Two years ago I came across a review for a first book by David Mark, a journalist trying his hand at crime fiction. The review was excellent, the novel set in Hull, a city I used to visit as a consultant and which I know to have very specific social problems that might make a police procedural located there interesting, so I added a copy of Dark Winter to my library list. After I’d read it, while I thought it drastically overwritten (stylistically, less is so often more), Mark’s ability to communicate character and setting as well as a tightly organised plot had me enthused enough to ensure that I reserved his second, Original Skin, as soon as it was available. I wasn’t quite as enthused about that but I still wanted a copy of number three, mainly because I liked the central character, DS Aector McAvoy, a gentle giant of a man who is tortured by the inadequacies of the police system to deliver true justice. Unfortunately, Sorrow Bound left me even less satisfied than Original Sin for several reason, but most especially because, like a number of crime novels that I’ve read recently, the author is not content with one crime or series of linked crimes but also feels the need for a second, ongoing, investigation that arches across a number of books.
There is nothing new about series fiction having narrative lines working at two different levels at the same time. Last summer, while I was recuperating from a particularly nasty infection, I re-read all of Quintin Jardine’s Skinner novels, mainly because I wanted to spend time with his central group of characters and watch again their personal story lines develop over a sequence of twenty plus books. However, for the most part, it is only those personal stories which occupy that overarching narrative. The central crime is completed within each novel and thus it is perfectly possible to read each of those novels as a standalone and not feel frustrated because you are missing part of the story.
Recently, however, there has been a spate of works where at least part of the novel has been concerned with a crime that has been under investigation for a number of books and if you’ve missed the first episode in the narrative, that is the book in which the grounding for that enquiry has been laid out, then you can find yourself floundering as you try to pick up clues to a tale that began before you joined the audience. If it were an ongoing comic strip then each new segment would be prefaced by a section labelled the story so far, unfortunately, I’ve yet to come across the novelistic equivalent.
In several instances this overarching investigation has to do with police corruption. I wrote about one such series earlier this year after I read How the Light Gets In, the ninth in Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache novels. I really like Penny’s work but in this instance I not only felt that a reader new to the sequence would have difficulty appreciating what was happening in large sections of the book, but also that the author had got the balance wrong between the resolution of the corruption story and the investigation that was specific to this particular novel. Nevertheless, this was the first time that I had felt that way and each of Penny’s books had offered the reader a feeling of conclusion where the main story arc was concerned. In Sorrow Bound this is not the case.
Right from the off we have known that DS McAvoy has a police past. He is shunned by some of his colleagues because he has been instrumental in bringing to light the corruption of a much liked senior officer. What we haven’t known are the details behind that corruption, nor what McAvoy’s part was in revealing it. In the first novel it is simply referred to as a reason for the uneasy atmosphere that prevails when McAvoy is assigned to the team investigating a series of apparently unrelated murders. By the time we reach book three, however, there is a suggestion that this story of corruption is an on-going one as we not only recognise that there are members of the force still in the pay of a local criminal gang but watch as one of the officers we have come to know and like makes a simply false move which lays her open to blackmail and the panicked compliance that comes with it. This moves the corruption story into a much more prominent role than is usual and it runs alongside the crime specific to this novel pretty much on equal terms. Where it differs, however, is in the resolution.
The book specific crime deals with the murders of a number of people each of whom have been instrumental in saving the life of a man someone certainly considers society could well do without. This narrative has its complete arc within the confines of the book’s 300 odd pages and I have no problem with it at all. However, the corruption narrative thread is not a complete arc; it is simply one episode in a much longer tale, or rather it is part of an episode because the novel ends at the episode’s, quite literally, explosive climatic point and we are left not knowing what the dénouement of this particular section of the overarching story will be. Don’t miss the next exciting instalment.
Well, that is alright when that next instalment is going to be available next week, whether that be in the comics of our childhood or the soap operas which currently litter our television screens, but for me, at least, it isn’t alright when that next instalment is, at best, a year away. Furthermore, it is a hundred or so books away, a hundred plus story lines, a hundred different narrative arcs that will populate my mind in the interim and make it difficult to recall the information that I’ll need to make sense of the next book in the series. The only other time I have come across anything quite as blatant as this was in Ariana Franklin’s A Murderous Procession where a major character is stabbed in the final scene and we have no knowledge of whether he will live or die. I got annoyed about that as well. You may not feel as strongly about this type of ending, but I think it is cheap. If you need to try and catch me with that sort of hook as a way of getting me to come back and read your next novel then you aren’t doing a good enough job in the current one.
I warn you now, that I think I am going to have quite a lot more to say on the ways in which crime fiction series are developing, not all of it, thank goodness, quite as vitriolic as this, but I would be really interested in what you think about it and whether it enhances or detracts from your pleasure in the individual novels. Perhaps we might get a conversation going and deepen our appreciation of the levels of narrative at which these stories work.