Wednesday, 25 June 2008

Reading in order

I was asked recently by a bookseller whether it was important to read my Lake District Mysteries in the order in which they were written. It’s a reasonable question, and one often asked, but it’s not entirely easy to answer.

My own feeling is that the books can be read in any order, because the main plot in each book is independent. I take a lot of care not to introduce spoilers in later books. I also have a vague worry (which is probably groundless) that if people start with the first novel, The Coffin Trail, they may not enjoy it as much as the later books. I do feel that The Cipher Garden and The Arsenic Labyrinth are superior books, with complex mysteries that I’m rather proud of – yet The Coffin Trail has sold more copies (as is common with first books in series.)

The counter-argument is that many readers like to follow the development of characters and relationships through a series – and, certainly, the evolving relationship between Hannah and Daniel was always intended to be a cornerstone of the series.

This sort of dilemma applies to many modern crime series. It’s the price we pay for character development. It was easier in the old days – Poirot and Miss Marple don’t develop as characters, so it really doesn’t matter in which order you read their cases. On the other hand, Christie was so sure she was writing disposable fiction that she rather carelessly allows Poirot to give away the solutions to some of her earlier books – a sign of modesty, but rather frustrating if you haven’t read the mysteries that came first.

7 comments:

Kerrie said...

I'm a read-in-order person Martin. Although the author may have intended they be accessible, as you do, as stand alones, quite often what the reader sees is not only the evolution of relationships between characters, but also "current event" references, and progression elements in the settings. Some authors feel compelled though to give lots of "back story" in each book, and then need to make a decision about how far back they are going to fill details in each time. There is a danger too, the longer the series gets, that it won't attract new readers, because they may feel put off with starting in mid-series.

Scott Parker said...

I am one of those Read-Book#1-First kind of people. As such, I've been hunting down Perry Mason #1 and the first book of Erle Stanley Gardner's other recurring characters, Cool and Lam. I've been told it doesn't matter for those books. But it does matter for Donald Hamilton's Death of a Citizen. Still searching for that one. And, as someone who is writing book #1 of a, hopefully, ongoing series of crime novels set here in Houston, I'm actually planning things to be read in order. Oh well...

john morris said...

On the topic of self-spoiling, the great Rex Stout did this too, though I can't imagine he considered his books "disposable." My guess is that he was committed to his own version of realism, which just didn't allow Archie and Wolfe to engage in cute paraphrases when discussing the outcomes of previous cases. And yet it could so easily have been avoided, you'd think. Well, a small flaw in that amazing body of work...

eric-mayer said...

These are certainly concerns I share. People keep buying the first book in our series, which is great, but I definitely consider that we've learned a lot about writing in the six subsequent books and that the actual writing in the first one is inferior and might turn off some potential readers.

Martin Edwards said...

Interesting and meaty comments. Thanks. There is, perhaps, a tension between the desire of publishers for more of the same and the challenges that writers find in dealing with a series. That said, I'm a series fan and of the many series I've read, very few have been read in order.

maxine said...

I strongly prefer to read books in order, as I think the best authors of series develop their characters in interesting ways over time.

But life is short, and recently I have read two books by authors who are some way in to established series, and enjoyed them both very much. One is Kate Ellis (I read book 16 I think) and the other is Natasha Cooper (Trish Maguire's latest).

I was quite interested that Natasha Cooper said at Crime Fest recently that the time had come to retire Trish. I wonder if I was the kiss of death?

Martin Edwards said...

Maxine, I'll be featuring Natasha Cooper on this blog shortly. A good writer and a delightful person.