The Problem With Series Mysteries: Who Changes?



Writing is all about the protagonist, right? And that protagonist goes through some turmoil–yes, simplifying here–and then, abracadabra, she goes through some fundamental change by the end. Succeed or fail, she changes in some deep way. Got that? Never varies? Rules of the game and all.

Except. Except. Really? What about Sherlock Holmes? Wow, he really grows and matures, huh. Joe Friday (if you’re old enough to remember Dragnet)? Yeah, goes home from the precinct a changed man at the end of each episode, hoo boy.

Uh. No. Holmes is pretty much always Holmes. Lights a pipe, grabs his violin and waits for the next client. Friday has to be one of the most colorless, blank slates of all the slates out there. Throws the crook in jail, gavel bangs to show justice will be done. Onward.

So when writing a series mystery, as opposed to a stand-alone, if it’s not your detective who changes, who does? In modern mysteries, of course, we’ve seen more changing. The sleuth–whether amateur or pro–becomes harder drinking as life’s harsh realities set in, leaves the spouse (or the spouse is killed: cautionary note to those thinking of marrying a detective), retires vowing to never touch another case, develops PTSD or OCD or another DSM classification. As I think about it, the changes never seem to be all that positive: “Hey, honey, I feel like the world has become so much cleaner and brighter since that blackmailer fell off the bridge, let’s get a puppy!”

An argument could be made that in a classic mystery series, the “protagonist,” the one who changes, is the “antagonist,” the evildoer who has been brought to justice in some way. But unless the killer goes through a substantial psychological change or breakthrough, isn’t the change really external: he goes to jail, gets sent to the gallows, falls off the bridge? (I’m never walking across a bridge if I forget to pay the gas bill on time, by the way.)

What then creates the epiphany or recognition that “story” supposedly demands? Traditionally, a mystery–whether puzzle or police procedural–brings about not change but a return to stability. Yes, even in the traditional hero story arc, there should be the return of the hero, bringing back the grail or ring or sorcerer’s stone, to the land where she began and that’s stability. But she’s supposed to have changed in some way. She recognizes her own strengths when she thought she had none. She appreciates Kansas. She’ll never go hungry again, damn it.

Can the change occur in those characters surrounding the mystery? In Nicholas Blake’s The Widow’s Cruise, the character who seems to have the most change is a young man who starts as a stuck up little prig, all ego and cockiness, who falls for an older woman only to have her end up dead and himself suspected for a time. Blake describes him at the end as having matured. But do we feel this changes the outcome of the mystery that much? Could he have stayed cocky and the mystery still pleasingly resolved? Absolutely.

Now, I’m supposed to give you the answer. Well, I can’t because I’m struggling to figure it out. Maybe in a series, change isn’t really the answer–although that means I’m going to have to ditch a passel  of books on how to write that I own. Or the change may come to the community as a whole (although in the previously mentioned Blake book, they just continue to cruise the Aegean). Or the “protagonist,” the object of change is just that–an object. The blue carbuncle? The apportioned will? The body in the library?

In my own work, I suspect the neighborhood of The Blue Moon might be the “character” most “upended,” as Lisa Cron phrases it in Story Genius. Yes, my protagonist will change a bit more than Holmes or Miss Marple. But not so much she can’t go on to sleuth out another day or mix another cocktail. (Trigger warning: if this series ever flies, it’s not a cozy. Swearing will ensue.) Cheers. And if you do have the answer, I’m all ears (not really, I have fingers, toes and other body parts, too).



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