Beyond the Book: Background information when reading A Quiet Flame

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A Quiet Flame

by Philip Kerr

A Quiet Flame by Philip Kerr X
A Quiet Flame by Philip Kerr
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  • First Published:
    Mar 2009, 400 pages
    Paperback:
    Feb 2010, 416 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Joanne Collings

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Beyond the Book

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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 (see main review for details). 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's 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

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Article by Joanne Collings

This article was originally published in April 2009, and has been updated for the February 2010 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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