking just plain silly.
Without that kind of common sense and the willpower to call a halt, once a series is under way it gathers its own momentum like one of those huge trucks that thunder down the dual carriageway, and can be just as hard to stop. And because of the increased earning potential of a series, few publishers are going to want it to come to an end. So we have unlikely situations like a quiet coastal town or a group of rural villages where there’s a murder every week. What’s more, readers seem to like it – maybe in some kind of backwards way it makes them feel safe.
So what’s a poor author to do? How does a popular series reach a full stop?
The obvious solution is to kill off the protagonist; there’s no coming back from that.
That’s how Colin Dexter dealt with Morse – though a TV company promoted poor old Lewis and gave him a backstory, so spinoff books are no doubt only a heartbeat away. And Sherlock Holmes survived the Reichenbach Falls; and the rumour that Reacher hadn’t survived the crunch ending of 61 Hours proved unsubstantiated.
Reginald Hill actually wrote a book called The Death of Dalziel, though since there are two subsequent titles in the series it’s not giving too much away to say he doesn’t actually die. And now we’ll never find out what exit, if any, Reg Hill planned for his large hero with a philosophical sidekick.
Sue Grafton has four more bites at the Kinsey Milhone cherry before she has to rethink her title format. Will she regard that as a good place to bow out, I wonder. It’ll be interesting to see...
My old chum Maureen Carter ‘rested’ her gutsy heroine Bev Morriss back in 2010, following a major body-blow at the end of book #7. She’s currently writing another great series, but there are those of us who really, really wish Bev would come back. But who knows? Maybe she’s taken one knock too many.
One thing is certain: however successful it is, no series should be allowed to continue past its natural life. The doesn’t apply to any of the above, but I’m sure we all have our own thoughts on people who should have called it a day a few books ago. So, short of untimely demise, what does an author do to draw a line under a series when s/he (or his/her readers) has/have had enough of it?
I have absolutely no idea. Have you?