I think by now it is pretty clear that I love a good mystery series. It probably started back in my Trixie Belden days, although I did read a fair amount of Nancy Drew as well. When I was in college, I worked at a small bookstore in Geneva, Illinois. There I got hooked on the Anne Perry mysteries. I read a lot of different things in college for fun, but Anne Perry’s books truly solidified my love of series mysteries. I branched out and read other authors, and the rest, as they say is history.
I currently have about fifty mystery series that I follow regularly; over the years, there have been some I have let go for a variety of reasons and I am always on the lookout for a new series. For me, there are certain details that keep me engaged in a mystery series. So for my completely biased opinion, these are my necessities of a good mystery series.
Four NECESSITIES OF A GOOD MYSTERY SERIES on Friday
Interesting, plausible protagonist
Although I have read a lot of true crime novels, a good mystery for me is rooted in the characters. I think that any good series must maintain strong, consistent characters to stabilize the continuity of the series. It is what ties each book to the previous one and it is what the reader follows from book to book. When a new release of a favorite author comes out, it feels like catching up with an old friend and visiting about what has happened since the last time we met.
I am not picky about the gender of my protagonist. I love the female Lady Darby in Anna Lee Huber’s books and Amory Ames in Ashley Weaver’s series, but I find Mark Pryor’s Hugo Marston and C. S. Harris’ Sebastian St. Cyr just as engaging. The key, and I know I have said it before, is that context in which the protagonist encounters a crime must be believable, it must be consistent, and it must be evolving. I love a good cozy mystery but after a while, multiple deaths in a small town or at a certain ski resort; well, I don’t think I would put that on a place to visit!
Inquiry agents like Charles Lenox in Charles’ Finch’s series or Derek Stone in Kate Carlisle’s Bibliophile mysteries, police detectives like Duncan Kincaid and Gemma James in Deborah Crombie Scotland Yard series, or even judges and attorneys like Verlaque and Bonnet in M. L. Longworth’s Provencal mysteries all have realistic reasons to encounter, and more importantly, be involved in, solving crimes.
Cozy mysteries are very entertaining and enjoyable, but they don’t have the same sustainability as something that is more grounded. A good cozy writer should know when to quit and move on to a new series.
Not everything I read has a historical setting but it is definitely a huge plus in what makes a series my favorite. Yes, I love the simpler time, the fascinating couture, the social customs and limitations, but honestly, the very best part is the lack of technology, specifically the internet. Historical crime solvers must rely on their ingenuity and inquiry skills. Now I am not discrediting modern detectives, but I truly love watching characters fit different pieces together. I know that much of the detecting work could be completed a lot faster with modern tools, but what’s the point of a 50-page mystery! I often think “why don’t they just look it up online” when I am reading a historical mystery before I remember that isn’t an option.
With characters spending days traveling by horseback or coach or waiting for letters to arrive, the tension of the story builds. The reader often is sidetracked by the minutia of daily life and seemingly unimportant details; this adds depth and personality to the story and enables the reader to have a stronger grasp on the setting and characters and how they are woven together.
There is also something exotic and mystical about a historical setting; the grittiness seems darker and more threatening while the society and lifestyle creates a more glamorous and opulent feel. I’ve always felt I that I was born in the wrong decade; reading historical mysteries helps me to channel my inner dreams.
Fun, quirky secondary characters
Remember, it is all about the characters for me. Mystery books provide great opportunities for secondary characters to pop up over the course of a series. These characters provide rich ambiance for the time period or foils for the different personalities of a protagonist. They have the feel of that “crazy Aunt Edna” or “cousin Steve” that we all have in our families; the topic of holiday table conversations with details of their grand adventures, disasters, or both. I think these characters add a dimension to the story to remind the readers that crime doesn’t occur in a bubble; life still goes on all around which is often what both helps and interferes with the solving of a crime.
Some of my favorite secondary characters are Bonnie Brock in the Lady Darby series, Sid and Gus in Rhys Bowen’s Molly Murphy mysteries, and Oscar in the Witchcraft mysteries by Juliet Blackwell. Sometimes these characters are integral to the development of the plot, sometimes they create obstacles that interfere with the progression of the inquiry, and sometimes they just add a diversion of spice and humor to a darker theme.
Just a hint of romance
Okay, call me a hopeless romantic but I like a bit of a love story in my mysteries. I like the tension between two characters when they aren’t sure who they can trust, and then how it builds to when they discover that must trust one another. Relationships often cloud judgement and perception and this added depth creates more conflict in a story and therefore makes it more suspenseful for the reader. I don’t ever want a relationship in a mystery book to take away from the mystery itself, but a good author with meld the two with thought and purpose.
I like how some relationships grow over the course of the series, like C.S. Harris’ Sebastian and Hero, Tasha Alexander’s Emily and Colin, or Julie Spencer-Fleming’s Russ and Clare. In contrast, I enjoy how Ashley Weaver’s Amory and Milo stories jump right into an established marriage. Then of course there is Brad Parks’ Carter Ross and Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum; who knows if they will ever settle down! What does Keanu Reeves’ character say in the movie Speed: I have to warn you; I’ve heard relationships based on intense experiences never work. Ah, love . . .
Any other mystery buffs out there? What are the “must-haves” for your favorite series?