Which do you prefer, a one-off or a more committed relationship? I started thinking about this recently, reading Boston Teran’s hard-hitting neo-noir thriller God is a Bullet. There’s a scene halfway through, when one of the main characters is at the mercy of the book’s villain. As I was reading it, I thought She’s fine; he won’t kill her off. Right? And then I remember looking up, and thinking How am I sure he won’t? I know nothing about this author apart from his name. Maybe he makes a habit of murdering his protagonists…
I got a real thrill out of not knowing where the book was heading. Is there anything more exciting? To be completely at the mercy of the writer, blindfolded and chained onto a rollercoaster – I love it, and it doesn’t happen nearly enough. One other example that always springs to mind is Hammett’s portrayal of Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon, the only full-length work in which he appears. What fascinated me most on first reading the book is that you just don’t know what’s going on inside Spade’s head. What are his motives? How loyal is he to his ex-partner? Whose side is he really on? This is wholly appropriate for someone described in the opening paragraph as resembling ‘a blond Satan’, and until the end we just don’t know what type of angel Spade really is. It has the effect of keeping the reader on edge, and not knowing how the story will end.
This is clearly a lot harder to achieve in an ongoing series, where in order to come back the main protagonist has to survive. If you’re not careful the law of diminishing returns can come into play, as with Exhibit A: Hannibal Lecter. Like most people, I was awestruck by Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs; I also really enjoyed Hannibal in an over-the-top, operatic kind of way (confession time: I bought it when it first came out, and then called in sick the next day just so I could finish it). Unfortunately, this was then followed by Hannibal Rising, which given the quality of the other books I felt I had to buy. Sadly, the results weren’t good.
Part of the problem was that Hannibal Rising removed much of the mystery surrounding Lecter. But more crucially, I didn’t want to find out what made him the monster he later became. Whilst I was thrilled by him in the previous books, I didn’t want to empathise with him – the man’s a lunatic! There are examples where the reader can know too much, and this was one of them. I finished the book dissatisfied with both Harris and Lecter, and put my copy on eBay almost immediately.
That’s not to say that series don’t have other strengths, however. Keep it going for long enough, and it starts to take on a life (and a gravity) of its own. I’m currently on a quest (otherwise known as ‘The McBainiad’) to read all 54 of the 87th Precinct novels in the order they were published – I’ll start in on book three, The Pusher, in a couple of weeks’ time. What fascinates me about the series (and has done, since I read my first McBain novel over 20 years ago) is the fact that it covers close to 50 years of American history. Whilst we see the characters develop, get married, have children and so on, what’s really interesting is the changing backdrop of the city that they move against. As the series progresses, so the crimes investigated by the boys of the eight-seven also change – reflecting both changes in society, but also different attitudes to crime fiction, and reader expectation. Whilst many of the books can be seen as formulaic, taken as a whole the series represents one of the high points of modern American crime fiction, painted on one of the largest possible canvases.
There is of course a middle path, that of the limited series of three, four, or maybe five books featuring the same character(s). This is a particular favourite of mine, often because the links between these books can be thematic, more character-centred, or both. There’s something very enticing about becoming so intimately familiar with an individual, as in Ray Banks’ Manchester-set Cal Innes series. The four books work terrifically well on their own, but take on even more power when read as a quartet. Through them, we learn increasingly that Innes is a very damaged individual, with an anger inside him that is never fully explained. There are hints that this may be as a result of an earlier spell in prison; but it is not until the final book that the pieces fall into place, and we can see clearly what was hinted at previously. Suddenly, Innes’ actions in previous books make a lot more sense.
It’s very much like the ending to The Usual Suspects, where the final revelations mean that, when the audience watches the film the second time around, it is from a very different viewpoint. I’ve heard Kevin Spacey compare this effect to watching a play twice, but each time from different seats – once from the stalls, and then from the dress circle. It’s the sort of slightly disorientating effect that the best crime fiction can deliver – both when it comes as single spies, or in battalions.