The Compulsive Joy of the Series

Kurt Vonnegut, maybe. I bought the Dell edition novels when I lived in America. Like Vonnegut, I had been a smoker, and I would find a beguiling correlative between those small light paperback editions and a packet of cigarettes. I devoured those books in a single sitting. And maybe Philip K Dick too. I read his books with the same addictive appetite. Flow My Tears The Policeman Said, Ubik, and The Man in The High Castle: despite the clunkiness of the prose, the ideas in those novels had a kind of engrossing tangibility, tossed upon one another like chips in a poker hand.

Sometimes, a writer can hook you with a whole body of work (or a significant portion of it) and make you as hungry as for that as for an individual book. Most writers can’t sustain it. Either the voice becomes to insistent or dull, or they tire themselves out over varieties of plot and character, or they simply lose it, either through a need for range, or a heaviness of touch.

I no longer have the head for science fiction (except one or two examples) and fantasy has never appealed. I go for crime, preferably the Chandler model: the disconnected detective,
moral and partially broken. Everyone (except Martin Amis) gets Chandler: he’s like entry level modernism. And he understood the function of character in a series: the extension of writing self, the heightened controller of plot and dramatic action, and the agent of the moral universe. Walter Mosley has Easy Rawlins, engaged in a perpetual stand off with his violent doppelgänger Mouse. John D Macdonald has Travis Magee, the pompous, pipe smoking white knight, navigating his way around Florida criminals and vanished seventies sexual mores. Jerome Charyn has Isaac Sidel, cop and political animal, trawling a New York which is part Wes Anderson and part Andy Milligan. Chester Himes has Coffin Ed and Gravedigger Jones. James Lee Burke plays with Dave Roubicheux like The I Ching, forming his adventures out of the same runes cast in varying patterns. Beignets in Cafe du Monde. Spearmint snow cones in the park. Drunk dreams of long-necked Jax and schooners of Jim Beam. Italian killers with prominent phalluses. Hitler and his empty landscapes. Copacetic.

Simenon probably runs this particular county, because his compulsion for the series is beyond anything you’ll see elsewhere. Simenon gives you writing as sustained, monotonous hunger, like some kind of ruthless erotic desire, with Maigret as his conscience. And that’s the key to the series, on both sides of the page. The reader can’t get enough, but the writer is also trapped in the pattern of the routine. Like that poker hand I talked about earlier, or a drinking game with the writer on one side and the reader on the other. I remember browsing Murder One on Charing Cross road some time during the early 2000s. A reader had come in for a recommendation, a man in his early fifties. He’d blitzed Ellroy and wanted something similar. The bookseller gave him a David Peace, recognising a style junkie when he saw one.

I have a character, whose hung around since pretty much the moment I decided to write with any degree of application. He’s grown along the way, swapped names, and got older than I would have expected, the way all of us do, become more haunted, but also, somehow, more comical. One book is finished in draft form, half of another has been started. I’m holding off applying the finishing touches. Maybe I’ll get around to it. Maybe I’ve started to be wary of writing as that steady compulsion. Maybe not.

Most of all, I think of James Sallis. With tricksy narrative games, and self-conscious, referential tropes, his Lew Griffin novels form a kind of meta-series, which still retains its power of character. I still remember the day I finished Ghost of a Flea. The heat and light of a summer’s day, the dried grass of a Brixton garden. A small section of my life about to fall apart, but I held onto a kind of continuity with that book. Sometimes it’s difficult to work out the distinctions. New Orleans and Brixton. Wild summer and bindweed. A man who walked the streets sounding like a scrambled radio. Mexican Cabernet and gumbo made from red snapper. Red sauce and blood on paving stones. A girl in a black overcoat, peering down over a ledge. Violence in an exchange of stares.

‘Many nights, as levels of Scotch or wine fell in their bottles, he’d talk about books he loved, books he wanted to write. So I guess part of what I’m doing is writing them for him. Five so far; this, I think, the last.’

James Sallis

© Daniel Bennett

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