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The Sirens of Suspense




Stuart Neville is the multi-award winning author of the Jack Lennon series, set in Northern Ireland. The series includes GHOSTS OF BELFAST (aka THE TWELVE), COLLUSION, and his latest STOLEN SOULS. Neville, who lives in Northern Ireland himself, has been a musician, a composer, a teacher, a salesman, a film extra, a baker and a hand double for a well known Irish comedian.

Find Stuart on Twitter and Facebook.

Serial Thrillers item1

First of all, apologies for the terrible pun I used as a title for this blog post. It's appropriate, though, so I hope you'll forgive me.

Anyway, the less pun-inclined title for this could be: Crime Series - Good or Bad? The series can be both a curse and a blessing to the author. If you're one of those crime novelists who hit the bestseller lists once a year, every year, chances are you write a series. And if, like me, you aspire to be one of those annual bestsellers, you probably write a series too.

This has been on my mind for a while now because about a year ago I was polishing up the final draft of STOLEN SOULS, the third book in my Belfast series, already available in the US and about to launch in the UK. At that time, I wasn't entirely sure I'd write another. My next book, already finished and awaiting edits as I type, is not part of that series. Titled DWELLER ON THE THRESHOLD, it's set in and around Dublin in 1963, and is quite a departure. It's still firmly in thriller territory, but its plot takes place fifty years ago in a different city with a new set of characters.

For crime novelists, stepping out of a series can be a huge gamble, even if it's just for one book. Read the Amazon reviews of any stand alone novel from a mystery series writer, and at least some could be summarized as: "This author should stick to what they're good at."

This presents quite a dilemma: risk alienating readers by not giving them what they expect, or risk boring them by doing the opposite. Some writers walk this tightrope with great skill, Lee Child and John Connolly being two names that spring to mind, but others less so. We've all seen series that run out of steam, or even novels that read like lazy cash-ins (I'm looking at you, HANNIBAL RISING by Thomas Harris). My fellow countryman Adrian McKinty recently sparked debate over at his blog by positing that crime fiction is hamstrung by this dependence on series, and all recurring characters are doomed by the law of diminishing returns. I don't know if I'd go as far as Adrian, but he does make some valid points.

I toured with John Connolly not so long ago, and he made the observation that some of his readers would rather he died than his leading man, Charlie Parker. I've provoked anger in more than one of my own readers by killing off a prominent character who I felt had run his course. This begs the question, what do writers of crime series owe their readers? If we're very lucky, our readers provide us with a living, so it would be arrogant to ignore their views, but surely a writer must be allowed to take a direction by choice, not by coercion. After the BBC's excellent second season of SHERLOCK, their modern take on Doyle's detective, the subject of Holmes's death at the Reichenbach Falls has had much discussion in my house, and how after some years, the author was forced to pull Sherlock from his watery grave.

I find this topic all the more vexing because I don't by and large tend to read series novels one after the other. I do of course read the aforementioned Mr Connolly because he's very, very good, but mostly not in order, and not because I'm waiting for the next instalment; they're not an afternoon soap opera, after all. The closest I come to enjoying series-like elements in and of themselves is reading books set in a persistent world through which different characters move, like when Ace Merrill pops up in a Stephen King, or Big Pete Bondurant lumbers onstage in a James Ellroy. I enjoy that moment of recognition, like a nod and a wink from the author to the faithful, but that doesn't mean I want to follow Bondurant's misadventures book after book, forever and ever, Amen. I'd far rather Ellroy stretch his enormous talent and show me different sides to his twisted America.

So where does that leave me? I'm grateful to my UK editor, Geoff Mulligan, for encouraging me to try stepping out of the Belfast series, even if others would rather I'd stayed on the proven ground of STOLEN SOULS. The break provided by DWELLER ON THE THRESHOLD (coming January 2013, by the way) has given me a fresh wind for returning to Belfast for two more proposed novels in that series. A change is as good as a rest, as they say.



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