Chained to the Sleuth

The news of Lee Child « bequeathing » Jack Reacher to his brother so that he can be free at last to write what he wants the way he wants has come as a surprise and a shock to many in the crime fiction community even though it demonstrates once again that a series character, while a reliable cash cow, can and often does end being a bore too. When reaching that stage when they can’t stand writing about their creature anymore and would rather lose money than going on with them, writers theoretically have a variety of weapons at their disposal. The cumbersome hero(ine) can marry, move to some far away country, retire or going incommunicado without further explanation – and if none of what precedes applies or is enough, they can die – which once again theoretically should put an end to the whole affair. The problem however is that all too often it won’t work, either because the writer can’t find a fitting end for their creature or because said creature adamantly refuses to go away. Fictional characters have a will of their own and keep on living as long as someone somewhere believes in them.

The « someone » may be the writer themselves, who find themselves unable to write about another character. They literally become a slave to their own creation. Perhaps the most striking example of such a « possession » case is Maurice Leblanc who in later life went on to believe that Arsène Lupin really existed and was out to kill him. Raymond Chandler also comes to mind, though in a less extreme fashion: All of his novels feature Marlowe as the lead character and he even rewrote some of his earlier short stories to make him the hero. Robert B. Parker in his introduction to the original Playback screenplay suggests that the novel that Chandler wrote out of it might have been much better had Marlowe been left out but for some reason Chandler at that stage of his career was no longer able to do without his character.

Most often however the « someone » that keeps the character living is the reader, and the writer has to choose between integrity and making a living. Some courageous ones choose the former, often though not always with retribution. Nicholas Freeling for instance never reconsidered killing Van der Valk, though he wrote a couple of books featuring her widow. He went on to write another series featuring Henri Castang but the character never became as popular as his predecessor. Ian Rankin and Michael Connelly tried to retire their respective sleuths en douceur but readers had none of it and soon John Rebus and Hieronymus Bosch were back on the beat. The majority of writers however don’t even try and keep on writing about the same character(s) for as long as there is a demand. Some like the late Ruth Rendell use an Allingham-like « left hand/right hand » strategy, dividing their writing between the strictly commercial (series) and the really « good » stuff (standalones)

Most series characters finally die, however – when their creators do. Gideon Fell, Gervase Fen, Miss Silver, Adam Dalgliesh or Ebenezer Gryce have been unheard of since their fathers and mothers passed away. The rule however has its exceptions as all other rules do. There are series characters that are so popular or charismatic that they manage to get an afterlife, in some cases against their creator’s wishes. Agatha Christie for instance « killed » Poirot in the explicit hope that no one else would ever « use » him – and yet he is back in the twenty-first century « thanks » to Sophie Hannah’s estate-sanctioned novels. Conversely, an unfinished manuscript allowed the Dorothy L. Sayers estate to ressuscitate Lord Peter Wimsey with the help of Jill Patton Walsh, and Roderick Alleyn has also recently been brought back to life by Ngaio Marsh’s fellow compatriot Stella Duffy. Most of these miraculous « rebirths » are engineered by greedy estates or heirs trying to keep a successful formula from going to waste and their actual artistic value is open to debate to say the least – but this rule too fortunately has its exceptions, such as Barry Perowne’s Raffles stories or John F. Suter’s Uncle Abner pastiches. They are however pretty rare and the overall quality of pastiches/continuations/sequels tend to be negatively correlated to the character’s notoriety – the more famous they are, the less risks are taken. The ever-growing number of bad aprocryphal Sherlock Holmes stories is a testimony to that.

So what’s the lesson for the writer willing to make a name for themselves but also wary to lose their integrity and freedom? The obvious answer is not to have a series character at all, but we know editors and publishers like them a lot and they are the ones that make the final decision. Another possible option is to have not one but several series running, so that you can switch from one to the other when you start getting bored. The best advice however is to think a long time about your series character before launching them: Are they interesting? Do they have potential to grow up? This is after all a kind of marriage and the better you know your mate the more chances it has to last a long time, and maybe even longer.

3 commentaires sur “Chained to the Sleuth

  1. I’d seen that Child was co-writing the next Reacher novel, but I hadn’t realised he was handing it over hook, line, and sinker. I’m torn between admiration for his honesty and his heart not being in it any more and indignation at the cynicism of simply pawning off the cash cow onto another writer. But, hey, who really cares what I think? Good luck to both of them — I’m sure Christie would have seized the opportunity had she had the option and someone she trusted enough to foist Papa Poirot onto in her lifetime.

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  2. I commend Child’s decision. However, there is a third way: make the suspects, victims, and other such characters the center of your attention. That way your detective doesn’t have to carry all the weight of the story and the writer’s and readers’ interest therein.

    That is easier to do with puzzle mysteries and procedurals than with private-eye books, but Bill Pronzini shows that it is possible even with the latter. Three great puzzle series of recent years show that this approach still works: the Dalziel and Pascoe books by Reginald Hill, the Peter Diamond series of Peter Lovesey, and the Bryant and May novels by Christopher Fowler.

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