Monday, June 03, 2013

Serial protagonists

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.

Ross Macdonald
The tradition of the serial detective was established when Arthur Conan Doyle introduced Sherlock Holmes in 1887. G. K. Chesterton’s Father Brown followed in 1910. Agatha Christie created Hercule Poirot in 1920; Dorothy L. Sayers, Lord Peter Whimsey in 1923; S. S. Van Dine, Philo Vance in 1926; Rex Stout, Nero Wolfe in 1934. The detectives became so popular that the novels about them were often referred to by their name, not their author’s. Meanwhile, the realists who were the older and more comfortable brothers of the mystery novelists—the firstborn, who had inherited the father’s estate—almost never brought the same protagonist back for an encore. Mark Twain wrote two more sequels to Tom Sawyer, also featuring Huck Finn, but neither one is any good. Hemingway wrote a double egg carton of stories about Nick Adams. After committing suicide in The Sound and the Fury, Quentin Compson returns seven years later to narrate Absalom, Absalom! In the last half century there have been Rabbit Angstrom and Frank Bascombe and who else? After a couple of novels about him, Nathan Zuckerman becomes a narrative voice rather than the lead character in his own drama.

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).


scott g.f.bailey said...

I'm sure someone's pointed out Proust by now, at least on Twitter, right?

I am a fan of Christie's Poirot novels, and I've been sucked into a couple of detective series on TV. I humbly mention also that I've got a detective novel coming out in November and I'm writing a sequel to that book right now. So I have some ideas about the subject.

What immediately comes to mind in re serial detective characters is the idea of statis: the detectives don't develop because they don't have much in the way of lives aside from the detective work. I know that some authors have written in romantic arcs and have given detectives families and mysterious pasts, but those elements are just set dressing and are never the story being told by the writer. The detective represents, by and large, stability, or is an agent whose sole purpose is to return an unbalance world to a state of balance. Detectives aren't people so much as they are points of view, generally an intelligent scourge out to rid society of evil. There's really very rarely much humanity in a fictional detective; they are essentially empty so they become like costumes that the reader wears while playing a game. Serious fiction doesn't build novels around that sort of character.

D. G. Myers said...

To hell with you, Scott!

No, I was stupid and forgot both In Search of Lost Time and A Dance to the Music of Time. (I must have a lesion in my brain, which makes it impossible to remember titles with the word time in them.)

Your third paragraph is brilliant, and suggests why—except for Proust and Powell—few novelists use the 18-book series formula. They tend to shoot their character wad in a single volume.

scott g.f.bailey said...

It occurs to me that there are some recurring characters in Wm Burroughs' novels: the first-person narrator (Mr Lee), Mr Martin and Mr Bradley, and others whose names I can't remember. It's been a long time since I was a cool kid reading Burroughs.

Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

Scott (or David, or anyone), if you ever see a novel by K. C. Constantine sitting around, grab it. Chief of Police Mario Balzic is the opposite of what you describe. By the 9th or 10th novel, maybe earlier, the books are not such good "mysteries" anymore. Constantine's characters have filled the books.

My memory is that Rabbit sequels got more attention and reviews than non-Rabbit Updike, Brascombe more than non-Brascombe Ford. A sequel featuring Moses Herzog circa 1990 would have been much written about. The economic incentive still works, I think, for market-obtuse writers, even if they don't know about it.

I just remembered another kind of exception - Tevye the Dairyman!

D. G. Myers said...

The reason I write blog posts like these is to get recommendations. (Matt Hunte just recommended Philip Kerr‘s Bernie Gunther novels on Twitter.) And no one has yet mentioned Galsworthy’s five-volume Forsyte Saga.

But all these good recommendations raise the next question. Aren’t these serial novels conceived as such from the beginning?

Aonghus Fallon said...

In terms of establishing character, it seems that the essence of a good serial protagonist is brevity (I'm thinking specifically of short stories) - Father Brown is all owlish innocence, Holmes hawk-like, Conan has his mane of black hair and his battle axe, Rumpole has his cigars, his plonk and his wig and so on and so forth.

What's interesting is how these characters are specifically suited to that particular format and nothing else. A longer story arc only exposes their limitations, while fleshing them out so that they conform to the standard Aristotelian character just seems to diminish them, maybe because none of these characters are ever really supposed to be conflicted or meant to change; they are the fixed point, the constant in each story.

The same problems arise when a feature film is based on - say - characters in a popular sitcom. I would make an exception for 'Lucky Jim', as I think Amis could easily have done a whole series of books using this protagonist, possibly because the mc is so lightly sketched.

Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

My understanding is that Proust had the end of the series written before he published the first volume. As time passed, Proust added hundreds of pages in the middle, which has to be an unusual case.

Otherwise, I would agree that the unplanned serial is the interesting case here, when an author decides to return, whether for commercial or artistic reasons, to a character he thought he had used up. He thought he had told the story, but later realized there was another story.

D. G. Myers said...

And yet another question, then. When he takes seriously my jocular suggestion that Lucky Jim would have supported a series of novels, Aonghus raises it.

What other famous characters would you have wanted to read a series of novels about (or featuring)?

Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

Ah, how could I forget - Faulkner's recurring stand-in character, the lawyer Gavin Stevens, who even stars in the detective stories collected in Knight's Gambit. All I remember about them is that the solution to one of the mysteries hinges on the guilty party mixing a mint julep incorrectly.

Binx Bollings could have supported a series of novels. They continued to make movies; he would have continued to go to them.

I would read a sequel to Russo's Straight Man, although the way things are going in higher education he should wait a few more years, just to let the satirical possibilities build up.

scott g.f.bailey said...

I just remembered A.S. Byatt's Babel Tower quartet of novels, which has a core cast and a central character named Frederica. I believe Byatt knew she was writing the first two when she began; I'm not sure she knew she was writing four books.

I really like the Lucky Jim series idea. But Amis would have to have been careful not to let Jim mature.

I also like the idea of Dickens writing a series of mysteries, with Miss Havisham as a Holmsian-type detective. That is not what you're asking, I know. But it would be fun.

D. G. Myers said...

Larry McMurtry has a cycle—a cycle rather than a series—about a circle of friends, who appear in one another’s book. The famous protagonist of Terms of Endearment, Emma Horton is a minor character in All My Friends Are Going to Be Strangers and Moving On. Patsy Carpenter, a minor character in Terms, is the protagonist of Moving On. Jill, a minor character in All My Friends, takes over Somebody’s Darling.

And of course, two decades after The Last Picture Show, Duane and Sonny return in Texasville. The tone of the latter novel is entirely changed, however. The connection between the two books is nominal at best. The earlier cycle is a richer and more interesting narrative strategy. And the results are almost without exception worth reading.

marly y. said...

If you have one detective in one novel, you have an assertion that a world out of kilter can be returned to normal. But that's just one random claim.

If you have one detective in many novels, you have an assertion that a wave-like pattern in life will contain unexpected shocks and yet return to normal. The more books, the stronger the argument that the world makes sense, that mystery will be made clear and order returned.

Events take place after the fall, but right and wrong still exist (and, by implication, God and an orderly universe) and will be made terribly plain.

Steve Abernathy said...

Read CP Snow's Strangers and Brothers series years ago and only remember one, "The Conscience of the Rich." Not sure if it was planned out, but it wasn't memorable or funny.

John Crowley's Aegypt tetralogy was planned as such and is terrific.

George said...

Trollope used the same characters in quite a few novels, didn't he? As for academic fiction, a few of James Hynes's characters appear in novellas of Publish and Perish and also in The Lecturer's Tale.

NigelBeale said...

I've only just started Karl Nausgaard's My Struggle. If the opening paragraph is any indication, the remaining three or four volumes in the series should be staggeringly good

Dwight said...

The question with the possible Nick Carraway series of novels: is he a serial protagonist or a serial narrator? Of course we'll never know since it didn't happen. But if the latter, then you need to include characters like Conrad's Charles Marlow and others.

Regarding the former, and I'll apologize if these have been mentioned in other my reading of Benito Pérez Galdós there are many repeating characters, many as protagonists or major characters, most notably the moneylender Francisco Torquemada. But there are many others that populate several of his books and play pivotal roles such as Dr. Miquis. Not to mention two of his books of his I need to post on that tells the same story but from completely different points of views and styles: The Unknown and Reality. Needless to say, a lot of carryover there. Needless to say, Galdós builds up a consistent picture of Madrid across his novels.

One I'll mention since I just watched the movie version of it...Machado de Assis must have loved his character Quincas Borba so much in The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas that he wrote another book centered on the, um, philosopher.

I'll stop with the mention of just two books since that would also lead us to too many authors to mention (Crusoe, Joyce, Cervantes, etc.). But another author that comes to mind that includes many cross-references and characters between his books is Beckett. It doesn't qualify in the "serial protagonist" in the sense of the detective novels but they do keep cropping up.

danup said...

What's interesting in Christie is that only one of her serial protagonists—the Beresfords—aged in real time, and their books were somewhat different from her others. "Thrillers" instead of her usual super-constructed mysteries, and very concerned with the central couple's place in the world at a given moment.

And typically their place in the world tracks the author's—in 1920 they're ostensibly scandalous youths who still ultimately depend on prototypically British values, in 1943 they're aging WWI vets who feel left behind, and in the 1970s, when they starred in the last book she was able to write, they're unwittingly on the edges of senility and hyperfocused on unknowable childhood mysteries.

Unknown said...

Jack Miles (in God: A Biography) would argue for a serial (but gradually disappearing) protagonist, who shall remain nameless, in the Hebrew scriptures. Perhaps that is the ultimate mystery.

PS Karr said...

This is an interesting post although a bit esoteric. I don't think I am qualified to comment on this discussion, but I would like to put in my two cents as a reader.

There can be a whole series of books about 'detectives' because the focus is on the murder mystery itself, which is something different in every book. The detective character does not change much generally. An exception might be the Agatha Raisin or Hamish Macbeth characters in MC Beaton's books, where their personal story also progresses in each book.

If you consider a book about a protagonist, it would be really difficult to write a series of interesting books that solely talked about one person.

I agree that the commercial aspect does come into play. Some authors may be motivated by financial gain but does that make them any less great compared to 'serious but unpopular' ones?

D. G. Myers said...

I’m insulted, PSK. A bit esoteric?

Great analysis. See my post on onlooker narrators below. The detective is an onlooker; he is not the focus of his investigation. Or his narrative.

Jonathan said...

Although not found in successive novels, surely Ruth Puttermesser qualifies as a recurring protagonist? Well, at least until Ozick combined her stories.

Dave N said...

I agree with what was said earlier. The detective stories are more about the crime/criminal than the detective. The author won't have to reinvent the detective, just the circumstances.

Do you think Patricia Highsmith's character Tom Ripley could be added to the conversation? Sequels to The Talented Mr. Ripley were unnecessary, but the character was too complex to be left alone.

Could this also be why we continue adding to the Sherlock Holmes stories? He's such a complex character we hope we learn more about him by writing another story.

Levi Stahl said...

There's also the well-known problem of a writer (usually a crime writer) getting frustrated by his series character, feeling like he's yoked to or constrained by him. Conan Doyle's attempt to kill of Holmes is the most famous, but the most interesting, I think, is surely Charles Willeford's incredibly dark attempt to nip in the bud his publishers' interest in having him turn his Hoke Moseley into a series character. Lawrence Block wrote about Moseley in general and this book specifically, for Mystery Scene recently:

“Not long after Charles [Willeford]’s death I began to hear the rumors. Charles had left a fifth Hoke Moseley novel, an impossibly dark novel, in which either Hoke killed his two daughters, or died himself, or both. . . . The Willeford rumor persisted, and it turned out to be partially true. The book was called Grimhaven. . . .
Five or six years after its author’s death, someone sent me a photocopy of the manuscript of Grimhaven. I read it right away, and saw at once that it was not intended as a fifth Hoke Moseley book but as a sequel to Miami Blues, a sequel Willeford did not at all want to write.
Miami Blues, which introduced Hoke Moseley, got a very strong and favorable response from the critics, drew a lot of attention to its author, and sold well. The publisher, not too surprisingly, wanted Willeford to write a sequel, and indeed to make Hoke a series character.

"Should it surprise us to learn that Charles Willeford, whose characters constantly exhibit quirky, contrary, self-defeating behavior, should balk at the notion? He really didn’t want to write another Hoke Moseley book, and his publisher really wanted him to write that and nothing else."

{The whole Block piece is worth clicking through and reading.}

Bob said...

Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin novels contain a world of consistent characters, but unlike Christie's detectives they age more rapidly than they ought according to the calendar. Of course, O'Brian deliberately added extra time to his calendars to enable his heroes to keep having their adventures.