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?


aideen said...

HaHa, Fully agree on the Coben part and Cornwall. Although The book of lost things probably the best book you ever wrote...... its close that or the gates!!! People always ask me about it, sits on my desk in work, its a child's book for adults!!!sorry probably not but thats the way i feel about it. Its accessible and hilarious. i dont Parker was getting older already, Louis and Angel always comment on it and about ho he needs a new relationship. Love the series.
Loved meeting you in Dublin,


TomH said...

Oh... I don't know about that.

The characters may age, as should be, but there's always a way of mentoring younger versions and inviting them along.

Jodi's Blog said...

I don't think you've "jumped the shark" on your parker novels. I think the super natural elements were always there and waiting to be explored. That was the best part of the first book and really cuminated with the Black Angel. Though you did tone it down in the books after - there still is that central theme to be explored.I admit I love the series book better then your stand alones, but each and every book is well written, entertaining, and always worth the money!

Also, thanks for touring! I don't like when authors write and then never tour. Part of the fun of reading and following your favorite author is getting to meet them, takea photo, or hear in their own words what they feel about the series.

Mia said...

You didn't jump the shark! I just finished reading the Whisperers and I've real *all* of your books, and I think Charlie's character development exists and is very interesting! In a way, while the mysteries are always fantastic and it's lovely to read about Louis and Angel...it's always a thrill to discover more about this strange, dual nature Charlie has that was most strongly hinted at in Black Angel. As a reader, I want to know more, I want it to be clearer. Reading the Whisperers in particular gave me the feeling that they're really not stand alone books...it seems so much more interesting with a deeper knowledge of Parker's history. I hope you keep that going.
Then again, I will read anything else you write because I adore your books. Thank you!

Tiffany Osborne Broda said...

I have just started becoming a fan of yours. I started with "The Book of Lost Things," which I could not put down and read in a couple of days. I then moved to "The Killing Kind," which was creepy and well written. I loved the introduction so much about the darkness beneath the surface, that I called my mom to read it to her over the phone. She is an avid mystery reader, as I am not... I like the Charlie Parker character, but I would read anything that you would write. You are such a talented writer, please don't feel locked by a series or genre. Stephen King was locked in as horror, but his short stories, "Different Seasons" were his finest writing.

Angie said...

I'm partway through The Whisperer's right now, and I'm loving it so far, particularly the way Charlie is living *right now*, with the fallout of the war on Iraq, and also the economic downturn, and that's playing a part in the story. I love how he's not living in some fictional 'a few years ago', but RIGHT NOW. I've read all your Parker books, btw, and Bad Men and Nocturnes and The Book of Lost Things (that most recently, and it was AMAZING), and I don't think you've jumped the shark at all. I like the things you've explored - I got my best friend onto your books too, and she ate through them. She told me she didn't like The Reapers so much, but I really enjoyed the chance to see inside Angel and Louis' relationship without Charlie's POV getting in the way. It threw me a little, at first - I was about halfway through before I realised that actually, no, this one isn't going to slip into first-person, but I love Angel and Louis fiercely so it was wonderful to see them through their own eyes. They haven't shown up in The Whisperers yet, but I know I will squeal like I never expected it when they do *g*.

Also, quite randomly, I was just looking at some pictures on my hard drive of the Aussie actor Peter O'Brien, and it occurred to me that he would make an awesome Charlie Parker. Some of the images of him (obviously not the mullet-tastic ones from Neighbours) are very close to how I see Charlie. Anyway, yeah, random.


I've just finished 'The Whisperers'and (not that i had doubted JC's abilities to begin with) it's yet annother brilliant book to the Parker series.Ever since i read 'Every dead thing' in 2000, not one book has been a dissapointment. You deffinately haven't jumped shark so don't have any worries about Jaw's just yet JC. The series is just as great as when i first read it and is only growing stronger with each book.

Related to Angies comment, i was watching Mystic River whilst reading one of the Parker books at the time and couldn't get Sean Penn as Parker out my mind. Who do you think would make a good Louis and Angel??????

Dianemc said...

Thanks for an entertaining and very helpful blog John. I found it immensely helpful in thinking about characters I am trying to create. I also agree completely with your comments regarding Patricia Cornwell, loved her early books, but her characters are now unrecognizable..Pete Marino as wild biker, gone off the rails..the guy must be at least 60, so it doesn't work for me. The annoying niece seems to be based far too much on Cornwell herself, perhaps why the character is so dreary and irritating.
You on the other hand, I don't believe have any need to worry about getting near that shark. I loved the spiders..(well, perhaps loved is not the right word). These are the kinds of characters who Parker gravitates towards, and it works. He's a great character, and also very believable. I love Louis and Angel too.
I am unable to comment on Robert Parker, I had heard so many god comments about his books that I went and bought one. I could not put it down...fast enough. It must have been the runt of the litter, so far I have not been tempted to go back. Maybe another time. Like you, I am a great admirer of James Lee Burke, it is not often that a writer of his caliber comes along, however, you're getting there too. Thanks again for a helpful and entertaining blog. :)))

C.G.Leslie said...

I reviewed The Whisperers at


Congratulations on another fantastic novel John and also well done for allowing your horror/supernatural side to come through in all it's glory :-)

Sadako said...

Great post. I think about it a lot--I actually did a post this week on jumping the shark...except not for TV/movies, just for random things.

I guess every good writer tries not to. Then again, it's hilarious fun for snarkers when people do. :D

Anonymous said...

Dear John
Like many i'm a big parker fan
i'm reading all the books in order
right now i'm reading "the unquiet"
and this is your best so far!
Perphaps you get even better over the years who knows?
The psychological thrill for a thriller lover like myself is intense! In this book you seem to move torwards a more subtle plot somehow and i love it! I hope there will be more to come!
best regards and have fun

linda said...

Hi john, i have consumed every one of your books with a passion,actually i,v read most of them twice! I had never heard of the expression Jumped the Shark,i have to say it brings to mind Stephen Kings 'misery' remember what happened to the author in that film? I had read all of the Parker series and was blown away, then The Book of Lost Things kept jumping off the bookshop shelf to me but was very reluctant to give it a try,i just didn,t want to be disappointed,im glad to say i have read it and by God its now my favourite book...John you could write a shopping list and i,d be excited. I would dearly luv the Parker series to be made into movies but i would fear your unique writing style would be lost in translation,the supernatural twist and turns in your books are what really have me hooked,its so different and leaves me thinking about what i,v just read long after i put the bookdown,but having said all of that you as an author i am a loyal fan whatever you write....with lots of admiration and in anticipation for whatever your talent sends our way...linda...ps.i met you a few yrs ago in Wexford, you were launching a book for a friend of mine, Shane Dunphy, i hadn,t read any of your books at that stage but if i had of you would have been pidgeon holed for the eve while i picked your brain and drove you mad with inane questions...pps.as a fellow Dub i,m seriously proud of you...

Brendan Walsh Organic SEO said...

Just finished The Whisperers - a welcome Father's Day gift. Really enjoyed it and its up there with the best of the Parker series ...... it does feel like a major event is looming in the next book or two - bring it on !!

My late father met you at a talk you gave to retired corpo members about 8 years ago and mentioned that I liked your books - you sent me a postcard featuring an image from an Ossary - the most bizarre thing I ever got in the post - but much appreciated all the same.

Keep up the good work.

Photographe à Dublin said...

your name came up in our local library today. I'll let the librarian know about this great post the next time I visit.

Also, I know it may look self-serving, but I've been mentioning a book edited by Gerard Brennan and Mike Stone whenever possible.

The links explain all.

Having put my foot in it recently, I now wander the web trying to make amends and give "Requiems for the Departed" a fine mention.

Members of Goodreads might like to link to it there?

Requiems for the Departed

Shal said...

Good post. Really enjoyed and agreed with what you said about Cornwall and Holmes. I'm sure so many popular writers must come to a creative wall which they must either climb and find new challenges or stare blankly at the wall and come up with nothing! I came to your books by reading The Book of Lost Things first and still find it my all time favourite, but have thoroughly enjoyed the Charlie Parker series. You have managed to keep me hooked by exploring the darker themes and letting Parker and the other characters develop and age. But every book is varied in tone, but still familiar and I think this is what I enjoy the most - whether they be characters or themes you explore, they are still familiar, like a favourite spot on your sofa...Wish I'd seen you here in HK!!

Shal said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tales from the Birch Wood. said...

I have become increasingly interested in the links between image and text.

The covers for "The Book of Lost Things" are very beautiful.

It would be interesting to hear about your reactions to how the European, American and Australian markets produce culturally specific imagery for covers.

Writers often have strong reactions to the covers chosen by their publishers and the question of who chooses the cover often comes up on blogs by novelists.

I have noticed that the iconography of gaming, often with a Utopian or Dystopian atmosphere has influenced many book covers in recent years...

"The Windup Girl" by Paulo Bacigalupi is one example.

ksuicide said...

I have not gotten the opportunity to read your latest, as the books arrived after I left for Chile. :( But I have a feeling that jumping the shark for you would still be a long time coming, if ever.

As to Dan Brown movies, to me they rank up there with the books. Some people avoid talking about politics because it is sure to rile people up. People avoid talking to me about Dan Brown books. *shrug* I know what I like, and his books are not it.

Hope this finds you well.


Liz said...

You are one of the few authors that I read and re-read and on each occassion take away something new.

MO said...

I certainly don't think you have "jumped the shark". I thoroughly enjoyed the non series books but i wait in anticipation for the Charlie Parker books. When a character or characters find a place to settle in a readers heart and mind as Charlie, Angel and Louis have in mine (and i'm sure many others)it creates an ongoing relationship.
Ilove the fact that Charlie ages, that his life is now, that his challanges change but Angel and Louis remain a loyal though sometimes strained constant!
I'm awaiting delivery of The Whisperers as we speak. Can't wait to reaquainted with much missed friends!

Hieronymus Blog said...

I think that the whole background story to Charlie Parker's life helps to stop the shark jumping. Would love to read some stories on Louis'work as an assassin.