Reflections on fantasy, SF, writing, music, technology, life…

Novel series – what works? what doesn’t?

For relaxation, as well as fantasy and SF, I tend to devour thrillers and crime novels.  It is always a joy to stumble onto a new series and explore the world the author created for the characters over a period of time.

Recently, some series that worked for me include Stieg Larsson’s “Millennium / Dragon Tattoo” trilogy and Philip Kerr’s “Berlin Noir” series about PI Bernie Gunther and which are set in 1930’s and 1940’s Germany.  Series that haven’t worked so well for me include Jo Nesbro’s “Harry Hole” novels and Karen Rose’s “romantic thrillers” (a new sub-genre for me!).

That is not to say I disliked the latter two series nor imply I could not read them, I just found them less satisfying, particularly over a number of novels.  This started me wondering about what worked and what didn’t when an author is producing a series of novels.

Nesbro’s work suffers from the publisher’s blurb calling him the “new Larsson”.  He is not – apart from being a Scandinavian author.  His characters and setting have more in common with, say, Ian Rankin’s Rebus novels, police investigation of crime, rather than Larrson’s journalist-focused thrillers.  Unfortunately, with Nesbro’s world the part that really bugged me is Harry Hole, his main character.  A near-alcoholic who keeps relapsing after being on the wagon for half a novel, Hole is intensely frustrating to follow – I feel like screaming at him to “get a grip”.

I have  a different problem with Karen Rose’s novels.  Her novels do have a number of strengths. Beyond the common-or-garden serial killers that are the antagonists in the early novels, she tackles difficult subjects, such as the aftermath of gang rape, child abuse, white-slavery and under-age prostitution from the point of view (PoV) of the victims.  These are, I feel, handled well, and make her stories interesting and not run-of-the-mill.  She works effectively in Greg Iles territory. She brings in new characters to provide PoV in each novel but characters from earlier in the series pop back up and one finds out what happens to them after their (always traumatic) experiences that were the focus of a prior novel.

The problem for me is in the structure and predictability of her novels.  She has a template: there is a “hero” and a “heroine” who provide most of the PoV narrative, there is a “bad guy” who crosses their path and makes life hell until the final scene.  Just when they seem to have resolved their problems, one of other of the hero / heroine will be trapped by the bad guy.  The other heroine / hero will save them.

Rose’s novels are categorised as “romantic thrillers” so the other predictable part is both hero and heroine are singletons, doubt they can find the “love of their life” and find the chemistry of their contact with the other setting off all the bells – but there is always misunderstanding and misinterpretation seen through both PoVs so “the course of true love is never smooth”. Hmmm! The sex scenes between hero and heroine tend to be “same-y” and boring so can be skimmed to get to the next plot twist.

In different ways, both Nesbro’s and Rose’s writing is formulaic. In neither does it feel like the main characters are developing a real human beings.  The strength of both Larsson’s and Kerr’s work is in the characterisation.  Supporting this is the believability of the world they construct for these characters to interact in.  Sex, when it occurs, is appropriate to the stage the story is at and is not boring either. The characters change, neither being as frustrating as Nesbro’s Hole nor as cardboard as Rose’s, who are interchangeable between novels.

2 Comments so far

  1. Mike Keyton December 20th, 2011 2:54 pm

    Thanks for the Philip Kerr tip. I love this period. Have you read Olivia Manning’s ‘Balkan Trilogy’ or Alan Furst’s stuff?

  2. phillip December 22nd, 2011 10:20 pm

    Hi Mike,
    Thanks for visiting and commenting. I am not familiar with either of Olivia Manning or Alan Furst so will keep an eye out for them.

    Santa should be bringing me a Kindle so that should make obtaining books easier (though I must say Amazon has been brilliant with print book delivery to SW France anyway).

Que piensas