Reading in bed with my wife this weekend, I was struck by the convention of the serial protagonist, a convention which is so common among mystery writers that, if a famous detective does not have more than one book devoted to him, later writers will supply the lack—just as Joe Gores did with Spade and Archer, his 2009 “prequel” to The Maltese Falcon. Ross Macdonald tailed his “new-type detective” Lew Archer from ca. 1948 to ca. 1975 in a series of eighteen novels published during the same time period (1949 to 1976). Edith Wharton, by contrast, saw her own protagonist named Archer through about the same stretch of time—twenty-six years—in the single volume of The Age of Innocence.
I am trying to imagine what a Nick Carraway series of novels might have looked like. In the fourth or fifth novel of the series, Nick tells the story of the ambitious young stockbroker who jumped to his death after going broke on Black Tuesday—and impoverishing all of his clients. Or the Lucky Jim series of novels! Not content to expose the hypocrisy and deadwood at England’s red brick universities, Jim Dixon gets a visiting appointment to a land grant university in the midwestern United States and repeats his antics amid the alien corn. Jane Smiley never would’ve had to write Moo. Or Michael Chabon could have gone on repeating the success of his first novel. After deciding that the “trace a woman leaves . . . is better than a man’s,” Art Bechstein investigates The Mysteries of Grad School and learns that bisexuality might be better for his career.
Why do mystery buffs form attachments to recurring detectives while there is small demand for sequels to Invisible Man or Herzog or Song of Solomon or Mating? Is the serial protagonist a marketing device that more “serious” writers (read: market-obtuse writers) just fail to grasp? The mystery writer arouses a thirst to see the protagonist in action again. The realistic novel is distinguished, in part, by its ambition of telling the whole story, of leaving not one word to be added or taken away. Again, the serial detective is a character who is rarely glimpsed in full—he is an assortment of familiar gestures, a glossary of familar patter. His own story is backstory, and something of a mystery. The reader must piece it together from book to book. A realistic novel which left a character unfinished at the end would be recognized, by contrast, as a failure. It contains its own prequel and sequel. The tantalizing hint it offers instead, if it is any good, is a voice, a point of view, a peculiar and cockeyed way of squinting at the world. The “serious” novelist is a serial stylist. Perhaps this is not a particularly effective marketing device, but it works with some readers: they await a novelist’s next book to be swayed by the familiar sentences. The difference between mysteries and “serious” realistic fiction is not one of genre, or even literary practice, but of ambition.
Or so I’m guessing.
Patrick Kurp reminds me of Thomas Berger’s four novels featuring Carlo Rinehart: Crazy in Berlin (1958), Rinehart in Love (1962), Vital Parts (1970), and Rinehart’s Women (1981).