To Read On Or Not To Read On

06d11e3a0263b62966ea48fc5e990cc3I’ve just finished what I suppose is meant to be the first novel in a crime series by a new author.  No names, no pack drill, for reasons that will become apparent.  I must have read about it somewhere, so I assume that whoever was reviewing it thought that it was of sufficiently high a standard to warrant recommendation.  I am not so sure.  While the plot was as original as it is possible to be given the current proliferation of crime novels, the characters were only very sketchily and rather unconvincingly drawn and the writing, at times, was excruciating.  It would have stuck out as overblown in a Victorian melodrama.  I was never an advocate of the red pencil when I was teaching but on this occasion, had the book not been a library copy, I might well have been tempted.  The question I face now is this: do I mark the book down to experience and forget the writer’s name forever or do I recall the bits of the plot that were well worked through and add the author to my little list.

Oh yes, just like Koko, Gilbert and Sullivan’s Lord High Executioner, I’ve got a little list, although mine is of a rather more benign persuasion.  This is my list of writers whose next books I definitely want to read.  It runs to about fifty, so I have to hope that they don’t all publish on an annual basis or I would never get round to reading anything by unknown (to me) authors and expanding my literary repertoire.  Normally, I think I would have smiled rather ruefully and simply returned this book to the library had I not moved directly on from there to the first of the Peter Wimsey novels, Whose Body?

Now, I have to write this next section with a careful eye to who is around. Being firmly ensconced in Denver Castle for the next several days I don’t want to run the risk of offending my host.  However, I have to ask myself whether, had this been the first occasion on which I had encountered Lord Peter, I would have bothered to pick up subsequent episodes relating to his crime fighting escapades.  I’m not sure that I would.  Compared with the later novels, which were the ones I first encountered, this is ponderous in the extreme and only in the latter half do you begin to realise that there is more to Peter than an interfering young man with too much time on his hands.   The truth is that some writers take time to warm up.  I remember when I was setting out to read Peter Robinson’s Inspector Banks series being warned by the person who recommended them to forego my usual practice of starting at the beginning and reading straight through and instead to try some of the later books first so that I could appreciate what an excellent writer he had, over time, become.  I think the same is probably true of Ian Rankin.  Having read Knots and Crosses it was some years before I bothered to pick up any further Rebus novels.  Only a sustained period of illness, when someone else was picking my library books for me, got me through to the more substantial, and far better, later works.

Of course, some authors just hit the ground running.  I was, for example, bowled over by the quality of the writing in Kate Rhodes first novel, Crossbones Yard, and she has never looked back.  The same would be true of Elly Griffiths, S J (Sharon) Bolton and Tana French.  They all went on the list without a second thought.  But, as I said, some writers take time to warm up.  Louise Penny’s early books aren’t a patch on her later works and the same, I think, is true of both Val McDermid and Graham Hurley.

Unfortunately, certain authors go the other way.  I was a great fan of the early Kathy Reichs novels, which I thought far superior to Patricia Cornwell’s work in the same vein, but subsequent books have become much thinner and far more commercially centred, to the point where I have, in fact, taken her off that little list whilst Cornwell remains on it.

You, of course, may well disagree and love the early novels of some of these authors, but I would be interested to know if you can think of any others (in whatever genre, not just the crime writing I seem to have focused on) who have become far better writers during the course of their careers and who should not be so summarily dismissed.  I may be missing a host of excellent books just because an author’s first novel was only a teething piece.

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25 thoughts on “To Read On Or Not To Read On

  1. That’s a tricky one. Even allowing for the fact that early Sayers is not so polished as later, I still would have liked “Whose Body” enough to stick with the series. But I find a lot of modern crime leaves me cold – I really struggle with the lack of characterisation and the general ‘thin-ness’ (if that’s the correct way to put it) of the writing. I would be inclined maybe to get the next one in the series out of the library, and if it’s not grabbed you after the first 50 pages, just quietly abandon it…

    1. That’s almost certainly what I will do, Karen. And I agree with you about some modern crime. There are, however, enough excellent writers working in the genre to keep me hoping I will find another.

  2. Oh, that is interesting. I have often managed to read a book part way through a series before finding the first one, but the only crime series I have read (well, I’ve read two of them so far but will read more), I have already been warned, starts strong then tails off a bit (but I’ll forgive it, because it’s set very believably somewhere I love). Let us know what you decide. But wouldn’t it be useful to know the author / series so people can chime in with their own experience?

    1. Usually series that succeed start strongly and gradually tail off but I agree that the early Rebus books are not that brilliant. I have heard Ian Rankin say that he was on the verge of being dropped just before the breakout novel saved him. I hope publishers can be patient and allow authors to build up their talent. I’m not too optimistic in what seem to be bad days for publishing.

      1. That’s interesting, Ian. What was considered the breakout novel? And you’re right, novelists do need time to build their talents which is why I will go back for a second helping here.

  3. I find a lot of recent crime fiction really underdone & uninteresting.And so much gratuitous violence, sometimes even in so-called cozy mysteries.

    I wish I could remember which Wimsey novel I read first. I was introduced to them by the TV series, when it was shown over here, so it might have been in clouds of witness rather than his body. Whichever one it was I was hooked from the start.

    I think Terry Pratchett and Nevil Shute are two authors whose later books are much, much better. I haven’t read their first books, but I gave up reading some of the very early ones.

    1. I came to him first through the television series as well, Lisa so I was already hooked when I read the books. However, I suspect I read the Harriet Vane novels first and they really are the cream of the crop.
      I agree about Pratchett and I do find that a problem because there is so much in those early books that you need to understand if you are going to go on and read the later ones.

    1. Yes, Jenclair, you’re right. I hadn’t thought about those. Mind you, I think that there was a middle period, where Hill was basically retelling classical stories through his own work, that was the best of all. Pictures of Perfection is the most wonderful reworking of the themes from Pride and Prejudice that I know.

      1. Yes, I love that middle section of his work as well, and Pictures of Perfection is one of my favorites! Then the darker Frannie plots emerged. Although Frannie was introduced early, maybe even in the first book, his reappearance later initiated another change in Hill’s work.

  4. I’m with you about Whose Body. Strong Poison was my first Sayers, and even that is not her best, but Harriet drew me in and I stayed. (I actually like Knots and Crosses, though I think of it more as a psychological thriller than a detective story.) Maybe Henning Mankell is an example of a writer who got better? I didn’t like his first Wallander mystery at all.

    1. I think where the novels are concerned that I encountered the Harriet Vane stories first as well, Rohan. And I think they are very much the best. I haven’t read Mankell but if I do then I will make sure not to start at the beginning.

  5. I am so glad to know this. I’ve not read Sayers before and I am not a big mystery reader but sometimes I think, oh I should give Sayers a try. Of course I would begin with the first book and then, from what you say here, would end up being really disappointed, probably wonder how everyone could love these books so much, and then never read another. So, should the time come for me to actually read Sayers, I’ll make sure Whose Body is not the first one I try. Any suggestions?

    1. Definitely read the later books that have Harriet vane in them as a starting point, Stefanie. Strong Poison is the first. I will be very much surprised if you don’t ‘fall’ for Harriet and Peter is a far better man in her presence.

  6. That’s a very interesting question. I can think have far more authors who have gone wrong, whether from pressure to go on writing, from going to far in trying to top what they have done before – Patricia Cornwell, this means you – or from simply running out of steam; but one name comes to mind. Deborah Crombie began well but I do think she has grown with her characters over the years.

    1. That’s interesting, Jane. I tried the first couple of Crombie’s books and she was one of those I decided not to persevere with. Perhaps I should give one of the later ones a go and see if I should pick up on her again.

  7. i had a lucky escape it seems! i was so taken with the idea of spending Christmas with Peter who I’ve never met that i went looking for him in the bookshop. Of course I thought I had to start at the beginning. Lucky me that they didnt have the first in the series though I was astounded they didnt have anything by Sayers at all. Now I shall know to begin with Harriet ….

  8. I think I was more forgiving of early books’ flaws when I was younger and didn’t have book bloggers to keep telling me what to read all the time. Nowadays, I think I’m less likely to persist with an author when the first books of theirs that I’ve read doesn’t wow me. But I do still keep authors on my radar if they’ve written something with good elements that isn’t quite perfect. Like I just read a review of a new Natasha Solomons novel where the reviewer said she’s come on in leaps and bounds from her early novels, and I’m perfectly willing to give her another try. These days, though, there has to be a trigger to make me try again with an author who hasn’t been a hit with me on the first go. Someone has to remind me to bother about it, I won’t do it on my own.

    1. Yes, I think that’s right, Jenny. And in that instance, if I find that there has been an improvement I am quite likely to go back and read the in between books, just so that i can see how the progress has been made.

  9. Hi, Alex. I too have experienced the learning-how-to-write curve that some writers go through, even to the extent of noticing a pronounced difference in quality between the early part(s) of a novel and the better written later parts of the same novel. I guess gathering steam creatively takes some time.

    1. Now that I can handle because it shows that a writer really has got some potential. It’s when you’re really not sure that the next book is going to be any better that I hover on the edge of to read on or not.

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