Legal luck

I was talking, this past week, with my Readers’ Advisory students about the peculiarities of mystery fiction, one of them being the prevalence of the series. I’m sure some are saying to themselves, But, fantasy! and yes, other genres, notably fantasy and science fiction, are also heavy on series. The difference is, the series exists in those genres specifically to advance the story, while in mystery fiction that’s not true or, at least, true in a different way.

Mystery readers love their series because they get attached to the protagonist. If you think of some of the series out there that have not just been popular on the page but also on the television or the big screen, it is the character who is the prevalent element around which everything else circles. Harry Bosch, Kinsey Milhone, Walt Longmire, Stephanie Plum—in every case, readers keep reading (or watching) because they find the character compelling. It doesn’t seem to matter so much what the story is, as long as the dynamic and charismatic detective is at the center of it.

For this reason, mystery readers can be more forgiving than readers of some other genres. If the character is one they like and with whom they identify, and if more details are revealed about this character in each subsequent book in the series, mystery readers may go along a book or two or even three further even if the mysteries themselves—the plots—aren’t so great, just because they enjoy the familiarity of the character’s world and person.

This doesn’t mean that mystery readers can’t be hypercritical of a poorly plotted novel—a clumsy reveal, a red herring that doesn’t go anywhere, an epilogue for an ending instead of the direct action that they crave—but they will hang in, hoping for a renaissance of their writer’s story-telling skills, just to be with the character.

I have found myself being a perfect example of this with several mystery series over the years (Elly Griffiths, I’m looking at you), none more obvious than my abandonment of John Lescroart’s legal mysteries that all take place in the courtroom long after the (initial) crime was committed. The masters of this oeuvre are, of course, Grisham and Turow, but Lescroart’s Dismas Hardy definitely held his own until…he didn’t. The first two-thirds of the series was fresh and exciting, starting with #1, Dead Irish; I liked the protagonist, the side characters, and the setting (San Francisco). But after a while I could have written many of the scenes myself, because they were based on and exceedingly repetitive of similar scenes in every single volume. I think I finally gave up at about #17. To give him credit, Lescroart did try to shake things up by going with different characters from the same world (Abe Glitsky, Wyatt Hunt), but since they all worked in the same or adjacent venues that had already been exhaustively portrayed (and ate lunch in the same dismal hole that had been described at excessive length in each and every volume), it just didn’t work, and I gave up on Lescroart.

This soured me for quite a while on the subgenre of legal thrillers itself, but I’m happy to say I may have discovered a new one for which I can muster enthusiasm. I read the first book—Open and Shut—in David Rosenfelt’s Andy Carpenter series, and found it fresh, somewhat humorous, and possessed of a mystery both satisfying and entertaining, so now it’s only incumbent on me to keep reading and see how long it lasts—there appear to be at least 25 more books behind that one.

Open and Shut introduces Andy, a brash young defense attorney whose choice of profession pleases neither his father, a formidable former District Attorney for New Jersey, nor his financially and politically ambitious (and temporarily estranged) wife, Nicole. Then, after asking Andy to take on a seemingly unwinnable appeal for a man on death row who was convicted seven years previous, his father drops dead at a Yankees game, leaving Andy with two puzzles: Why would his dad, who was heavily involved in convicting the guy himself, put Andy in this position; and why did he hide the fact that when he died, his son would be inheriting 22 million dollars? It slowly becomes clear that these two seemingly unrelated facts are somehow tied together; but does Andy really want to know how his father acquired $2 mil almost 37 years ago, but never mentioned it or touched a dime of it for all this time?

Some things I liked about this book: The protagonist, a down-to-earth, pragmatic guy with his share of issues; his associates—sharp (though pessimistic) investigator and potential love interest Laurie; Kevin, who gave up the law to run a laundromat because he was too good to lose and felt guilty no matter who he prosecuted or defended; and of course Andy’s golden retriever, Tara, who is his best friend and tends to garner more attention than most of the humans in Andy’s vicinity.

I liked it well enough to keep reading the series; we’ll see how long it takes for Andy to wear out his welcome.

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