As our days grow shorter in the holiday arc that takes us from Thanksgiving through Advent to Christmas and the New Year, our thoughts turn to the comforts of home, gatherings of family and friends, and the familiar feasts of the season. Turkey and all the trimmings for Thanksgiving, roast beef or goose—or turkey again!—for Christmas, and all the dishes and desserts that our own family traditions call forth for the holidays: these are our comfort foods for these briefer, colder days spent increasingly indoors.
Certain kinds of books are our comfort foods for the mind and spirit as well. Like our families’ favorite dishes, our “comfort books” appeal to us in large part because of their familiarity. And nothing combines the pleasure of familiarity with the delight of the new so well as series fiction—books that return us again and again to places and times and, above all, characters we already know.
We should distinguish series from sequels and cycles. The sequel—the continuation or follow-up to an initial story—is surely the oldest form of literary “what next.” Isn’t the Odyssey a kind of sequel to the Iliad, however different the two poems may be? Sometimes a work’s success will prompt an author to write one or more sequels to cash in on the enthusiasm, as when Dumas was moved by the sales of The Three Musketeers to write Twenty Years After and the triple-length Vicomte de Bragelonne. But this suggests that sequels need not have been conceived when the books they follow were written. They’re more likely to be opportunistic than planned, and frequently the initial novel can happily stand alone for readers. The sequels are not required reading.
Cycles, on the other hand, are usually mapped out in the mind of the author in advance and can be considered single works with multiple, individually titled parts. This appears to be the case with works like Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy, J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Olivia Manning’s “Fortunes of War” cycle (consisting of The Balkan Trilogy and The Levant Trilogy), and the still more massive In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust and Dance to the Music of Time by Anthony Powell. The unitary conception of these sets is self-evident, with a continuous story that only reaches a denouement with the final volume. The result is that no devoted reader would consider stopping after the first book in the cycle. (For the record, I have dipped my toes in Powell and plan to take the full plunge one day, but have not attempted Proust.)
While sequels and especially cycles make regular appearances in “literary fiction,” the device of the true series seems reserved for “genre fiction.” Literary fiction, one might say, is written for the critics and the prizes, with a view to making a lasting mark on the art of writing. Genre fiction—think of mysteries, science fiction and fantasy, historical fiction—is written for the mass publics that consume these species of writing by the shelf. And as literacy spread in the modern age, the series proved to be a surefire way for writers to acquire faithful readers of book after book.
Series belong to genre fiction because the conceit of the series, the through-line of series writing, is the heroic protagonist who appears in novel after novel: the detective, the warrior, the secret agent. Unlike mere sequel-writing, the writing of a series is often conceived in advance by the author—though whether the second and subsequent novels will ever be written depends on the success of the first. But unlike the cycle, there is no need in the series for a unitary story that has a continuous arc from first volume to last. The nature of the series is episodic; we follow our hero(ine) through one adventure after another. A continuity of narrative in the protagonist’s life story is optional, and a reader can often enjoy just one book in the series, or several, while forgoing an orderly immersion in the whole series. But the author’s transparent aim is to attain a large following of full-immersion readers who read the books faithfully in order from “number one” onward, and devour each thereafter as it comes within reach.
The first outstanding success in series writing of this kind, with the episodic adventures of a hero, was probably that of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. (Holmes’s precursor, Edgar Allan Poe’s detective Auguste Dupin, appeared in a mere three short stories, not quite qualifying as a series.) Over a forty-year period Conan Doyle wrote four novels and fifty-six short stories. A mere six years in, growing weary of writing Holmes stories, the author killed off his detective in “The Final Problem,” sending him over Reichenbach Falls with his nemesis Professor Moriarty. Evidently he preferred to devote his energies to projects like his historical fiction The White Company (which is so bad that it reminds us that readers often recognize the goods better than writers do). Persistent reader demand that Conan Doyle resuscitate Holmes succeeded; after eight years he published The Hound of the Baskervilles, and kept the great detective busy for another quarter century.
Holmes became the template for countless mystery series, each organized around a detective’s cases, from Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot and Jane Marple to Ngaio Marsh’s Inspector Alleyn to P. D. James’s Inspector Dalgliesh. In a blending of genres, the setting of fictional detectives in earlier epochs of history is now routine, from Lindsey Davis’s Marcus Didius Falco in ancient Rome, to Ellis Peters’s twelfth-century Brother Cadfael, to Charles Todd’s Ian Rutledge, set in the years following World War I. I confess I know about some of these detective series only secondhand, from the women in my family. It is a puzzle to me why mysteries are so much a feminine enthusiasm—women writers and women readers have long dominated the field on both sides—though the heroes of the genre are more often men than women.
On the other hand, the popularity of spy, warrior, and science fiction series with men more than with women is easier to understand. Ian Fleming’s James Bond is often thought to have inaugurated the secret-agent genre of series—though Poul Anderson’s science-fiction intelligence agent Dominic Flandry made his first appearance two years earlier, and both might have been inspired by the recurring character of Richard Hannay in the adventure fiction of John Buchan.
In the large market for military-historical series one finds writers like the incredibly prolific Bernard Cornwell, perhaps best known for the Napoleonic-era British soldier Richard Sharpe. A cut above, in my opinion, is Allan Mallinson, whose hero in the same period is cavalry officer Matthew Hervey. There is probably a consensus among the relevant readers that the gold standard was Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series, featuring a naval captain and his ship’s surgeon in—yet again—the Napoleonic wars. But even O’Brian surely found inspiration in the mid-century Horatio Hornblower novels of C. S. Forester, which were probably the first of their kind.
Science fiction and fantasy have long been a home to series fiction. Given the nature of the genres, a series can be driven as much by its other-worldly setting as by its leading characters. Yet character-driven fantasy adventure series go all the way back to Edgar Rice Burroughs, who pioneered such fiction in the early twentieth century with the fabulously successful Tarzan and John Carter of Mars stories.
Over the years I’ve read many of these series, in whole or in part. And I think Conan Doyle was on to something when he sent Sherlock Holmes plummeting to what the author certainly intended to be his (permanent) death. Make no mistake, a well-crafted series is comfort food indeed; but the author’s tacit contract with his most faithful readers is that the diet will stay continually fresh, and this is a standard exceedingly difficult to maintain. The Brother Cadfael series faltered after thirteen novels or so. Even the masterly Patrick O’Brian could not keep the saga of Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin lively after about fifteen of his eventual twenty novels. It’s hard to think of a single series that ended as strongly as it began.
But when the hits keep on coming, it’s difficult for writers to resist the market demand. I have linked above to the “first” book in most of the series mentioned—meaning first in the fictional chronology of the protagonist’s life—but in several cases what became a series began with a single tale that may have been meant to stand alone, or to have just a sequel or two, yet was transformed by multiple prequels and sequels into a story in the middle of an ongoing episodic series (see, e.g., the Flandry, Sharpe, and Hornblower series). Success builds the writer’s treadmill, and it can lack an “Off” switch.
Perhaps “keep them coming back for more” should be replaced as the series writer’s motto by “make them wish there had been more.” Maybe Conan Doyle should have left Holmes for dead at the foot of that Swiss waterfall. Maybe our favorite comfort foods are seasonal for a reason, so that they do not pall with overconsumption.