Attempting The Impossible
When you write stand-alone novels, they live or die on their believability, their premise, their atmosphere, and the trickiest part is getting all the elements in balance first time around (there’s usually no second chance for a standalone, although John Fowles rewrote ‘The Magus’).
With a series, if you’re lucky and it doesn’t damage sales, you get a few chances to refine your template, polishing the plots and adding complexities to the characters. You rebalance the elements and try to make each experience more enjoyable than the last. It doesn’t always work. Dorothy L Sayers had her detective Lord Peter Wimsey marry his great love Harriet Vane, and after many felt that the magic was weakened.
With the Bryant & May series I constantly work to change the style of crime mystery being presented, so that each feels different from the one before, while maintaining continuity through the characters. I take a path created by the great Golden Age authors but combine many contemporary themes. Some books work better than others. Oddly, one of the volumes I consider most successful if the one I get the least mail about – ‘White Corridor’, possibly because it’s not set in London.
‘The Memory of Blood’ had a locked room mystery that strictly adhered to the rules laid down by John Dickson Carr, so much so that the identity of the murderer became less important than the details of the crime. In Dickson Carr tradition, it was a howdunnit rather than a whodunnit.
Lately I’ve been drawn to deepening the characters’ lives, although I’m wary of turning the series into a soap opera (not that such a thing hurt ‘Downton Abbey’ or even ‘Game of Thrones’), but a couple of the more traditionalist mystery reviewers haven’t cared for this, so now I try to rebalance things again. As Arthur Bryant begins a strange new journey, I’m adding what I hope will be a surprising element to the books, but I’m also planning to deepen the psychology of the murderers in the next two volumes.
In this way I hope to reflect the journey the Golden Age authors undertook, from the bizarre and sometimes tortuous mechanics of plots common in the 1930s to the more strongly developed studies of mental states of criminals which emerged in the 1950s.
If the balance isn’t right I listen to you rather than critics, and keep refining the process. It’s an almost impossible task, but that’s what we do, and it’s part of what I love to do.