Do you read series novels in strict order? Are you happy to take them as you find them? Or do you follow a fiendishly disruptive scheme of your own?
I generally take a relaxed approach, especially with crime fiction. Most crime series authors are careful to avoid spoilers to the main plot of earlier novels. Of course you can’t help knowing things about the series protagonists that had yet to happen in earlier books, but that can be interesting in itself. If you first meet a detective as the head of a task force and then go back and see her as a nervous detective constable, it can be intriguing to see how she grew into the role (and how the author seeded it – or didn’t).
Reading series out of order mirrors more closely our experience in real life. If you are introduced to a new work colleague, she doesn’t recite to you the key events of her life in chronological order before you’ve given her a temporary password and shown her where the kettle is. You get to know her as she is now. It may be some time before she tells you about the difficult end of her second marriage, and she’ll probably do that before she tells you what she did when she left school.
Sometimes I’ll get hooked. I started reading Lawrence Block’s Matt Scudder series at the tenth book (a random find in the library) and was so intrigued by the interplay of the main characters that I read forward to the end (he says he won’t write any more, though fans live in hope). I’ve now gone back to the early books and that’s fascinating too.
It’s a shame that there is no clear terminology that distinguishes between series that can be happily read as standalones and those that need to be read in a certain order. (If I’ve missed the memo, do let me know.) Sometimes I’ve seen the latter described as a trilogy or quartet or whatever but that doesn’t seem to be applied consistently.
I picked up the final book in Chris Brookmyre’s Jasmine Sharp trilogy and realised it answers a key question that runs throughout the three books. I will still probably go back and read the others but if I’d known I might have waited.
Perhaps it doesn’t matter as much as it did in the past. It’s much easier to source a series in order. Before online bookselling, most bookshops would have the latest book in a series, possibly the first, and one or two of the other popular titles. The same with libraries. Unless you had the commitment to order a book, go away and come back for it several days later, you had to read what you could get, and authors wrote with that in mind. Now it’s easy to go online and buy the books in order, or even in a boxset.
Writers are more confident about changing their characters’ lives throughout a series, rather than having them start each book, like The Simpsons, exactly where they were in the last one. (Ruth Rendell’s Wexford famously aged little in his forty-year career because she hadn’t realised how successful he would be when she started and he was already 52 in the first book!) In series crime novels it’s increasingly common to wrap up the investigation but hook the reader by setting up a new story for the protagonist– making the reader eager to move straight onto the next one.
I’m happy to bump into series characters and take my chances. What about you?