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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Don't remember titles. I hink they are more recent ones. I recall one about the young daughter of a Muslim. And then there was Road Rage. Both of those carried far too much preachy social agenda.

The George book? Is that the one about the young killer? I hated that one, too.

The problem with social agenda is that by the time the author's book comes out (2 years after the fact?), the press has already covered the subject ad nauseam. Hence the golden rule for writers ought to be: no social agendas. Far better to deal with nonspecific instances of man's inhumanity to man.
I recall one about the young daughter of a Muslim. And then there was Road Rage.

I seem to remember that Road Rage was not my favorite among Rendell's more recent books. In fact, if memory serves me (I don't have my own copy of that particular one) there was a young Muslim girl in that one. (There's one in the most recent novel, "The Monster in the Box," but I'm not yet sure where she's going with that). Was Road Rage preachy? I forget. Maybe that's why I didn't care for it as much. Generally, I don't find Rendell preachy. I do agree, though, that too heavy a political or social agenda does impede other aspects of a story. And it's "touchy." I don't like it in the visual arts, either-- the art community is rife with "political" agendas.

Re: George. "With No One As Witness" is the one in which Helen is killed; but that wasn't the main story. There was some other murder that was being investigated---young boys being killed? I guess the Helen incident took precedence over the rest of the plot.
The following book, "What Came Before He Shot Her" was the story of the events that led up to the shooting. Not my favorite either. George seemed to feel she had to explain. I got tired of the use of the word "innit." I know it peppers the slang of the young in Britain---but she used it EVERY other sentence. As though to hammer home her understanding of the colloquial.

But, I will still read her books. :)
Ah, yes. Your memory is better than mine.
I think if the agenda is broad enough, and not strictly topical, it's not a problem except for readers who might be ideologically opposed to that agenda. Hiaasen is a strong advocate for Everglades conservation, among other things, and it certainly hasn't hurt him and I don't think it makes his books less enjoyable. My books take full GLBT equality as a matter of course, and in doing so make an argument, I think, that amounts to a not-very subtle social agenda, though I try not to do it in an overt or preachy way.
What's GLBT?
Gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender. Also commonly LGBT.
Ah. Is there a rationale to the order?
Not sure. For me, GLBT is easier to say, for some reason.
Thanks, Thomas. That's a great description of my approach. It's pretty descriptive of P'town, too.
Gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender. Also commonly LGBT.

This can make for a great story. Actually, Ruth Rendell (here I go again) dealt with a transgender theme way back in one of her early novels, "A Sleeping Life," when it was not such a hot topic, but really could make readers sit up and take notice. And then Barry Maitland did it more recently in "The Verge Practice." I hope that's not a spoiler. But, having read "A Sleeping Life," I actually had this one figured out way early. Still, the gender/identity theme cuts deep. And is of course interwined with gay/lesbian and bisexual issues. How common is it? Years ago, I was told by an aunt of mine that the husband of one of my cousins had been a cross-dresser. And this was in the 60s or 70s, probably. I expect the family did not approve.
You handle that very well, Jon. Your "alternative lifestyle" characters are treated just like everyone else in the book; it's the quirks in their personalities, not their sexual orientation or preference, that makes them unique. I'm sure there are some who have trouble with that, but, if so, it's not because you're advocating one way or the other. You lay it out there to be taken or left.
Thanks, Dana. That's the thing about living in P-town. Unless you're a complete asshole, you learn pretty quickly that people are just people, regardless of orientation. You also learn that difference can be a good thing. One of the real shockers about moving back to the midwest after several years in P'town was how freaking relentlessly homogeneous the culture is here. It's like living on a diet exclusively made up of meatloaf and mashed potatoes. I like meatloaf and mashed potatoes just fine, but where's the pad thai? Where's the vindaloo? Where's the freaking osso bucco, dude? Still, it's remarkable how many people don't get that, and even find the idea of difference threatening. It's mostly generational--I think younger people are much more comfortable with gender difference than old farts like us.

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