When does a mystery series start to run out of gas?

I've been loosely keeping track of this for years, in the back of my mind, and decided to set these down in type:

1. Largely repeated plots with new settings and villains. In one series, two different baddies in two different books targeted the hero's wife out of lingering obsession (one from early childhood, one from college).

2. Growing lack of interest in key, recurring secondary characters from the first few books. Often these people just disappear. One particular kiss of death for a series, in my opinion, is when a recurring antagonist (a dirty cop in the same precinct, say, or a jealous and hateful superior) is killed or otherwise disappears.

3. Sexual tension between main characters leads to consummation, leaving little going forward between the two but contrived domestic dramas (or lingering, accusing, guilty glances that sometimes drag out for books and books).

4. More room is given to developing the character of villains.

5. Abrupt shifts away from the main setting (protagonist is transferred or changes careers).

6. The main characters stop making forward advances in their lives, and instead concentrate each book on fighting a new or recurring evil. The books become almost 100% plot-driven.

This isn't true of all series mysteries, of course. Many die a natural death, and others chug along cheerfully in high gear to this day. But I'd read enough series that became self-perpetuating for their own sake, over about 30 years of serious adult mystery reading, that these commonalities have made themselves apparent.

Right now, I'm noticing one of my favorite series develop several of these traits (most notably 4, 5 and 6) in its ninth and tenth volumes. I'm really hoping the eleventh, coming out next spring, pulls the series out of its gentle tailspin ... but history, in my experience, doesn't support that outcome.

Any additions or quibbles?

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Goes for races and nationalities, too. Differences are interesting, and it's what's on the inside that counts.

Why can't people see that?

Don't answer. I know. Has to do with group membership.
It's mostly generational--I think younger people are much more comfortable with gender difference than old farts like us.

Let's hope so, but I worry that SOME of the young are being indoctrinated...
a lot of people want to feel safe, to feel that their culture and their beliefs are not being threatened. In other words, not being"subsumed" into some other culture. That's what really scares them. I think I said before that some people can't believe they are right if anyone else is also right, and they can't accept being wrong.
Does she? Sorry, my memory isn't good enough, but it may very well be so.
Which book does Rendell deal with homosexuality?

Hm. I said that,....let me think. In an early In an early book,
From Doon with Death," she dealt with the theme of repressed lesbianism. There was a homosexual MP in "Adam and Eve and Pinch Me" who was hiding the fact--pretending to be married to a woman. The main character in that was a mentally ill (delusional) young woman, and the theme was, let's see---denial, and the ways of masking truth, and the willingness of others not to see it. Rendell deals quite a bit with racism---as in "Simisola." How ordinary people have to deal with racism in an in creasingly multicultural society---how difficult it is when you don't want to be racist but have to struggle with ingrained attitudes. Rendell does have great compassion towards those she sees as oppressed, repressed. And a clash of cultures always provides a source of narrative tension.
I was curious, too, if you've listened to Rendell's books on audio and what your opinion is of them.

Hi Thomas. No, I haven't listened to any audio books. As long as they are unabridged, I can't see the harm, but I've taken exception to several of the TV dramatizations of Rendell's mysteries. (They played havoc with "Master of the Moor.") "Adam and Eve and Pinch Me" is a rather strange book---you have to accept that one of the main characters does in fact hear voices and see ghosts, believes them to be absolutely real, and acts upon it. The mystery is not so much Who Did It, but how is the complex, diastrous situation that a single event sets in motion, ultimately going to be resolved. It is intricate, multi-levelled, and at bottom it really is about class difference, and how this affects people's lives. About how people cope with difficulty, or try to; about how people try to better themselves at the expense of others, who suffers, who survives. (Hence the title: Adam and Eve and Pinch Me went down to the water to bathe; Adam and Eve wer drownded; Who Was Saved? ) How people can overlook the truth when it's right in front of them. It's actually one of her more tragic stories. I did rather like "Wolf to the Slaughter," but it used a certain technique---of keeping certain information from the reader, and leading him on with other information.
OH---I just remembered another book in which Rendell (this time writing as Barbara Vine) deals with the theme of homosexuality: "The Chimneysweeper's Boy." The devastating effects of repressed, or hidden homosexuality---of what pretense does to the lives of an entire family.
I have to admit, I've only read three of her Wexford stories

I discovered Ruth Rendell back in the 70s, and have been "following" her ever since, once I got hooked. I'm not sure exactly how or when that happened, but once I "discovered" her I read everything she'd written. She is not only a master of the form, but an exceptionally good writer---her style is economical and clear. She rarely disappoints, in spite of being quite prolific. Lucky you---you have many treats in store.
Perhaps my favorite---at least of the Barbara Vine series---is "A Fatal Inversion." "A Dark Adapted Eye" is often cited as her finest BV novel, and it's certainly gripping. But "A Fatal Inversion" is a haunting examination of what can happen when the "natural order" is inverted---in this case, succession: the inheritance of a country estate by someone too young and callow to assume any kind of responsibility. In this book place is almost the protagonist: the Sussex countryside, evoked in all its idyllic beauty, yet with a sense of foreboding. "The House of Stairs" is also another good one. Rendell never dwells on "gratuitous" violence. She doesn't go in for the graphic details of any murder, which I appreciate. She doesn't avoid sex, but it's always there for a purpose, as in "The Bridesmaid," a story of sexual obsession that will chill you to the core. (This is not a Wexford novel--it's one of her other psychological explorations). Yes, she's one mystery writer who has not run out of gas! :)
I agree that most series tire after six or seven books, but there are series that have lasted far longer. The danger is falling into formula. As some have suggested, if the author makes the effort to add or subtract characters, keep the personalities three-dimensional, treat the series as the life story of the characters, and so on, he or she can keep the series going. Of course, even then, if the changes are unwise, the series could be killed or limp along as a shadow of its former self.
Interesting topic. I believe that writers have a certain number of stories to tell in a series. When they run out of stories for a particular series, they should quit. Most don't because a successful series pays the bills. The author churns out book after book that contain no "heart." Parker and Child are cases in point. The early Spencer and Reacher books were great. It's obvious that both writers had/have no more stories to tell for those characters and it was/is time to move on. Parker had begun to do that with Virgil Cole and Jesse Stone. Reacher is now an empty shell of a character. Unfortunately, Child probably can't make a change. Reacher is a money-maker and I'm sure the publisher isn't interested in anything new. Time for a pseudonym and a new publisher?
Agree on Parker, but Child is still capable of turning out a good Reacher book. His problem is that his production has been uneven all along. But the character is still fresh. It's the plots that are frequently too silly for words. Still, that's usually the downfall of thrillers.
I rather think that Parker's Spenser series suffered from other (relatively forgivable) foibles, rather than any sort of steady decline in quality. One thing that managed to annoy me was the increasing tendency to try and disguise a novella as a novel. It doesn't matter how fat you make the line spaces and how short you make the chapters (so that every chapter break generates at least one extra page in the total count), when your book struggles to top 50,000 words and you're passing it off as a full-length novel, you really are beginning to take the piss out of your reading/buying public.

But the stories were so well-crafted, so tightly composed, with laugh-out-loud dialogue interaction, that I have certainly read every one of them, and many of them several times over.

Not so Parker's other series. His Jesse Stone books were acceptable reads, but the ones with the female lead whose name I forget (see how memorable they were?) struck me as trite and patronising, as if written by an ageing male romantic, which they were.

I enjoy Child's Reacher series, but always thought that his protagonist was, from day one, straitened by his mono-dimensional character. He's Superman in shabby chinos, Rambo without an arsenal to hand, Zorro minus the exuberance.

A series with a central character whom I really enjoy is James W. Hall's Florida-based one. Their protagonis it 'Flood'. A believable, flawed character thrown into quite unbelievable situations. Seldom disappointing.

Ron McMillan
I think any series runs out of gas when the current book reads like the author was bored, repeated things they'd done in other books in the series, or when you could tell it was like they were just writing the book because they had a contract or something.

I've given up on a lot of long time series because some just got boring and predictable. Some also lasted way too long. You gotta know when to end a series. I figure every single book should be as explosive as the one before it in a series. And every one should be BETTER than the first. Especially if you're writing crime fiction.

I also blame it on some authors trying to force a series. I remember one of my favorite authors (won't name her) but I loved her series. She's a crime author, you guys should know her. But she had too many damn ones going at one time! She had this series going and this one and this one. I mean talk about confused. Why her pub thought readers could get into five different series at one time, beyond me!

I lost my interest when her books started getting silly. It was like she didn't know what the heck she wanted to do and I was like, "Wrap this up! This book should be the last!".

Sometimes authors don't know how to let go. My upcoming book is the first book in my series and I plan for it to be long and good. I've already finished three other books in the series. But I made a promise to myself that if I lost interest, I'm not gonna keep writing them just to hang onto readers. You can always tell when an author has lost interest in something and just writing it for someone else.

Best Wishes!

You know what I hate the most in a series? When someone died in one of the earlier books (you barely remember the character) and then they pop back up in a later installment and it's that they faked their death or was some kind of ghost! I HATE that! That's why I stopped watching soap operas! LOL!


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