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?
An interesting post, I’m a bit of a series junkie and like yourself sometimes want to read without extending my grey matter too much and a familiar author/character can be a bit like putting on a comfortable pair of slippers. That said there’s the odd series that has just stopped working for me – James Lee Burke and Robicheaux, great author, great writing but I just can’t believe in good ol’ Dave anymore and for that reason I’m done with him. Michael Connelly and his alternating tag-team – Harry Bosch/Mickey Haller….last few books featuring each I just haven’t enjoyed. Although, I read Fifth Witness earlier this month which was back up to par….so I’ll stick with him for a couple more books at least. Maybe some characters are like friends that you outgrow and your life just moves on without them.
Currently trying to get into Robert Crais-Elvis Cole/Joe Pike, John D. MacDonald- Travis McGee and Lawrence Block – Matthew Scudder. one book into two of these and two into the other one.
Last point, I really need to give Dick Francis a try also, I’ve ignored him for years – probably literary snobbery on my account, but having recently realised that he is the recipient of a couple of Edgars and a Gold Dagger Award I’ve obviously been foolish to ignore him.
I haven’t gotten into ANY of those authors Colman – I did read one of James Lee Burke’s and it was probably a bad place to start – the post-Katrina one – it was well written (beautifully written really) but it was so full of hurt and POLITICS that I felt like I’d been at a lecture. I should give him another go.
You’ve actually made me realise that I don’t have a single male. American author that I really follow – this hadn’t occurred to me until right this minute. I have to ponder what this might mean about my psyche – it’s not that I don’t like Americans – honest – some of my best family (a wonderful sister-in-law and two gorgeous nieces) are Americans
Bernadette, for you not reading American males, you can substitute me not reading females irrespective of nationaluty – I think I read 10 or 11 books written by women last year! It may be a conscious choice that steers me to male authors, maybe I subsconsciously perceive women as writing “softer” crime fiction – what does it say about me? I’m no male supremacist!
So I shall have to make it my mission to find you a woman who writes “harder” crime eh? I guess the go too gal is Megan Abbott but I’ll put my thinking cap on.
I’m not sure why I haven’t got any favourite American male authors as I do read an almost even split of male to female writers (even when not trying) and I have nothing against Americans (I am even related to a few who I love dearly). I shall keep looking
I agree, Bernadette…with your three choices for less “familiarity” in a series….and call it “bucking the archetype”! I recently read Jesse Kellerman’s POTBOILER….and he gives a tired and tried formula for a spy thriller at the beginning of his tale….and then bucks it….: Here’s his formula::
the protag… “a brilliant, physically invincible figure formerly in the employ of a shadowy but never-named government arm”…;
the plot…”an elaborate conspiracy involving…an assassination, a terrorist strike, a missing child, or the theft of highly sensitive documents that, if made public, could lead to full-blown nuclear engagement”…;
the action ” a thriller hero who becomes “sucked (or dragged, or pulled, or thrust) back into the maelstrom (net, vortex, spiderweb) of deception (treachery, lies, intrigue)”…;
An initial simple mystery becoming…”just the tip of the iceberg.”
What a formula…..what a boring formula….
I have to admit I haven’t tried the junior Kellerman Jane – I gave up on both his parents some time ago and I have just lumped him in with them in my head which is unfair of me I suppose
Don’t fret about not reading the junior Kellerman, Bernadette. I have to admit that I like my thrillers according to archetype….love those thriller heroes! And I took a turn from you for POTBOILER – it was a DNF…they killed trees for this….
Now in mysteries….I have to have plausible plots, interesting characters….and my favorite Val McDermid is disappointing me in her latest Carol Jordan/Tony Hill….
I have great hopes for Adrian McKinty and Gerard O’Donovan…..love my Irish crime writers….
Bernadette – There are most definitely authors who are predictable in some senses but whose work is well enough written and interesting enough that reading their books feels like wearing a pair of comfortable shoes. You know what it’s going to be like and that’s part of the beauty of it. I feel that way about Louise Penny’s Armand Gamaache series and about Kerry Greenwood’s two series. It’s obvious in the great examples you’ve mentioned that those authors care enough to create solid stories and develop their characters so that even though you sort of know the kind of story you’ll get, that turns out to be a good thing.
Oh yes Kerry is another one Margot
I feel like I abandon lots of series after about four books before jumping into another. One of my favorites is Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone series, which I think has improved in the last ten years.
Rebecca I know what you mean about abandoning series – I’ve loads in the same category (5 books seems to be my sweet spot) but you’re right the Grafton novels are good and I have stuck with them – I thought U was probably the best of the series so far!
My problem with the Dick Francis novels (apart from zero interest in horse racing) is the knowledge that his wife wrote them, and he kept this secret all his life.
I suspect that my fondness for Dick Francis’ books is partly to do with the fact I started reading them when I was very young – 10 or so – as he was considered suitable reading from the adult section of our library as I had read every kid’s book there, most twice over. Often my mum and I would each read them and long after I left home catching up on the new Dick Francis was something I shared with mum – each of us tracking down a copy then discussing it via phone or even the odd old fashioned letter. I’m not that fussed about who wrote them, though to be fair to him I remember seeing an interview way back in the day on a Michael Parkinson-style TV show and he said then that the books were as much Mary’s work as his – and sometimes more. He didn’t seem to be making any secret of it but he (and the publishers) knew that the books would only sell because of his connection to racing. I have zero interest in racing too – for me the books aren’t about horses at all – they’re about people with a passion for something and I enjoy those kinds of people.
What a thought-provoking and timely post – I’m re-reading Reg Hill at the moment. It started because of a dearth of my usual Nordic crime currently (clearly they are all waiting for their traditional Easter releases), then a searching for a quote I was sure was of Reg Hill, and then settled down into such a pleasant experience I am thinking of making it a personal goal for the year to read all of his books – vast majority re-reads, but some, especially the Ruell ones, new to me.
I used to love the Dick Francis books, but that was years ago when there simply wasn’t the wide range of choices now available. Like you, I have thoroughly enjoyed Elly Griffiths,(who I think of in the same vein as Kate Atkinson), and because I have read them as they have appeared I haven’t even needed to raise my eyebrows as the number of recently dead she encounters. All of these authors create wonderful characters, who in turn drive excellent plots, and then we all enjoy the ride!
Reg Hill has been a relatively recent find for me Beth as I somehow missed reading him until the last few years – but I can understand you classing him as a favoured author who doesn’t talk down to readers (in fact was still experimenting with writing style and so on right up until his last book).
I definitely agree about Elly Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway. I can pull up a comfortable chair, make a cup of tea and read about Ruth Galloway any time. She is a kindred spirit.
I feel that way about Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warsawski, too. Even though she’s controversial to some, she’s an old pal to me, even more so because I grew up in Chicago and it’s familiar territory.
Kinsey Milhone can often be an old standby, too, and so, too, Donna Leon’s Brunetti series, along with the eccentric, brilliant curmudgeon Salvo Montalbano.
Any day I could pick up one of these books and curl up with a smile on my face.
I must that I could read a Corinna Chapman book to destress any time.
And I’ve added a new series, which I could enjoy and also feels like an old friend by now is Anthony Bidulka’s Russell Quant series.
I’ve only read of Bidulka’s books so far Kathy but you could be right that there’s another one to add to the comfort reading list – have to read another one to make sure 🙂
I’ve never read a Dick Francis novel. And despite your excellent post I’m not sure I ever will. Horses don’t really do it for me. I’ve just finished the Elly Griffiths which I loved. A modern comfort read for me.
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Except for older series (some vintage) I cannot think of any current series that I keep up with and consider comfort reads. But I appreciate your evaluation of Julie Hyzy, because I avoid such series unless I get some confirmation that the writing has some depth. Elly Griffiths is on my list to read soon.
Once I discovered Jill McGown’s police procedural series, I read all of it in 2 or 3 months, I enjoyed it so much. And I want to go back and reread them.
Also liked the reminder from Margot that I need to read Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher series, which I have heard so much about.
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