There are many authors who hit on a successful or popular idea for a novel and, more or less, repeat the winning formula with each new publication. There are far fewer authors who can do this without displaying some level of contempt for their readers. I’ve lost count of the series and authors I’ve given up reading because it felt to me like the author was having a laugh at readers’ expense; wondering just how dull and stupid they can make their books before the money stops rolling in.
But rather than focusing on those authors who’ve stopped trying I thought it worth mentioning some of those authors who do manage to sustain their quality even while offering the kind of familiar predictability that some readers always want and most readers sometimes want.
Although most of Dick Francis books are standalone novels they are all follow the same kind of story arc featuring the same kind of protagonist. He (and he’s always a he though sometimes he meets a significant female ‘other’ along the way) is always an independent, intelligent chap whose job or life somehow intersects with the world of horses. Of course there are jockeys and trainers and bookies but also I can think of someone who owned a horse transporting company, a banker who funded the syndicates who buy expensive horses, a pilot who flies racegoers to meetings and a consultant with expertise in kidnap negotiation who gets embroiled in a series of kidnaps involving racing identities. There is always danger of some sort, usually a death or two but not always, and the chap is the only one who can solve the mystery and stand up to whoever needs standing up to. I have read all of Francis’ 44 novels (the last 5 of which were co-written with his son) and though I always know what’s going to happen I never feel that Francis is just going through the motions. As well as a good (if predictable) adventure there is always some interesting, well researched subject that I think I’m going to be bored to tears by and end up being fascinated with,and I always enjoy the ride. I’ve lately been listening to those of Francis’ novels which have been gorgeously narrated by English actor Tony Britton (who I realised after I’d listened to a few books was the Inspector in The Day of the Jackal) and am loving the experience. My most recent listen, SHATTERED, was what got me thinking about how some authors can rise above what must be a tempting slide into having contempt for the reader rather than striving to maintain quality. The hero of this one is a glass blower by trade (enter interesting subject) whose best friend is a jockey who dies unexpectedly in a race fall and, because he had something in his possession that nefarious types want, embroils our hero in dangerous mayhem.
In a different league because they haven’t written nearly so many books as Francis (yet) but similarly striking the balance between predictability and engaging the reader without talking down to them are two relatively recent additions to my favourite authors list:
Julie Hyzy’s white house chef series features Olivia (Ollie) Paras who is, unsurprisingly given the series name, Executive Chef at the home of the American President. Ollie has had five adventures prior to the current release and they all follow a pattern of embroiling someone with a seemingly innocuous occupation in all manner of danger. I’ve all but given up on the traditional cosy mystery because the vast majority felt more like marketing ploys than genuine attempts at writing but Hyzy’s stories are always fun and intelligent and manage to stay this side of the “oh for pete’s sake that couldn’t happen even in a world where all disbelief has been suspended indefinitely” territory. In the latest instalment, FONDUING FATHERS, Ollie’s adventure doesn’t involve her work but instead sees her trying to find out the truth about her father who died when Ollie was very young. There’s still lots of little details about life at the White House (the element which drew me to the series in the first place) and it’s nice to see that world peace is not at risk for a little while.
Elly Griffiths’ series featuring forensic archaeologist Ruth Galloway of the fictitious Norfolk University stands at five novels with this year’s release of DYING FALL. Ruth’s capacity for attracting far more death threats and recently dead body discoveries than several dozen real-world archaeologists would garner in a lifetime is, by now, a given. But it is easy to make allowances for this unlikely series of events because the characters are fantastic – seriously like catching up with old friends – and there is always an interesting ancient legend or two woven into the stories. To the point that it’s easy enough to forget there is a police investigation going on at all. Ruth is not a typical heroine – a single woman who became a mother unexpectedly and late in life, she is smart, cynical and has a great inner voice. Her friends include a curmudgeonly policeman (who has played a very significant role in her life) and a Druid with a surprisingly practical side. In this outing they all make their way north to the Blackpool area when a friend of Ruth’s dies in horrid circumstances after having discovered what might be the bones of an English king.
Generally when I read I am not looking for too much predictability but sometimes, when the work days are long or the weather hot, I don’t want to have to think too hard but I do want to be entertained. These are three authors who I can count on to deliver a dose of the familiar without making me feel annoyed that I’ve bought a new book when I could have just re-read an old one and saved myself the cash.
Do you have any authors who fall into this category for you? Or do you never look for this kind of familiar, comfort reading?