Survival Tips For A Long-Running Crime Series

Bryant and May

‘My (insert aged relative of choice) loves your books.’

I first noticed a problem when I went back to check on a character’s name in Book 12 of my Bryant & May novels.

The character was using a Blackberry. These devices have now officially deceased; nothing dates faster than technology. I flicked back through earlier books. A Fax machine turned up along with DVDs, CDs, flash drives and things called floppy disc.

The problem quickly made itself known. The timeline of the books is continuous (each new novel begins the week after the last one ends) but the volumes are published yearly, so that ten years of books cover just ten weeks in the life of my police unit. And that means the technology sort of slips. My detectives have been rushed from the first appearance of DNA testing to the arrival of Cloud backup in next to no time. Two decades of technology and current events have been squeezed into a fiction time period of about a year.

I find it odd that some readers expect characters to age. I can’t allow each book to be set a year after the last one in real time because my elderly detectives would be long dead.

To keep the illusion alive I avoid too-topical references  – who remembers Jedward now? The Golden Age authors could get away with creating closed worlds that had absolutely nothing to date them, but modern crime writers need to at least acknowledge the real world.

It’s a balance. In any crime series consistency is as important as originality. You’re not pulling the trick off once but again and again, and it’s a race to see if you or your readers tire first. 

As for originality, I ask myself what you would least expect me to do, and most like me to do. I read all online replies and take many to heart. 

Authors of crime series receive fewer reviews as they go on. ‘Oh, another volume with the same characters,’ space-pressed reviewers think, with some justification. It’s hard connecting with the next generation of readers. The compliment I dread is; ‘My (insert aged relative of choice) loves your books.’ 

It Appears That I’ve Sabotaged The Series.

How do you continue to keep things fresh? I add new characters, try different styles, tuck references into the stories that reward loyalty. The most common question at signings tables is ‘Which book of yours should I start with?’ I always suggest they start in the middle.

Now, though, it appears that I’ve sabotaged the series. ‘London Bridge is Falling Down’ reaches the end of a story arc I had long planned. But interest in the characters is still high, and there are still new stories to tell. That’s why this July there will be a Bryant & May Book 21, although it will be slightly different from usual. My publisher has suggested that I’ve created ‘a literary chimera’. Just how that works, you’ll see in due course.

Eventually one of four things will happen. One, my detectives will become outdated and forgotten as time moves on around them. Two, they’ll keep a certain timelessness that allows them to stay in print. Three, some farsighted or possibly deranged person will work out how to make a TV series. And four, I’ll hang in there and keep surprising you.

I would prefer option four but the first option could come to pass, and that’s fine too. Everyone gets their allocated time, and it will have been a wonderful journey.

46 comments on “Survival Tips For A Long-Running Crime Series”

  1. Vic says:

    I never really thought much about a timeline to the B&M series. It is the story telling; plots, parodies, characters, the mix of old and new. I grew up roaming around London ( brought up in Camden Town/Royal College Street just after the war) and worked in technology so I like the satire, the surreal and the offbeat criticism of today’s world. I would vote for four.
    Not three otherwise I have to watch TV – Nah cannot do that.
    Forever yours whatever you do.
    Vic

  2. Jo W says:

    Chris, I have just realised that as I don’t have any aged relatives, then that title must go to me and yes, I do love your books.
    Btw I’d vote option four. 😉

  3. Stu-I-Am says:

    We faithful know you’re a stickler for verisimilitude (or to show your techie ‘chops’) but to my mind — and I suspect most of us — the issue of changing technology is irrelevant — unless you make a point of a tech something or other in a story line — with Sydney or Arthur for comedy relief, for example. And then we may nod and chuckle knowingly and move on.

    If you’re fretting (or your agent or publisher, more likely) about the lads becoming somehow ‘outdated,’ I suggest you (and they) keep clear demographic trends in mind. The population of potential new readers is itself aging rapidly so as for that business of ‘aged relatives’ loving your books — more and more of us will be ‘aged relatives’ in relatively short order. Perhaps, with a falling birth rate, not auspicious for many social considerations but certainly favorable for two Golden Age detectives and all which sails with them.

  4. Paul+C says:

    After killing off Sherlock Holmes Conan Doyle famously presented The Hound of Baskervilles as earlier untold case.

    Perhaps this could be a solution as long as your characters don’t return and say they’ve “travelled for two years in Tibet and amused [themselves] by visiting Lhasa and spending some days with the head Lama”. Good grief…….

  5. Bernard says:

    The conflict between time in the novels and time in the real world doesn’t trouble me. For example, Donna Leon’s Brunetti series spans 30 years, so far, reflects changing culture and technology yet the characters age about 8 years. It’s fiction. If you can’t accept the conceit then read something else.
    So there should be no problem inserting new B&M novels in the flexible time intervals between existing novels.
    Naturally, option four is the only choice.

  6. BarbaraBoucke says:

    Agreed Jo W. My aged mother has been gone for 18 years. I’m the one who’s going to be – as my brother puts it – three-quarters of a century old this year. It doesn’t matter to me what time frame Bryant and May are in. I just like the books. I vote for #4 as well.

  7. Colin says:

    The books will live on as they are so well written .
    For example in Full dark house a woman is killed in chapter 7, in the space of that chapter you feel for the death of that character more than in books that have dedicated 50 pages to a victim. That’s to me what sets them apart, they are not ‘murder porn’ but about real characters and their hopes and fears. You actually care for the victims in your books Chris.

  8. Joan says:

    Option 4 for me as well, I feel a TV series would destroy our visions of the characters.

  9. Cornelia Appleyard says:

    Another vote for option 4.
    How could Arthur become outdated when he has always refused to cooperate with what is generally called progress?

  10. Steve Gilbert says:

    I think it’s great that B&M go into suspended animation between books while the rest of the world moves on. Much better than fixing the whole series in one year.

  11. Martin Tolley says:

    #4 here as well.

  12. Gary Locke says:

    Option #1 is ludicrous. The PCU is certain to withstand the test of time. I may be the old fart who loves your books, but I have a young friend, more than half my age, who has discovered them through my praises. He loves them!
    Take heart. You’ve created something timeless.
    Option #4 is the only acceptable possibility.

  13. Stephen groves says:

    Surely it’s just a matter of where and when you start the story your telling .
    Always room for another Bryant and May story arc.

    All best
    STALKY

  14. Andrew+Holme says:

    Option four for me, as well. Wasn’t Poirot about 130 when he died? B&M have decades ahead of them.

  15. Joel says:

    the older i get, the more i realize that there will always be readers of books…young people (as i once was) who love good books and quirky characters and settings will find what they need, and your books will fill that need…no matter how many digital books i buy or read, i will always love the feel of cracking open a real book…your (Arthurs’) words have made me laugh…and the PCU stories have kept me entertained and coming back…i just finished watching the 2 seasons of “Pushing Daisies”…the most imaginative, quirky, gorgeous show i have ever seen…if they can do that, someone can do the PCU

  16. Wayne Mook says:

    I vote for 4 too.

    Even the old crime novels have dated but if they are well written and have something to keep the interest they will last, as will yours. As to the older generation, well we live longer so don’t worry most of us have decades to go.

    I’ve just read a reprint of Mabel Seeley’s The Listening House, there were one or two references I needed to look up but even if I didn’t know what they were it wouldn’t have spoiled the book. The atmosphere created and characters are what drove the book.

    Wayne.

  17. Helen+Martin says:

    I think we pay more attention to our own ages than we do to Arthur and John’s and that will be more apparent as time passes. I regularly look at the copyright date in the books I’m reading but most people don’t and I’m more likely to do it if I’m organizing a series. I’ll be 80 in May and I doubt if I would stumble over incorrect or out of date tech references because all technology from semaphore to cell phones exists in my mind and none of it is date stamped. The more time passes the more that is true.
    As Vic says above, it is the story we’re reading for, not peripheral physical details.

  18. Wayne Crich says:

    I discovered your writing when I found a remaindered copy of Roof World. I have been reading B&M since the first book and absolutely love the series. If a book is set in a particular time then it is important that the technology reflects the time of the books setting. So I do not think technology dates the stories, it adds verisimilitude.

    I have never thought in chronological terms about the stories and have no problem with the stories ranging across a wide time frame. I like others prefer oprion4 .

  19. Colin says:

    How about continuing the series in a Randall and Hopkirk (deceased) vibe?!!

  20. Peter T says:

    4 of course. Holmes and Watson travel around in horse drawn carriages and we don’t have a problem.

    We’ve recently binge watched Morse. The stories are of their time. Almost no mobile phone communication which pleases me. Though I have to laugh when someone takes out something that looks like two house bricks stuck together…

  21. I am so happy to know that you continue to write. Your characters are developed with authenticity. I have enjoyed the history of London and look forward to your next adventure.
    Thank you.

  22. Tim Beaton says:

    Well, Bart Simpson (et al!) never seem to age, so I guess that works!

  23. Keith says:

    Colin just may have something there….

  24. John+Griffin says:

    I started with Roofworld a long time ago. I couldn’t get started on LBIFD, because I didn’t want the sequence to end (nor you). It’s become a article of faith to read anything you write since that book, but not that, until you write the next B&M. Weird, as I’m neither religious nor superstitious.

  25. Roger says:

    Carry on, Admin.
    As I’ve read/am reading the PCU books in no particular order, and am technologically challenged, I’m not bothered about the anomalies anyway.

  26. Wayne Mook says:

    I was wondering, which one of the two would you bump off?

    I can’t see either one sticking around.

    Wayne.

  27. Marty says:

    Like so many above, I agree it is the plots, characters, London history, old and new, young and old, not the technology (kudos to Stu-I-Am for using verisimilitude so deftly) that keeps me coming back to Bryant and May. Number 4 is my choice. Surprise the hell out of me. You do it anyhow.

  28. Ed+DesCamp says:

    Another vote for option #4! And agreement with those who say the technology doesn’t matter.

  29. Liz+Thompson says:

    I’m my own aged relative (73), but I still opt for number 4. And I don’t watch TV either, to say nothing of what they might do to Arthur. After all, they showed Gladys Mitchells’s Mrs Bradley as a svelte and youngish lady. Did they never read the books? Mrs Croc, her secretary called her, with reason. I shall relish the thought of another episode in B and M’s history, and bugger the timeline, technology, or lack of it where Arthur us concerned. If I can read time-slip sci fi, I can cope with typewriters to iPads in the space of a fictional year.
    And just for the record (pun deliberate),I still buy and play CDs.

  30. Jo W says:

    # Liz+Thompson
    We are of an age, I too, buy CDs and DVDs and we also have our collection of LPs.(120+) There are some albums you just can’t get anymore and yes, we still have a turntable.
    Oh the fun our boys will have sorting it all out when we’ve gone, not to mention the books.

  31. BarbaraBoucke says:

    Thank you Liz Thompson. I never could understand the casting of Mrs. Croc, aside from the fact that a famous actress pulls in viewers. I also remember the change they made in the fourth episode, thinking – but that’s not how the book went. My CDs and DVDs get used and reused regularly, and I still have a turntable as well.

  32. Stu-I-Am says:

    @admin About that ‘wonderful journey’ you mention. Remember the little known Chinese proverb: ‘An oeuvre of 25 Bryant & May novels starts with 20.’

  33. Ian Luck says:

    Sadly, like a devoted couple, were you to kill off one of the pair, then the one remaining would slowly but surely, fade away – ‘pining for the fjords’ if you will. I’ve seen it happen: two years separated my parents, that’s all.
    If you kill John, Arthur would just stagnate. If you kill Arthur, John would have nobody to be annoyed with. They are a classic symbiotic pair. The weaknesses of each are countered by the strengths of each. If you decide to leave them, then leave them standing on their bridge, looking into the river, in companionable silence.

  34. BarbaraBoucke says:

    Well spoken, Ian. Thank you.

  35. Wayne Mook says:

    For some reason I keep getting error messages when I post late on, I guess it’s the computers way of trying to pack me off to bed. Insomnia sometimes has it’s benefits, but not here. 502 error doesn’t like the data base.

    Well I was going to say I still have old tech, but it’s odd how some stick around and others just fade. Video has gone the way of the dodo but vinyl has made a come back. I still have cd’s and dvd’s plus vinyl, I even have a vhs recorder, but I have even older tech than that, books on bookshelves, I have a kindle and fire too, plus I read books on my phone too, so I not a total Luddite, but sometimes Captain Ned actions are tempting.

    Wayne.

  36. Paul+C says:

    A technophile friend still has a laser disc player and a lot of (mainly Japanese) laser discs. They never really caught on in the UK after a brief vogue but the picture quality is still startling.

  37. Lisa Q says:

    I never realized that each case was about a week apart. My brain is exploding.

    However, some cases are longer than others, so it’s not just the span of a single ten week period, right? (Of course ignoring Full Dark House, Hall of Mirrors, and Seventy Seven Clocks, which don’t fall in the “current” timeline.)

    I’ve loved this series since I was in my early 30s which would be the early 2000s which is wild to think about.
    And I’m still waiting for Jim Broadbent to play Arthur, and Timothy Dalton to play May!

  38. Jan says:

    I never ever realised that only a week separated each case?

    Colin + Meeras romance must have progressed very quickly then!

    In most of the novel’s they were a potential couple then seemingly suddenly they are an established couple in what – a fortnight?

    You haven’t just retrospectively come up up with this weeks gap wheeze have you Mr F?
    You’ve got f form for this with the B+ M series.

  39. Helen+Martin says:

    Sorry for this, but as a Canadian I am required to comment on weather events. I hope Joan is alright there in southern Ontario where they’re digging themselves out from heavy snow. Sounds as if they got the whole winter’s worth in one drop.

  40. Phyllis says:

    I’m in for #4 as well. AS for #3, I occasionally spend time casting the television series in my head and given the way television casting works to favor those with a waistline and smooth face, the chance of seeing Anton Lesser and Timothy Spall are probably nil. I will not accept #1. With the shambles that so much of modern fiction has become, we need Arthur and John to remind us that writing should not be a cheap date. Sitting in the sub-zero over here in NY and waiting for Arthur to pull himself and the unit together for another go at it. Take care of yourself…

  41. Helen+Martin says:

    Hang in there, Phyllis. Arthur will pull everything together and New York will thaw.

  42. Roger says:

    When the TV series comes the two time-lines would make an entertaining effect: background settings, technology, clothing – even minor characters perhaps – visibly transforming while the staff of the Peculiar Crimes Unit remain resolutely unchanged.

  43. Väinö says:

    Please, keep writing. I have only one B&M book left unread and have read most of them twice. I have no idea how I shall cope if the series ends. TV series would be a complementary bonus, but the books are so marvellous!

  44. Helen+Martin says:

    Roger has an interesting idea there. You could even have it with two levels of visual clarity: modern and the past. Arthur and the past would always be clear when he is there and the present when he isn’t. Except that Arthur is perfectly aware of the present, it’s just that he chooses to appear to operate in the past. Have you noticed that he can always arrange for a modern bit of tech when he really needs one – and understands how to use it?

  45. Margaret says:

    Option 4, definitely.

  46. Jeff says:

    I’m another who started with Roofworld and has so far put off reading London Bridge. I was toying with rereading the BandM series first, now I have the added incentive of name checking the tech changes.
    Option 4. My aging father in law was a keen reader of your books, unfortunately he’s recently died so I will have to take on the aged relative mantle.

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