Sunday, December 8, 2013

SKELETON MAN and Thoughts on Long-Running Series


First of all, the pictures on this post have nothing to do with the content – just recent odds and ends. 

A few days ago I mentioned  that I was reading Tony Hillerman’s Skeleton Man and Merisi (Vienna for Beginners) asked for a review. So here it is, not so much a review as a commentary, along with some thoughts on long running series… 

Hillerman's Chee and Leaphorn books have long been favorites of mine. The list of titles is impressive (and there were a dozen other non- Leaphorn and Chee books interspersed in here -- Hillerman was prolific.) But the Leaphorn and Chee novels are the ones I read and reread.

The Blessing Way (1970), Dance Hall of the Dead (1973),Listening Woman (1978), People Of Darkness (1980), The Dark Wind (1982), The Ghostway (1984),Skinwalkers (1986), A Thief of Time (1988), Talking God (1989), Coyote Waits (1990), Sacred Clowns (1993), The Fallen Man (1996), The First Eagle (1998), Hunting Badger (1999),The Wailing Wind (2002), The Sinister Pig (2003), Skeleton Man (2004), and The Shape Shifter (2006).

The first ten, eleven, twelve books are all memorable and strong as the characters of Leaphorn and Chee grow in complexity and likeability. The plots are ingenious and the setttings magnificent. In every book, Navajo religion and belief (and sometimes the beliefs of other tribes) play an important and fascinating role.

But, and this is just my opinion, somewhere along the way, the series weakened. And I love these books so much that I hate saying it. But I remember reading Sinister Pigs and feeling that it was a well done first draft -- or a condensation. The settings were still magnificent -- those towering thunderheads rising over the Chuskas -- and all the familiar character were there but somehow it all felt diminished. And it was certainly shorter.

And, to get to Merisi's question, I felt the same way about Skeleton Man. Still worth reading -- a diminished Hillerman is better than no Hillerman. But just a shadow of the earlier books.
 
Now some of this weakening of the series could be due to the fact that Hillerman was in his late seventies and, as I recall, had not been in good health.  But I wonder if  part of this is just the nature of writing a long-running series -- each book presents the challenge of bringing new readers up to speed with the backgrounds of these beloved characters while trying at the same time not to bore long-time readers.

Or to bore the writer. I wonder if Hillerman ever sighed to himself and thought -- time to write about the thunderheads rising over the Chuskas . . . Remember, Conan Doyle tried unsuccessfully to kill off Sherlock because he was tired of writing about him.

We faithful readers expect, even demand a certain familiarity -- we don't want Joe Leaphorn to stop being wise and practical and we want Jim Chee to continue to be in conflict with his spirituality. And I want to hear about those thunderheads yet again... and at length because no one does weather better than Hillerman.  

It's the dilemma Hollywood faces in making sequels -- make it the same -- but with surprises.

There are lots of long-running mystery series out there -- Sue Grafton is almost at the end of her alphabet series, Janet Evanovich' s Stephanie Plum is up to twenty. Margaret  Maron, Elizabeth George, Deborah Crombie, Lee Child, Laurie R. King, Ian Rankin . . .

Have any of you followed a long-running (over ten books) series?  What are your thoughts? 

 
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12 comments:

Ms. A said...

I've never read any series that ran that long, but I do know what you mean. I feel a lot like that with series TV. I devote myself to a show I really like in the beginning and I always try to be faithful and follow it. However, it's like they start with a bang, suck you in... and then get so farfetched I wonder why I don't just give up. It's like they don't know where to take you, that you haven't already been and you've usually been there on more than one occasion.

I really like that second photo!

Mary Anne Rudolph said...

And how about George RR Martin. I loved the first book of game of thrones, and maybe the next two were almost as good. But, long though they all are, long just doesn't get it. I have read most of the authors you mentioned. Getting old may not, in itself, mean diminished writing, but health could certainly play into it. WE were all younger when we first read Hillerman. Have WE lost some of the wonder? I don't watch TV, so hope my imagination is still working. I feel wonder still, certainly. Good topic for discussion!

Brian Miller said...

that is def an interesting thought...and if as an author you get bored with a series, it must be hard to face the tension of the readers who want another book and just dont understand...

KarenB said...

There seem to be two kinds of series - the one that is the same thing over and over and only slightly different, and the one that grows and changes and does need an end. The first can be a comfort read, and I can think of series that I enjoyed that fall into that category, starting with the Hardy boys.

The second is more difficult. It's quite difficult for a writer to continually make a book that is part of a series both able to stand on its own and able to fulfill part of an ongoing series, to both engage new readers and satisfy old readers. Many of these do seem to drag on after they surely should have been laid aside. If you are writing as your primary career and the income is vital, I would think it extremely difficult to leave a viable and successful series behind. I admire Charlaine Harris for doing so, even with her earlier series (is there a plural for more than one series?) before her astonishing success with the Sookie books. But also, sometimes the well runs a bit dry and it may be easier to stick with the known rather than venture on. Hard to satisfy the muse, the need to eat, the readers who want more, the publisher who wants what will sell.

Vicki Lane said...

Karen has summed it up perfectly. We don't want surprise and change in our comfort reads. But without change, the characters are in danger of becoming caricatures of themselves.

Ms. A's comment about TV series getting so far-fetched -- that's what they call 'jumping the shark' (from an episode of Happy Days, I think, where The Fonz did just that. On water skis.) And sometimes writers do this too.

LynnK said...

Did you know that Tony Hillerman's daughter has written a mystery including both Chee and Leaphorn as well as Bernie Manuelito? Title is The Spider Woman's Daughter by Anne Hillerman. I too am a lover of the Hillerman books and agree that the later ones are not as good. But the Spider woman's Daughter is a pleasant surprise -- not Tony Hillerman, but I think he would be proud...

Novice Naturalist said...

I read long books, but I have never read a long series, even Hillerman, probably for the same reason I never watch a long TV series through to the end--it is that 'jumping the shark' thing, I think. I do love Chee and Leaphorn. I read a few when I was living in Flagstaff. I loved the way Hillerman would sometimes have his characters spend long hours on the road, just getting from one place to another. That detail, so realistic to life out there in the great open spaces of Dine land, made the characters all the more real to me.

Anonymous said...

I love long series of books, especially if I discover the author well into the series and can start with the first and continue through them in a few weeks' time without the year or longer wait for the next book. But there are some authors whose stand alones I prefer over their series and a few who do both equally well. Michael Connelley comes to mind in that category. I loved George RR Martin's early books, Armageddon Rag and Fever Drean and can't get into the Game of Thrones at all. I could go on with lists of each, but enough. Lynne in GA

Tammy said...

I love Hillerman. Chee is my favorite but having the different personalities of Leaphorn and Chee working off each other really made the stories. It seemed in the last few books that Hillerman was adding in so many new characters that Chee and Leaphorn seemed to become background noise. The premises were still interesting but plots got dragged down with all the 'voices' of the characters. Still and all I have read them all and will try Anne Hillerman's too. But I have my few favorites of the series that I read over and over--my comfort reads.

Another series I have read and re-read (some of them) is Elizabeth Peters Amelia and Emerson Peabody archeological mysteries (over twenty of them I think). Love her writing, but as in Hillerman some of her latter ones have not been as well done--many many new characters as the family expands--somehow it's hard to keep the dynamics with so much going on. As in most series the first ones were the best!

Thanks for bringing up this interesting topic. I love to find a good author that has written a slew of books! ha..

Tammy

NCmountainwoman said...

I have followed Louise Penny's books about Chief Inspector Gamache (nine in the series thus far) for several years. When I was much younger I lapped up the Father Brown mysteries. And earlier, of course, I read every Nancy Drew that came along.

Frances said...

I am an Ian Rankin fan, and have had the pleasure of speaking with him several times (ages ago) when he was doing some Rebus novel promotions over here in the States.

Ranking sort of drew an end to the Rebus books, then had Rebus as a minor...and not totally appealing...character in another new crime series.

However...there is a new Rebus novel, already published in the UK and due very soon over here. My name is already on the reserve list at my fabulous library.

I guess the other series whose prime character caused me to read and read and read was...Sherlock Holmes.

Maigret is not too shabby either.

xo

Vicki Lane said...

Such great comments! To me, the joy of a long running series is, as Lynne in GA says, when you come upon it when it's already well established and you can read your way right through without that year-long (or more) wait. I felt that way when I discovered Dorothy L. Sayers -- though it was sad when I got to the end and knew there'd be no more. (Though actually there have been a few not bad Wimsey/Vane novels by a current day author.)