Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Defining Features of a Series

A successful mystery series is a package of several features: recurring characters, vivid setting, titles,
and types of stories. We followed Miss Jane Marple through a number of villages and stately homes while she chatted with the vicar, a spinster, a young married couple, a colonel back from the colonies, and more of the same. Christie’s titles for all her books varied but she did have a series of nursery rhyme titles, most of which featured Poirot.

Peter Lovesey introduced Sergeant Cribb in a series of historical mysteries that introduced the reader to fads and facts of the late nineteenth century, such as indoor pedestrian races, bare-knuckle fighting, and music halls. The world of the contemporary sleuth Superintendent Peter Diamond is different. Lovesey sets the series in and around Bath, and draws in references to Jane Austen and other literary figures, in contrast to his detective Diamond, who alienates just about everybody, drinks too much, and dislikes the way technology is taking over old-fashioned police work.

These are the kinds of mysteries I read avidly and the ones that come to mind when I wanted to start a new series, after the Mellingham series set in New England. I already had some of this material published in short stories and thought a lot about setting, titles, and plots.

I had a recurring character, Anita Ray, an Indian American photographer living in India at her aunt’s hotel, who had already appeared in a number of short stories published in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine and Level Best Books anthologies. The setting would remain South India, along the coast, and the tone would be mostly light with examination of some serious issues along the way.

The setting, in and around Auntie Meena’s hotel, meant some of the recurring characters would be hotel workers with problems of their own, conveniently, and other workers at the resort. But setting also becomes a character in that it becomes a place the readers know well. To help with this part of the series I have two maps, one of the hotel and the rooms on each floor and a second one of the resort area, with lanes and other hotels indicated briefly.

One way to reinforce the boundaries of the series is through titles. The Sherlock Holmes short stories often begin with “The Adventure of . . . ” and the Inspector Ghote mysteries by H.R.F. Keating often have the detective’s name in the title, such as Inspector Ghote Hunts the Peacock.

For the Anita Ray series I decided to use a phrase with a Hindu name, either of a deity or figure from mythology, in every title.  The first in the series is Under the Eye of Kali, followed by The Wrath of Shiva and For the Love of Parvati. Each title indicates setting and something of the nature of the story. My work in progress is titled When Krishna Calls.

The setting of a hotel and Anita’s photography gallery ensure that a wide variety of people will walk into the series—foreigners and Indians alike. And Anita’s membership in an Indian family means she has a large number of relatives spread throughout the state and the country, if necessary, for the story line.


  1. Very thoughtful analysis. Helpful to know you started the Anita Ray series with short stories.

  2. This was how I found the character. She emerged in short fiction.