Can Quantity Still Have Quality?

Bryant and May

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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.

17 comments on “Can Quantity Still Have Quality?”

  1. John says:

    Anyone who wants to disparage an entire genre, one they tend to hate and never read, will always say something like “Aren’t they all the same?” I’ve caught myself doing it when pondering how romance novelists can write hundreds of books seemingly recycling the same story and still enjoying long careers. But it still bothers the hell out of me to hear people say it about crime fiction, especially detective fiction. It simply isn’t all the same.

    And when dragging out the longevity records don’t forget John Creasey, one of the most prolific writers with several series characters and a phone directory’s worth of pseudonyms. But no one ever talks about the handful of really horrid crime writers like Kathleen Lindsey, who wrote as “Hugh Desmond”, et al. as well her own name, who churned out even more than Creasey did.

  2. Jo W says:

    ‘Not the end’! Ooh those words sound so good on this wet grey morning,Admin. Will you be doing a signing again at FP? Hope so. Btw how are your eyes? A sight better? (Sorry,couldn’t resist!)

  3. admin says:

    I think you’ve inspired a new Invisible Ink column there, John.
    And thanks, Jo, no better but I’m coping…

  4. Long may you keep ‘churning out’ Bryant and May! They are all different and I love them all.

  5. Maggie B says:

    I’d gladly read any dips back into the past that presented missing cases. Especially if I get to learn more about Longbright’s mother…

  6. Helen Martin says:

    Sorry your eyes aren’t improved but cheers to more B&M! Dips into the past always work well with us, but current time would be fine. There was the archaeology under St. Pancras and something involving digging/tunnels/old jails or plague pits would be good. I’ve just finished a book about Shakespearean authorship – “Contested Will” – in which Prof. Shapiro refers to Shakespeare having title around 1604 to a house in Silver Street – near Blackfriars theatre, possibly as a London pied a terre. Could that work into something? (I don’t know if it was a freehold or leasehold and the reference was to someone else’ research.)

  7. Vivienne says:

    I confess to being only a novice Bryant & May reader, but that’s because I am reading rather historically and anyway I need to save some things for my old age. But, when I read, for instance, Gladys Mitchell, John D Macdonald, or Raymond Chandler it is not that I am interested in their detectives so much as having an idea about whether I can glean from the narrative the clues to solve things, or just enjoy the book. Who could care about Poirot? But you could try to duplicate his little grey cells and nab the murderer. I am more inclined to read a series because I feel the writer is giving me what I want in terms of believable plot and character. Crime and action books differ a great deal, but the crime books that were written contemporaneously mean that one can get that real insight into the mores and day to day lives of people in the recent past that are otherwise lost.

  8. snowy says:

    “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?’”

    Had some one greeted me thus, I would have likely said something uncharitable, [probably involving their mother and sailors, with a pointed remark about how it must play hell with her knees at that age.]

    All the clever people have said all I was going to say, but quality endures in all things. 🙂
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    [The reason you are not stocked in WHS is, as far as I know is because they have a ‘pay to display’ policy. So if RH aren’t willing to put their hands in their pockets it isn’t going to happen.]

  9. m says:

    I’d love to read missing cases. “Springfield Effect” makes me picture a Simpsons style opening where you see all the characters but what would the music be?

  10. admin says:

    The Music would be ‘Chasing Sheep Is Best Left To Shepherds’ by Michael Nyman.

  11. Alan Morgan says:

    This is, to rightly wave your flag, where B&M actually excel. It is one of the reasons the series works, in all its arcs. I got both a Lee Child and a Simon Scarrow for Christmas, both of whose series I’ve found fun in their own ways (Reacher is lots of fun if you read them as westerns), but both of which produced stories that added nothing, and both spent a long time going straight-to-end.

  12. Wayne Mook says:

    Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason springs to mind, the US equivalent of Agatha Christie in sales and long running character. It depends on the author more than any genre, Dickens who wrote serials and crime and worse still wrote with sentiment, is always a way of pointing out the error of such comments. I guess it’s the argument between high art and popular culture or just plain snobbery. Plus there is the old chestnut about there only being a limited number of plots.

    Hope you get your eyesight sorted out soon.

    Just finished Nyctophobia, thank you. I did enjoy it. Very much in the Spanish horror film feeling, very atmospheric. Having done Hammer horror and now a Spanish supernatural chiller, how about a more German expressionism (ties in with the Golem.) or how about a J-Horror?

    Wayne.

  13. Debra Matheney says:

    There are too many idiots in the world! What a stupid comment. More B&M please! I no longer wait for the American editions and order from UK so I can devour them as they come out.I have at least a dozen mystery series I follow faithfully, although I have given up on Elizabeth George. She needs an editor!
    Didn’t know you have eye problems. Please accept positive thoughts coming your way for improvement.
    Cheers,
    Deb

  14. Chris Everson says:

    I love all of your books, and while I like some more than others, I’ve not noticed a drop in quality at all. I do think the novelty of discovering new characters, and all of their traits can never be replaced, but you then get to know them more deeply and appreciate them all the more. It’s just a different feeling. A little less intense I suppose, but more comfortable. I’ve found that with all of my favourite authors, of which you are at the very top, along with a couple of others who I have no doubt you’d hate to be alongside (Jo Nesbo and Graham Hurley). I do read all genres, but I must admit I always come back to crime and mystery, and yours, which also encompass other things I love (London, history, comedy and quirkiness) are probably at the absolute top.

    One author who most definitely HAS gone for the quantity over quality route is James Patterson. His early Alex Cross books were great, with surprising twists, but for a long time now his books have been dire, one-dimensional ego-trips with him writing himself as the never-wrong, oh so perfect star of the books. That is if it is him writing them, which I have major doubts about. How can anyone write the volume he does… not just his Cross books, but his other series, and the countless others he apparently ‘co-authors’?

  15. Lee Ann says:

    When I saw the topic of quantity over quality, I thought you were refering to the number of pages.
    I work as a circulation clerk in a library, and I’ve noticed that so many new fiction books are all the same size.
    On the plus side, it makes unloading the return bins easier, but like Chris, you have you have to wonder wether what so many authors are churning out is worth reading.

    Ps – I always make sure to put your books on the top display shelf so that more people will see it and check it out.

  16. Brooke Lynne says:

    Please…you said you were going to complete the missing cases. I voted for the Italian Whelk. Where is it?
    Sorry to hear that you’re having problems with your eyes. And now you know why you waited so long to catch up with the person who comes from the shallow end of the gene pool.

  17. Shuku says:

    John Creasey – lord, someone else who knows his work, John! It’s lonely in this end of the world, being one of very few who even know the name, let alone what he wrote.

    Well, for what it’s worth, Chris, you are stocked over here in Southeast Asia, in three of the bigger bookstore chains. (I think I might be partly responsible for that, since I’m always the one asking the counter whether they’ve stocked the latest Bryant and May titles. They do seem to keep at least one of the newest in stock now!). And they certainly are -not- ‘all the same’ crime stuff – I love ’em precisely because the plots are so esoteric, I learn such a lot of fascinating details about London, and the details keep me re-reading the books and coming back for more. I think the quality is as important as the quantity though, personally – I’ve given up on any number of series because halfway through the lot I throw a book across the room and wonder out loud what on EARTH just went down the drain, and then it’s difficult to want to pick it back up again.

    Long live Bryant and May!

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