I picked up best-selling Irish author Tana French’s books a few weeks ago to check out this adult thriller writer. I’d heard good things about the writing, her latest book, Broken Harbor is on several “best books” lists––and I love reading (and writing) thrillers. It wasn’t until I started the second book, The Likeness, however, that I realized she was going for a similar premise with her work as my Harlequin Teen’s WiHi series: linked books that are stand-alone thrillers.
Cool! Linked books, or companion books, are books in which there is always a new protagonist. Characters (and sometimes settings) from one novel appear in the next. However, each book has a definite ending. You can read them in any order and still enjoy each one.
It’s a fun way to create a "series"—without creating a series that must be read sequentially, with the same main character in each novel. Most adult thrillers are centered around this specific character; usually a private eye––Sue Grafton's Kinsey Milhone comes to mind–– or a police detective like Irish-American author Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer (don't you just love this cover?)
It’s a great way to create reader buy-in. Since the main character’s job automatically leads to a suspenseful situation in each book, there are instant plot take-off points. It’s also fun to watch the characters change over the course of the series. Character growth, however, is not the main point of each book—it’s the thriller aspect that is primary.
In Tana French’s books, the continuing “character” is, in actuality, the Dublin police force–-not anyone specific. What she’s doing is playing a kind of leapfrog—a character who makes an appearance in one book becomes the main character in the next.
Her books also have psychological complexity (along with some gorgeous writing and great plotting). I would venture to say that is possible precisely because of the fact that there is a new protagonist in every book. A new backstory, a new family situation, new boyfriends and breakups… a new main character brings lots of things to explore. If you have to “play it out” over many novels, the impact is much weaker per book. Thus, having a linked series gives French the opportunity to explore character in the way many thriller series do not allow.
In terms of realistic YA, there are not, of course, “professional” jobs as detectives or private eyes that allow a continuing teen to run into dire straits all the time. Going “linked” seemed to be the best road for me. In the Wihi series, the school takes the place of French’s police force and each protagonist has to solve her own mystery in her own way. As a writer, it was a way to create some familiarity (the school, Brooklyn Heights, Tony’s Pizzaria), as well as having characters in one book reappear in the other.
As a reader, it’s fun to see Tana French do the same thing –to say, "hey, I know you" when a minor character in one book becomes the main one in the next. Or to find out that the sometimes jerky head of the Undercover squad is really a much deeper character, with a fascinating backstory, who becomes not only the focus of the next book, but a much more sympathetic character in that following book.
So readers, what do you think? Linked or sequential? Does it matter -- as long as the book thrills and makes you turn those pages? Do you find one more entertaining than the other? Just something to think about...
Next time: the importance of setting in a linked series.