Where Do You Start*

A recent conversation with Brad at ahsweetmysteryblog has got me thinking about reading a series in order vs picking and choosing in a series (and, perhaps, going completely out of order). Now, before I go any further, let me strongly encourage you to pay Brad’s blog a visit, and follow it if you aren’t already. It’s a treasure trove of rich, knowledgeable discussion about classic and GA crime fiction (with some more contemporary crime fiction here and there for added volume).

If you think about it, there are plenty of arguments for starting a series at the beginning and working one’s way through it chronologically. One is that many series have story arcs. They begin in earlier novels and are resolved as the series goes on (often, to lead to more story arcs in a longer series). Louise Penny’s Armand Gamache series is like that. I won’t spoil those arcs by being really specific about them here. But there are several that involve Gamache’s private and professional lives. And, as fans can tell you, the stories in this series feature the residents of the small Québec town of Three Pines. As the series goes on, there is more than one story arc that involves those characters. Reading a series like this one in order allows the reader to follow those arcs in a logical way, and to see how they are resolved.

Another argument for reading a series sequentially is that later books in a series sometimes refer to earlier novels/plot points/etc.  For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Dumb Witness (AKA Poirot Loses a Client), Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings investigate the murder of Miss Emily Arundell, who had a fortune to leave, and several relatives who are desperate for money. That, of course, means several suspects. At one point, Poirot and Hastings are discussing the personalities of the people involved. Poirot mentions the names of four fictional murders from previous Christie novels. To be fair, people who haven’t read those earlier novels wouldn’t know they were the killers (Christie doesn’t, strictly speaking, say that they are). But if a reader happens to remember one of the names, and then goes back to an earlier novel, it’s a major spoiler to know the name of the killer.

There’s also the fact that, in a longer series, changes happen in the characters’ lives. They marry, break up, have children, move house, and go through other changes. For example, many life changes happen to Steve Carella, who features in Ed McBain’s long-running 87th Precinct series. As the novels go on, he marries, has children, and so on. Those life events aren’t always the central focus of the novels, but they are part of the story. So, a reader who starts later in the series might have a mental representation of Carella that includes his wife, older children, and so on. If the reader then goes back to the first novel, Cop Hater, that mental representation doesn’t fit quite so well. Certainly, a reader could easily make the adjustment. Still, those changes in perception can mean a reader has to stop and take stock, so to speak, even if it’s not really confusing for the reader to go back. The same is true of series in which the protagonist has one partner in the early novels, and then moves on to someone else as the series goes on.

All of that said, though, there are also good arguments for starting later in a series. For one thing, it takes many authors a few novels to really find their voices and do their best work. If I may speak personally, I think my more recent novels are better-written and more mature, if I can put it that way, than my first one. At least, I hope I’ve learned as I’ve gone along. It’s a natural part of the evolution of a writer. So, a reader who chooses an author’s later work may get to see the best that author has to offer. That can invite the reader to go back and try something else by that author. And, even if the author’s earlier work isn’t as good, the reader knows that the potential is there. So, the reader won’t be as likely to be put off by a less-than-great first novel.

Another – and probably related – thing about series is that the major characters often grow, change, evolve, and become more interesting as the series goes on. That’s certainly true of Ellery Queen. In the first novels in which he features, he’s certainly not a multi-dimensional, nuanced character. He’s smart and solves the mysteries, but many people wouldn’t consider him a warm, sympathetic character. As the series goes on, though, Queen evolves. He becomes more fully fleshed out and multi-dimensional. And that (speaking strictly for myself) makes him more appealing. So, there’s a solid argument that it makes some sense to start later in the Queen series than earlier.

There’s also the issue of availability. Sometimes, an author’s more recent books are more easily available in a library or bookshop than are earlier novels. Better-known titles are also often more easily available than are lesser-known titles. That doesn’t mean, of course, that you can’t find that first novel. But it sometimes takes more digging. And if your goal is to try an author’s work to see what you think, you may not want to make as much effort (or spend as much).

This isn’t a settled question. There are some solid arguments for starting at the beginning of a series, but there are also solid arguments for not doing that. What do you think? Are you strictly a ‘begin at the beginning’ person? If you’re a writer, how do you feel about readers beginning at different points in your work?

Thanks, Brad, for the inspiration!


*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Johnny Mandel and Alan and Marilyn Bergman.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Ed McBain, Ellery Queen, Louise Penny

38 responses to “Where Do You Start*

  1. I prefer to read a series in order, although with many series (including my own mystery series) each book can be read as a stand-alone. One of my favorite authors is Ross Macdonald. I’ve read all his Lew Archer mysteries, mostly out of order, with no problem at all. Same with John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee series (still have several to go). Any series that builds up to, and ends with a cliffhanger, of course will best be enjoyed read in order. I hate finding spoilers in any books I read and wonder why some writers use cliffhangers. It’s a crapshoot whether or not certain readers will be turned off future books once they find the conclusion of the book doesn’t really “end” the story.

    • That’s true, Michael. Each reader has a different reaction to that sort of story-arc cliffhanger. And I’m glad you’ve mentioned both the Lew Archer series and the Travis McGee series. Both can be read out of order, because the focus in the novels is the story at hand, rather than a larger story arc. Characters recur, but I don’t think that makes it too hard for readers to get caught up in the story. And, to me, that’s the key: inviting readers to engage themselves in what they’re reading. I agree with you, too, about putting spoilers into stories, It’s best avoided if possible…

  2. I am definitely of the camp that I prefer to read in order when possible. Part of that is my collector’s mentality but it is also based in practicality – I remember reading a Laura Joh Rowland novel, Red Chrysanthemum where the suspects were all characters from past cases and feeling like I would be getting a lot more out of the experience if I knew who they were.

    When it comes to John Dickson Carr I am having to be more pragmatic and reading whatever comes across my path. Fortunately another blogger had compiled a list of the times when one of his books spoils another mystery so I know which ones are safe to read.

  3. Thanks for the mention, Margot. I read Christie totally out of order and still love her more than anyone else. But anyone picking up the latest Penny and saying, “ I think I’ll give her a try!” would be making a terrible mistake. To my mind, the most compelling aspect of her writing is the personal storyline she threads through her mysteries. You have to start with Still Life.

    • It’s a pleasure to mention you and your blog, Brad, and thanks for the inspiration. I didn’t read Christie in chronological order, either, and I’ve never had trouble with the characters (even recurring ones, like Mr. Goby). I will say I’m glad I didn’t read Dumb Witness until after I’d read the books referred to in it. But otherwise, I don’t think those books must be read in order. But Penny? Yes, absolutely. That series is so much better read in order. It really does make a major difference in following along with the series. That just goes to show how different two authors can be in that respect.

      • To be honest I simply don’t care. I’ll start reading a series whereever I choose and, if I liked It, I’ll always have time to continue reading the series in order, if necessary. Bear in mind that some series don’t quite follow a strict chronological order.

        • You have a very well-taken point about personal taste, José Ignacio. A book that really appeals, wherever it falls in a series, will inspire one to loo for earlier books. One that doesn’t appeal can have the opposite effect, too. And you’re right that some series don’t go in strict chronological orders. I’m thinking of series that may be translated out of order, or series where there is a ‘prequel.’ There are other examples of that, too, of course. In those cases, it is hard to read in order.

  4. This is such a great question, Margot! I’ve mixed it up with different series, but when I find one I want to sample and there are lots of novels already published in the series, I tend to go for the first one the library has available, whether in print or via Overdrive.

    • Thanks, Pat. All credit to Brad for inspiring me to think about it. I think availability and convenience have a lot to do with whether people follow a series chronologically or not. If Book One isn’t easily accessible, I’d guess a lot of people move on to later books, as you do.

  5. Usually, I begin at the beginning. In Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs series, major events are mentioned, but you don’t know the whole story if you haven’t read the earlier books.

    • Oh, that’s a great example of a series that really needs to be read from the beginning, Alice. There are several story arcs and other events that don’t make as much sense of you don’t know the story from the beginning.

  6. I often jump into a series with whatever book comes to hand – which is what I did with Ian Rankin’s Rebus books. But I just had to know who Big Ger Rafferty was and his history with Rebus and got the first book and then read them in sequence, fortunately my son is also a Rebus fan and a lot of his earlier books. But for Agatha Christie’s books I read them totally out of order and had no problems at all, which was just as well as my library didn’t have a full set – and there are so many of them – I bought most of them secondhand in the end. So, for me it depends on availability and convenience as you’ve already said.

    • You’ve outlined an interesting contrast, Margaret, between Rankin and Christie. Even though you read them both out of order, they’re very different sorts of series, and I can definitely see reading Rankin in order if it’s possible. I’m glad for you that your son had a lot of the earlier novels. But, as you say, it’s not always possible or convenient to start a series at the beginning, or to get Book Two of a series right after Book One. And when that happens, a lot of people read what’s available.

  7. Although I read some series in order such as Claire McGowan’s set in Ireland where the story arc is as important as the individual mysteries I just as often start later or even jump about as I did with Reginald Hill’s Dalziel and Pascoe’s books. In fact I didn’t take to the first book in this series, A Clubbable Woman when I recently read it as this is one writer who developed (and adapted to changing times) over the course of the series

    • I think that series is a terrific example of a series that gets better as it goes on, Cleo. There are some characters, like Franny Roote, who show up in a few novels, and it can help to understand who they are and what their backgrounds are. But other than that, it’s also series, in my opinion, that can be started just about anywhere. So I can understand why you didn’t follow it sequentially. There are other series, though, like McGowan’s, that are best followed in order. Perhaps whether we start at the beginning or not has as much to do with the series itself as it does with our preferences?

  8. I’ve often read series out of order because I was reading whatever was available at the library at the time. Yes, there are some spoilers or things that you fail to grasp the significance of, but on the whole it hasn’t impacted my enjoyment of the book. Once I get hooked on a writer, then I do try to go back and read the whole series. And, of course, if I do have the chance to read the whole series in order, I will do so (I did with Martin Beck). Even if the first one is not always the best, it is interesting to see how an author grows and develops.

    • I think it is, too, Marina Sofia. And, as you say, there are times when one doesn’t have access to the first book/s of a series. They may not be in the library, or they may not have been translated. In those cases, it’s hard to read a series in order. When it’s well-written, as you say, a reader can still enjoy a series, even if it’s out of order. I think that’s especially true when the author works to make sure that readers can step into a series at any point.

  9. I appreciate the article, and your talent to present us details (which morons like me usually overlooked or lazily evaded by only watching the movie version). Today I only came to verify I named you properly (as Professor Margot Kinberg), as a crime fiction page I visited did not allow placing a hyperlink to your site. Have a nice weekend! The death-notice of ‘Christine Nöstlinger’ took many Germans and Austrians by surprise, as her ‘Cucumber-King’ was famous during our childhood, and some worship her as the German Astrid Lindgren…

  10. This is such an interesting post! I much prefer to read a series in order as you get to see the life of the main characters over a long period of time. Having said that I love the Sue Grafton series and the first book I read was Q is for Quarry because I found it in a charity shop when I’d ran out of things to read on holiday. I enjoyed it so much that I immediately ordered the first book and read them all. I do wonder if I’d have stuck with the series and re-read them if A is for Alibi had been the first book I picked up as it’s not the best in the series. You’ve definitely made me reflect on how I approach a series and maybe I do need to jump in somewhere in the middle more often as it might make me love a series I might otherwise not have done.

    • I’ve often thought the same, myself, Hayley. The first book in a series isn’t always the author’s best. So, as you say, if you read that book, you might not go on with the series. That could mean missing out on an excellent set of books. That said, though, I think you have a point about wanting to follow along sequentially. There are things you miss out on (story arcs and the like) that are easier to follow and understand if you read the series in order. Thanks for the kind words!

  11. Alex

    Oh, I’m glad you touched on this topic, Margot. Because me and mine were just talking about this just yesterday, in fact. I started out a fan of reading the early Kathy Reich books, but somewhere along the way they got thinner, had less plot and story, and she had the characters doing some of the dumbest stuff ever (my own personal opinion).

    So we were talking about series, and I had said why I had given up on Reich’s books as a series. But despite that, had still picked up a book here and there, regardless, and enjoyed the story for what it was. Not that I think her series has any discernable over-reaching arcs anyway. Not like Penny’s books which, for me, are a treasure and prime example of great writing that’s evolved as the series has evolved.

    • You bring up a really interesting point, Alex, about what can happen to a series as it goes on. Sometimes, novels don’t really get better over time. Some even get worse, or, at least, ‘samey.’ To me, that’s an argument for starting a series at the beginning, so one gets to read the author’s more inspired work.

  12. Bill Selnes

    Margot: I am at the point in my reading life where it is hard for me to start reading in a long standing series. I know I cannot catch up to the present because of the other series and stand alones I read every year. If I read in a book in a series I have not read it will usually be because I am reading it as an Award winner or nominee. Right now I am reading Sleeping in the Ground by Peter Robinson because it won the 2018 Arthur Ellis Award for Best Canadian Crime Fiction Novel.

    • I want to read Sleeping in the Ground, too, Bill, and I hope you’re enjoying it. I like Robinson’s work, and I’m glad he got that recognition. As to catching up on series, I know just what you mean. I find it impossible to catch up on all of the series that I would like to read. With so many books out there, there just isn’t time to read it all. So, like you, I find it harder and harder to start on what I know will be a long series.

  13. What an interesting topic! I read a lot of crime fiction as a teenager, and that was very random: I grabbed whatever I could from library and 2nd-hand shops, no thought of looking at order. Christie and John Dickson Carr and Allingham all got this treatment from me, and no harm done. But if it’s a modern series that I REALLY like, I will try to do it in order – Elly Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway books, and Catriona MacPherson’s Dandy Gilver are cases where I have followed them properly. BUT – yet another twist – a couple of authors I came to well into the series (Tana French, Mick Herron) and actually I like them so much that I am still trying to ration my reading of them, so although I keep uptodate with them, there are still some early books of theirs I am holding in reserve….
    It is complex!

    • It really is, Moira! And thanks for the kind words. It’s interesting how some authors do inspire us to go back and look for all of their books, even if we start later in the series (like French and Herron). Others don’t have that effect. And still others are authors we want to follow right from the beginning. I don’t know that there’s an algorithm, but if there is one, I’d love to know it!

  14. My preference is to read series in order. I find that I get a more complete idea of the characters if I start at the beginning. Mysteries are different for me than other series (like fantasy), as sometimes with mysteries you really can just start in the middle and not miss anything, but I do always prefer to read them in order, from the beginning. Plus, then it’s easier to keep track of what I’ve read and what I haven’t read yet!

    • You have a well-taken point about keeping track of what you’ve read and not read, Luvtoread! It is easier to do that if one reads a series in order. And, as you say, you do get a much better sense of the characters. It’s easier to see how they grow and evolve over time, I think.

  15. Col

    My OCD dictates that I try and read them in order, wherever possible. I have no problems reading a random book in the middle of a series to try an new author out, especially Iif I don’t think I’ll commit to more from them.

    • I’ve done that, too, Col. If it’s an author I’ve already sampled, then I like to read the series in order. If it’s a new-to-me person, I think it’s less of a commitment to sample a book, even if it’s not the first in the series.

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