When I wrote The Crossing Places in 2009, I didn’t think that it would be the start of a long-running series. I was only grateful that it was published at all. My first four books, written under my real name of Domenica de Rosa, were romances and my publisher didn’t want a crime novel. Luckily, my agent suggested a name change and a new publisher. Jane Wood at Quercus took a chance on the unknown Elly Griffiths and I will be forever grateful.
The Crossing Places tells the story of forensic archaeologist Dr Ruth Galloway who is consulted by the police when a child’s bones are found on the Norfolk mashes. The bones turn out to be over two thousand years old, but Ruth is drawn into the case and into a very complicated relationship with the officer in charge, DCI Harry Nelson. I knew that theirs would be a long story but I did not know if I’d get the chance to write it. So many writers start a series with high hopes but are blighted by bad luck and disappointing sales. The Crossing Places was not an overnight success, but my publishers had enough faith to allow me to write the next book and the next. It wasn’t until about Book 6 that the series started to sell really well.
I’ve been so touched by the way that people have taken Ruth to their hearts. At first, I wasn’t sure if readers would take to a slightly grumpy, unglamorous heroine who frankly prefers cats and books to people. But Ruth seemed to touch a chord and I regularly get messages from readers who love her company and that of DCI Nelson, Cathbad the druid and the rest of the cast. This was particularly moving during lockdown when many people told me that Ruth and co. had kept them company through months of isolation. So, when I announced that Book 15 would be the last book (for now), I knew that some devotees would be upset. I wasn’t prepared, though, for the avalanche of messages on social media talking about bereavement and betrayal. ‘I’ll never forgive Elly Griffiths’ was a common line. ‘Please reconsider,’ begged others.
But I thought it was time for the series to come to an end. ‘For now’, as I kept emphasising. This was my instinct as a writer. There is an on-going ‘will they, won’t they’ love story in the books and, with the best will in the world, there comes a time when you have to say whether they will or they won’t. Readers will find out in Book 15, The Last Remains (the clue is in the title).
So, when is the right time to end a long-running series? Ian Rankin has said that he planned to end the Rebus books after Book 17, Exit Music, in which Rebus retires, but he has just published Book 24, A Heart Full of Headstones, which is as fresh and thought-provoking as ever. Ann Cleeves always said that there would be eight Shetland books, and she has stuck to this, although the TV series continues. Ann is still writing her much-loved Vera books and has recently started a successful new series set in North Devon.
The late Reginald Hill wrote twenty-four books about Dalziel and Pascoe, although readers started to panic when Book 22 was called The Death of Dalziel. Sadly, it was the death of the author that prevented the series from continuing.
Donna Leon’s Guido Brunetti series is still going strong at thirty-two. Michael Connelly has written twenty-four Bosch books and, although recent books have given other characters more prominence, Harry is still a compelling hero. ‘I want to keep filling in the portrait of Bosch,’ says Connelly, ‘so that when I am done with him he is a realised and understood human being.’
Some series have a built-in structure. The Freida Klein books by Nicci French follow the days of the week, although Book 8, Day of the Dead, stretches this a little. There are seven Harry Potter books, following the seven years of secondary school. Probably the best example of forward planning was Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone series. Beginning with A is for Alibi in 1982, Grafton planned to take her indomitable heroine through the whole alphabet. Tragically, the series ended with Grafton’s death after Y Is For Yesterday.
Val McDermid has written six Kate Brannigan books, eleven about Tony Hill and Carol Jordan and seven featuring Karen Pirie. The always-brilliant McDermid has just started a new series with an interesting time scale. The first Allie Burns book is 1979 and the second is 1989. How long will this series continue? It’s a fascinating question and the structure allows McDermid to look at events and attitudes from the recent – but increasingly distant-seeming – past.
But what do you do if your series doesn’t have a set end point? This must be when the writer has to trust their inner hourglass. When I first realised that I was going to be allowed to write a series, I had ten in my head. It’s a nice round number and, at the time, it seemed a huge amount of words. The events in my characters’ lives certainly come to a head in Book 10, The Dark Angel. But then I had ideas for Books 11, 12 and 13. Book 14, The Locked Room, is set during the lockdown in March 2020. I thought long and hard about including this traumatic period but, having written a book a year for the last fourteen years, it seemed almost wrong to leave it out. Also, difficult though it was to live through, lockdown provided tempting possibilities for a crime writer. How do you solve crimes when the whole country is one big locked room? How will the characters cope and which of them will end up locked down together? Ruth and Nelson spend some time in Ruth’s isolated cottage. Although Nelson is busy chasing a murderer, and Ruth is both teaching online and home-schooling her daughter, the characters have time to reflect on their situation. I had time to think too. At the end of the book, I knew that the next would mark some sort of ending.
Of course, there is one final ending for a fictional character: death. Arthur Conan Doyle created probably the most famous private detective of all times in Sherlock Holmes. The violin-playing, pipe-smoking Holmes first appears in A Study in Scarlet. The book was so popular that Doyle was commissioned to write a sequel, The Sign of Four. More short stories followed, many of which have made their way into crime-writing history. The Red-Headed League. The Adventure of the Speckled Band. The Five Orange Pips. But Doyle tired of his creation and, in The Final Problem (the clue is in the title) Holmes battles with his nemesis, James Moriarty, and they both plunge to their deaths from the Reichenbach Falls. On publication day, Doyle wrote in his diary ‘killed Holmes’. But Doyle had underestimated the reaction of the public. Readers sent letters cursing him and calling him a brute. Fans wore mourning clothes. The Strand Magazine, which published the story, had to reassure shareholders when over twenty thousand subscriptions were cancelled.
Part of me wishes that Doyle had stood firm but a greater part of me doesn’t because his next book was The Hound of the Baskervilles, starring Sherlock Holmes. Doyle tried to say that this story referred to an earlier point in Holmes’ life but, two years later, Holmes was back in a short story collection called The Return of Sherlock Holmes. Doyle’s explanation was that the great detective survived the waterfall due to his secret knowledge of Japanese wrestling. In the last story, Watson explains that Holmes has now retired and had forbidden him to write any more about their adventures. This was followed by two more collections and another novel, The Valley of Fear.
Last year, along with eleven other contemporary women authors, I was invited to write a new Miss Marple story for an anthology. Murder at the Villa Rosa is about a writer who wants to kill his protagonist. I was inspired by Christie herself, who grew to dislike her famous detective Hercule Poirot. In fact, she described him, in 1960, as a ‘detestable, bombastic, tiresome, egocentric little creep.’ Christie knew all about the problems of writers with long-running series. One of her most popular recurring characters is the crime-writer, Ariadne Oliver, who created a Finnish detective and then realised, to her horror, that she knew nothing about Finland.
This is the start of my short story:
I’d thought about killing Ricky for years. At first I loved him, of course I did. We’ve come a long way together and he’s been a big part of my success. Everyone likes Ricky and I suppose that’s part of the problem. I grew tired of him, every mannerism grated, every apparently spontaneous joke seemed signalled years ago, in the ice age of my memory. But still people laughed at those so-called witticisms and seemed never to tire of his company. The only answer, as I came to see it, was to kill him.
I didn’t feel like this about Ruth but, if I continued to write with doubt in my heart, would I grow to resent her? It’s a strange thing but writers can only write what they want to write. I used to be a commissioning editor and I remember wishing that I could point authors towards a particular genre or subject. ‘Books about librarians in Sheffield are popular this year, can you write me a couple?’ But, of course, this isn’t how it works. Instead of writing a cosy crime caper set in a library, the author would come back with a gothic sci-fi series set in the Falkland Islands. You can only write the story that’s in your heart. Readers can tell instantly if a book is written to order or with a cynical eye on royalties. I didn’t want this to happen to me and Ruth.
Forgive the spoiler but Ruth doesn’t die in The Last Remains. I have left the door open for further adventures. Maybe, like Ian Rankin (incidentally Ruth’s favourite writer), I might come back to the characters when a few years have passed. But Book 15 marks the end of a particular chapter in Ruth’s life. And maybe in mine too.
I’ve written a Ruth book every year for fifteen years. I’ve written through my children growing up and leaving home for university. I’ve written through my mother’s illness and death. I wrote though Covid and lockdown. I’ve written through countless other smaller joys and sorrows. Ruth has been my constant companion – and I’m very grateful – but I felt that I needed to make some new friends.
I recently saw a social media post that said, ‘Elly Griffiths has given up writing’. This couldn’t be further from the truth. I’m going to continue writing the Brighton books and about DI Harbinder Kaur. But I’ve got ideas for other characters and other series. I hope readers will come to like them as much as they like Ruth.