From The Booking Desk:
Catriona McPherson and I have had several conversations where we discussed the challenges with series books – both writing and reading them.
Both of us do enjoy reading series books from the beginning, but we have also experienced cases where we didn’t start with the first book and the series didn’t suffer because of it. So, are readers being too strict with requiring themselves to read a series from the beginning?
I once heard Hank Phillippi Ryan say – and I am paraphrasing here – something to the effect that we as humans don’t know everything about someone’s history when we first meet them, so why is that necessary when we “met” a fictional character for the first time? As we get to know them, some of their history – the relevant parts – will inevitably come out.
Let’s see what Catriona has to say on the subject:
I’ve had several conversations with Mr Zgorski, proprietor of this here fine blog, on the topic of series you can start in the middle. Now seems a good time to turn the fat-chewing into a post.
Because the ninth book in my Dandy Gilver series is coming out on the 13th of December!
Now, some readers want to read everything in order. Some readers even want to read standalones in publication-date order. What can you do? Some people keep all their clothes pegs facing the same way in the peg basket. This blog’s not about that.
I think we can all agree there are some series even peg-basket anarchists must read in order – Stieg Larsson’s Girl trilogy; Stephen King’s Mr Mercedes trilogy; Charlaine Harris’s Midnight trilogy … basically, if there are only three books, there’s likely to be a strong arc it would be annoying to miss.
But I’d add Alexander McCall Smith’s Isabel Dalhousie and Precious Ramotswe to this category. So much happens in the personal lives of these two women from book to book that half the enjoyment lies outside the monster-of-the-week that is their current case.
However, there are many more series that you can dip in and out of, wheel round and re-read, visit, leave and visit again with no harm done to your overall reading enjoyment. And there are lots of different reasons for that, it seems to me.
The classic dippable series is the one where, like a sitcom, everything is re-set between installments and you start in the same place again every time. Poirot and Sherlock are classic cases of this. Simon Brett’s Charles Paris is heartbreakingly so: still a bad husband, still a hopeless drunk, still waiting for his big acting break. I tried to make Simon promise that Charles will make it in the end (“It’s not too late! Look at Judi Dench!”) but I don’t feel hopeful.
And then there’s a series like Harlan Coben’s Myron Bolitar. He’s not static, but he’s pretty steady (in the best possible sense) and the way Coben gives the back story is a masterclass. Years of complex history served up as an amuse bouche in the first chapter (not like some, wheeling in the back-story on a forklift. No names). I read Myron totally out of order and felt no pain.
Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce is another I’d have put in this corner. The inimitable Flavia was eleven, her sisters were fiends, and her dad was unlikely to write a tie-in good-parenting guide. We knew where we were. Then all of a sudden, in As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust (Book 7) she’s twelve! Watch this space, I guess.
Colin Cotteril’s Dr Siri Paiboun series can be enjoyed to the full in any order too, but for completely different reasons. In The Coroner’s Lunch (Book 1) Siri has suddenly become the State Coroner of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, after the communist take-over in 1976. (He’s the only doctor left in Laos, which helps). The books, though they do progress through time, each look at a different aspect of Laotian culture and therefore stand alone. Besides, they don’t progress very much: a wise move, since the doc starts out over seventy (and Cotteril presumably doesn’t want him to end up like Miss Marple – a hundred and thirty and going strong).
And here is the very first book by the blessed Dorothy that I ever read. There’s a strong clue right there on the jacket that I shouldn’t have started here, right?
In fact, everything about the Wimsey stories should make them prime candidates to be read in turn, as the events unfold. But it’s just not like that. I read the one where they got engaged before the one where they met; I read three about his life before they met after that; I read the short story about the night their son was born before I knew they got married. I have no idea why it wasn’t a problem and I invite suggestions in the comments section today. Maybe when a book is so good – so good, so full of wit and social detail and bell-ringing (for instance) – nothing else matters.
I think that might be a good chunk of it anyway. My final entry in this list of series-order-chaos, after all, is the detective novels by another genius: Margery Allingham.
They do make a series, in that they’re all about Albert Campion and he gets older, gets married, has children, all that. But they’re so disparate in every other way: they’re thrillers and puzzle plots and spy stories; they’re somber and funny; they’re even first and third person, for crying out loud. And some of them are stylistically pretty hard work. I read The China Governess twice before I could follow it. So maybe what I’m saying is that reading them in order won’t help. But they are worth it. Oh my, are they ever worth it! I think The Tiger in The Smoke is the most perfect crime novel I’ve ever read.
I’d love to hear what series you think fall into which category and why. I’d also love to hear if you disagree with my theories about what makes the difference – the only thing half as good as reading books is arguing about them, right?
And if you are someone who has simply got to start at the beginning, well then – ahem – did you know I’m offering the chance to win all eleven Dandy Gilver books, if you pre-order The Reek of Red Herrings? Details here. And there’s a free Christmas short story with every pre-order too.
Happy Holidays, everyone, and Happy Reading.
From the Booking Desk:
That was pretty enlightening, no? For the record, I will say that I started the Dandy Gilver series with Dandy Gilver and the Proper Treatment of Blood Stains (Book 5) and had no problems following and enjoying this story. I didn’t even read in order after that, as next I read Dandy Gilver and A Bothersome Number of Corpses (Book 7) – because who can resist that title? At that point, I went back to the first four books and then ahead to the most recent releases. As a huge fan of the series, I can say that my enjoyment was not at all affected by this. So reader’s pick up and meet Dandy in the book that sounds most interesting to you. You won’t regret it!
Very interesting post and will be useful in a talk I have to give in January, so thanks extra. As so often happens, this also reminds me of Somerset Maugham’s “There are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”
Yep, rules are meant to be broken. I still prefer to read in order, but with so many books and so little time, I have found that I have to rely on the author’s skill to fill in the necessary backstory for longer series that I am experiencing anew.
Interesting post, Catriona. I agree about needing to read trilogies in order since there is a continuing arc that is central to the story. Ben Winters’ Lost Policeman trilogy and Duane Swierczynski’s Charlie Hardie trilogy come to mind as recent ones I enjoyed reading (in order). I do prefer to read a longer series in order but there are definitely some others that you can dip in mid-way and they read pretty well. One favourite of mine is Cara Black’s Aimee Leduc PI series with each book set in a different arrondissement (neighbourhood).
So interesting to hear which books folks read well in any order and which benefit from an orderly reading.
Thank you very much for having me, Kris. I thoroughly enjoyed wandering through my bookshelves. (And I’m ever thankful for my 70s kitchen where the tomato red bunkers (US counters) make such a suitable book-backdrop). Grace, I started Cara’s Aimee in the middle too. And I think what Hank said is spot-on. Going back to the early books was like a weekend away with a newish pal, when you finally get talking.
So true. And see if I had know that about Cara’s Aimee books, I wouldn’t have had to wait until this year when the prequel was released to start this excellent series.
Believe me, Kristopher, many Aimee devotees were waiting AGES for Cara to write that prequel! So many unanswered questions about Aimee’s pre-PI days, and what happened to her parents!
I agree that the books you need to read in order are ones in which the character changes over time, often in significant ways. Lawrence Block’s Matt Scudder books are like that — Matt starts out at a very low point in life and gradually claws his way back up, and the books have more meaning (IMO) if you follow that struggle.
The only trouble is knowing which books are that type of series and which are not. But that is where word of mouth comes in. And I have often asked authors of long-running series “I someone couldn’t start with the first book, which book would you suggest they start with?” They will often mention one that is their favorite – and likely best.
Oh, how the mighty do fall. I was as pure as the driven snow (do I need maybe one more idiom) when it came to reading series. No starting in the middle for me. It had to be book 1, book 2, and so on. Well, the times they are a changing (see, I knew I could come up with another pithy saying). And, I probably have Kristopher to thank for it. He told me at some point that a series I was looking at was okay to read out of order. After I did the sign of the cross and turned around three times, I thought about what he said, and I read my first Dandy Gilver. I didn’t feel lost. I knew that there was some things I’d missed, but it didn’t interfere with my enjoyment of the story. Then, as Kristopher points out, there are so many books to keep up with and so little time to go back and read through entire series, that I began to read a book here or there out of order in a series. The world didn’t explode. Now, I still enjoy reading an entire series and in order, and I certainly entered your contest, Catriona, because I really would like to read all of the Dandy Gilvers, but I have gained a great freedom in not being so rigid. I will still continue with my winter series reading, where I choose one or two series to catch up on, in order, but I’m happy that I’ve loosened up a bit on reading in order.
I do agree, Catriona, that trilogies are more enjoyable read in order. Peter May’s Lewis Trilogy really doesn’t work read out of order. Lyndsay Faye’s Timothy Wilde is another.
So happy to hear that you have found some freedom in this. I knew you would be fine with the Dandy books starting later in the series, so I am glad that you took that leap. I agree that it would be best if we could always read in order, but with so many books, who can keep up?