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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Someone is going to mention Robert Parker here pretty soon (but I've only read one of his, a later book, and can't really comment on him).

Raymond Chandler's The Long Goodbye was fifth in the Marlow series and many consider it his best (though I don't). I hear his last book was just awful (and had more to do with the alcoholism of the author than in a series playing itself out).
Hmm, number two strikes me as a bit unfair. If you keep the same villain or irritant around forever, you end up repeating the same scenes.

My solution to the problem:
a) treat the protagonist as a character in his own life story
b) make sure that there are changes in setting and type of plot problem. Setting doesn't have to change every time, but for me, location changes bring new challenges.
I could add one: when the author brings back supporting characters from other books for no good reason. They don't add anything, they're out of place, but he can fill some pages with reminiscing with the main characters, or doing something anyone could have done, but more feasibly.

@ Eric,
I love THE LONG GOODBYE, but I'm with you on PLAYBACK. It has some flashes of vintage Chandler, but overall it's not very good.
I love The Long Goodbye too, Dana, but Farewell My Lovely even more, perhaps because that was the first one I read of Chandler's.
Eric,
My favorite Chandler is often whichever of THE BIG SLEEP, FAREWELL, MY LOVELY, or THE LONG GOODBYE I have read most recently. I like THE LADY IN THE LAKE, THE HIGH WINDOW, and THE LITTLE SISTER, too, but those three stand apart. (BTW, THE BIG SLEEP was my first Chandler. It never bothered me that the chauffeur's death was never tied to anything else. I just fell in love with the writing.)
I think they typically start to run out of gas around the 5th or 6th book, which makes perfect sense to me. There are only so many scenes you can write with the same characters, only so much weight they can be expected to pull. Some series keep it together longer, some jump the shark in the second book, obviously--the famous sophomore curse. I'm not sure what the difference is between those that stay fresh into book fifteen versus those that already seem stale by book four, except maybe better writing, a better premise to begin with, more compelling characters, and a broader imaginative base. I hope to keep my series going for a few more books--five or six seems like a reasonable number--but I'm not sure I can really envision going much beyond that. I joke that the last book will be FLOOD SEASON, and will feature the evacuation of Provincetown due to rising sea levels.
But that's Suchet, not Poirot.
But just about every "problem" you mention could become a strength....depending on how it was handled. Maybe the question could be put this way: If you are writing a series, how can you keep it going so as NOT to run out of gas! Although this might not take into account simple writer burnout---when an author gets tired of a character, of having to sustain the same group of characters for book after book. Yet some writers can do it. Forgive me for mentioning, once again, Ruth Rendell, who writes, essentially, three different kinds of mysteries. There is one detective "series," Wexford. Then there are the psychological novels where she does "delve into" character of the villain, or the villain and other protagonists. Then there are the Barbara Vine novels, in which crimes from the past resurface in the present, with unpredictable and powerful impacts on the lives of characters who may have been directly or tangentially involved in those past events. So she's not writing ONLY one kind of novel, or using only one set of characters. While she's writing Barbara Vine novel, Wexford is on leave, so to speak--his field lying fallow until the next planting.
In her latest Wexford novel, the "twist" is that we are going to backtrack into the past with Wexford as he tries to work out an unsolved case with a probable serial murderer who "got away with it." Could not be proved guilty.
Also, Rendell---a former journalist---is always aware of the social and economic circumstnces that shape criminals and her other characters. So there's always an angle to keep things fresh. And if the characters are "real" enough--have some depth instead of just being stereotypes---then it should not be so difficult to show their growth (or non-growth), or the shifting facets of their personalities.
Other writers also have given themselves an out from burnout by writing more than one series. Agatha Christie had Marple AND Poirot AND Tommy and Tuppence, for instance.
Elizabeth George gives air time to several different protagonists---Lynley, Havers, Ngata, & even Simon and Deborah St. James. She took a big risk in killing off a major character---but now there's a whole new challenge to be met in future books. She has also said that it's character that drives the plot.
So I think there are lots of ways for skilled writers NOT to run out of gas, unless they are just writing for the numbers, and plugging into wornout formulas.
Yes, I thinks that's pretty much right. There is no reason why a series should be doomed with book five. That's an arbitrary number. In fact, it's been said that a series doesn't catch on until number seven.

And I also believe that character is the answer. Rendell's Wexford is my favorite among her books, but that is because I like police procedurals. I do not like her social agendas, but she is one of the best at human psychology. George can be very good. Some of her characters are excellent, Havers, for example, and her Indian neighbor. Tommy's wife never did anything for me. Killing her was an excellent move. The whole upper class thing really works only when you see it in conflict with the lower classes, i.e. Tommy and Havers.
Tommy's wife never did anything for me. Killing her was an excellent move.

Yes, I thought Helen was a complete airhead, but the death was a shocker. Probably planned to shake things up. Have to wonder how long George had that thought in the back of her mind!

but (Rendell) is one of the best at human psychology.


Which is one reason why I keep reading her. She's one of a few mystery writers whose books I can actually re-read with interest, even when I know the outcome!

I like Wexford as a character too. We learn a lot more about him in her latest--how he came to be so well read, how he met his wife, etc. In this one she seems to be using some of her Barbara Vine techniques---the past coming into the present. Fascinating---it's also a story about change. Well, as far as I've gotten.
Hi Jim
You've made me wonder about my own main series now... Am I guilty of any/all of these things? Probably. I suppose when you have a long-running series, it's pretty much impossible not to be guilty of a few of them. I know I don't always keep track of all my characters from book to book as I should. Sloth is the likely culprit here. My 13th novel in the Rafferty & Llewellyn crime series comes out this month (UK) and in November in the US; I'll have to read it through and see who I've forgotten...
I do not like her social agendas,

I just have to ask---which ones in particular, and what problem do you find with them? Are you thinking of any particular book? It seems to me that given the time in which she is writing, and the location---Britain has undergone many dramatic social and economic changes in the past few decades---no good crime writer can really ignore them. Rendell has dealt effectively with racism, domestic violence, eco-terrorism, mental illness, homosexuality, political corruption--- and often these are the issues that drive the plot, at least on one level. Elizabeth George also uses social and economic issues in her novels. It was certainly at the heart of "With No One As Witness." Who are we, as a society, and how do we cope with change? Acceptance? Denial?
So I do think "social agendas " necessarily play an important role in the contemporary murder mystery.

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