[by Ross Browne]
One piece of advice authors who write popular fiction often hear is that your odds of landing an agent and a traditional publishing deal can improve considerably when your novel is conceived as (or has the potential to work as) a series. This should come as no surprise to anyone who enjoys settling down with a new book in a series you know and love. To do so represents an easy purchase decision publishers and booksellers know they can rely on time and again.
But series that inspire the kind of loyalty from readers that truly moves the meter with book sales usually have more to offer readers than simply the same protagonist(s) from book to book. The best series generally serve up an experience that is distinctive in some way and consistent enough that readers know what to look forward to without becoming predictable. The very best series, in our view, can be thought to “stand for” something that’s easy to enjoy and not hard to identify. In other words, they have an identity.
Our advice to authors hoping to publish in series form is to think carefully about how much identity your series has—or could have—before you start showing it to agents and publishers. (Or before you make it available to readers directly if you’re self-publishing.) Set some intentions in advance to help make your books stand out from the get-go with a clear sense of literary purpose. Use these intentions to help guide your writing of each book and how you present the series to the world. The more clarity you have on what makes your series interesting, unique, and worthy of an enthusiastic readership, the more captivating and audience-worthy you can make each book.
One way I can help is by encouraging you to consider successful series already in print and sharing some thoughts on what gives them their own identity. Here’s a handful of recommendations to get you started.
Virgil Flowers by John Sandford
Virgil Flowers might be the most laid-back cop in Upper Midwest law enforcement. While the crimes he investigates are often imaginatively horrific, Virgil—with his long hair, cowboy boots, rock and roll T-shirts, and fishing boat frequently in tow behind the Toyota 4Runner he uses for police work—is a breath of fresh air in a genre rife with grizzled, hardboiled, world-weary detectives. He’s also one of the straightest shooters in the business, rarely playing games with his suspects or withholding information to get an advantage. He tells the truth where most cops are quick to deceive or evade, yet he manages to make it work. Furthermore, his distaste for guns, easygoing charm with the ladies, and attraction to quirky women all infuse a somewhat lighthearted edge (and a welcome note of contrast) to the violent and often quite dark cases he finds himself involved with. Known to friend and foes alike as “that fucking Flowers,” Virgil is an immensely capable and likable investigator who readers find irresistible.
Desert Island Pick: Bad Blood. (Really tough subject matter that’s not for everyone involving sexual abuse of kids. But this is a riveting, highly original crime story that makes good use of Virgil’s religious upbringing and is entertaining as all get-out.)
Lucas Davenport by John Sandford
Now let’s turn to Virgil’s colleague and sometimes-boss, the dapper suit-wearing, Porsche-driving Lucas Davenport and the blazingly popular Prey series that has kept readers turning pages for thirty-one years now.
Unlike Virgil, Lucas is about as serious as they come and spends much more time in cities tangling with various law enforcement bureaucracies than out in the wilds of the north country. He’s a thoughtful manipulator who frequently uses the media as a pawn in the game of bringing perpetrators to justice. His investigations frequently involve colleagues who become well known to readers over the course of the series. He’s a millionaire cop with a lot of style, some personal demons of his own, and a mean streak that rears its head from time to time and can make himself his own worst enemy. But he’s smart as a whip and quite likable in his own way, except when he doesn’t want to be. This isn’t a guy you want as your enemy.
Lucas Davenport stories are often quite dark and frequently utilize the viewpoint of the perpetrators, many of whom are deeply disturbed individuals who plan their crimes carefully and execute them in fascinating ways. This, coupled with the tendency toward more visceral big-city action, bolsters the suspense and gives the stories a “bigger” feel than many of the Virgil Flowers novels.
Desert Island Pick: Eyes of Prey
The Millennium Series by Stieg Larsson
Stieg Larsson’s Millennium series is deliciously dark, rich, and complex. Aside from showcasing one of the toughest, smartest, and most original female protagonists in crime fiction, this series is also distinctive in that a key character, Mikael Blomkvist, is an investigative reporter and not a cop. While his intentions in holding evil people accountable for their crimes may be familiar, his method of investigation is not. Readers won’t find a lot of cop-suspect interviews here or much in the way of traditional police procedure, despite police being involved. The path to discovering the truth is quite different in these novels, and that’s one thing that makes them special.
One thing to admire about the series is its vivid and imaginative rendering of its female characters—and the formidable strength of them. This starts with Lisbeth Salander, of course: frighteningly intelligent, merciless with her enemies, fiercely independent, broken yet highly functional. Her complexity and uniqueness as a character is a huge part of the appeal of the series. But then you have Erika Berger, also quite brilliant and a strong and memorable personality. The degree to which the Millennium series “works” as feminist literature is the subject of spirited debate, but I consider much of the series’ distinctive identity to be rooted in how Larsson imagines and portrays female characters.
Mikael Blomkvist may not carry a gun or badge, but he’s the last guy you want after you if you’re doing people wrong. Even the bad guys in this series—starting with Lisbeth’s father—are extraordinarily well rendered and wholly original with no reliance on stereotypes or tropes. These people are so very much their own, and I suspect they live on in readers’ minds long after each book is finished.
The behind-the-scenes dips into the world of online hacking and the sizable influence of investigative journalism on the stories give Millennium its own unique identity, as does its Scandinavian setting. I can’t yet comment on David Lagercrantz’s takeover of the series, but in the hands of Stieg Larsson it’s a masterpiece.
Desert Island Pick: The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest.
Dublin Murder Squad by Tana French
One unusual thing about this series is that no two books in it feature the same detective as the main character. In the hands of a lesser writer, or one who wasn’t as artfully attuned to characterization as French is, this departure from convention might contradict the intent of a series and not really work, but in this case the opposite is true. There’s enough that’s consistent from book to book to make the stories fit together in a cohesive way. (The setting, the locale, the squad, the kinds of crimes being investigated, the strange and imaginative way the stories unfold.) And having a new lead detective—each one engaging and memorable in their own right—certainly keeps things fresh.
One thing readers can expect from the series to date is lavish attention to the experience of being a detective. Many mystery writers give readers sporadic tastes of this, but Tana French brings her literary camera extraordinarily close with great sensitivity to nuance. From the big more sensational moments to the quieter, more subtle ones, these books bring readers deep into the minds of the detectives and frequently cast a dramatic light in dark corners. French’s imaginative plotlines and likable yet flawed leads make the series a real pleasure.
Desert Island Pick: The Likeness. (Possibly one of the strangest premises ever for an undercover murder investigation. Highly original and unforgettable!)
John Corey by Nelson DeMille
Much of the identity of this series stems from the fact that John Corey is one of the biggest wiseasses in the business of fighting crime. He’s quick with a one-liner and decidedly infantile in his humor sometimes, but there’s a shrewd mind behind all the quips, and at the end of the day he’s a darn good cop. The narrative oozes with New York flavor, from both the city itself and parts of Long Island that you don’t see from the expressway. And then you’ve got his constant, sometimes reckless challenge to authority that always adds interesting dimensions to his stories. Add in some delightful contrast in the more subdued personality and temperament of Kate Mayfield and some truly sinister bad guys, and you’ve got a recipe for success.
The stories themselves tend to be big and high concept in scope, often putting many lives at risk against a ticking clock and sometimes playing out on an international stage. DeMille’s use of real-life conflicts and news events helps give the series its signature flavor.
Desert Island Pick: Lion’s Game.
Penn Cage by Greg Iles
The star of this series is a retired prosecutor-turned-author who manages to become mayor of Natchez, Mississippi, after leaving big-city life behind and returning to the city of his birth. While the worst of Natchez’s struggles with human and civil rights abuses may be not-so-ancient history, evil is alive and well here in the distinctive southern milieu for these atmospheric stories.
The history of Natchez and its influence on modern-day life there plays a big part of this series, as does the grisly, long-running conflict between Natchez’s black citizens and a particularly violent offshoot of the KKK. Much of the conflict in these stories is rooted in the effort to reconcile misdeeds of the past and the resultant challenges of the present day. Protagonist Penn Cage is a conscientious and deeply principled man whose father, a well-known and much-loved friend to the black community at a time when being so was dangerous, casts a long and deep shadow over the series. Vivid, intense action scenes and the author’s willingness to subject major characters to the worst humanity has to offer is a hallmark of these stories, which often drip with Southern Gothic tradition as good people pay the ultimate price for heroic actions. Reading a Penn Cage novel can be a harrowing experience, but one that readers keep coming back to with good reason.
Desert Island Pick: The Quiet Game
Joe Pickett by C. J. Box
C. J. Box certainly seems to have struck gold with this refreshingly original crime fiction series, set mostly in the wilds of Montana. Game warden Joe Pickett is a magnet for trouble. But he’s also a courageous and tenacious investigator who takes on a wide range of criminals, crooked politicians, and sometimes even a wayward game poacher in these stories.
Joe Pickett novels generally have a lot of physical action, often in rough and unforgiving landscapes where terrain and weather play a big role. The stories often put Joe in conflict and competition with fellow local law enforcement types and the big-money interests who pull their strings. The books are not overly message-y, but there is a thematic undercurrent here that reminds us of the importance of natural wild places and man’s obligation to protect them—and the animals who live there.
Part of what makes this series unusual—and harrowingly suspenseful—is the extent to which Joe’s wife and daughters are drawn into the stories’ conflicts. Many crime series protagonists feature lonely men and women whose families aren’t of much interest or concern to readers. Not so in these books. The myriad strains to Joe’s relationship with his wife and daughters get a lot of attention in these novels, as does his family’s vulnerability when the screws of the story start to tighten. Fortunately, Joe has a secret weapon in his friend Nate Romanowski, a mysterious, taciturn man who is nearly as central to this series’ identity (in some books) as Joe himself. But Joe is nonetheless a likable underdog, fighting a good fight with all the odds against him and not always prevailing. He may not be the baddest, toughest, or even the smartest guy you’ll read about in law enforcement. But he’s a beacon of integrity and character many readers would follow anywhere.
Desert Island Pick: Winterkill
Jack Reacher by Lee Child
Jack Reacher is one of the toughest badasses in crime fiction, and his ability to prevail against all the odds when outnumbered and outgunned helps define the series’ identity. A loner who spends most of the series wandering the country by bus and by thumb, readers can usually expect Reacher’s chance encounter with a stranger that aligns him voluntarily with good in the fight against some kind of evil.
These are often underdog stories where Reacher comes to the aid of someone in serious trouble who needs help they can’t find or afford. They frequently involve people in desperate situations who have no way out until Reacher intervenes. They also frequently involve fights against corruption in remote locations where big fish with money and muscle take advantage of little fish. Lots of people die at Reacher’s hand, but every last one of them has it coming. This holds true even when his enemy is within the US military, which Reacher left after reaching the rank of major in the Army (in those few titles that take readers back to his Army roots instead of his life as a drifter afterward).
I hope you’ve enjoyed this list and had the pleasure of reading at least some the titles you find here. More importantly, I hope this gets series (or series-curious) authors thinking in constructive ways about what you might strive for to make your crime or mystery series distinctive, unique, and worthy of an audience.