Elizabeth: A Series of Thoughts

This rose bush is an agile climber.

First off, I mentioned on Friday that my climbing roses were attempting to take over the house and a photo was requested.

Far be it from me to refuse a polite request, so here is a snapshot of my ambitious climbing rose reaching for the sky.  I trim it twice a month during the growing season (which is most of the year), but otherwise ignore it.  Apparently, that is just what is needed, since it grows and blooms consistently.

Now, on to today’s topic.

In Sunday’s Cast of Thousands post, Jilly talked wrapping up a series and balancing drawing the series to an exciting and satisfying conclusion against giving all of the characters one final time in the spotlight.  Not surprisingly, opinions were varied, though I think we probably all were in agreement about the need for a strong complete story.

Here’s a close-up of one of the new blooms

The post got me to thinking about series in general and about the current series I just finished reading in particular.

Ngaio Marsh wrote 32 books featuring the charming Scotland Yard inspector Roderick Allyen, a gentleman detective.   Although there is no over-arching plot that spans the books, it is a series in that the books move sequentially through time and have a specific order.

The first book in the series was published in 1934 and the last in 1982.   While the stories don’t cover quite that long a time span, they do cover quite a bit.

Our handsome inspector is young and unmarried in the beginning of the series; he meets his true love along the way (on a case, of course); World War II happens (he spends much of it in New Zealand); he and his wife have a son; we later see that son as a young adult (involved in a mystery, of course); and Alleyn is promoted several times along the way.

The books are mysteries (obviously) but the parts that caught my attention the most were the little bits of pieces of Alleyn’s personal life interspersed throughout the series.  I loved the interactions between Alleyn and his wife, as well as sighting recurring characters such as the reporter Nigel Bathgate (who completely vanished from the series partway through).  Character is always more of a draw for me than plot when reading, and this series was no exception.

What I found interesting was how the depiction of the main character changed over the course of the series.  I read some of the books out of order, since I was limited by what was available at the time in my local library, so by the time I met the inspector, Marsh had written several of the books and seemed to have hit her stride.  When I finally read the initial books in the series it almost felt like I was reading about a different inspector.  The early depiction was not quite as likable as the later version and occasionally walked a little close to the “annoying character” line.

I guess that makes sense.  After almost 48 years, a writer’s style is likely to change quite at bit.  Plus, the characters in the stories reflected the time they were set in and their life experiences.  It is completely reasonable for the the inspector from the early stories set in the 1930s to be quite different from the inspector in the later stories set around the 1960s.  He’d lived through a lot at that point, including an amazing number of dead bodies.

Though the books were both written and set long ago, there was at least one story that dealt with some of the same racial issues that we are dealing with today. While the phrasing of this quote below might sound old-fashioned, the idea is still relevant.

“The average bloke’s ignorance of racial problems is deplorable.”

It’s always interesting to see how books hold up over time.  These held up from a story perspective (I was entertained enough to keep reading), but they had their share of cringe-worthy stereotypes, language, and depictions that were best glossed over.

On a lighter note, I had to laugh at this following exchange from one of the early stories, where the author does a little gentle chiding of her own genre.

“Do you read crime fiction”

“I dote on it,” replied Inspector Alleyn.  “It’s such a relief to escape from one’s work into an entirely different atmosphere.”

“It’s not as bad as that,” Nigel protested.

“Perhaps not quite as bad as that.  Any faithful account of police investigations, in even the most spectacular homicide case, would be abysmally dull.”

Reading this series reminded me about the importance of writing strong engaging characters (as if I needed reminding) and also got me thinking about how long a series should go on and what a good stopping point might be.  Marsh did a pretty good job putting the inspector in a range of situations, so it didn’t seem like he was doing the same thing over and over again (well, most of the time), but I think I had reached my limit for “murder of a cast member in a theatre” stories before she reached her limit of writing them.

The series didn’t wrap-up at the end, it merely stopped.  I’ll admit to feeling a little disappointed about that.  Although I’m not a fan of the big blow-out finale, I was kind of expecting the last book to have an ending kind of feel to it.  Though, to be fair, perhaps Marsh wasn’t intending that book to be the last in the series.  She did die the same year the last book was published.  An additional book in the series was published a few years ago, apparently written by another writer, based on some notes Marsh had left behind.

I was not tempted to read it.

So, are you a fan of long-running series or do you find you reach a point where you’ve had enough?

10 thoughts on “Elizabeth: A Series of Thoughts

  1. Trying to think of the series I’ve read.

    I lost interest along the way in Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum, mostly because I read for character arc and Evanovich deliberately chose not to arc her bounty hunter. What was charming and funny in the first few books (destroying automobiles, dithering between gorgeous heroes) became annoying by the books numbered in the teens.

    Same thing with Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Milhone–I dropped out somewhere around Q. Sadly, she dropped out before she reached Z.

    As a kid, I read all the Angelique books and all the Jalna books–racy stuff back in the 60’s. And it was common for me to read an author’s complete oeuvre in those days.

    Now I’m always on to the next high…

    • I had the same issue with Stephanie Plum. Also Janet Evanovich turned the love interest into a love triangle, and then turned the original love interest into an asshat (from memory, it’s a long time since I read those books).

      Other reasons I’ve bailed on a series midway through: once the romance arc is resolved, I’m done. I’ll stick around for a little while to see the h ‘n h team up to beat the bad guys, but that’s all. Or, conversely, if the romance arc is strung out over too many books. If each book is (say) 90% adventure or mystery, overlaid with a thin layer of romance (like aromatic truffles on top of a risotto) then I disengage. Oh–and I quit Patricia Briggs’ Mercy Thompson series because the damage to the heroine escalated in every book. Once she’d survied rape and then been so badly injured she was wheelchair bound for a considerable period of time I couldn’t stick with it any longer. I was too worried about what would happen to her next.

      • I never got started with the Stephanie Plum book and, based on these comments, I don’t think I’ll rush to remedy that. As for the Mercy Thompson series — thanks for the warning. Sounds like that series would definitely not be my catnip.

    • Jeanne, I too read a number of series books as a kid. While the titles and authors have slipped my mind, I do definitely remember that I loved getting to spend time with the characters book after book. It was like getting together with friends. Back then, story arc was the least of my concerns.

  2. I haven’t started a lot of series in the last five years or so . . . I guess too many books, too little time is starting to creep into my calculations as I get older. But, I do keep up with some of the series I started when I was younger!

    Of course, I have to mention Lois McMaster Bujold. Her Vorkosigan series followed the life of a character from 17 (wait, actually from conception, and the earlier meeting of the parents, now that I think of it) until he’s much older — a family man with children, and prematurely aging because of his medical conditions. The latest one picked up with his mother again! So fascinating to see how a character changes, and you get to see this condensed down into a very short time span, like a god reviewing a person’s life choices — the entire Vorkosigan saga can be read in less than 100 hours.

    Then there’s the Amelia Peabody books, which start when Amelia meets her Emerson in Egypt, and continues through the Great War until she’s got grandchildren. The writing gets more complex and darker — and whether that’s a function of changes in the author, the natural growth of the character, or the progression of the world around the turn of the 20th century, I can’t tell you. Maybe it’s a combination of all things.

    I must thank you for the rose pictures! What a lovely little bloom! And oh, I wish I could live in California!! Such a grower. I’ve always wanted a wall of roses that creep over an archway over a gate. Probably a pain in the ass in real life, and will need an un-rosy alternate gate for everyday use, but I love the idea!

      • They did evolve, LOL. I can’t remember in which book it turned from The Adventures of Peabody and the Ripper of Shirts to something a little more . . . I don’t know how to describe it. Sedate isn’t the word, although our Heroes slowed down as they aged. Deep? Maybe. More connections with the world and themselves.

  3. The series I read tend to be shorter. Six books max. (Okay, Harry Potter was seven.) When I drop a series, it’s because the Same Thing is happening to the Same (Kind of) People. There was a contemporary Navy Seal/Jane Austen mash-up (really, it was bizarre) that I started a few years ago. The first 3-4 books were interesting, but after awhile it was the same-old, same-old. Even the previous book characters showing up and being there didn’t interest me anymore. So I dropped it.

    I’ve rarely read a series that centers around a single character. Yes, I did read Stef Plum, but like the other Ladies, I lost interest when it became the same shit on a different day.

    Because I read mostly historical romance, the series are naturally limited to 3- to 6-book collections. Some are more. Some are offshoots of an earlier series. But they almost never have a recurring main character, either.

  4. I’m with everyone else on the Evanovich/Grafton thing. Although I’m sad that Grafton couldn’t finish her series. I like 3-4 book series. A lot of Nora Roberts’ series are my favorites. The O’Hurleys, Stanislaskies, Mackade Brothers (except for one were the brother is a total bigot asshat), Chesapeake Bay, Three Sisters, In The Garden (want to be Roz), Bride Quartet, Inn Boonsboro. Her latest, not so much – The Chronicles of the One is not my cuppa. I like tight circles where the characters are consistent and you can see how each couple works with each other and with the whole of the clan.

    • I read a romance series years ago (which will remain nameless). I first read it as the books were coming out, so there was a big pause between each of the stories. I liked the family featured in the stories so a few years later I read the the first 7 or 8 books again, one right after the other. What a mistake. Reading in quick succession, the repetitiveness was overwhelming. Plus, the sex scenes, which went on for pages, were fairly anonymous. ignoring the character names, the scenes could have been in any of the books

      I’ve never felt the same about that series or that author.

      Fortunately there is no shortage of series out there waiting to be read.

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