Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

The Faux Snow Day

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We are supposed to be getting a snow storm today–in fact, we’re supposed to be getting it already.  The web sites I go to for weather have been screaming about it for days, because that would make three week ends in a row with snow, and that would be very impressive.

At the moment, however, I’m sitting in my office, and it’s warmer than it’s been in months.  It’s a little cloudy outside, but otherwise than that, nothing is happening.

I don’t even have all the available heat in the house on, which is pretty impressive for this point in February.

Maybe it will cloud up later, and snow will fall on my head all afternoon.

I doubt it.

But I doubt it.

This morning the local news websites were hemming and hawing around “well, maybe mostly rain,” and the snow map didn’t even have the worst predictions over my neck of the woods.

I hate the phrase “neck of the woods.”

I’ve never understood what it was supposed to mean.

When I think about it, I always imagine Ents.

At any rate, Ents notwithstanding–

About a week and a half ago I read a book called A Trick of the Light, by Louise Penny.

I read it because the author and I had both been mentioned in an article in Publisher’s Weekly.

For those of you who don’t know, PW is the industry magazine for booksellers.  Being mentioned there in positive terms is generally considered to be a good thing.

In this case, it was also not a hugely unusual thing.  She and I had been mentioned together before. 

And when it happened, as when it happened this time, I always told myself I’d have to get hold of one of Penny’s books and see what I thought of it.

So I finally did, and then–just to check it out–I posted a status to Facebook asking if anybody else had read Penny’s work, and what they thought about it.

Now, this is not a post about Penny’s book.  It was a good book.  I enjoyed reading it.  I would be happy to read another one. 

Her characters are engaging, the setting of the novel was intriguing, and the whole thing rang true.

What flummoxed me was the responses I got to my status on Facebook.

All those people liked Penny’s books, too, but they were nearly universal in cautioning me to read the series in order.  The characters develop from book to book, they warned me.

And they did think it was a warning.

But here’s the thing–I read a lot of series whose characters develop over time, and I almost never read them in order.

I’m sure there must be some advantages to reading in order, but there are also disadvantages. 

For one thing, I frequently come to series late in the day, so that there are multiple volumes out there and the earliest ones are already out of print.

For another, I have the firm conviction that every mystery novel should be able to stand on its own. 

Unlike novels of other kinds, mystery novels focus on a crime and its solution.  That crime and that solution needs to be thoroughly explored and explained within the single volume, or what you have is a very bad mystery novel.

It would be a very bad mystery novel even if its characters were marvels of completeness and complexity to rival Dostoyevski.

This attitude, that there is something compelling and necessary about reading a series in the order in which it was published, seems to me so wrongheaded that I don’t know how to approach it.

I do know that some writers create problems for themselves on this score by letting spoilers about earlier mysteries into the later ones, but not only do most writers not do this, I would say, from my experience, most of them don’t.

I’m also not sure that I care when they do.

Especially in cases where the earlier books are OOP anyway, I’m not sure why it matters–but even when the entire series is in print, I don’t read novels so that I can see if I can outwit the writer on the solution.

“I figured out who did it before the end” is not, for me, a reason to think that a detective novel is bad.

For me, the disadvantages to this approach to reading mystery fiction seem so obvious, I can’t understand why anybody does it. 

I don’t even take this approach to novel series where the continuity is the point.  The first novel I ever read in Allen Drury’s Advise and Consent series was the third one in, and after that I read them as I found them.  It was definitely not in order.

Maybe I’d be less frustrated about this if I didn’t also think that there are people out there who would enjoy my books but who are not reading them because the early ones are not in print. 

Matters of personal future royalties aside, however, I really don’t understand why people do this, even though I know most people do.

After all, if you get interested in the development, you can always go back and reread the series in order.

The copyedited manuscript beckons.

It is trying to kill me.


Written by janeh

February 24th, 2013 at 10:23 am

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses to 'The Faux Snow Day'

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  1. I don’t know, but I figured “my neck of the woods” filtered into American English from the German “ecke” meaning “corner” so at some point “mein ecke” became “my neck.” German influence on American English is subtle, but not absent.

    Sequence. If the important thing to a particular reader is the development of the character over time, or there’s some over-arching plot, such as Sue Grafton seemed to be working on, then reading the volumes in order makes sense. You wouldn’t begin THE LORD OF THE RINGS with THE TWO TOWERS or open up THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV and start in the middle. (There are such things as used bookstores and libraries to accomodate people who hear about a series after the first volume is out of print.)

    I’d have to say that generally the series writer is wise to so construct the work that even though some recurring character may be promoted or marry the knowledge of such a later event will not spoil reading of an earlier novel. Usually that’s not difficult, but there are problems. If I know Timothy Harte is a suspect in the post-war DUPLICATE DEATH, than I know he can’t be the murderer in the pre-war THEY FOUND HIM DEAD. Similarly, while series leads are usually safe, recurring characters are not. Reading the books out of chronological order can mean I KNOW Bosun Woetjans will recover from her injuries in an earlier volume, and that Lt Dorst is going to be killed in action pretty soon. Also, it’s a bit subjective and thus not altogether under the writer’s control. “JD Robb” may regard each volume as a standalone mystery, but I may read them for the Peabody & McNabb subplot and be upset at having developments anticipated.

    I’m not a fanatic about it. I read the Pay McKennas as I found them, which was almost exactly backward. But if I can, I’ll generally shoot for chronological or publication order. It’s also a help in that series are more likely to wind down than build up. Read them in order, and when you hit two tired volumes in a row, you know it’s probably time to quit. Pick up volumes at random–well, I started Agatha Christie with THIRD GIRL and ELEPHANTS CAN REMEMBER. I was a while trying Agatha Christie again.

    Oh. Figuring out the end? Again, the subjective “why am I reading this novel?” and one of the possible answers is “for the puzzle, as an intellectual exercise.” In that case, tossing the book because any fool can see the who, how and why of the murder is a perfectly valid response. Sometimes it’s my response. If I wanted to read a mainstream novel, I could be holed up for the weekend with the collected works of Silas Weekley.


    24 Feb 13 at 2:28 pm

  2. I confess I usually like to read books in order, and sometimes won’t bother reading a new book that announces on its cover “Book 3 in the series….”. I have found that there are often bits that don’t quite make sense out of sequence. This is perhaps more common in non-mysteries, but I got one of Julia Spencer-Fleming’s out of sequence and realized that a major issue in her heroine’s love life had been resolve and I didn’t know how or why. And (although it’s not a mystery), with the last Kim Harrison book I read, I realized immediately that I’d missed the crucial event that set up the entire plot of the later book.

    That being said, I’m not entirely rigid about reading in order in all cases, and many authors, especially mystery authors, do seem to be able to use a recurring character and yet write books that can be read out of order without missing anything.

    As for weather – our forecasters are becoming quite good, although modern technology now means everyone’s talking about three different models which sometimes predict three different kinds of weather. I (and everyone else) are now getting thoroughly sick of winter, and it doesn’t help to remember that our winter started unusually late, with decent weather right into December. Winter can’t possibly have been as long as it feels right now, and anyway I distinctly remember thinking before Christmas that we were sure to get bad weather later in the year to make up for the mild fall. So why should I be surprised and disgruntled when that happened?


    25 Feb 13 at 7:24 am

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