It’s not a new question, but it came up recently. Thinking about the idea of a recurring protagonist in a mystery series, how many books are too many? I happened to tune in on the PBS documentary called “Nordic Blast.” The program discussed the current popularity of mysteries set in Scandinavian countries. And while I believe the Irish will challenge the Swedes in the end, the usually dark, cold and brooding mysteries of Scandinavia seem to be on a roll, and, in fact, were gathering fans and starred reviews even before Stieg Larsson set the world on fire.
In the documentary, there was a brief mention of the earlier and much heralded Martin Beck series and how it had started a Swedish tradition of authors voluntarily ending their series at 10 books. Swedish writer Henning Mankell, who created the Wallander series seems to abide by the idea, He recently published his last Wallander — the 10th of the internationally successful series.
As Mankell is getting the buzz about the last Wallander, much is being written about the recent release of the late Robert B. Parker’s Sixkill, the last Spenser to be written by Parker, but the 39th in the series. Over the years — at Bouchercons and Edgar Award ceremonies — there seemed to be resentment among more than a few writers who suggested Parker had been phoning it in for years. Was this just jealousy over such an obvious (and seemingly effortless) success? Or was it because it was so difficult to believe that anyone could sustain a series for so long without running out of steam or ideas?
Actually, Parker is not alone in this prolificacy. The highly respected Bill Pronzini is about to release Camouflage, the author’s 38th and always well-received Nameless Detective book. Rex Stout created 47 Nero Wolfe novels and 40 more Wolfe novellas. Sue Grafton is at V for Vengeance. X, Y and Z cannot be far away. (What she does at the end of the alphabet is anyone’s bet; but the periodic tables have already been taken.) And it’s not just American overachievers. Of the more than 200 novels Belgian Georges Simenon wrote, 75 of them featured Maigret.
I suspect that any debate about how many books in a series are too many can be rationally debated and might very well conclude that there should be no maximum number, provided the author can maintain the quality that allowed the series to be that popular in the first place. No doubt my curiosity about the subject is predicated on my own series. Bullet Beach is the 10th Shanahan. Keeping in mind I’m 1/8th Norwegian, what should I do?