by Vicki Delany
I thought it might be fun to take a step back and have a look at the most basic structure of the mystery novel.
There are, basically, two types of mystery novels: standalones, in which characters appear once, never to be seen again, and series, in which characters feature in book after book.
As a reader as well as a writer, I am torn as to which I prefer. I believe that in real life a person, unless they’re a secret agent or bodyguard to a crime boss, has only one great adventure in them. Police officers will tell you that the job’s pretty boring most of the time, and crimes, even murders, are mundane things, easily solved.
I am a realist, and I seek realism in the books I read. Which is why, personally speaking, I am not too fond of amateur sleuth books, such as the popular hobby or pet novels in which a mild-mannered middle-aged lady decides that the police in her town can’t do their job and she must solve the murder for them. This character has adventure after adventure, but it just doesn’t ring true to me, and in a lot of cases there is not real emotional involvement anyway.
A standalone novel gives the protagonist that one opportunity to achieve great things; to have that grand adventure; to meet the everlasting love of their life; to conquer evil, once and for all. In a standalone, the characters face their demons and defeat them.
My first books were standalone novels of suspense. In Scare the Light Away the main character confronts, for one last time, the debris of her traumatic childhood. In Burden of Memory, the protagonist faces down the ghost of a past that is not hers, but is still threatening what she holds dear.
Then I switched to writing a series. And found that series novels present a different challenge. The central character, or characters, confront their demons, but they do not defeat them. Their weaknesses, all their problems, will be back in the next book. In each story the series character stands against, and usually defeats, someone else’s problem or society’s enemy, but she or he moves only one small step towards the resolution of their own issues, if at all.
In the Constable Molly Smith novels (In the Shadow of the Glacier, Valley of the Lost) Molly is haunted by the death of her fiancé, Graham. It was a meaningless, preventable, tragic death and, even in her grief, Molly knows that returning to the small town in which she grew up and becoming a cop won’t help her to make sense of Graham’s death. But she does anyway, and as the series unfolds, Molly is able to confront the gulf that Graham’s death has left in her life and, eventually, move on.
Series or standalone? Ultimately it is up to you and me, the readers to decide. I suspect we’ll vote for both.