When I was in high school (think long straight hair, granny-glasses, and ankle-length skirts, the only hippie in Tacoma, Washington) I was a tremendous Simon and Garfunkel fan. Back in the dark ages, before cassettes and 8-tracks, I would buy one of their albums as soon as it came out, or as soon as I could cajole my parents into taking me to a record store, and plunk it down on my portable LP turntable, and listen to it.
And invariably, I would hate it.
But because I couldnâ€™t quite accept that, and because Iâ€™d paid good money for it, I would play it again. And again. And pretty soon, I would hear the nuances and not the differences, and fall in love with this version of the singers, and it would be my very most favorite of all.
Iâ€™ve found the same thing with writers. I know I hated the first of Dorothy Sayersâ€™ novels that I read, although granted, it really wasnâ€™t her best (the one with the Evil Lesbianâ€”even the title is boring: UNNATURAL DEATH.) And the same with Lee Child, and Bob Crais, and a number of other writers whose first acquaintance just didnâ€™t do it for me, but whom I love, respect, and buy in hardback the first day theyâ€™re out now.
(This doesnâ€™t always happen, that I change my mind. If it did, Iâ€™d make a point of trying a second volume of any writer I didnâ€™t like, which would be a real headache. Though it would sure be nice to be able to figure out which I donâ€™t like, and which Iâ€™d absolutely adore if I gave them a second chance.)
Iâ€™ve been thinking about this (and the following is not so much a parallel line of thought as a tangent) because I just read Bob Craisâ€™s new novel, WATCHMAN, and it led me back to one or two of his early Elvis Coles. (As a side note, I often reread books when Iâ€™m in the throes of a hard writing slog. I canâ€™t not read, but the parts of my brain needed for the work are just too close to the parts that follow a new story line and new characters.)
It is fascinating, and awe-inspiring, to watch a writer grow. I watched this happen with Reginald Hill, whose early cop whodunits moved out of the set of stereotypes heâ€™d set up for them (very good stereotypes, funny and vivid and colorful, but still) into true novels that explored the characters heâ€™d been playing with for a while. Real emotion began to sneak in, believable motivation instead of the games of the genre, and the humor changed from jokes to situational absurdity, and occasionally had a very dark edge. PICTURES OF PERFECTION is one of my all-time favorite novels, scary and funny and warm all at the same time. A cozy thriller, if you can imagine that. Personally, I find his recent novels just too much, beginning with the much-praised ON BEULAH HEIGHT, but BONES AND SILENCE, RECALLED TO LIFE, and PICTURES OF PERFECTION are just gorgeous.
And now Bob Crais is doing the same thing, taking his very decorative and entertaining chessboard characters and breathing life into them. Elvis Cole still does his morning yoga on the deck, Joe Pike still wears those damned sunglasses, the feral cat still growls, but where in the first books those set pieces were surface amusements, one now begins to see just where the yoga and the sunglasses come from.
If you donâ€™t know Crais, and want to see what I mean, get one of his early booksâ€”THE MONKEYâ€™S RAINCOAT is the first, but STALKING THE ANGEL or LULLABY TOWN will do as well. Then get L.A.REQUIEM, and see the characters stirring and coming to life. Then go out and get the WATCHMAN, because hardback sales are important to authors. And while youâ€™re in the bookstore, pick up THE LAST DETECTIVE, too, and maybe THE FORGOTTEN MAN, because youâ€™ll want to read those as well. (Iâ€™m only talking about the Cole series here, but his standalones are great, too.)
Why do some writers grow like this, where others repeat themselves? Of course, some repetition is inevitable, in a business that sells identifiable products (When an author hits a certain level of popularity, he or she is called a â€œfranchiseâ€ author, which may tell you something.) And when it comes to a series, the familiarity is a large part of its appeal.
But itâ€™s like the repetitive bore at the family reunion, whose storiesâ€”although once interestingâ€”everyone has heard a hundred times before: When a writer works with the same characters year in and year out, finding new stories for them to tell can be tough.
Both Hill and Crais, by the way, write outside their series. And I suspect that, in both their cases, the non-series novels donâ€™t sell quite as well, because people want the same, but different. In the case of these two men, they found it by writing the same characters, but reaching down into them and finding a new and mature voice.
Rather like Simon and Garfunkel used to, back in the day.