In Or Out Of Order? – How To Read A Series Of Golden Age Crime Fiction

My fellow blogger JJ, over at The Invisible Event, has produced a fascinating post on whether a back catalogue of a Golden Age crime writer should be read in order or whether it doesn’t matter. So I had a think and started writing a response. When I hit my seventh paragraph, I realised that maybe that was a little too much for a comment box, hence this post.

I suppose the question breaks down into separate parts. First, should you be able to read a series out of order? Second, even if you can, do you gain more by reading them in order? The answer, I think, should be yes to both of these, but let’s take a look at them with a few examples.

Should you be able to read a series in any order? Remember, we are looking at Golden Age crime fiction here, or at least writers who started their careers in the Golden Age. From their point of view, they wanted readers to buy their books, enjoy them and then come back for more when the next one came along. But generally, they didn’t resort to ongoing soap operas or multi-book character arcs. There are exceptions, and I’m not going to discuss Campion or Wimsey, as I haven’t read enough of them. Marsh has an bit of an ongoing thing starting from Artists In Crime when Handsome Alleyn meets Agatha Troy, but his general character never seems to change in the books that I’ve read, at least.

Christie never seemed to consider continuity an issue. Poirot has retired by the start of his third novel, but then resumes work as if nothing had happened. He doesn’t seem to age (until Curtain) despite the rest of the world moving forward around him, as evidenced in the later novels such as Third Girl and Hallowe’en Party. Miss Marple, likewise. But Christie’s work, contradictions aside, are supposed to happen in order. In Cards On The Table, where Poirot happily talks about the solution to Murder On The Orient Express (a solution that he covers up in that book!) a book published only two years previous! It’s important to remember that these books weren’t being written for someone to read once the entire catalogue was available but as a read-when-published strategy.

Ellery Queen is another example where continuity is thrown completely out the window. There is a popular (if silly) theory that the Ellery of The NATIONALITY OBJECT Mystery titles is actually a different character to the Wrightsville Queen. The style of writing and plotting is so different, they could almost be different series by different writers. Personally, I enjoy the earlier ones more, but that’s not the common viewpoint. A reader could easily start at say, Calamity Town, and not feel as if they’d missed something. NOTE: They have, because The Siamese Twin Mystery is a work of genius!

So “Should” is a difficult question, because unfortunately, we’re not the intended readers. Even Christie was repeatedly surprised by her success – I don’t think any of the Golden Age writers expected some idiot to be writing this about them eighty years later.

But do you gain anything from reading in order? Again, I think it depends on the author. Some authors allowed their characters to develop alongside their mystery plots. Take one of my obsessions, John Rhode.

The Dr Priestley tales clearly happen in order. There are a couple of minor spoilers along the way because of this. In Peril At Cranbury Hall, events in The Davidson Case are alluded to, mostly in a general way, but in a way that may affect my reading of that book when I get round to it. Also in a later book, we meet Jimmy Waghorn’s wife who he married after meeting her in the preceding book. So I guess she didn’t do it in that one. But more generally, the characters slowly develop as the books go on. Usually actively involved in the earlier books, Priestley becomes more immobile (by choice), letting the police do his legwork, to the extent that they really should have their names on the series. Think Poirot in The Clocks and you’ll get an idea of the average amount of Priestley in the later books. Things do happen to the other characters. Priestley’s assistant marries Priestley’s daughter [not the best example as he marries her after book one and she’s barely mentioned again], Superintendent Hanslet retires only to be return to service during the war, retiring again and joining Priestley’s regular dinner-crime-discussion group. There is a sense of time passing if you were to read the stories in order, so a reader might want to try this to get the most out of the series. But there are obvious problems with this for the modern reader who decides to read from the beginning.

  1. Availability. There is currently one official Rhode title available (Death At Breakfast) and while they seem to be being re-released at the rate of one per three months, the order seems utterly random. It’s not the best books, the order for the first four is, I think, Books 23, 1, 28 and 22. I honestly don’t know why.
  2. Quality. It’s not uncommon for an author’s first books to be a bit iffy. The Paddington Mystery is generally regarded to be perfectly adequate but not of the style of the series as a whole. But my experience of Rhode is that the later books are much less impressive than the earlier ones (although oddly, the final two Miles Burton, Rhode’s alter ego, are rather fun).

The evenness of quality is the biggest issue when a reader decides how they are going to tackle an author. Take John Dickson Carr. It’s not a popular opinion, but I’m not that big a fan of most of Carr’s work pre-The Plague Court Murders. And it’s very common for a series to go downhill/plummet rapidly off a cliff as the author ages. With Carr, this happened well before he stopped writing, and there are a number of late titles that are, apparently, dreadful. But with Carr, there’s enough information out there to discover this before tackling the author. I’ve forced my way through Dark Of The Moon, The Cavalier’s Cup and Behind The Crimson Blind, but I knew how bad they were supposed to be (and they are truly awful) so I left some good Fell and Merrivale titles to read after them.

With Brian Flynn, however, I’ve been ricocheting through his work due to having no information about the overall quality of the series but might go back and do them in order from now on (as much as I can – anyone got a copy of Murder En Route they can give me?) because while the later books are a little less ambitious, they aren’t rubbish by any means. So I’m expecting a decent enough read throughout…

So as a new reader to an author, should you read the books in order? I don’t think so. Read a couple of good ones. Read an average one. Try and find out if there are any dreadful ones to avoid. Try to find out if there are any books that spoil earlier ones. And try and save a good one til last, so you’re memories aren’t tainted by a master thief running around Tangiers with an iron chest under his arm…

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19 comments

  1. We’re lucky the trend in the Golden Age, unlike today, was not to give the series character a detailed private life that evolved from one book to the next!

    I think the approach to an author’s works in your last paragraph is a good one – start with a classic, gradually work your way down, and eventually you’ll either have read everything by the author, or you’ll know at what point the quality’s fallen off enough that you don’t want to read any more.

    Regarding books that spoil earlier books, I’ve done a preliminary list of Carr and Queen offences at https://justiceforthecorpse.wordpress.com/2018/01/13/carr-queen-books-that-spoil-earlier-books/. Any additions welcome!

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  2. I respectfully disagree with you about Period Three Queen, PD! Ellery goes through a strong existential arc that is definitely serialized here. You could certainly read them out of order, but there is a definite bonus for those reading one after the other.

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      • Period 3 is everything from “Calamity Town” to “The Finishing Stroke”. (Period 2 is “Halfway House” to “The Dragon’s Seed”.)

        And that’s a reason I don’t quite agree with Brad here, because Period 3 is more or less a catch-all period. There’s the Wrightsville books – which are probably better read in order – there’s the Nikki books (“There Was an Old Woman”, “Calendar of Crime”, “The Scarlet Letters”), there’s the “take everything GA and subvert it in different ways” books (“Origin of Evil”, “Finishing Stroke”, “King is Dead”, which is tangentially Wrightsville as well), and then there’s the one-off experiments (“Inspector Queen’s Case”, “The Glass Village”). And of course, Ellery Queen’s greatest mystery, “Cat of Many Tails”.

        There is however some internal chronology: As I said above, the Wrightsville books are in order, and COMT definitely takes place immediately after TDW, for instance. But I don’t see how the other novels would be affected by being read in any special order.

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  3. The Drury Lane series by Queen or the Morse novels or the Poirot books should not be read out of sequence only in the main to avoid the concluding volume I suppose, though it is clear from the titles of the first and last that thete eill be no more for a reason … Cases where earlier books ate spoiled are rightly the main thing that would worry readers, so thanks for that list.

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  4. There are exceptions, and I’m not going to discuss Campion or Wimsey, as I haven’t read enough of them.

    What are you waiting for? Wimsey is part of the classic mystery genre

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      • @Puzzle Doctor, what was your opinion of “Whose Body”? Was it the language Sayers used in the book that is different from say, Agatha Christie’s more simplistic writing? Or did it have more to do with Lord Peter Wimsey himself? He appears to be more of a silly ass in this one than in the later books. I’ve attempted to read “Whose Body” multiple times but never got through the whole book. I plan to read the whole thing sometime this year and read through the whole canon.

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  5. Thanks for the warning regarding ‘Davidson Case’ and ‘Peril at Cranbury Hall’ – I’ve both sitting on my shelf, and know where to start. 🙂

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    • @Puzzle Doctor, when I called Agatha Christie’s language in her book simplistic, I didn’t mean for that to be a negative comment. I was just stating the comparisons between Sayers and Christie’s writing. I think a lot of today’s mystery writers can take a lesson from Christie’s writing. Writing in a more literary style doesn’t always mean effective which is what Christie does.

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  6. “Cat Of Many Tails… maybe the best book (although I don’t agree) but his greatest mystery? Certainly not his most complicated one”

    Yeah, I should have amended that. I agree that the mystery isn’t his most complex (though it still manages a bit of a surprise towards the end).

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