In Part 1 of this series on series, we discussed Louise Penny’s Chief Inspector Gamache series. Set in Quebec, these books follow the cases of homicide detective Gamache and return each time to the eclectic, artistically-inclined, anything-but-sleepy small town of Three Pines. With each book we get closer to Gamache, learn more about residents of the small village, and, for the first several books, watch watch the plot arc of police corruption grow until it explodes in book 9.
In Part 2, we took a look at Julia Quinn’s The Bridgertons. This series follows the love lives of the eight Bridgerton siblings as they each meet their mates, fall in love, and find their HEA. While the main characters change, we get to meet and learn about the whole clan, watch secondary characters step up for their own story, and revisit old friends and recurring ‘inside jokes’.
This week, we’re looking at a series that takes a different approach to introducing and developing main characters – Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad series. These books take place in another homicide division, this time set in Ireland. But there is no set main character. There’s no big-picture story threaded through each book. And there’s no guarantee in each new book that we’ll see our previous protagonists return as secondary characters, and even when we do, we might not recognize them.
Use a ‘Have-We-Met’ Approach to Protagonists. The main reason I wanted to discuss The Dublin Murder Squad in my series on series is the different approach French takes to assigning protagonists in her stories. Like the Gamache series, these books are set in a homicide squad. But like the Bridgertons, each book has a new protagonist (and secondary protagonist if the lead detective has a partner). Sometimes we’ve seen a glimpse or formed an opinion of this character through a previous protagonist’s eyes. Other times, the lead character is brand-new, and we are tied to the story only through sometimes distant secondary characters whom we’ve kinda sorta met in past books.
Unlike many detective series, French doesn’t focus on one main character. Unlike the protagonists of most romance series, French’s lead characters aren’t bound together through familial bonds or friendship. In many cases, they don’t even like or trust each other. So how does French keep readers coming back to the series when there’s such a loose tie to new protagonists? She finds the different places each protagonist is broken, and then she can…
Match the Protagonist to the Crime That Creates a Flash-Point. The Dublin Murder Squad books have also been characterized as psychological thrillers. But unlike most thrillers, the psychological deep dive doesn’t focus on the crime perpetrators as much as does on the detective(s) trying to solve the case. Whether it’s reliving a deeply-repressed childhood memory, revisiting a family tragedy, or overcoming the personal loss of a loved one, each detective has his or her own cross to bear, and French profiles them when they are working on the crime that’ s going to bring their own pain, insecurity, and unresolved issues to the surface.
For me as a reader, it’s hard to tell whether French plots out the crime first and then finds a protagonist to investigate it, or develops a troubled and complex protagonist, and then puts together a crime arc that puts that character under the most pressure possible. Both of these elements are crucial to the flavor of the series. It’s this very flavor, the signature feel of French’s authorial style, that more than any other feature ties these books together as a series.
Show Previous Protagonists in a Whole New Light. There are no sacred cows in French’s series. You might have loved Detective x in book y, but don’t think the other detectives you’ll meet in future books will share your opinion. Likewise, you might think you know a secondary character who later becomes the lead detective, but when French does her deep dive into that character’s soul, it’ll turn what you thought you knew on it’s head.
This might be the reason that of the series we’ve discussed, The Dublin Murder Squad seems the least escapist and the most realistic. Characters are dark and light. Their lives are messy. They judge their colleagues based on their own experiences, and most times they’re wrong about these judgments. As in life, we only see what others project into the world and we can’t really know the inner working of their souls. It’s these hidden depths that French enjoys plumbing as much as the mysteries she solves in her stories.
Have you read any of French’s Dublin Murder Squad books? Or another series that takes a similar approach to revolving protagonists? If so, was it (as Jilly might say) your cuppa, or do you prefer single-protagonist series like Gamache, or cozier series like the Bridgertons?
Be sure to stop back next Monday, when we’ll have a special guest discussing series with us!