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  • Writer's pictureDale M. Nelson

SERIES LENGTH IN CRIME FICTION

As I write this, I’m just about halfway through the follow up to 2018’s A Legitimate Businessman and that’s got me thinking a lot about how long I want this series to be. In the first book, we meet “Gentleman” Jack Burdette, a professional thief who leads a double life and is precariously trying to balance the two. He has two separate identities and much of the dramatic tension in the book comes as those two lives come into conflict with each other.

Without giving away spoilers, its fair to say that this can’t go on forever. Jack is a great thief, maybe the best in the world at what he does, but he can’t keep it up forever. There’s also the question of his double life. How long can one man lead two lives, especially when one of them is as a professional thief? Eventually, those plot devices would become tropes and would lose their impact. There is also the aspect of realism, namely that it is just not plausible to me that someone could continue to commit a series of high profile crimes and continue to get away with it. While readers expect a certain amount of artistic license, it also has to be believable within the architecture of that story’s world. This is especially true in crime fiction where you have to balance the myriad unsavory characters of the criminal underworld where they operate as well as the various law enforcement agencies that will certainly be involved. And, let’s face it, in the modern era, very little goes unnoticed for long. In crime fiction, its essential that the narrative arc of the series stays both realistic and true to itself.

You must also consider the psychological toll this lifestyle takes on the character. This, again, goes back to realism. Eventually, unless the main character is wholly amoral (which, is likely not compelling), the consequences of their choices will begin to wear on them. While this cane create a compelling narrative arc over the course of several books, there is a fine balance to strike. The character must still be relatable and likable to the reader, the farther down the spiral they go, the deeper the challenge it is for them to be someone that the audience responds favorably to. In contemporary storytelling, I think few did this better than Breaking Bad. Could Walter White have continued cooking meth forever? No. Crime fiction is never free of consequences and eventually those consequences must catch up with the characters. They are the story’s gravity. No believable character escapes all of the consequences for long.

This is different than with Donald E. Westlake’s Parker series (written under the pseudonym “Richard Stark”), where the eponymous protagonist committed heist after heist over the course of forty years. But this was a product of a different age. Westlake began writing Parker in the mid Sixties and took a near thirty year break in 1973. These were tightly plotted pulp heist books and featured very little in the way of character development. Of course, that’s not why you read them. You wanted to go along for the ride as Parker get away with a thrilling caper. Those books worked because of the age they were written in and their style. I don’t think they’d work as well if set in the modern era. Could someone be a serial thief in the 1960s and 70s? That’s very believable. How about in 2019? Less so. Still, these books are masterpieces of crime fiction and if you haven’t read them, you should.

I should note that I’m talking about criminal protagonists. You have a bit more runway with a hero that’s a cop or a private investigator, as the narrative arc can cover an entire legitimate career. In these cases, many of the things I mentioned above actually work in the series’ favor, namely the toll their profession takes on them over time. However, I have seen many writers fall into a trap of continuing to pursue a series long after the person would logically or realistically have hung it up.

I have a defined narrative arc for “Gentleman” Jack and there are also spinoff series planned, which I’ll write more about later on. For this style of book, realism is essential. Early on I had to make a decision on whether I wanted it to be a more campy, “Ocean’s 11” style caper or if I wanted it grounded in realism. Ultimately, I chose the latter as that was fitting for the story I wanted to tell. With that choice comes some tough decisions on how long the series can logically go and remain true to itself.


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