To Read On Or Not Read On

teaandbooksI’ve just finished what I suppose is meant to be the first novel in a crime series by a new author. No names, no pack drill, for reasons that will become apparent. I must have read about it somewhere, so I assume that whoever was reviewing it thought that it was of sufficiently high a standard to warrant recommendation. I am not so sure. While the plot was as original as it is possible to be given the current proliferation of crime novels, the characters were only very sketchily and rather unconvincingly drawn and the writing, at times, was excruciating. It would have stuck out as overblown in a Victorian melodrama. I was never an advocate of the red pencil when I was teaching but on this occasion, had the book not been a library copy, I might well have been tempted. The question I face now is this: do I mark the book down to experience and forget the writer’s name forever or do I recall the bits of the plot that were well worked through and add the author to my little list.

Oh yes, just like Koko, Gilbert and Sullivan’s Lord High Executioner, I’ve got a little list, although mine is of a rather more benign persuasion. This is my list of writers whose next books I definitely want to read. It runs to about fifty, so I have to hope that they don’t all publish on an annual basis or I would never get round to reading anything by unknown (to me) authors and expanding my literary repertoire. Normally, I think I would have smiled rather ruefully and simply returned this book to the library had I not moved directly on from there to the first of the Peter Wimsey novels, Whose Body?

Now, I have to write this next section with a careful eye to who is around. Being firmly ensconced in Denver Castle for the next several days I don’t want to run the risk of offending my host. However, I have to ask myself whether, had this been the first occasion on which I had encountered Lord Peter, I would have bothered to pick up subsequent episodes relating to his crime fighting escapades. I’m not sure that I would. Compared with the later novels, which were the ones I first encountered, this is ponderous in the extreme and only in the latter half do you begin to realise that there is more to Peter than an interfering young man with too much time on his hands. The truth is that some writers take time to warm up. I remember when I was setting out to read Peter Robinson’s Inspector Banks series being warned by the person who recommended them to forego my usual practice of starting at the beginning and reading straight through and instead to try some of the later books first so that I could appreciate what an excellent writer he had, over time, become. I think the same is probably true of Ian Rankin. Having read Knots and Crosses it was some years before I bothered to pick up any further Rebus novels. Only a sustained period of illness, when someone else was picking my library books for me, got me through to the more substantial, and far better, later works.

Of course, some authors just hit the ground running. I was, for example, bowled over by the quality of the writing in Kate Rhodes first novel, Crossbones Yard, and she has never looked back. The same would be true of Elly Griffiths, S J (Sharon) Bolton and Tana French. They all went on the list without a second thought. But, as I said, some writers take time to warm up. Louise Penny’s early books aren’t a patch on her later works and the same, I think, is true of both Val McDermid and Graham Hurley.

Unfortunately, certain authors go the other way. I was a great fan of the early Kathy Reichs novels, which I thought far superior to Patricia Cornwell’s work in the same vein, but subsequent books have become much thinner and far more commercially centred, to the point where I have, in fact, taken her off that little list whilst Cornwell remains on it.

You, of course, may well disagree and love the early novels of some of these authors, but I would be interested to know if you can think of any others (in whatever genre, not just the crime writing I seem to have focused on) who have become far better writers during the course of their careers and who should not be so summarily dismissed. I may be missing a host of excellent books just because an author’s first novel was only a teething piece.

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9 thoughts on “To Read On Or Not Read On

  1. Interesting post. I’ve found it to be true of many series that I follow. Some begin strong and stay strong (Elly Griffiths, Sharon Bolton etc.) some start weak and get better with each book (Deborah Crombie) some start strong and peter out or become too repetitive over time (M.C. Beaton)

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    • Now that’s worth knowing, Francophile, because I gave up on Deborah Crombie after a couple of books. I probably need to jump forward in the series and try again. I am interested in how you are getting on with the one offs that Sharon Bolton is writing. I loved the first three that came before the Lacey Flint series and I enjoyed the series very much. I also liked the one off set in the Falklands, but I have been less than convinced by the last two. I wish she would go back to Lacey, but then I’ve always preferred series fiction – too many School stories as a child!

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  2. I’m pleased to see some of my ‘must-read’ authors on your crime list here and totally agree that it is sometimes better to jump in further on – I’ve never been able to pick another Rebus up for instance and yet in hindsight Reginald Hill hit the ground running with what is probably my favourite series of all time Dalziel and Pascoe.

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    • I still think Reginald Hill gets better as he goes along. In his case (and I think the same is true of Quintin Jardine’s Skinner series) I would say that the best books are the ones in the middle of the sequence. There a number where he is pastiching other writers which I think are great fun. His Jane Austen novel, ‘Pictures of Perfection’ is just wonderful. You might want to try Rankin’s ‘Black and Blue’, which is often cited as his break out novel, and go on from there. If you get the Rebus bug then you can always go back to the earlier ones.

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  3. I’ve not only found that some authors get better, I’ve seen a couple hit a peak that they can’t sustain with subsequent novels. One of the two that come to mind immediately is Anne Tyler–The Accidental Tourist is one of her best, and Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant is the pinnacle of her career. None of the novels after that one, although still good, can equal it. The other one is Ann Patchett. State of Wonder was so much better than anything she’d written before, and I’d say anything she’s written since, too.

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    • I haven’t read enough Tyler to comment but I would agree with you about Patchett. I was expecting great things of ‘Commonwealth’ and was really disappointed. I would also agree with your basic premise as well. I’ve certainly seen it happen with some crime writers. Reginald Hill’s middle Dalziel and Pascoe novels are superb, or only great crime fiction, but also wonderful pastiches of classical novelists. However, the later novels really fall away.

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