Loyalty and Cutting Your Losses

banquetAlex at Thinking in Fragments has an interesting post up about how to decide whether to carry on with a series if you aren’t that impressed with its first installment — and asking for examples of writers whose books got better as they went on. She cites the Peter Wimsey novels, for instance: if Whose Body? had been her first experience with them, she wonders if she would have read any further. (As someone who is not a fan of the early ones in Sayers’ series either, I wonder the same — I first met Wimsey in Strong Poison, fell for Harriet, and read on for her sake as much as his.) She also mentions Ian Rankin: while I like Knots and Crosses quite a bit, I agree that it’s not Rankin’s best.

I’m slow to pick up new series: life is short and books are so, so  many! So I need a strong testimonial to carry one if I’m not immediately convinced it will be worth it. One relatively recent example of a case where I’m glad I persisted would be the Martin Beck books: I didn’t like Roseanna all that much, but I could tell something interesting was going on and Dorian in particular was persuasive about the merits of the series overall. With Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad series, on the other hand, or the Brother Cadfael mysteries, one book was enough to convince me to read them all — though I’m doling out Brother Cadfael because it’s comforting to know there are more when I need them. My first Commissario Ricciardi mystery has given me yet another series I expect I’ll be faithful to.

Where I have the most trouble, though, is knowing when to give up on a series that I’ve enjoyed for a long time but that seems to have lost its lustre. I’m instinctively loyal: I like to stick with things I’ve started. This means I do keep picking up Sue Grafton’s novels, for instance, even though I haven’t really enjoyed any of them for a long time. Keeping up with Kinsey is one motive, and now that she’s up to X, my completist instincts might kick in — having come this far, how can I not read all the way to Z? But what about Elizabeth George, whose A Banquet of Consequences I have been slogging through? I am about 3/4 through at this point, and that’s only because I’ve taken to skimming a lot of the details about the case and focusing closely only when Lynley and Havers are actively involved. Her books seem to get longer and longer, and it’s hit or miss whether I’ll be interested enough in them to make it worth while. For me, 600 pages just seems excessive for a mystery novel — or any novel, really — that is all plot and character, with no thematic complexity or depth of insight. I do want to know how things are going for her main characters though, because her early novels were so good at making me care about them. I’ve felt this way about George for some time (2009, 2012) — but then I really liked 2013’s Just One Evil Act, which I suppose makes it reasonable to at least keep trying.

Maybe it’s time I broke up with some of these series. Is loyalty really a virtue for a reader, after all? I have sometimes wondered if the guaranteed sales an author like Grafton or George has now becomes a factor in what strikes me as pretty poor editing of their books; I remember Josephine Tey’s Inspector Grant, too, scoffing at people who buy “the new Lavinia Fitch” or “the new Silas Weekley” exactly as they would “a new hairbrush”: “they never said ‘a new book by’ whoever it might be. Their interest was not in the book but in its newness. They knew quite well what the book would be like.”

Sameness is comfort, of course: we don’t always want to (and never really have to) keep ourselves constantly alert by reading only what is unfamiliar. But, as I said, life is short and there are so many books to read! Are there series you have grown disappointed enough in, or tired enough of, to cut your losses? What keeps you going back to a series even if it doesn’t always live up to its best examples?

2 Comments to Loyalty and Cutting Your Losses

  1. December 24, 2015 at 1:56 am | Permalink

    Very glad you wrote about this, as I actually think about it a lot! As you say, time is finite and so many of these crime novels (since that’s what we mostly seem to be talking about here–be curious if the same sorts of things apply to SF, say) are getting so damn long.

    A series I followed religiously for a while and then gave up on: those Cooper & Fry books by Stephen Booth. Read the first 4 or so as they came out and quite liked them. But then, I don’t know, the drawing out of the endlessly-deferred romance between the characters got a bit annoying or something, I don’t even know what–actually, I think maybe it was that he lost a US publisher for a while. Anyway, next thing I know it’s 10 years later and I’m at Indigo back in Canada and there’s like 15 of the things.

    As to books that get worse: I think Louise Penny fell off a lot. She was always kind of a terrible writer but a terrible writer that I used to like a lot. I haven’t read the last three or four and I don’t know, I never seem to want to pick them up when I see them at the library.

    As you know I love Wallender, but it’s true that I started in the middle of those and he absolutely did get better. I think number 5 or so is the place to start there.

    I do, though, maybe like many readers, have a completist streak, and so I sometimes keep going with things, maybe even longer than I should. Sometimes this has unexpected benefits: I quite like Andrea Camilleri’s Montalbano novels, though there was a time (maybe about 12 or so volumes in) when I got tired of how similar they were and, especially, the kind of subdued sexism: he always gets involved with some much younger woman, though never consummates anything because of his longstanding on-again off-again long-distance relationship, so you’re supposed to think he’s a good guy but also get your share of titillation–very wearying. Yet I persisted because (1) I’m stubborn (2) they’re short and (3) I mostly read them for the food–not food porn exactly, more measured than that. And they really are rooted in a very specific place, which crime fiction is good at, plus they’re quite funny, and the plots of the latest ones have gotten a lot better.
    Hmm this is more info than you probably need but I will end with one more recommendation: only a trilogy (designed that way but further installments precluded because the author died rather young): The Marseilles Trilogy by Jean-Claude Izzo. Total Chaos is the first one. They are fantastic.

  2. Janet Brush's Gravatar Janet Brush
    December 24, 2015 at 8:25 am | Permalink

    I am not as loyal as you. When a series starts to be too formulaic, I usually quit. As you say, too many books, too little time. But I did read every single Brother Cadfael book, and I may read them again. They are somewhat formulaic, but the character is so delightful, I couldn’t desert him. And I learned about a period of English history of which I knew nothing.

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