To Read or Not To Read in Series Order

When I was a teenager, my mother gave me some advice which I almost immediately ignored. We were both avid readers who preferred reading to talking and most of our limited conversation was about what we were reading.

She had enjoyed English novelist Norah Lofts's trilogy about the history of a house and the stories of the people who had lived in it over a century. "Make sure," she said," to start with the first book." But when I went to the library, it was out, so I started with the second, then went back to the first. Although I still enjoyed the books, reading the middle before the beginning and then jumping to the end gave me a kind of Alice in Wonderland sense of disjointedness. It taught me a lesson: I always try to start a series at the beginning.

A few years ago, I made a rule for myself and then quickly ignored it. (Do I ever learn?) I decided I was keeping details about characters in enough mystery or police series already and that I would not start any new such series. That didn't work, so I modified it: I would start no series involving a protagonist who had no business getting involved in one murder after another. That vow was much easier to keep and, except for an occasional reviewing assignment, I don't think I've broken it.

(Although I've made no resolutions regarding series novels, much of what I've found about mystery/police series applies to them, and since their plots are likely to be more character and event-driven, without a central mystery to consume much of the plot, it can be even more confusing to start them out of order.)

It isn't always easy to start at the beginning, especially if it's a long-running series. It can be expensive and time-consuming and mean locating and buying a lot of earlier books or trying to get them through the library. Series that are introduced into the US midway through bring their own problems, as do books in a series with many years between them. For example, there's a gap of fifteen years between the first publication of Philip Kerr's third Bernie Gunther novel in 1991 and the fourth in 2006, but happily, all are still in print. This is when I become very grateful for the number of used books available on the internet.

I have a group of friends I consult about reading questions that intrigue me and I asked them about this. Most will go out of their way to start a series at the beginning. One person said that if she happened to start a series in the middle, she would than go back and read it from the beginning and even re-read any she had already read in the appropriate order. (I've done this once--with Ian Rankin's Rebus series--that I recall.) But another enjoys the occasional out-of-order experience and finds it can heighten her interest in going back and filling in the gaps, although she admits that this works less well with some series books than others.

I have no rule about when or if I stop reading a series, but I have dropped several (Sara Paretsky's and Sue Grafton's among them).

A more hidden aspect to the reading of mystery/police series is that one can lead to another (of course this is true of all books): An intriguing remark about Vienna made in A German Requiem, the third Bernie Gunther novel, made me realize that it is time for me to read Frank Tallis' series set there at the turn of the twentieth century. But the third was just published in the USA so I'm not far behind.

All our problems should be like this!

Joanne Collings

Personally, I like dipping into a series half way through because any initial
kinks in the series or writing style have been ironed out, and there's normally
more than enough information to set the scene. As for missing out on the
back-stories - pragmatically, what I don't know I don't miss!

What I equally enjoy, though, is then going back and reading one or two earlier
volumes in the series - not necessarily all of them but enough to find out more
about the characters. It's akin to meeting a new friend in mid-life -
initially you know them only in the here and now, but as the friendship develops
you start to hear stories about their past, meet their friends and family and
slowly a picture of their life appears. When I go back to read earlier
books in the series I am always struck by those 'aha' moments when the reason
for a particular character trait comes clear, or the source of a friendship
between two seemingly disparate people is explained. Far from spoiling the enjoyment of the series, I think this enhances the experience.
# Posted By Davina - BookBrowse Editor | 4/1/09 10:58 AM
I regularly read two series--and can hardly wait for the next release to come out: Jacqueline Winspear's "Maisy Dobbs",and John Lescroart's "Dismas Hardy". Rather than just who-don-its, both of these mystery series have wonderful character development and rich settings: Winspear's post WWI London, and Lescroart's present day San Francisco. You become so comfortable with these cities, that they become a character themselves. I agree with Davina that reading the books out of order is somewhat like reading a book with flashbacks--and adds an element of interest and fun. However, with the Maisy Dobbs series, I would recommend reading the first book, and then it wouldn't matter what order you read the rest.

Rah Rah Reading
# Posted By BookClubCheerleader | 4/2/09 10:25 AM
Oh, I'm completely in Joanne's camp. Although I have started a series in the middle, it's never by choice. It's just... well... WRONG (no offense to you free spirits out there). It feels ooky (technical term).

(Yes, those of us who have been brought up to be so rigid are to be pitied.)

The last time I started a series in the middle was when I discovered Elizabeth Peters' delightful heroine, Amelia Peabody. I picked up a copy of 'He Shall Thunder in the Sky', not realizing it was the 12th book in the series. I thoroughly enjoyed it, but constantly had the nagging feeling I was missing something, that I'd be enjoying the book more if I knew the back story. I ended up starting back over with book one, re-reading book 12, and all the books since. (In fact, I'm so hooked on it that I've read them all more than once.) Seriously, I think it's more enjoyable to me to watch a character evolve. In addition, I'd hope a writer would improve over time; I'd rather start with those books that are of poorer quality and work my way up to the better ones.

Two other favorite series: The Miles Vorkosigan series by Lois McMaster Boujold (talk about a character evolving!) and Terry Pratchett's Discworld series (a fine example of writing improving over time).
# Posted By PDXReader | 4/3/09 3:10 PM
I usually avoid series because I don't want to become hooked on them and risk the frustration of waiting for the next book to come out (and what if the author dies?). But there are series and there are SERIES. John Lescroart's books involve the same Ditmas Hardy character but a reader can start with any of his books and still enjoy them as individuals. The same can be said for Jonathan Kellerman's and his wife Faye Kellerman's books. They involve the same main characters but you don't need to read all the books or read them in any particular order to enjoy any single one of them. If I truly enjoy an author, I will seek out all his or her other books anyway, series or not. In fact, These form a series only in that each book features the same main character or characters.

That being said, of course, I read through all of the Bobbsey Twin, Nancy Drew, Dana Girl Mysteries, and Cherry Ames books in order because that's how my grandmother, who was tired of seeing me read only comic books, sent them to me until she died. In high school, a friend introduced me to a Canadian author, Mazo de la Roche, and her Whiteoaks of Jalna series. The first book I read in the series was the second one (of 16 in all) but I don't think she wrote them in order anyway. I was so hooked by the first book (number two) that I just HAD to read them all and, fortunately for me, the entire series had been completed for many years when I discovered it. The Jalna books form a different kind of series in that they are definitely chronological; they follow the births and deaths of the extended Whiteoak family and reading just one is not very satisfying by itself. I was able to purchase all 16 books from The Strand. It's still my all-time favorite series of books and I know nothing else will ever compare to it.
# Posted By Kathryn G. Havemann | 4/9/09 5:51 AM
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