April 29

What’s Better: One Superb Stand Alone Novel or a Series-based Character Arc?

Increasingly I find myself reading books that are part of a sequence – from Philip Kerr‘s Bernie Gunther, to Peter James‘ Roy Grace, Vince Flynn‘s Mitch Rapp and even Lee Child‘s Jack Reacher. These range from guilty pleasures (Reacher – although this seems to be in sharp decline) to classy historical thrillers (see: Bernie Gunther, a series that borrows heavily from Raymond Chandler and manages to retain my interest in it’s historical context, a genre that otherwise does nothing for me as a reader).

In addition to those mentioned above, I’d cite Michael Connelly‘s Harry Bosch, Stuart MacBride‘s Logan McRae, Jo Nesbo‘s Harry Hole, Gideon Defoe‘s Pirate Captain, Alan Bradley‘s Flavia De Luce and Mark Billingham‘s Tom Thorne as excellent characters that are worth investing in, each with their own merits.

Some authors seem to encourage the reader to get on board at any point (Connelly) and others aim to enhance the experience for readers that are on top of the wider narrative arc (Billingham, Nesbo). Clearly the commercial success of an author will have some bearing on this, as will the length of a series. For example, Ian Rankin‘s much loved Inspector Rebus is one that I’ve yet to touch, because 19 books is a little daunting – although I have the first one, Knots and Crosses, ready to go when I get around to it.

This throws up some interesting points for me that I’ve never given thought to previously.

As an avid reader, would I prefer one superb stand alone novel to getting under the skin of a character’s development through an extended sequence?

The above list certainly points to the latter and in writing this I’d struggle to think of any stand alone books that I’d say were better than a great series in recent years. Jo Nesbo‘s recent stand-alone The Son (see my review here) was a good book – a little longer than necessary perhaps and, as film rights were picked up prior to English publication, I strongly suspect that this was written, at least in part, as source material for a film.

Solomon Northup‘s 12 Years A Slave is one of those books that deserves to be read by as many people as possible – it’s less than 50p in the Amazon store at the time of writing – but it’s of course a different experience altogether, which is entirely the point.

I also enjoyed Robert Galbraith (i.e. JK Rowling)’s  A Cuckoo’s Calling – although the second from the character, Cormoran Strike (!), has been announced in hardback for this June. Gone Girl was OK but I felt badly let down by the unlikely climax.

Indeed I have to go back some time to Julian Barnes‘ superb novella The Sense of An Ending to find a stand alone book that I could wholeheartedly recommend – and S.J. Watson‘s Before I Go To Sleep, before that. Will Self‘s Great Apes stands out in my memory, along with Ian McEwan‘s novels Amsterdam and Enduring Love, all from recent years.

So, whilst I certainly would never make a case for the series over the stand-alone thriller objectively, why am I increasingly pulled towards the lure of a) the series and b) often a Police-based character?

Does the world really need another police character?

Perhaps the point is that the flawed police-based character that is so central to many modern novels is that it is the contemporary incarnation of the mystery or detective story, made accessible in terms of the context of the mystery (i.e. typically a crime) and the solution (i.e. those landed with the responsibility of handling crime on behalf of the rest of society). Obvious really.

To criticise a good detective story or sequence is to criticise the history of the whodunnit and each reader’s relationship with a story of any type as it unfolds – which is surely the essence of both good storytelling and indeed the reading experience for many lovers of fiction (and, I would argue, is the same for great fiction in film, TV and gaming).

Why aren’t there more female characters?

In writing this, it had never before occurred how few of the books that I come across – which I believe to be a fair cross section of modern, mass market literature, albeit skewed towards my perspective, obviously – feature a female lead protagonist.

Flavia DeLuce, the 12 year old centrepiece of Alan Bradley‘s superb series that’s set in the 1950s is the clear exception to this.

In an attempt to redeem myself a little from some of the choices above, Margaret Atwood is one of my favourite authors – yet despite the female oriented Year of The Flood (and of course female leads in many of her other books, such as The Blind Assassin and The Handmaid’s Tale), Oryx and Crake, a book with a male lead, remains her most remarkable novel in my eyes.

One final thought – I’m finding that many of the series that I’m investing in are written out of chronological sequence from the timeline of the main character’s life. The Bernie Gunther books were written out of chronological order, as was the Mitch Rapp sequence. Having just read the first three Mitch Rapp books in what the author’s own site states to be the correct sequence, and thoroughly enjoyed the first two, I found the third to be over-long and at a much slower pace. A little investigation revealed that Transfer of Power (‘book 3’ according to the author’s site) was actually written first – hence what I was actually seeing in the first two books was the writer having both perfected writing about the character and going back to what might at the time be considered a prelude to the existing books. So, one final question:

Is it better to read a series of books in the order that they were written – even if they’re out of chronological sequence in terms of the character’s life – or is it actually better to read them in the chronology of the character?

One way to look at this is perhaps around whether there are any more books to follow. Sadly, in the case of Vince Flynn’s character, that’s not to be, unless they are ghostwritten (or indeed the character may be killed off – I’m not there yet!) as the author passed away recently. So, in that case, the reader can chose which route to go. Under other circumstances, I think I’d be included to read them in the order they were written, not least to see the writer develop, as well as the character, and avoid the jarring experience I mentioned above.

Partly in researching this post and partly for my own use I’ve researched a number of useful resources around some of the characters mentioned. I hope they’re useful…

Michael Connelly‘s Harry Bosch (and other characters)
Vince Flynn‘s Mitch Rapp (author’s preferred sequence or order in which the books were written)
Mark Billingham‘s Tom Thorne
Philip Kerr‘s Bernie Gunther (a fan-site list of both the character chronology and order that the books were written in)
Peter JamesRoy Grace
Stuart MacBride‘s Logan MacRae
Robert Ludlum/Eric Van Lustbader‘s Jason Bourne (fan-site)
Jo Nesbo‘s Harry Hole (also defines the early Harry Hole books from The Oslo Sequence)
Lee Child‘s Jack Reacher (a fan-site, listing both by character chronology and by publishing date)
Gideon Defoe‘s Pirate Captain
Alan Bradley‘s Flavia De Luce
Ian Rankin‘s Rebus (read from the bottom up)