One of the fascinations about the fast-paced conversations that blogging and social networks facilitate is that a single contribution to debate can create a fresh and intriguing direction for the discussion. The way in which these cyberspace conversations mimic, yet differ from, spoken conversations would be a good field for research.
But today my focus is on a thought-provoking comment made on this blog by Paul Beech in relation to detective series. He asked: when should a series end? Let me quote directly from him:
‘The author running out of steam or simply fancying a change doesn’t quite justify a “never again” ending with a popular character, surely? After all the author might discover a fresh head of steam after a break. But what if the series was conceived thematically as a cycle and this is now complete? Or if the character’s personal goal is achieved – a relationship (Daniel Kind / Hannah Scarlett), reconciliation with a daughter (John Harvey’s Frank Elder), etc. Is it then time, regretfully perhaps, to move on?’
Series can come to an end, or an apparent end, in a variety of ways. Conan Doyle decided to dispose of Sherlock Holmes because he became frustrated that detective stories were getting in the way of his other activities – but, of course, public pressure forced him into a re-think. Nicolas Freeling, presumably bored with his finest creation, killed off Van Der Valk, but then had the detective’s widow investigate subsequent cases.
More commonly, an author decides upon a change of direction, but prudently avoids killing off the detective – just in case. It's still relatively uncommon for series to be conceived thematically as a cycle, although as Paul says, it does happen. Increasingly in the money- and sales-driven business climate of the modern publishing world, the decision is taken out of the author’s hands when the publishers simply decree that they will not produce any more books featuring a particular detective. If the author is lucky, the publisher will accept further books with a different set-up. But often, nowadays, the author is cut adrift. I can think of several friends who have suffered this fate, and it is a great shame.
Oddly, an unsuccessful television series can so disappoint a writer that they are reluctant to write about the character again – the protagonist has, in a sense, been ‘spoiled’ in their eyes. I can think of two British writers, one male and one female, of whom this could be said.
Sometimes, it’s simply the case that the author’s focus switches, and the framework and characters he or she has created in the series do not accommodate a more ambitious approach. This is, you might say, the Dorothy L. Sayers conundrum. Lord Peter Wimsey began almost as a Bertie Wooster type of character, but became a much more serious and substantial figure in later books. Arguably, she might have created a major new series detective, but she preferred to stick with Wimsey. Likewise, Margery Allingham’s Albert Campion evolved quite remarkably as the years went by. Today, I think publishers would prefer their authors to make a fresh start.
In my own case, I wrote seven successive books featuring Harry Devlin, as well as a number of short stories. I then decided that I wanted a change, even though it would have been possible to take up a further contract offer. By the time I’d written a non-series book and was ready to return to Harry, my editor had moved on – and my new editor suggested a series with a rural setting. Hence The Coffin Trail and the beginning of the Lake District Mysteries.
However, I never lost my enthusiasm for Harry, and when Liverpool was European Capital of Culture in 2008, it provided the perfect opportunity to revive him in Waterloo Sunset. It was a book I really enjoyed writing, and I think it is possibly the best of all the Devlins. But commercially, there is not as much demand for that series as for the Lake District Mysteries, so it will (unfortunately) be some time before Harry returns. But I hope he will, one day.
As for Paul’s question about Hannah and Daniel getting together – we’ll just have to wait and see! But here's a hint: their developing relationship is the spine of the series, but I didn't conceive the series in cyclical terms. In my mind, it's very much open-ended. A journey without a particular end in sight....