While browsing the “Do Some Damage” crime fiction blogspot, I came across an interesting post by Jay Stringer.  He talked about novels as part of a series, and how everyone asked him if his upcoming book was in fact the opener of a series.  It led me to think more about the idea of series novels.

Series writing is often exemplified by Raymond Chandler and his Philip Marlowe novels and stories, in which Marlowe traipses from one book to the next in what was supposed to be “beautiful” Los Angeles of the 1940s and 1950s.  In each book, he encounters his requisite quota of lowlifes, edgy cops, and double-crossing dames, and each book can stand quite nicely on its own.

Chandler was one of the first crime novelists to employ a central character whose principal trait was his world-weariness, rather than a square-jawed righteousness.  Marlowe didn’t give a shit about truth, justice, and the American way.  At least, not so you’d know it.  He appeared to be driven by a need for money far more than a need for justice, but beneath his tough-guy veneer was what might be referred to as a “heart of gold”. Chandler called it “nobility”.  Either way, Marlowe would never relinquish it for any amount of money.

Earl Derr Biggers penned a whole lot of Charlie Chan novels way back when.  Today, the movies that were made from them are way better known than the novels, but that series about the Honolulu detective and his global exploits was wildly popular in its day.  The characters–Chan, his numbered sons, and others–ran through all the books and, eventually, the movies, but as with Chandler, each book was a stand-alone, satisfying the reader by ending with a neatly-tied wrapup of the proceedings.

Another type of series writing features not only the same character or characters running through a group of novels, but also a continuous story line.  Herman Wouk authored a masterful two-book series, Winds Of War followed by War And Remembrance, a titanic tale of a group of individuals swept up in World War II.  Each book could stand alone if it had to, but I can’t imagine anyone wanting to read only Winds and not insisting on finishing the story.  It was, as I posted in Jay Stringer’s blog, really one huge book divided in two.

James Ellroy, about whom I have written on this site, spent a good many years assembling his LA Quartet of novels, which include The Black Dahlia, LA Confidential, The Big Nowhere, and White Jazz.  I suppose any one of these novels could be read as a stand-alone, but it would be pretty difficult, because the story arc begs you to continue to the next one.  Taken as a whole, the LA Quartet is a masterpiece, both in plotting and style.

Not to say you can breeze through it, mind you.  Ellroy’s a tough read.  His staccato style and graphic description are off-putting to a great many readers raised on Sidney Sheldon or Danielle Steele.  Without question, he’s profane to the max, but that’s the truth of the world in which his characters reside. It’s a profane world, and a monstrously evil one at that.  He shows us the evil, and I mean real evil, that festers (and even prospers) below the world most of us know. But truly grasping the scope of this evil–and it is vast–requires the reader to plow through the entire series.  He lifts the veil on the LA of the 1940s and 1950s in a way in which Chandler never could, because Marlowe was too steeped in nobility.  Ellroy’s characters can’t afford to be noble.  They’ll end up with their faces shot off.

Ellroy’s new series, Underworld USA, is currently winding up with his latest release, Blood’s A Rover.  Unlike the LA Quartet, whose broad story line was more or less confined to Los Angeles, this trilogy spreads out over the whole country, as well as Central America and the Caribbean, covering the period from 1958 onward. It includes the runup to the JFK assassination, then on through to around 1972, an era commonly called “the sixties”.  Again, I can’t really comprehend how anyone wouldn’t want to read all three books, even though each one could theoretically stand alone.

Two of my favorite noir authors are Jim Thompson and David Goodis.  They never actually wrote series books, but if you read five or six novels by each of them, you get a very clear idea of a running theme.  Thompson got inside the criminal mind better than anyone, showing how seemingly ordinary people can become vile beasts.  Goodis takes you to the meanest streets you’ll ever walk, and makes you glad you never had to walk them by yourself.  Together, these two guys lead you straight into hell and never lead you out.  It’s this sort of non-series series writing that makes them so compelling.

I’m onto another, more unusual kind of series writing, but I’ll get into that another time.

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