Can Quantity Still Have Quality?
Someone I hadn’t caught up with for a while said to me, ‘So, you’re still churning out those Bryant & May books are you?’
I pointed out that yes, mystery novels were one type of book I write, although there were many others. He said; ‘Then why do you bother with the crime stuff? They’re all the same, aren’t they?’
I explained that my stand-alone novels sold a fraction of the copies that my series sold because readers like to return to characters, and that no, I was very keen on constantly ringing the changes with the series, trying different genres within the mystery field, altering the lineup and even the style of writing.
We’re now less than three months away from the new Bryant & May mystery appearing on shelves, and although I delivered my books for the rest of 2015 long ago I’ve yet to decide on the future fate of my detectives – do I dip back into the past to present missing cases, or move forward with a new spin-off project I’ve been quietly developing for a couple of years? Either way, I’ll have to choose this month and get stuck in.
Traditionally, authors who write more books featuring their detectives survive over ones who write fewer. However, Conan Doyle and R Austin Freeman post similar numbers – Sherlock Holmes starred in 56 stories and four novels, while Freeman’s terrific Dr Thorndyke appeared in 40 short stories and 22 novels. Agatha Christie used Hercule Poirot in 33 novels, while her contemporary Gladys Mitchell used her detective Mrs Bradley in 66 books. Dororthy L Sayers only wrote eleven Lord Peter Wimsey novels, and Robert Van Gulik wrote 25 Judge Dee novels, although as each of these contain several cases in the Chinese style do we count them as more? (There was a rather fun Judge Dee movie about four years ago, and a famous Granada TV series).
However, when it comes to totals Christie also wrote an additional 50 short stories featuring Hercule Poirot, so she sort of wins on volume (although I love the madder Ms Mitchell). Volume seems to be important as readers develop a loyalty, but it also creates its own problem – critics generally stop reviewing you after the first volume. I’ve been lucky in my US reviews as later volumes have garnered good reviews. But it’s tricky finding the balance between offering up familiarity and providing fresh surprises.
It’s not all about numbers, of course. Colin Dexter wrote surprisingly few Inspector Morse novels, but an exemplary TV series kept his character alive with fresh stories often created by respected playwrights, and despite the death of the superlative actor John Thaw, continued into both the future and the past with spin-off series. The Bryant & May books are slightly unusual in that they’re simultaneously pastiches and full of real London history, but they also contain quite a large cast of characters – what I term ‘the Springfield effect’ – all of whom I have to keep track of.
These factors, and the rather esoteric plotlines, have kept the books rather below the parapet of mainstream awareness – I can’t get stocked in WH Smith to save my life – but it may just result in the series being long-lived. Because although I’ve been forbidden by the publishers to tell you anything here, I can tell you that this is most definitely NOT the end.