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Saturday, August 15, 2009

Scarpetta and the Challenge of Series Books

I read two of Patricia Cornwell's books featuring Kay Scarpetta, forensic pathologist, but it was quite a few years ago. The first in the series was written in 1990! Time flies when our heads are buried in mysteries! I digress already.

Why did I stop reading the series; why did it take so long to return? I'm not sure exactly, but my best memory is that the second book that I read (I don't know which book title this was) contained the re-appearance of the "bad guy" from the previous book I had read. That bugged me. When the book is finished, I want the mystery to be solved, and the killer to have been "finished." Perhaps that is unfair, because I have maintained an interest in other series where that has happened. But still, how many series can a person read where you begin to lose track of what happens in which series?

No matter which Hardy Boy book you read in which order, you are not going to be confused by the series because the main characters are always the same. Frank and Joe remain more or less perpetual high school juniors and seniors through over 50 summer and winter vacations. In the Perry Mason series by Erle Stanley Gardner, no matter which book you read in the 80 book series, nothing has happened in the personal life of Perry, Della, or Paul to make you wish you had read 32 other books first. And so on.

Nowadays, this is not the case. The main character gets married in one book, divorced in the next book, raped in the next book, and provides legal aid to her rapist in the tenth book while trying to help the grown child of her former husband's second marriage alluded to briefly in the fifth book. Try reading that series out of order. Who wants to read the Harry Potter series in backwards order? (Confession, I have not read even one of the books.)

The way that authors approach the development of their central characters is spread along a continuum of "No Change" (like Frank and Joe or Perry and Della) on the one extreme and the "Every Book is a New Chapter" (like Harry Potter and pals) on the other extreme. I'm fine with the middle of the continuum. V I Warshawski (in the series by Sara Paretsky) and Kinsey Milhone (Sue Grafton) do make some life changes over the course of the series, but not enough to confuse the reader who might join the series in the middle.

Patricia Cornwell's Scarpetta series is (for me) annoyingly not in the middle of that continuum, but veers toward the "Many Changes" end of the line. Cornwell's 2008 novel was given to me by a good mystery reader pal and I decided to give it a go.

The plot and characters were great! No problem -- enjoyable. The author played fair with the ending, letting you in on the clues ever so gradually.

But the book was annoying! So much reference to events of the past. I wouldn't be surprised if the total of all such paragraphs might equal 20% of the 500 page book. Since Scarpetta's past (15 books in all) is referred to at length, and since I had not read those books (not all of them, and none recently) it was hard to make sense of all the allusions. These references included previous cases, previous jobs in her career, previous locales in which she had lived, people close to her in previous books who are no longer living, and on and on. I suggest that a huge amount of that material could be deleted -- yep, edited right out of the book. That way, previous readers in the series can pick right up and new readers are not left feeling like the out duck out at the class reunion. Knowledge of every preceding event is NOT necessary to understanding the present case. So why burden me and confuse me.

There you have it. My own take.

Happy reading!

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