Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Jumping the Shark

originally published in the Irish Independent

The phrase 'jumping the shark' refers to the point at which a beloved series goes from being, well, beloved to being despised in the way that only people who scowl at puppies are despised.

It comes from an episode of Happy Days (you remember: the 50s, the Fonz, "Aaaaayyyy!", and that bloke who went on to direct bad Dan Brown movies, as if there could ever be any other kind) in which the Fonz dons water skis and jumps over a confined shark.

That was at the start of the fifth season, and Happy Days staggered on like a wounded animal for another seven seasons, but it was the shark episode that struck the fatal blow.

I live in fear of jumping the shark. I suspect that I've feared it ever since my first novel was published, and that dread hasn't diminished in any way, even though I've just published my 13th book.

It's the burden of mystery writing, which is so dependent on series characters, and therefore thrives on a kind of repetition. On one level, it's what readers want: they like to revisit characters for whom they have an affection, and they want those characters to involve themselves in plots that are a little distinct from the last time, but not so strange that they don't suit the characters.

Essentially, most genre readers want the same as last time, but different.

Mystery writers approach this problem in a variety of ways. Some find a formula that works, and stick to it. Lee Child, with whom I share an agent, is a good example. Jack Reacher, the hero of Lee's very entertaining novels, doesn't really have a memory, and therefore is largely without any enduring traumas. Reacher arrives in a town. There's a problem. Reacher fixes it, usually by beating people up until they agree to stop being problematical. If that doesn't work, he kills them.

It's the classic set-up, and it has its roots in westerns, and the samurai tradition of the ronin, the wandering warrior without a master. Someone once said that most novels can be boiled down to "man arrives in town" or "man leaves town". With Lee, you get both, and it's the same bloke.

Robert B Parker, who died recently, wrote almost 40 novels featuring the private detective Spenser, who found TV fame in Spenser: For Hire, starring the actor Robert Urich who, like Pinnochio, was amiable but wooden.

Spenser never aged. He was the same in the first novel as he was in the last, but the jokes were always good, even if the quality of the books varied. At one point in the series, in a concession to the kind of conversation normal people sometimes have, Spenser and his girlfriend Susan (a spectacularly irritating character, incidentally, who would have been mourned by nobody had Parker found a way to bump her off) discuss the possibility of having a child.

Now this was in one of the novels published in the 1990s, and Spenser served in Korea, according to the chronology of the novels. He'd also been with Susan for almost as long as he'd been out of the army. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I suspect conception of a child might have been beyond her by this point. They should just have adopted another dog.

So that's one approach: vary the original formula as little as possible, even to the extent of not acknowledging the passage of the years, and don't do anything too silly.

On the other hand, there's the Patricia Cornwell approach. Series starting to get a bit tired? Here's the solution: throw in a bloke who thinks he's a werewolf. Oh, and make your heroine's niece a lesbian, but a butch, vaguely annoying one, and bog your novels down in uninteresting domestic trauma. Hey, and toss in a dwarf while you're at it. It's hard to reconcile the quality of the later books with her earlier novels and how unusual they were: crime fiction in which the murder was investigated through the medium of the human body, written, I think, from a particularly female perspective on physicality and mortality.

Reading later Cornwell books, it's hard to shake off the sense that the author is not entirely engaged by her own books. They're pretty joyless exercises at times, and one wonders how much money Cornwell possibly want or need to force her to keep writing books in which she has clearly lost some interest? The answer, apparently, is 'more money', although, given her reported financial difficulties, it seems likely that Cornwell will be forced to continue writing her Scarpetta novels in their current form for the foreseeable future. That's unfortunate: sometimes, the best thing that such a writer can do is to take time off and analyze the problem as a step toward the reinvention of both herself, and the hero of her novels.

Finally, you could do what Sir Arthur Conan Doyle did with Sherlock Holmes, and simply kill your hero because you're bored with him. Unfortunately, your readers will hate you for it, unless you do it in the calm, collected, and clearly signposted way in which Colin Dexter disposed of Inspector Morse, and you may also find yourself on Poverty Row, because you've just knocked off your main source of income.

Here's the thing: the majority of mystery readers are not loyal to writers. They're loyal to characters, and plot is the hook on which the central character hangs his coat. When genre writers who are best known for their series detectives depart to write stand-alone novels, those books rarely sell as well as the series. There are exceptions: when Harlan Coben wrote Tell No One, it sold more copies in hardback than his earlier 'Myron Bolitar' series had sold in hardback and paperback combined up to that point.

Actually, now that I come to think of it, that's not an exception. If no one had bothered reading your earlier series, then it hardly counts if the sales of your stand-alone novel exceeded it. Coben now alternates domestic thrillers with Bolitarbooks, and both seem to sell equally well for him. In other words, the stand-alone reinvigorated sales of the earlier series, and Harlan Coben can now buy himself his own properly functioning country. Or Greece.

So how have I avoided jumping the shark? Maybe I haven't, and it's simply the case that readers can't agree on the point at which the shark was jumped. The supernatural elements of The Black Angel, perhaps? The spiders in The Killing Kind? It may all just come down to a matter of personal taste.

But in the hope that the shark remains unjumped for now, I've made a couple of decisions in an effort to keep my series fresh. I'm allowing Charlie Parker, the central character, to grow older. The great James Lee Burke has done something similar with Dave Robicheaux, which means that the nature of the books is changing. After all, a man in his early sixties can't go kicking down doors. He'll do himself an injury.

I've tried to make each book very different in tone and content from its predecessor, so the risk of repeating myself decreases. I'm also aware that there is a larger story being built up in the background of the novels, so that, while each one stands on its own, it also contributes to the larger conspiracy that underlies the series.

Finally, I alternate series novels with non-series novels, even if it means that my sales take a hit. Not every story can be told as a mystery, and by stretching other muscles I come back to the Parker books rejuvenated. If nothing else, it's resulted in The Book of Lost Things, a novel of which I'm very fond, and that may well end up being the best book I ever write.

Then again, there is probably somebody out there saying, "You know, he really jumped the shark on that one . . ."

And, in the end, who am I to argue?

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Compelling reading

Looks like there’s something afoot with this Jimmy Jewel - he’s stumbled on something quite big – the mysterious death of an antiques dealer – one Jeremiah Webber.

But it’s apparently connected to something bigger... it’s amazing how familiar all these characters sound – Jimmy Jewel, Damien Patchett… I hear that somewhere in all this is an even more familiar name; Charles Parker...