Why I’ll Stop Reading a Long-Running Mystery Series

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by Barb, traveling back to Key West after a lovely wedding in Vermont

As I explained on Maine Crime Writers on Thursday, as soon as I turn in my current book, it will be time to write a new proposal for books seven through nine of the Maine Clambake Mysteries. This got me thinking about the positive reasons why I stay with a long-running mystery series. I wrote my answers here.

In my post today, I’m looking at the opposite side of the question. What causes me to drift away from a series? I don’t mean read one book and decide,”This isn’t for me.” I mean to either consciously or unconsciously stop reading new books in a mystery series I’ve previously been invested in.

Here’s what I came up with.

(1) I don’t care what happens to anyone. There are a lot of discussions, most of them not fruitful in my opinion, about whether main characters have to be “likeable.” For me, the answer is no. I don’t have to like them, but a do have to care what happens to them, because the entire point of reading a book is to find out what happens to them. There may be some standalone thrillers with plots so compelling you’ll read them in spite of the cardboard characters, but that isn’t possible for a series.

While this might seem like a reason not to start reading a series in the first place, I have often started series with interesting characters only to have them turn into people I wouldn’t want to share a cab with, much less get stuck on a desert island with. Patricia Cornwall’s Kay Scarpetta series became this for me. I wasn’t put off by the blood and gore, or the marital infidelity per se, or even the crazy politics. But a main character making terrible life decisions, sitting in judgey-judgment on all the other characters, who are also making terrible life decisions… It was too much. I let it go.

(2) The series story doesn’t move forward. There’s a lot of talk about whether protagonists in crime series need a character arc. Whether they need to somehow be different at the end of a book than they are at the beginning. Whether they need to grow over a series. Lee Child’s Jack Reacher famously doesn’t.

I find I don’t care so much if the character changes, but I need the story to move forward. I need the character to choose the good guy or the bad boy, to make peace with her mother or decide she never will. I need the hints about that thing that happened in the past to be revealed if not resolved. I’m really patient. Milk it for as many books as you think you can, but I need it to happen.

Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series was this for me. I loved the humor and I loved the portrait of life in the Burg. But it all became a little rote–sassy dialog, car crash, fail to make choice between two men, crash funeral with grandma, car cash, car cash. She made a lot of money off of me. I took this series for a long ride, but eventually I gave up.

(3) Every single character from every single book moves forward with the series. I like the introduction of interesting new series characters, especially if they have a personal or professional connection to the main character. But I don’t need every character I’ve ever met, many of whom I can’t remember, to be involved in each new investigation.

I stopped reading Martha Grimes’ Richard Jury series for this reason. When there got to be dozens of characters, all introduced in the first chapter of the next new book, I gave up.

(4) There are too many books, too frequently. Okay, I know this is idiosyncratic to me and that the only viable business model for a lot of self-published series right now involves frequent releases. It may be because I read slowly, or I have reading I have to do for my writing, or I have so many favorite series, but if an author writes so much that I get way far behind, I’ll give up.

Readers, what makes you stop reading new books mystery series?

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105 thoughts on “Why I’ll Stop Reading a Long-Running Mystery Series

  1. I lost interest in the Martha Grimes, Richard Jury books when it dawned on me that they all tended to revolve around death of children, that was at about book #10, The Old Silent. Also the fact that Melrose Plant seemed to be in them less and less, and the books were more concerned in Jury’s non love life.
    Probably why my house is full of sooo many books, as I tend to drift from one series to another.

  2. For me, many of the same reasons, Barb. I gave up on a long-running series recently because the story was not moving forward. The characters were on a trip to another state, sure. By page umpty-x I hadn’t read about a crime, nothing was supsenseful, and they were just blithely going about their lives. I felt like the author was phoning it in. In another long-running series, the author switched point of view to an also long-running police officer. Which would have been fine if she’d done it in book three or six. But book eighteen? It didn’t work for me.

    That said, I was crouching in the background as I read your post, trying to see how my own series measure up! So thanks for the different perspective. It’s a good exercise.

    • Without naming names, after book 19, the main character still could not choose between her two love interest and her mother got married before she did, well that was enough. I became disgusted with the series and wanted to throw away the 19 books I had purchased in this series.

      • Then the main character marries someone out of left field? I believe that’s the same series that I was now ambivalent about. I just got the latest book…it’s on the list of to be read…later.

      • I haven’t read the series but it seems like a lot of people were unhappy with that. It’s interesting to me as a writer to wonder what her thought process was.

    • And really, why hasn’t one or both of the guys made a decision by now?? Do you really want someone who can’t make up their mind?

      The long-running love triangles make me so annoyed, and they have made me incredibly jaded now. I see one in a new series and the eye rolls begin immediately and that series gets dumped on the back burner. With so many cozy series especially, you have to suspend some of your disbelief (because really, how many murders can happen around the newcomer to town before they a) Get arrested for serial killings, or B) Get run out of town?), but for a while there the love triangle trope was happening in EVERY.SINGLE.SERIES and that just stretches things too far.

  3. I become disinterested when the main characters seem to have no life except solving murders. No conflict between them, no family drama, etc. No one’s real life is like that.

      • Yeah, there’s a fine line where everything is balanced, even if it’s precariously balanced and could come crashing down on either side at any moment, because that’s how life is, haha.

  4. When the characters do not learn from their mistakes or grow and evolve. They keep doing the same foolish actions in every book and get caught up in the same situations. It’s like Timmy falling down the well in every Lassie episode. Damn it KID! Pay attention and don’t go there.

  5. I stopped reading Archer Mayor when I opened the current book in the series to find two horses dying horribly in a barn fire on the first page. This is not what I look for in my light reading.

  6. You give good reasons for giving up on a series.

    I’m about to give up on a beloved series because the main character has lost the initial charm she had. She’s become outdated. When the series began she had a particular style that was cute, but now it’s become unrealistic that she’d don a certain ensemble in this day and age. She needs reinventing because she’s grown stale.

      • A friend of mine who reads Grafton says she didn’t want Kinsey working in an era of online searching and cell phones. And apparently the backstory is too tightly linked to specific events to just let Kinsey update over time.

  7. I applaud your list of reasons to keep going, although in my case, I’d put “getting attached to my characters and wondering where they’re going” at the top of the list–they become an extended family. It is definitely a balancing act, to keep characters moving forward with their lives without losing whatever drew readers to them in the first place (or putting them in the middle of improbable situations just to advance the story arc). I often look at (and envy) Katherine Hall Page’s endurance as an author, as her characters move through their lives.

    But one thing you didn’t mention: in this uncertain publishing climate, you can’t be sure how many books you’ll have to flesh out your characters and their lives, which may force you to push them faster and harder than you would by choice.

    Good luck with the proposal!

  8. Thank you Barbara for putting into words my thoughts about why I have stopped reading several series. The Janet Evanovich series is a case in point.

  9. All good reasons! I stopped reading Cornwell when she switched to writing the books in present tense. I don’t know why, but present tense pulls me out of a story instead of drawing me in. I don’t get why a writer would change her writing style mid-series anyway. It didn’t work–at least for me. Plus, the books just got way too weird.

    I also dislike love triangles in series or romances that don’t progress from book to book. When I started writing the Brewing Trouble series, I made sure I knew where Max and Jake’s romance was going to go. I didn’t want them just flirting with each other and never actually doing anything about it.

    • I’m not a fan of present tense either unless it is really (really) well done. Robert Crais switched from first to third person in the middle of the series. But they books are still great. Not everyone can pull that off.

  10. I agree with you, and examples on Cornwall and Evanovich are why I stopped reading them. I stopped Jonathan Kellerman’s because the stories were predictable and the charscters didn’t grow. Those were helpful in that it made me try harder to give readers something different and less predictable. My next Nora Tierney, The Golden Hour, is very different from the first three for r that reason. It’s darker, and not a Whodunit?– readers know the villain early on. It’s more if a Cantheystophim? And I hope readers will like the change in type and the changes to Nora, too. It’s always a gamble …
    Have fun with the proposals!

    • I read a lot of Kellerman’s early books but drifted away for no particular reason — at least not consciously — maybe you put it into words for me. Very interesting that you made a big change! I can’t wait to see what happens.

  11. Sloppy writing and cardboard characters stop me. Also some series start out tightly written but as the person grows more famous they are given more free rein which isn’t always a good thing. I still read the Evanovich books and usually something makes me laugh out loud. In her latest she pointed out subtly that the series has (in character time) has spanned three years. I can’t imagine the books without Joe and Ranger. That said I think in her earlier books Stephanie had more depth of feeling than she does now. Sigh. Maybe it’s time to step away and just re-read the first seven or so.

  12. Joyce, I’m with you on present tense. I don’t know why, but I’ve read very few present tense books that really suck me in. And I’d imagine changing mid-stream would be…weird.

    Yes to love triangles that go on forever and the “will they-won’t they” that is never resolved. And yes to characters that make bad choices and never seem to learn from them.

    And now to print off this list and make sure I avoid these scenarios in my own books. 🙂

  13. I’ve stopped reading series for several reasons. The stories weren’t funny anymore. The author cheated on the plotting. The main character became increasingly self-righteous. And in one case, the series lost its charm.

  14. One addendum…isn’t this why formula books work for a while but do need to be changed? Janet Evanovich came up with a formula and it is almost like a template for a book that she just revises the paragraphs but the story is the same.

  15. Patricia Cornwell was the first series that I started out absolutely loving, but then had to stop reading — the plots just became irritating to me, and I got to where I really didn’t care what happened to most of the characters because of their choices to make such bad decisions. I just stopped reading a very long-running cozy series that had also had a long-running love triangle that suddenly turned into a quadrangle (?), and then the main character ended up with the least developed (and likable — he was kind of annoying) character — I find myself hoping that he will be the next body she stumbles upon — isn’t that awful??

      • I’m not real fond of that character, either, Sherry. And I really dislike the two new ones this year. I’ve mostly stopped watching NCIS and I used to be my favorite show.

      • I watch it mainly for David McCallum–I was madly in love with him when I was sixteen. (And, wow, he’s still breathing!) Has anyone else read his mystery book? It was entertaining, and he has a second one under contract. No, I don’t recall if there’s a triangle in there.

  16. I agree on Stephanie Plum. After the first eight or so books she just started phoning it in and recycling all the storylines.
    I will add that sometimes authors move their characters *too much* for a reader. Elizabeth George’s Inspector Lynley series used to be my absolute favorite to read. When she published, I immediately bought it and read it that weekend. Until “With No One as Witness,” in which she unexpectedly shot and killed an important character in the series. I was so upset, I set the book down and it took me at least six months before I could pick it back up and finish it. I’m still buying her books, but I feel no urgency to read them. I think I have three new ones sitting on my shelf, waiting to be read.

    • Very interesting. I think that is something we struggle with as writers. We want to avoid the Stephanie Plum syndrome but if we change it up too much what happened to you can happen. It’s a delicate balance.

      • Ms. George had warned her readers a death was coming that would change the series. She didn’t want to get into a character rut and created this big shakeup. And if it would have been a different character, I probably would have been okay. But the one she killed off was just so darn tragic for EVERYONE in the books. It was huge. But I agree it is better to move forward than not at all! 🙂

  17. These books are fiction but the people have to be real. You may not agree with them, you may hate the decisions they make (or don’t make), but you have to be able to see a real person doing what they’ve done.

    A loooooooong love triangle that adds a fourth person and everyone is just hunky dory about it, wishing everyone well? No real person would do that. Yet, two people do in Fluke’s books. And no one in the small town is up in arms? No. That’s cheating.

    It’s the same for Cornwell. She cheated.

    Once the characters aren’t bound to the rules that real people are, for the most part, the author has broken the contract with the reader. And you do that at your own peril.

    • Point taken but on the other hand lots of cozy mysteries have young protagonists (late 20s to early 30s) who are expected to act maturely all the time. You don’t ever see them going out to bars or going on multiple Tinder dates. If they do something stupid they are too stupid to live. It’s something I’ve pondered a lot.

      • This was the series I was referring to in my comment as well. For me, it wasn’t a problem with the protagonist choosing an entirely different partner than the two she’d been interested in for 20-some books. It was the “not fair” factor. It felt to me as if I’d been led down a loooonnnggggg rabbit trail only to discover at the end were gophers instead. Haha! The other thing was that everyone in the town lauded the protagonist constantly for her prodigious sleuthing skills, yet the truth was, she almost always had no clue who the killer was almost being killed herself. THEN the light bulb would flash!! Just overall, with all the weird twists, I felt like I was being taken for a ride, and I stopped caring.

      • OK, since someone else brought up the name. Jo Fluke’s Hannah Swenson series was at one time my favorite series. I was thrilled when the series came out in hardback. I loved the characters, town and plots. Then mid-way the series began to drag a bit, but I was a loyal reader and kept buying the new books. Then by book 15 I was beginning to lose interest and began to fantasize a major plot twist where both Mike and Norman would fall for someone else and Hannah would be left alone, with that annoying fat cat of hers, serves her right for keeping those two good guys stringing along for over a decade. By books 18 and 19, I was totally disgusted. Dolores, Hannah’s mother remarried and her younger sister became engaged. I wrote a one star review on Amazon, for book 19 and declared I wanted my money back for that horrid book. I have never ever written a negative review, but for this one book. I stopped buying Fluke’s books when I read that after fans long time objection to the love triangle, Hannah marries some long lost friend she claimed was the love of her life. Well, this long time fan of the series was highly insulted by this turn of events. I felt the author cheated us long time fans by putting a band-aid on the situation.
        I know this is long winded, and I apologize to anyone who is bored or offended, but you have no idea how good it feels to post this.
        Thank you Wicked Cozy Author’s for allowing me to do this. I feel so much better now that I’ve had my say.

      • I’m sticking with this series a little longer, despite the annoyance factor. I have a feeling this is going to resolve itself within a few more books and then everybody’s going to do some forehead-slapping. If it doesn’t turn out the way I think it will, the way it really must to be fair to readers, then I’ll drop it.

    • I’m still hanging in there with the Hannah Swensen books. I really enjoy the setting and the mystery plots… though a lot about Hannah and her family & friends seems unrealistic to me. Hannah seems to act much older than her actual age, everyone seems to rave about every single sweet treat she makes, the long-running love triangle. I’m going to read her latest book and see if it’s time for me to retire the series or if I still find it worth reading.

  18. I tend to miss characters if they aren’t in a book. I’ll keep reading a series, but I like seeing all my friends. Now, I will agree that not every character needs to be in every book, but if a character is fun, I like to see them again.

    I am absolutely with you on the final one. If I get behind, I am likely to give up. And if there are too many books, I’m not as likely to start the series in the first place. I wish that weren’t true, but too many books too quickly, and I give up. With the towers of my TBR mountain range always staring at me, I have to thin the heard somehow.

    • Another interesting point. I try to at least mention each of the secondary characters in each book but one may play prominently in one book and take a backseat in another. The woman who used to do my hair didn’t want to start a series until all the books were out. I couldn’t do that but she liked to binge read series.

  19. I hear you about Stephanie Plum, Joe, and Ranger. I barely liked her last book! There is no new news in her books!

    • There was something in that one that made me laugh but I can’t remember what. It also kind of seemed like she had an epiphany but who knows. I’ll probably read the next one since I’ve gone on this long.

  20. There’s a series I absolutely loved. I rooted for the detective to win his love despite her very real worries about their future. Book after book, they inched closer to happiness until it finally happened. He could solve crimes without Helen-angst! Hurray. And then the author killed Helen–not as part of a mystery but random violence. I have never read another word.

    • Oh, wow! That would be shocking. I wonder if they started the process all over again then. You know as well as I do that we are supposed to give our protagonists trouble but at some point it can go to far.

  21. I’m with you on the series not moving forward. Basically by book 10, I feel the author should have her characters make a choice. For gosh sakes, they can solve a murder but can’t make a,decision on boyfriends, whether or not to move, etc. It drives me crazy. Move forward please, Stephanie Plum. 😁

  22. Great thread! I’ll give up on a series if the creep factor gets too high (Cornwell). Evanovich has made a lot of $$$ selling her template, but if there is a three year span in character time, a sane woman would not still be wondering which guy is the right guy. If she is, IMO, neither one is right.

    There is a series that has a duo that never gets together because of professional conflicts. After 4 books, that was no longer believable, but the cases were more front and center than the relationship, so I kept reading. The series has 8 books in it now, but I stopped reading at #6 when it seemed as if someone else was writing. The author’s voice changed.

  23. I agree wholeheartedly about Janet Evanovich. I think I stopped at #3. Oddly enough, I enjoyed her standalones.

    Now I’m feeling paranoid about my “couples.” Let’s see: #1, only one couple, but it took them a while to get together. #2, ditto. #3, likewise. (Wow, am I conservative!) My only real departure is in the County Cork series, where Maura is finally going to choose between the two possibilities. (You’ll have to wait until Book 6 next year to find out which.) Having said that, my new series starting next year has not one, not two, but three interesting possibilities. I have no idea where that’s going, but I promise I won’t drag it out.

    I will add that in most of my books, my protagonist is reluctant to get involved with anyone because she’s too busy trying to figure out her own life (and solve a murder or two along the way).

    • Is it slow in book time or number of books — there is a difference! And keep on keeping on — you are an amazing writers. I also like your view that your character is trying to figure out her own life.

    • Being reluctant to get involved with anyone at all, or being career/murder focused, seems much more realistic than having a triangle that goes on for mannnny books without a decision. Or…if the gal has just one guy who hangs around, but she’s been burned and can’t commit, that works, too. If the plot/storyline is at the forefront with the relationship as part of the character, then it stays in the mystery genre. If it’s all about the will-she/won’t she? for me, anyway, it becomes a romance novel instead.

  24. This was a great topic. I was amazed that people named authors as I tend to keep it to myself and found so many thinking the same way. as I do. I read different books because of the mood I’m in and even if I don’t like one I read one more and some I then keep reading or end reading. I read both Kellerman’s but when I’m down. I love E vanovich to just laugh at. I’ll never read another Cornwall but love Louise Penney. I’m a big Jefferson Bass fan and his last book blew my socks off but read some people hated it and finally figured out why. Discovered Bill Crider’s Dan Rhodes books by accident last year and the joy of this series reading from reading book first to newest.. GREAT BLOG everyone.

  25. This was exactly what I needed to read as I’ve been wondering how long I keep my Shandra Higheale mysteries going. I still have six more books planned and I’m getting ready to write #8. It was good reading all the perspectives from the comments as well. Thanks!

  26. I also stopped reading Martha Grimes’ Richard Jury series, but it was because of a single non-protagonist character I just couldn’t stand—Melrose’s aunt. She started out as the one you love to hate but eventually became so annoying she ruined the books for me. Years later, I tried going back to the series, but when Jury slept with two women in one night in the first couple of chapters, I put the book down. I need my protags to have a little more moral fiber than that.

    For completely different reasons, I stopped reading Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine because the darkness was getting to me. I decided it wasn’t good for me to spend that much time inside the heads of pathological criminals.

  27. When an author climbs on a soapbox, I’ll stop reading. I loved the Martha Grimes pub series up to “The Grave Maurice,” which has an absurd resolution based on MG’s passion for animal rights. It got worse in “The Old Wine Shades” with a thinking dog and cat unsuited to a gritty crime series. A series can affect how the reader feels or thinks about issues, but when I can hear the author proselytizing through the characters, it’s goodbye.
    Another turn-off is “bloated book syndrome” when the editor lets go of the reins.

  28. And Lisa Scottoline wrote a series that she ended when she figured she would age faster than the character. She writes great stand alones now and she thinks real!

  29. I agree with you that the main character doesn’t really have to be likeable, though if they’re too unlikeable, that will turn me off. I gave up on one series because the main character was quite mean or rude to every other person, even family, friends and coworkers. The plots were good, moved at a good pace, etc., but I couldn’t continue because of the protagonist’s poor attitude. And I have to echo some of the above comments about the long-running love triangle. If it goes on too long, it’s unrealistic and tiresome.

    • Sometimes when I’m working on a first draft Sarah will do something unpleasant. Sometimes it makes it through to what my beta readers read. They call me on the things that they think are out of character. Being mean for the sake of being mean doesn’t work. Cranky can work in the hands of a really good writer. Great thoughts!

  30. I gave up on Martha Grimes because one book she never really said who did it. I dropped some others that hardly had any mystery to them. I like to read about all the characters but I want a mystery in my mysteries.
    As far as Joanna Fluke, since she let the triangle go on so long, she had no choice but to have Hannah marry another guy. I actually liked the Wedding Cake Murder so I hope she doesn’t kill Ross off or mess him up in the next books. I think that Mike, Norman and everyone’s reactions were because they realized that Hannah never was in love with them.
    Sally

  31. I have to agree with your assessment. I haven’t read Grimes but the others didn’t progress.
    I’m on the fence with Fluke- wasn’t happy that Ross came into the mix but the last book wasn’t bad but i don’t see Ross as a major player. I’ve read a few others and if I don’t care what happens to the characters, then it’s over for me. Too many other books out there.

  32. I’ve given up on many of the same series, and for the same reasons. For me, if there’s no growth in the character after several books, that usually kills my interest. On the other hand, I continue with several series — one 33 books long — because there’s always something new to pique my interest. Another reason I give up on a series is when I feel I’m reading the same book over and over again. Just change names and locations and the plot stays the same.

  33. Jump in before “Listen To the Silence”, because that one changes everything you thought you knew about McCone, and everything she thought she knew about herself, upside down. A real game changer, and it opened up a lot of new possibilities for the character.

  34. Very valuable post, Barb. I’m writing the 4th book in my series and finding that some regular characters don’t really have anything interesting or story-related to do. I was worried that readers who are plowing their way through the series might be disappointed, but I’m less worried now. Just like on TV, characters can sometimes go on the back burner for a while.

  35. I picked up a Martha Grimes mid-series and found the lead character’s relationships annoying–there were scenes that might have been dramatic if I’d known anything about the backstory, but I didn’t, and Grimes made no attempt to enlighten me. Didn’t try again (I must admit, I thought the book in general was a mess).
    A recent mid-series fantasy novel had the same problem. The first two chapters were the lead characters talking about their relationship, no plot, no obvious threat, and as I didn’t have anything invested in their relationship I just stopped.
    Generally I don’t mind being confused when I read something new mid-series, but I need something to actually make me care about the people.

    • That is an excellent point about starting a series and being confused in the middle of it. It’s hard to provide enough information without too much. But maybe the more interesting point is the nothing happening. Remember Les Standiford saying, “don’t write a story that has a hippopotamus without legs?” In other words one that does move.

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