Keeper of the Keys: A Delightful Conceit

UnknownA conceit can be an artistic effect or an imaginative notion. In novel-writing a conceit can be thought of as a concept or setup. In Earl Derr Biggers’ last novel, Keeper of the Keys, the conceit works to control the structure of the plot and also to entertain the reader. The conceit (which must have delighted Biggers) is this: five more-or-less ex-husbands of the same diva meet in an isolated Lake Tahoe home in order to answer a question. The diva herself is invited to attend the meeting. The result is murder.

Did ex-husband number one kill her because she had hidden a secret from him for seventeen years? Or was it ex-husband number two, who was both angry and humiliated by her running out on him after a few brief months of marriage. Perhaps it was ex-husband number three, a calculating sort who was actually hiding the information that number one craved.

Ex-husband number four isn’t really an ex, not until the Reno divorce becomes final. Once the diva is murdered, however, the divorce isn’t necessary, and number four hopes he inherits all her wealth. Is he the guilty ex?

Or perhaps it’s husband-to-be number five, himself a talented singer who happens to be fifteen years younger than the diva. And, yes, who has been promised that he will inherit all her houses and all her wealth.

Charlie Chan is hired by Dudley Ward (ex number one) to visit his Lake Tahoe home and attend a dinner party at which the other exes will be present. A dinner party at which Ward will ask each of the ex-husbands whether it’s true that, after she divorced him, Ellen Landini bore a son whom she gave up for adoption. Chan’s job is to detect whether the other exes are telling the truth when answering Ward’s question.

Literary critics have written that of the six Chan novels, Keeper of the Keys is the one in which Biggers does a classic job of putting clues in plain sight, thus allowing readers an opportunity to fit the pieces together and solve the crime. I will say that when I first read this novel, at the age of sixteen, I wasn’t able to put the clues together and solve the mystery. In fact, I’m pretty sure I missed the main clue altogether. However, like the murder method in the first Chan novel and like the solution to the fourth Chan novel, the revealing clue in the sixth novel is memorable. In each of my subsequent readings of Keeper of the Keys, I remembered what the clue was and thus who the murderer was. In many ways this book reminds me of an Agatha Christie novel (whose title escapes me) in which the murderer is known to have a physical deformity — which turns out to be something quite unremarkable, but which I remember each time I read the book.

Having come to national fame as a writer of romantic escapade novels (Seven Keys to Baldpate, 1913), Biggers never constructed a plot that didn’t contain a romance. In the first Chan novel the romance was the main thread, the mystery a tad secondary. By the time he wrote his sixth Chan, Biggers clearly relegated the romance to second place. In Keeper of the Keys the romance doesn’t enter until after the murder.

Granlibakken-TMW-112416-3-4As always, Biggers excels at creating setting. His Lake Tahoe and Truckee of the early 1930s are vivid, and Charlie’s delight at experiencing snow for the first time is wonderful to read about.

Perhaps because the setting is cold, Chan is more physically active than in any of the previous novels. He climbs trees, he tracks footprints in the snow, he wrestles with an opponent in the dark, and so on. Though he’s at a disadvantage because of his age and obesity, Chan wins out over his adversaries.

One of Biggers’ greatest accomplishments in his final Chan novel is the criss-cross pattern of character revelation. When we first meet Ellen Landini, we see her as self-centered, selfish, and oblivious to anything other than what she wants at the moment. As Chan observes of her constantly looking for a husband other than the one she currently has: “Ginger grown in one’s own garden is not so pungent.” Landini’s line of character revelation starts out at the bottom: but by the time the book ends, new information moves that line upward.

The murderer’s line of character revelation, on the other hand, starts out at the top, with the character being perceived as congenial, fair, and considerate. But by the book’s end, new information moves that character line downward, toward the bottom. The paths cross in a giant X, with the murderer starting out at the top left of the X and plummeting downward; the victim starting at the bottom left of the X and moving upward.

Had Biggers not died at a relatively young age, he would have gone on to write more Chan novels. Based on his evolution as a mystery writer in just six books, it seems fair to say that he would have come up with even more fascinating conceits, settings, and character development.



In Sound Proof Barbara Gregorich employs a delightful conceit of three different crimes — theft, blackmail, murder — committed at the same music festival.


The Great White Whale: Part 2

UnknownIn my most recent re-reading of Moby Dick I was struck by the organization of the book — something I paid scant attention to in previous readings. Specifically, this time around I became aware that Ahab doesn’t enter the book until a quarter of the way through; that the first whale is killed about half way through; and that only the last three chapters contain the face-to-face confrontations between Ahab and the crew on one hand, the great white whale on the other.

This time around it felt to me as if Melville had artfully designed a trawling net, wide at the front end (the first half of the book), tapering to a narrow end where the fish/readers are inevitably led. I realized as I neared the last quarter of the book how I had been led into a more and more focused world (Ahab’s wish to kill Moby Dick). Everything that came before seemed to push toward this end — and there was no escape.

It was an especially gloomy feeling to me to know that for the men on board the Pequod, there was likewise no escape.

During my most recent reading I found to my surprise how many of the symbols I remembered. For example, I remembered that “all men live enveloped in whale lines.” Likewise, we are tied to others through monkey-ropes.

One of my favorite symbols appears in the chapter titled “The Tail,” where Ishmael describes the whale’s tale: “Being horizontal in its position, the Leviathan’s tail acts in a different manner from the tails of all other sea creatures. It never wriggles. In man or fish, wriggling is a sign of inferiority.”

Moby_Dick_final_chaseAlthough Ahab’s single-minded, unheeding obsession with the great white whale bothered me even the first time I read the book, only in subsequent readings did I come to realize the immorality of Ahab’s actions: not just toward the natural world, but also toward his fellow humans, chief among them his crew, but also fellow sailors he encounters on the high seas.

This inhumanity is highlighted toward the near end of the book, when a man he knows, a fellow captain from Nantucket, begs for his help, for only 48 hours. The captain’s young son has been lost at sea in a whaling boat that didn’t return and can’t be found. Even Stubbs’ heart turns for the better: ‘We must save that boy!” he cries.

But Ahab cold-heartedly refuses and orders the captain off his ship. Ahab is for pursuit of Moby Dick and will let absolutely nothing stand in his way.

As Ahab pursues the White Whale, getting closer and closer, the omens and symbolism increase. During the typhoon, the lightning turns around the Pequod’s compass needle so that it points to the opposite of reality: the needle points East when the ship is sailing West. Ahab himself turns around reality: all he sees is what Moby Dick did to him (bit off his leg). Which is significantly less than what he tried to do to Moby Dick (kill him.)

Once the great white whale is sighted, the book rushes toward its conclusion in a very dramatic way. The last three chapters are titled “The Chase — First Day,” “The Chase — Second Day,” and “The Chase — Third Day.” Each of the first two days, Ahab is warned. The first day, Moby Dick bites the whaling boat in half and Ahab falls into the sea, saved by the Pequod.

e2c146a3fdc967d78893f68a79d8a8ee--penguin-classics-melvilleThe second day Moby Dick breaches, which all see as an act of defiance. Having breached, the great white whale turns and heads for the three crewboats, smashing each of them. The whale then moves on, going its own way.

On the third day Ahab realizes he was “befooled, befooled!” That is, he fooled himself into thinking he was immortal. Even knowing that — even knowing that his crew and ship will perish if he persists — Ahab plunges on. That is when Moby Dick turns on the Pequod, smashing it in half with his majestic forehead. The ship goes down and all but Ishmael perish.

“Now small fowls flew screaming over the yet yawning gulf; a sullen white surf beat against its steep sides; then all collapsed, and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago.”


Barbara Gregorich has read Moby Dick four times, siding with the great white whale each time.

The Great White Whale: Part 1

images-3Call me Captivated. That’s how I felt when, at the age of 19, I first read Moby Dick. It was unlike any book I had read — at once intimate but academic, earthy but technical, wide in its subject matter yet focused on Ahab’s pursuit of the whale. I felt in the hands of a writer who was going to take me on an important voyage.

Before I actually read the novel, I had been aware of the story. When I was eleven or twelve years old, I read a Classic Comics version of Moby Dick. The art, the narrative, the dialogue, the way the story moved, the subject matter — I loved all of these things. My parents took my brother and me to see the movie, which came out in 1956 and starred Gregory Peck as Ahab. I don’t remember much about the movie . . . I think I found it long and not as interesting as the Classic Comics version.

Despite the fact that he wrote a long, highly technical, intricate novel, Melville (unlike the authors he was surrounded by such as Emerson, Thoreau, and Hawthorne) never went to college. “. . . a whale ship was my Yale College and my Harvard,” he wrote in Moby Dick.

Before he became a writer, Melville was a whaler. As such, he knew of the 1820 real-life wreck of the whaling ship Essex, sunk by a sperm whale, and he read the first-hand account about that wreck, written by the ship’s first mate, Owen Chase.

One can imagine what the whale must have felt, relentlessly pursued by a ship that wanted to murder it. If whales think, it surely must have thought or felt: “I must strike back.”

And so it did.

I like to think that Melville sided with that whale.

Moby Dick wasn’t much appreciated during Melville’s lifetime. Readers and critics of the 20th century, however, came to understand this vast, awe-inspiring novel. Perhaps one of the first to start what is now called the Melville Revival was British author D.H. Lawrence, who in 1923 published a small but insightful book, Studies in Classic American Literature. This book was one of my reading assignments for an undergraduate American Literature class. I found myself laughing at many of the passages in which Lawrence mocked American obsessions. But beneath his humor and mockery, Lawrence had the greatest respect for Moby Dick. He concluded: “. . . as a revelation of destiny the book is too deep even for sorrow. Profound beyond feeling.”

Just a few years ago I read a small but powerful book, Nathaniel Philbrick’s Why Read Moby Dick, published in 2011. I highly recommend this pithy 21st century look at a masterpiece.

Each time I read Moby Dick, I’m struck by the powerful beauty of the great white whale, “. . . seen gliding at high noon through a dark blue sea, leaving a milky-way wake of creamy foam, all spangled with golden gleamings.”

It is this natural beauty that Ahab pursues, in order to annihilate it, just as whalers annihilated whales to near extinction.

New Zealand was the first of the twentieth-century whaling nations to give up whaling. That was in 1964. A few years ago I saw the traveling exhibit, “Whales: Giants of the Deep,” presented by the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. One of the many things I learned was that there are very rare whales about which little is known. If I recall, they swim very deep and spend much of their time underwater.

Considering how humans have hunted whales, these rare whales may be doing the wise thing. Perhaps they, too, know the story of Moby Dick . . . but from the whale’s point of view.


Barbara Gregorich has read Moby Dick four times, siding with the great white whale each time.

Book Review: Charlie Chan Carries On


When I was sixteen years old and first read Earl Derr Biggers’ six Charlie Chan novels, I loved each and every one, but my favorite was the fifth book, Charlie Chan Carries On. However, I couldn’t really say why.

What was it about this book that made it my favorite? Was it the fact that the story took place on an around-the-world cruise, and that this setting appealed to me? Or perhaps I loved the novelty of having one detective be the protagonist for the first half of the book, and another detective take over for the second half of the story.

Back in the 1990s, after I had already read each book twice, and was about to embark on reading each a third time, I did a lot of research on Earl Derr Biggers. This included reading all the correspondence between Biggers and his editor, David Laurance Chambers of Bobbs-Merrill. From these letters I learned many things I hadn’t known — including something about Biggers’ attitude toward writing Charlie Chan Carries On.

Specifically, I learned that Biggers complained to Chambers about the fact that so many of his fans were telling him he should write a Chan mystery in which Charlie goes to London and meets up with Inspector Duff of Scotland Yard (introduced in Behind That Curtain), and the two of them solve a case together.

Which part of these suggestions repelled Biggers more, I don’t know: that he take his character to London, that Chan co-star with Duff . . . or that the fans felt they could tell Biggers where to set his books. Disregarding all these suggestions, Biggers wrote a fourth Chan novel, The Black Camel, in which he took Charlie home to Hawaii. Inspector Duff was not present in the novel.

Still . . . there was something about the London suggestion, or the meeting-Duff-again suggestion that appealed to Biggers. And so he plotted that Duff and Chan would work together — but not in the way the fans had suggested. In Charlie Chan Carries On Biggers turned the first part of the story over to Inspector Duff in London, then, in the second half, had Duff meet Chan in Honolulu (not London!). Charlie takes charge in the second half of the story and solves the mystery that Duff hadn’t yet solved.


As I read the correspondence between Biggers and his editor and recalled the plot of Charlie Chan Carries On, I chuckled. Biggers managed to both give the fans what they wanted (another meeting between Duff and Chan) and not give them what they wanted (Chan in London). I think that in writing this book he was showing mystery readers who is in charge of the novel: the author.

Still, learning this about Biggers and his fans’ suggestions didn’t reveal to me why Carries On is my favorite of the six novels. So this time around, for my fourth reading of the novel, I decided to pay very close attention to the question of why I like this book the most.

It’s a very well constructed mystery, as are all six of the Chan novels. The story starts out in London, where Inspector Duff of Scotland Yard investigates a murder that occurs at Broome’s Hotel. The murdered man, Hugh Drake, was a member of Doctor Lofton’s Around the World tour. Duff questions all seventeen members of the tour, but gets nowhere. He wants to keep the tour from leaving, but the British legal system will not let him do so because he has no evidence with which to charge anybody with murder.

In Nice a second member of the tour is murdered. Duff, who has arrived in Nice, learns that somebody in San Remo, Italy, is in danger, even though she’s not part of the tour. Duff travels with the tour to San Remo, but the person he means to protect is murdered. Neither Duff nor the Italian police can solve the crime, and so the tour continues eastward while Duff returns to London — after asking Pamela Potter, a tour member, to keep him informed by letter, and to cable him if anybody else is murdered.

Back at Scotland Yard Duff and his superior decide to put an undercover Yard man on the case: he will join the tour in Calcutta, working on the ship’s crew. But this undercover operator does not make it past Japan.

As the tour boat makes its way to Hawaii, Duff is sent to the US to investigate safe deposit boxes (which play a role in the murder) and, eventually, to meet the tour ship when it arrives in Honolulu.

There the long-awaited reunion between Chan and Duff takes place, with Chan and Duff treating each other to lunches and Chan inviting Duff to his home for dinner.

And then, the night that Duff is to sail to the States with the remaining tour members, he is shot while in Charlie’s office at the Honolulu Police Station. Before he passes out Duff whispers, “Carry on, Charlie.” Duff’s life is saved, but he cannot leave the hospital.


At this point Chan takes over, stating that his honor has been assailed and that he will solve the case for his friend. The last seven chapters of the book take place aboard the President Arthur as it steams its way toward San Francisco. Chan has Duff’s case notes with him and proceeds to question the tour members.

In my fourth reading, I was able to determine the identify of the killer by Chapter 18 (of 23) — with the same method that Chan was able to determine his identity. (Of course, unlike Chan, I had been here three times before!)

There are three things I noticed during my fourth reading that I hadn’t noticed in my first three. First, I observed that in this book Biggers’ does an amazing — and very funny — job of spoofing both Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot and her Miss Marple. I’m amazed that I never noticed this before.

Second, I think Biggers’ depictions of Americans abroad is hilarious. Earl and Eleanor made several trips abroad, and they must have encountered many Americans tourists such as the always-taking-pictures Mr. Benbow. Or the crude but good-at-heart gangster, Max Minchin. Perhaps one of the reasons I love this book so much is that the writing is so funny.

Third, I observed that although there are seventeen suspects, it was always very easy to know which character was which. I’ve read books in which there are six or seven suspects . . . and I can’t identify who is who when they next appear in the book. We’ve all had similar experiences. So how did Biggers manage to do this?

Although Duff had to question all the suspects, Biggers broke them into small groups. First we meet Doctor Lofton, who is in charge of the tour. That’s one character. Then we meet Pamela Potter and her mother. That’s three. Pamela is distinct because Mr. Drake was her grandfather and also because she is the youngest woman on the tour, perhaps twenty years old. The mother goes back to the States, so seventeen are down to sixteen. We then meet Mrs Spicer, who had the room next to Mr. Drake. We also meet Mr. Honywood, whose room is on the other side of Drake’s. We now have four characters to know (Lofton, Pamela Potter, Spicer, and Honywood). They are very distinct from one another. So far, an admirable job by Biggers.

Duff asks Doctor Lofton to assemble the tour members in a lounge. But five of them aren’t back from their London jaunt yet, so they will be questioned later. One of the seven new characters, Mr. Tait, faints the moment he enters the lounge. His young assistant, Mr. Kennaway, helps him into another room.

Now we have five people left to concentrate on: Mr. Ross, a timber merchant; Captain Keane, who isn’t a captain and who seems to lie about everything; Mr. Vivian, who seems to be the paramour of Mrs. Spicer; Norman and Laura Fenwick, brother and sister. We learn about these five, and it’s easy to keep them distinct because of their different ages, different origins, and different attitudes. The Fenwicks want to leave the tour and eventually do, narrowing the number from sixteen to fourteen.

Finally Duff meets the five people who weren’t there at the beginning of the questioning. Mr. and Mrs. Benbow are distinct because Mr. Benbow records each step of the world tour on film and is thus always with his camera; Max Minchin is a gangster from Chicago, with a very distinct way of speaking, and his wife Sadie buys jewelry everywhere they go. Mrs. Luce (the Miss Marple Spoof) is a 72-year-old sharply observant world traveler who has stories to tell about every port she has visited, and who draws lessons from her life’s experiences. As I said, these five characters are easy to keep straight, making this round-the-world story a real pleasure.

There is much I admire about Charlie Chan Carries On, but even now, after reading it a fourth time, I can’t pinpoint the reason why it’s my favorite. So let’s just say that the sheer scope of the book is what appeals to me.



Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies contains suggestions on how authors can keep characters distinct to readers.

Adventures in Self-Publishing, Part 3

After successfully publishing two books in 2010, I went for a third in 2011. My first self-published book was a reprint, my second was an original. Sound Proof, my third, was also an original. It’s a mystery novel, the sequel to my 1988 mystery, Dirty Proof. This is a novel that I could have submitted to publishers for traditional publication, but I really wanted to see how an original mystery would fare as a self-published book. So I published it myself.

This was an easy, enjoyable process. I simply took the 6″x9” template I had created for She’s on First, duplicated it, titled the template Sound Proof, and deleted the interior — while keeping the formatting. I got rid of the New Peninum font and replaced it with Palatino, an elegant, readable typeface. In less than a day I was able to insert my manuscript pages into the existing template, choose a font for the chapter numbers, write the copyright information, write the dedication, and write an About the Author page.

Had I gone ahead and published, I could have said that I formatted and self-published a book in a 24-hour period. But I didn’t go ahead and self-publish. What I did was go hunting for widows and orphans, and that added four or five additional days to my schedule. And a lot of woe.

As one who has read books since the age of five, as one who has observed what the pages of typographically beautiful books like like, and as one who is a former typesetter, I was determined to avoid pages that started with “widows” — a word or a few words which end a paragraph but start at the top of a new page. A widow is separated from the rest of its paragraph and kind of hangs at the top of a new page, all alone. In typesetting, widows are considered undesirable elements: sentences or paragraphs are rewritten so that the widow disappears. If the writing is made shorter, the widow ends up on the same page as the beginning of the paragraph. If the writing is made longer, at least one additional line of type moves to the top of the next page, so that there are two lines of type at the top. No widows.

SOUNDPROOF-CoverAn orphan, on the other hand, is the first line of a paragraph that is the last line on a page. That is, the first line of the paragraph starts at the very bottom of a page, and then the rest of the paragraph continues on the next page. Orphans are also considered undesirable in typesetting. No orphans.

In the process of eliminating widows and orphans, I found myself rewriting two or three times per chapter (there are 28 chapters in Sound Proof), just to change the page layout. What I was rewriting were lines in the final, thrice-proofread, formatted manuscript. My brain was in an eliminate-widows frame of mind — not in a look-for-typos frame of mind. And definitely not in a send-this-out-for-more-proofreading frame of mind. As far as I was concerned, the typos had all been eliminated. But in rewriting on the spot, I ended up making typos that I didn’t catch. Or, worse, I typed proper names that were correct for the characters in Sound Proof, but Spellcheck changed the spelling.

As a result, readers told me that Sound Proof contained noticeable typos: about fifteen of them. That is a lot of typos. Several months after the novel came out, I corrected each typo and resubmitted the manuscript to CreateSpace, and within a day my new, corrected manuscript was published.

No other book that I’ve self-published has contained so many typos. Most of my books have contained no typos: before I publish, I make certain the manuscript is read, re-read, read by outsiders, and spellchecked several times. Because of my experience with Sound Proof, I have, ever since, disregarded widows and orphans — because I associate them with a blunder on my part. If they occur, I let them occur. I find this preferable to trying to rewrite paragraphs and creating inadvertent errors that show up in print. And also preferable to sending out a thrice-proofread manuscript for a fourth proofreading.

After I self-published Sound Proof, I realized that it would be very easy (as well as very wise) of me to republish its predecessor, Dirty Proof. As with She’s on First, my agent made sure that the rights had reverted to me.

DIRTYPROOF-FINALCOVER-2So once again I duplicated my 6″x9” template, deleted the contents, and pasted in new content. Having made up my mind to ignore widows and orphans, I self-published Dirty Proof in less than 48 hours. The template was the same one I used for Sound Proof, as was the typeface and leading, and as were the margins and chapter headings. Robin Koontz designed both covers, and she made certain that the covers indicated the books were part of a set. A set which would become a series after I wrote a third Proof novel.

I’m happy that I self-published Dirty Proof, both because it was so easy to do, and also because many mystery readers insist on reading a series in sequence — so I wanted the first book available along with the second. As to my experiment to see how well a self-published mystery did, I was happy with Sound Proof’s first year of sales, and for two years it was the best-selling of my self-published books.

In 2010 I self-published two books, one a reprint and one an original. In 2011 I also self-published two books, one a reprint and one an original. That exhausted my supply of books to reprint: from here on, I thought, anything I self-published would be an original.

Dirty Proof and Sound Proof are available as softcover books and as ebooks.

Series Yes, Series No: Part II

There are at least two kinds of books in series. One kind continues the series hero and supporting characters, but not necessarily in chronological, event-driven order. Examples of such series are the Sherlock Holmes stories, Christie’s Poirot series and her Miss Marple series. The Nancy Drew books and the Hardy Boys books also fall into this category.

The other type of series, more modern than the first, develops the life of the hero in a chronological, cause-and-effect, event-driven order. This is the type of series that some fans will read only in the order the books were written, because they want to experience the hero’s life in the order the events occur. Interestingly, my favorite mystery series when growing up was the Trixie Belden series, and those books were definitely chronological order and event-in-hero’s life driven. And my two Proof novels, Dirty Proof and Sound Proof, are written in sequential-events order. The third Proof novel will continue in that vein.

Unknown-2I’m a fan of Steven Saylor’s Gordianus books. Gordianus is a Roman finder, or detective, who lives before, during, and after the rise of Julius Caesar. The novels in the series are “interrupted” with collections of short stories sandwiched between — short stories featuring Gordianus, but at the same time short stories that aren’t in chronological order. Saylor isn’t the only writer to have done this. As a reader, I find this interruption of the novel form disappointing. I feel that the hero’s life is not progressing, especially because the short stories are often from different periods in the hero’s life. And, because the novels are in chronological order, I have to struggle to fit the short stories into a time framework. Going back and forth in a hero’s life pleases some readers and displeases others.

When writers decide to write a story out of sequence — for example, in their fifth book in a series, they might write about events that occurred before the first book in the series — publishers may decide to put numbers on the outside of the books, and these numbers refer to the chronological “place” the book holds in the series. If a series is complete, these numbers help. If a series is still in progress, the numbers may become invalid!

Many authors who write series grow tired of writing them. They need a mental and emotional break from the characters. They need time to let new plots develop So they take a break from the series as a way of replenishing the well. But so often, what they do is start a second series of books. Sometimes the characters in this second series know the characters in the first, sometimes they don’t. And sometimes it’s difficult to tell if a writer is writing one series or two. Tony Hillerman’s Joe Leaphorn and Jimmy Chee series was like this — maybe it was two series, maybe it was one series which wandered around a bit.

Unknown-3Some writers write series not about a single set of characters, but about people who live in the same town. Each character gets his or her own story. Romance writer Robyn Carr did this with her popular Virgin River series, though she stopped the series at twenty books and started a different series. When I read reviews of romance novels in Publishers Weekly, I notice that many of them are about, say, four sisters, each of whom gets her own book. Or five brothers. Or ten cousins. One good thing about this is that each author is committed to a short series, not an endless series.

The longest series I’m currently reading — that is, I haven’t stopped reading the series for one reason or another — is Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch series. I’ve read the first twenty-three and am waiting for number twenty-four. The next longest series I’m still reading is the No. One Ladies’ Detective Agency series. I’m about to read the most recent book (seventeenth in the series).


Barbara Gregorich has one more Proof novel to publish before she has a series.

Series Yes, Series No: Part I

I started first grade when I was five years old, and it was in first grade that I learned to read and that I was first introduced to the concept of a series of books. Up until that time, the only books I was familiar with were picture books that my mother or grandfather read to me, and none of these were series books.

The series I was introduced to were the Dick and Jane readers, published by Scott Foresman, and I must say, I was underwhelmed. Dick bored me. Jane bored me. Sally bored me. Spot was fun. The series was not. I honestly think that, if I thought about series at all (probably not), it was with the intention of avoiding them, on the assumption that they would all be like Dick and Jane.

But then came third grade and the bookmobile! Wow! I could stand in line with other kids and we could enter the bookmobile three at a time and we could choose three books each if we wanted to. And I chose a book titled The Black Stallion, by Waltur Farley. And that changed my entire attitude toward books in series.

Because now I wanted to know what happened next to Alec and the Black. I needed to know. I needed to know faster than the bookmobile could supply me with books, and so my mother took me to a bookstore and I bought the next book in the Black Stallion series. Three days later, I bought the next. (My mother was very generous when it came to keeping me supplied with books.) And so on . . . until I caught up with Walter Farley’s writing and had to wait for the next book in the series to come out.


I was a fan and I wanted another book. I needed another book. I needed the story to go on and on and on and never end, always another adventure on the horizon. I wrote Walter Farley a fan letter. It’s possible that I urged him to hurry with the next book in the series. Only now, as an adult and a writer, do I realize how very difficult it is to produce a book a year. What’s good for fans is not necessarily good for writers.

unknownWalter Farley may have known before, during, or immediately after writing The Black Stallion that he would write a sequel. That book was The Black Stallion Returns. Two books do not make a series. That takes three books.

A sequel continues the story or expands on the theme of an earlier work. The Black Stallion Returns was clearly a sequel to the first book — the story continued from where it had left off. One of the reasons people love series is that they love to participate in the lives of other characters, be they heroes or villains — and they love to participate in these lives in a chronological, cause-and-effect order.

What’s good for fans (more books in the series they love) may not be good for the writer. I suspect that Walter Farley felt the need of a break from Alec Ramsey and his Arab stallion, because after writing a third book (a series!) titled Son of the Black Stallion, he wrote a fourth book about a boy and a horse, titled The Island Stallion. This was not part of the Black Stallion series. It was totally separate . . . although it eventually became its own series and it eventually linked up with the Black Stallion series when the two boy heroes met. The point is, I believe the writer needed a break from writing about the same people or the same horses all the time.

Today we’re inundated with series in fiction and even in nonfiction. Publishers like series because they sell more books. Readers like series because they get to spend more time with the characters they love.
But there was a time when writers didn’t automatically jump at the thought of writing a series of books. Earl Derr Biggers, creator of Charlie Chan, was thrilled that his first Chan novel, The House Without a Key, became a big hit. He was thrilled that the public clamored for more, More, MORE adventures of Charlie Chan. But Biggers wasn’t sure whether or not he should write a second book about Chan. He did feel that to write such a book would be financially wise. Up until the Chan novels, he had never written a sequel to any of his novels, and he felt he could probably make more money writing a series.

Unknown-1What worried Biggers was this: he believed that as soon as he wrote a sequel, he would have taken a step down a road from which there was no going back, because both his publisher and his public would demand nothing but Chan novels from him. This turned out to be absolutely correct: Biggers’ publisher wanted nothing but Chan novels, as did his public. Biggers did write a sequel (The Chinese Parrot) to the first Chan book, but as he lamented to his editor, “He who mounts a tiger cannot dismount.”

The public went crazy about Chan novels during the 1920s and early 1930s. Biggers received sackloads of fan mail, and his fans did not stop at praising him and telling him they wanted another Chan novel — they told him what the plot should be. Basically, they wanted Chan to take a trip from Hawaii to London to meet up with Inspector Duff, who had appeared in the third Chan book, Behind That Curtain.

These suggestions as to the plot of his fourth novel irritated Biggers. He wrote several letters to his editor complaining about the suggestions. In his fourth Chan novel, The Black Camel, Chan was in Hawaii and Inspector Duff was not present. I think Biggers was saying Phooey to the plot suggestions coming in from his millions of fans around the world. (The books were translated into 23 different languages.)


What his fans suggested must have made an impression on Biggers, and he ended up using their suggestions — though not in the way they suggested them. In the fifth Chan book, Charlie Chan Carries On, Chan does not go to London. (Too bad, fans!) But a murderer does go to London. That murderer is on an around-the-world cruise. He murders somebody on the ship while it’s in London. And so Inspector Duff, who cannot solve the crime before the ship leaves, joins the passengers on their cruise. The murderer strikes again in Italy, but, again, Duff can’t determine who the murderer is.

Finally, halfway through the book, the cruise reaches Hawaii. So instead of Chan going to London to meet Duff, it’s Duff who comes to Hawaii to meet Chan. What the fans really wanted was a reunion of Chan and Duff, and Biggers gave them that, but in his own way. And I’m glad he did, because the fifth novel is delightful. Biggers managed to keep his hero out of the book for half its length, bring him in at a critical moment, and continue the exciting story of the around-the-world cruise.

As one who loves reading mystery series, but also as one who understands that authors need breathing space and creative room, I totally admire the way Biggers carried on his Chan series.


Barbara Gregorich keeps wanting to make her two Proof novels into a series, but keeps getting waylaid by other books that demand to be written.