Monday, March 09, 2020

Can't Recall the Last Plot? No Worries. Read the Next Book in the Series, Anyway.

Barbara Fradkin’s excellent blog on relatable characters prompted me to submit this.  Can you recall all the plots of all the books in all the mystery series that you’ve read?  Of course not.  There’re simply too many.  But what you remember are the protagonists.

What is it about a mystery series that makes us want to keep coming back, eager to devour the next installment?  Is it the way the story is told, the plotting, the pacing?  It’s all those things, of course, but most importantly, it’s the characters.

We become invested in them and can relate to them.  Sometimes we are so invested that, if they do something that we think is stupid or make a bad decision, we get frustrated or angry at them.

Isn’t that how we feel about our friends and members of our family?

The characters are so important to us, that often we’ll forget the plot to the earlier books, but the protagonists live on in our minds. So, let’s talk about why we love certain characters.

Starting with the late Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone, who doesn’t like a female protagonist that is so relatable?  She’s a bit of a frump, although it my head, she’s an attractive frump.  Kinsey is about 5’6”, 118 pounds, has short dark hair that she trims with a nail scissors.   She usually wears jeans and turtleneck sweaters.  For times that she needs to “dress-up”, she owns a wrinkle-resistant little black dress.

I visualize Kinsey looking very much like Sue Grafton does on the back of the book jacket of her mysteries. 

Kinsey Millhone jogs three miles every day but enjoys junk food.  She’s been in and out of various relationships and was married twice.

We can relate to her.  She’s just a regular person with a self-effacing sense of humor who solves mysteries.  From letter to letter in her series of “Alphabet” books, we watch her grow her friendships, romantic relationships, and her jobs.

However, she’s one of the few characters who doesn’t really age.  She’s been in the ‘eighties’ since, well, the eighties.  She doesn’t have a cellphone and has never streamed a movie on Netflix.  Keeping her stories in that decade makes her novels as comfortable as a bowl of tomato soup and a grilled cheese sandwich on a rainy day.

After 25 volumes of Sue Grafton mysteries, it’s nearly impossible to recall the plots of all of them…or any of them.  But that’s not important, is it?  As long as when you finish one, you’re looking forward to your next letter of the alphabet.

A favorite character that I grew up reading was Travis Magee written by John D. McDonald.  The books started with The Deep Blue Good-by in 1964 and ended with The Lonely Silver Rain in 1984. 

Like Kinsey, Travis is relatable. There’s no sense of ostentation at all.  He’s a beach bum who lives on a houseboat called the “Busted Flush” that he won in a poker game.  He’s a self-described “Salvage Consultant” and “Knight Errant”.  He makes his living by finding items that have been lost or stolen and taking a cut (usually half of what the item is worth). 

Travis was another hero that didn’t seem to age although at the beginning of the series, he intimated that he was a Korean War veteran and somewhere along the way that subtly changed to being a veteran of the War in Viet Nam.

I was impressed that, even in the ‘60’s, he was a prototypical environmentalist, waxing poetic on how damaging encroaching human development was on the Everglades.

It wasn’t until about 1979 in The Green Ripper that Travis starts to slow down.  In the last book of the series, The Lonely Silver Rain, Travis learns he has a teenage daughter and takes all the cash he has on hand and puts it into a trust fund for her.

Who can’t love that?

But as memorable as the recurring characters in McDonald’s books, unless I go back and reread them, I can’t recall any of the plotlines.

What can be written about Michael Connelly’s Detective Hieronymus “Harry” Bosch that hasn’t already been said?  Twenty-one novels have given Harry Bosch a very full life of his own.  Bosch is so firmly in the minds of mystery readers and writers as well, that he’s appeared as a cameo in other writers’ books. 

Bosch has a long history with multiple partners, both professional and romantic.  He has a colorful, exotic back story.  With each book that Connelly writes, his protagonist evolves. 

But he’s also getting older.  It’s no secret that Bosch is a Viet Nam veteran, a tunnel rat.  That’s going to make him close to seventy-years-old.  In his last book, Dark Sacred Night, Bosch is slowing down.  He’s joined forces with one of Connelly’s newest creations, L.A. Detective Renee Ballard.

By his own admission, Connelly said that Ballard debut appearance in The Late Show was going to be a single appearance.  But she was “too fierce” so he brought he back.

I have a feeling we’ll be seeing a lot more of her.  They are both forces to be reckoned with on the likability scale. They’re both loners, they both have haunted histories, they’re both relentless in the search for justice, willing to break the rules to get it.

So, with so many books in the series I’ve talked about, how on earth can you recall all the plots?  Most of us simply can’t.  Nor are we supposed to.  We respond the characters.  The reason we keep buying these writers’ books is because we enjoy being with the protagonists. 

We don’t necessarily have to recall how the last book ended. We only need to look forward to the next.

1 comment:

Anna said...

How right you are. I am faithful to a couple of series authors because I enjoy their characters, even to the point of enduring the occasional clunky plot (not perpetrated by anyone here, or anyone mentioned here) just to spend a little more time with the people. It's interesting to think, even as I write this, that I can't think of any plot defects that have kept those characters from being themselves.