Series or Standalone?

My recent reviews have had me considering the pros and cons of the crime mystery series. My most recent review, Anthem for Doomed Youth, was for the twentieth book in the series, and I felt that I was missing some of the background colour by not reading the eighteen books between this and the first one. In between, the lead character had married, had a child and developed a small band of friends. I felt that I would care a lot more about the non-mystery related parts of the story if I’d read the intervening books.

Obviously some series don’t have this sort of development. Off the top of my head, reading the Poirot books out of order might spoil the fact that Hastings acquires a wife at the end of one of the books, but that’s about it. Likewise for Marple, Fell and Merrivale. An earlier adventure might get a namecheck, but nothing more detailed than that. Indeed there is apparently such a lack of continuitiy between early and late Ellery Queen novels that some people have theorised that there are in fact two different detectives with that name!

Compare that to more recent series. I’m partway into Crown In Darkness, the second Hugh Corbett book from Paul Doherty and a fairly major event from the denouement of the first book, Satan in St Mary’s has already been detailed. The Peter Robinson book Strange Affair basically tells you who the murderer was in the previous book Playing With Fire – this is done in order to provide important character development for one of the characters, but I was glad to have read that book first. Nev Fountain makes a point in the introduction to DVD Extras Include: Murder that the book spoils the murderer of the first Mervyn Stone book, Geek Tragedy – indeed the murderer makes an appearance in the second book. One of Mark Billingham’s books, I forget which, is a direct sequel to the outstanding Scaredy Cat and almost all of his books set after The Burning Girl reference a critical element in the denouement of that book.

Not every modern series is like this. There are one or two elements in Lee Child’s Jack Reacher novels (a girlfriend spans two or three early books) but these can basically be safely read in any order. Even so, I find more and more that I’m making a point of reading any series of books in order, just in case that such spoilers exist. Also, you do feel that you’re getting the complete story. The previously mentioned Satan In St Mary’s provided a lot of backstory to Hugh Corbett that fleshed out the character much more than he was in the later Corpse Candle or Nightshade, by which time he is happily married without a mention of past tragedy.

I was wondering, am I in the minority with this? What do my fellow mystery buffs do? It took me a long time to track down Crown In Darkness before I could carry on the Hugh Corbett series, but as I knew I would be reading them all, it was important to me to get it. So do you make a point of reading in order? Do you read them in any combination? Or do you shy away from series crime all together?

7 comments

  1. Some good points here, as always. I usually try to start at the beginning if I can, which sometimes means I buy a book and then leave it unread for years on the shelf because it is from the middle of a series and I haven’t tracked down the earlier volumes yet. The case of Nev Fountain is an unusual one in that he bothers to provide a warning about possible spoilers if the books are read out of sequence (all three were published at the same time, which I must admit seems to me a baffling way to go about it – why not spread the publication out and build up your readership incrementally …).

    It is infuriating when the name of a murderer is given away in a subsequent title, which has certainly happened to me a few times over the years so I do try to not read out of sequence but of course how do you know you are going to want to invest in them? It makes it harder to pick a book up casually in a shop but usually when you buy online it is easier to know if this is going to be an issue – I think Fountain-like disclaimers would be a good move but the feeling is bound to be that you don;t want to put potential readers off so I can see why it doesn’t happen very often. I think the fact that most TV dramas have now become much more serial-like had conditioned most readers to be wary of this and I’m not sure authors are necessarily doing enough to counter the detrimental effect of people feeling left out if they don’t start at the first volume. Of course in GAD fiction it was common to refer to previous cases, but that was usually just a blatant sales pitch with an asterisk of footnote directing readers to the volume in question which I always found quite amusing.

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    • When starting a new series, it’s there can be a danger with the first one being weaker than the later ones. I’m not convinced that I’d be so enamoured with Paul Doherty if all I’d read was Satan in St Mary’s…

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  2. I’m a reader who likes to read whatever I feel like reading. With series, I have recently started reading in order. While this might work out for the best, the downside is that I don’t want to be told what I have to read. If I have a choice of reading three books till I reach the epic one where Satan is apparently beheading the House of Commons member by member in locked rooms, towers, and muddy fields, or skipping to that one in the series straight away… I’m skipping four times out of five!

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  3. There are series that I would like to read in chronological order, such as Pronzini’s Nameless Detective and Doherty’s Judge Amerotke books, but when you’ve the misfortune of being located in a small, detective unfriendly country somewhere in Europe – and that makes me for a big part dependable on what comes my way. I do specially order books from overseas, but they are usually titles that have a priority rating on my wish list. So when I come across copies of THE HORUS KILLING and THE ANUBIS SLAYINGS, I will snatch them up immediately instead of waiting until THE MASK OF RA comes my way.

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  4. I hadn’t really thought about this before, that there are two kinds of series. For example, the Sherlock Holmes series starts with Holmes and Watson as young men, you see Watson get married (with all the continuity confusion) and it ends with Holmes retired. The Nero Wolfe books, on the other hand, you can read in any sequence. Once Lily Rowan is introduced (which is quite early on) the cast is in place and pretty much set. At that point, other than the external details (the war, whether Archie’s following the Dodgers or the Mets), nothing changes. Which is the point, of course (Wolfe’s desire to control his world do that everything is always on schedule and nothing changes).

    I’m working on a series of detective stories, and I thought it was going to be one where you could read them in any order, but then halfway through the detective and her assistant adopted a daughter (which sure came as a surprise to me) and from them on the stories have to be read in order because the development of the family is a major subplot. I don’t think there are any spoilers in the later stories, though.

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    • That sounds a little similar to the Inspector Banks books – the first six or so are, if I recall correctly, fairly interchangeable in order with only minor social plot developments, but after a point, the charater developments become more… severe. And there is one book, Playing With Fire, where the murderer is spoiled a lot in the next book.

      Keep us informed about how the books develop!

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