Last weekend I had the pleasure to participate in a mystery authors panel with Joe Heywood, Bryan Gruley and Vern Smith, who all have ties to western Michigan. After we introduced ourselves to the audience, with a back cover-type blurb about our latest efforts, we started fielding questions.
One that stuck with me had to do with creating a series. Joe, Bryan and I each have written at least one series. I think it was Joe who commented that three books in a series is about all an audience will follow. That made me wonder. And to paraphrase Shakespeare, “to be or not to be a series: that is the question.”
As a young reader, I was captivated by the adventures of Travis McGee. John D. MacDonald penned over twenty tales with McGee, in addition to numerous stand-alone books. John Sandford has 29 Lucas Davenport novels, along with a dozen Virgil Flowers tales to date. Michael Connelly has 21 Harry Bosch novels and shows no sign of slowing down. The works of Greg Iles, Robert Crais and C.J. Box jump to mind as well. There are countless others out there.
So, what’s the magic number? Is it three?
Unfortunately, the discussion with the panel moved on to other topics before we ran out of time. But the idea of limiting a series makes me curious. I don’t have a set number in mind. I’ve written three Jamie Richmond novels and one lengthy short story so far. With two Jefferson Chene books completed, I’m currently working on number three. As long as ideas keep coming, I think these characters will be around for a while.
Here's a shot of the panel. That's Joe on the left, with Vern next to me and Bryan on the right.
One of the many appealing things to me about a series is the chance to create some memorable characters. And when everything is all said and done, they’re often too good to leave sitting on the desk after one adventure. A case in point is Pappy Cantrell, the police captain who oversees Chene and the major case squad of detectives. Here’s a scene from “Why 319?” where Cantrell surprises Chene with his plans on how to conduct the three concurrent homicide investigations.
I waited until everyone else filed out of the room. Cantrell let his eyes close as if he were meditating. With the smoke curling up around his head, he looked like something out of a Tennessee monastery. The Art of Zen, courtesy of Jack Daniels.
“Well?” he muttered without opening his eyes.
“When were you going to clue me in on this plan, Pappy?”
“Y’all weren’t ready.”
I didn’t try to keep the anger from my voice. “Bullshit. I’ve been the lead on ninety percent of the investigations we’ve handled for the last three years. You know it. I know it. The whole freaking squad knows it.”
He took a long drag and pulled the cigarette from his lips. “But not everybody likes it.”
I didn’t even have to think about it. “You mean Barksdale. The guy’s a dinosaur.”
“Would that be a triceratops?”
I was surprised he was able to name one, but then, Cantrell could be full of surprises. Like this new plan. “So how do you see this?”
“We split into three teams, just like Ah said. We put Koz with the new girl, Laura. Give them the oldest case, the Wayne County. You and Megan take the Macomb one. Bloomfield will want their girlie working their crime. We stick her with Barksdale.”
“So why didn’t you tell me before?”
“You all right, Chene, but you ain’t no actor. Ah wanted everyone to know this was a surprise, even you. It made your reaction real. You gettin’ pissy ’cause Ah didn’t tell you about it first.”
I considered it for a moment. The old bastard had it down cold. Barksdale would have pitched a holy fit if I’d made the decision to split the team by case and assign him the outsider. He and Megan could barely stand each other. Laura was too new to stick with him. That left the Bloomfield detective. Since the orders were coming down from Cantrell, there was no way he’d argue it. Especially when it appeared that Cantrell did not trust me to make the call. It was a stroke of genius, pure logistical genius. I told him as much.
“’Tweren’t nothin. You might have figured it out in a couple of days.”
“Don’t be so modest, Pappy. You know how to manipulate him.”
It took me a moment to admit the rest. “And me too.”
He nodded slowly. “Hell, Chene, if Ah can’t ever manipulate ya, y’all ain’t no good to me.”
Music this week was a jumble of genres, with a lot of Motown and blues. Then I heard this morning that the US Postal Service has come out with a new stamp, honoring the great Marvin Gaye. So here's one of my favorites.