Sunday, November 17, 2013

Writing a Mystery Series, Themes.

In this post, author Jonathan Gunson talks about why series are more successful than single stand-alone titles.

One point the writer makes is that the protagonist and the antagonist must somehow keep meeting up in each subsequent book in order to be successful with readers. That may be true in some genres. The writer goes on to give examples, and in the comments some exceptions may be noted.

It holds true for writing a mystery series in the sense that Thomas Harris’s cannibalistic serial killer Hannibal Lecter character came back over the course of more than one book and the Clarice Starling character was in at least two of them. Those books are more in the crime thriller genre because we generally know who the bad guy is. Interestingly, Hannibal flip-flops ‘morally,’ during the course of the series. He goes from antagonist to protagonist, (hopefully I’ve got that right) and there are of course contradictions because he’s still a serial killer.

The character adapts, the moral themes are completely opposite!

A mystery is a tighter genre in that the readers have some expectations, one of which is that they don’t know who committed the crime, from page one, all through the book. They want a mystery, a puzzle to solve. A whole lot of moral ambiguities might not be what they’re looking for.

In a series of murder mysteries, its standard practice to bring back the much-loved detective, whether it’s P.D. James’ Adam Dalgleish character, or Agatha Christie’s  Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple.

It’s difficult for me to see how the antagonist could return for book after book unless our protagonist is the worst detective in the world and the bad guy keeps getting away with murder.

Anything we do that is formulaic in any established genre could be said to be derivative.

"It's all derivative, my good Doctor Watson."
In the case of murder mysteries, a series of them, the place of a recurring antagonist might be taken by recurring themes. Good versus evil is a no-brainer, right?

Murder is evil, and living peacefully with your fellow humans is good. We are all individuals, and we all cope with varying levels of success within the social setting. Not all situations and all reactions are the same.

When someone murders someone, something in the ‘social system’ has gone terribly wrong. The individual book, as well as the overall series can be described as speaking about right versus wrong, within the social system of France, in the twenties and thirties. And yet certain moral truths are believed to hold true over long periods of time.

Obviously our detective hero symbolizes right, and the killer symbolizes wrong. A thousand years from now, this will still be some kind of moral truth.

Writing a mystery series offers some opportunities. The overall theme of the series is one thing, and it can be a real mixed bag of many themes, fairly complex to describe. The number of themes will grow with each new book or story.

But each individual title will almost inevitably exhibit themes that are separate and distinct from the books that go before and after.

The theme of The Handbag’s Tale, my first crime novella, was respectability.

The theme of Redemption: an Inspector Gilles Maintenon mystery was the cycle of failure and redemption.

The theme of The Art of Murder would be simple greed.

The theme of my new mystery, Blessed Are the Humble is just exactly that. Blessed are the humble—a nice theme if you can carry it off with some panache.

Over the course of the series there will be recurring themes, of love and loss, anger and pity, contempt and respect, all the basic contradictions of the human soul will be presented faithfully and authentically. At least as far the author is capable, in some detail, and there is plenty of scope for all kinds of statements within the overall work of art that a series is, or can be.

The writer can talk about the culture of France in the twenties and thirties, he can make reference to the thoughts and attitudes of the day, comment on social, economic and political issues and events, and hopefully, in some coherent manner make sense of the whole, make it entertaining, and make some kind of a credible moral statement.

One of the contradictions of the murder mystery genre is that we write about it for fun, and the readers read it for fun. But that is part of the human condition, that is to say contradiction is everywhere, and no more so than inside us, each and every one of us. See—another darned theme has just reared its ugly head.

There are contradictions within my own life, and my own make-up. I have no doubt that writing such a series would be a wonderful growth experience for any writer—for it forces us to define our terms, something philosophers talk about quite a bit.

Here’s a wonderful theme: crime doesn’t pay.

Here’s a contradiction: writing about crime might actually pay pretty well. And it’s all nice and legal, too.

And there’s really only one way to find out, which would be a recurring theme in my work if you’ve been following along for any length of time.

The really great thing about writing a mystery series is that it’s all experimental. This is one of the great privileges of art as opposed to mere industry.

I guess you could that I plan on having a little fun with it—which ain’t exactly humble, but then humble people don’t write too many books.


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