Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Secret To A Successful Novel Series

Lee Child has garnered a very loyal fan-base with his Jack Reacher novels, especially among the glossy mag corner office set. After David Granger suggested Child might be on par with Hammett and Chandler, I walked over to the library and picked up the first Child title my eyes set on: One Shot (A). I polished it off, and was happy for the experience, but the title might well be self-prophetic. Whether or not I reach for another Reacher novel is strictly a question of circumstance: if he happens to be the most attractive option then, yes, I'll read another novel by Child.

Child's work is meticulous. He does wonders with the standard Road Runner storyline, building suspense with narrative distractions and sleight-of-hand (“Good Lord, that's a big cannon! How's the bird going to get the coyote to be the payload recipient?”). The Road Runner bookshelf is getting a bit crowded — Carl Hiaasen and Stephen Hunter are two other practitioners who come to mind — but Child stands out by keeping hero and hijinx somber: Reacher rights wrongs for personal reasons, some of which might seem high-minded at first glance, but usually boil down to an emotional, “I'm gonna git you, suckah. ” I'll take such bald narcissism over Hunter & Hiaasen any day: Hunter's heroes can't help but explain the ways of God to men, while Hiaasen's capers veer into the truly cartoonish. Neither of these writers became a habit of mine.

Which gets me wondering: how does a writer reach out and hook a reader for life? There aren't many who have managed that feat with me; maybe it's not the writer, but the reader. There are two novelists I follow religiously who usually release a title a year: George Pelecanos and James Lee Burke. Burke got to me because I first read him shortly after an emotional break-up, a vulnerable moment when I could very much identify with a washed-up Catholic cop whose wife had just died. After that I wanted to keep tabs on my fictional “buddy.” As for Pelecanos, he writes crime novels: Road Runner wannabes generally don't fare too well in his world (yes!). After these two, there aren't many others I'll indulge with a yearly sit-down.

Alright, let's open the floor: who are the writers you pick up, year after year? What's the “trick” that makes it work for these artists? Inquiring minds want to know.


DarkoV said...

Great post, WP. Loaded with great talking/take-off points. Will get back to that later...

For now, thought you'd appreciate this article on Mr. Burke. And i thought the LA disaster was winding down... Didn't realize he's living out near Missoula; should get my son to go shake his tree (I'd send him a copy of Burke's "Bitterroot" as he spends a lot of time fly-fishing on that river).

Again, Great review and post.

Whisky Prajer said...

I'm not getting anything with that link, DV -- want to try again?

DarkoV said...


Try this one, WP.

Whisky Prajer said...

I like how he changes his mind about "off the record." Man, at 73 you might as well put everything on the record.