Dark Passages: How to freshen up a detective series

One of the hardest tasks a crime writer faces is how to keep a long-running series fresh. The worst-case scenario is when authors let their detective run amok far longer than necessary, leading to an exasperated fan base that buys new installments out of grudging loyalty. Case in point: The bite and vigor of Robert B. Parker’s “Spenser” series has diminished into softened decrepitude, with the Boston private eye more content to sit around and lob gentle sallies at his psychologist lady love Susan Silverman (and marvel at the ones he gets in return). Others know when to quit, such as Ian Rankin, who cut his Inspector Rebus opus after 20 books with “Exit Music.”

Better approaches come when the protagonist is given a rest for a few years before his triumphant return. Harlan Coben retired his sports-agent sleuth Myron Bolitar as stand-alone thrillers propelled the author to perennial bestseller-dom, but the wait for “Promise Me” (2006) was well worth it (Bolitar’s more recent outing, “Long Lost,” was less successful). Dennis Lehane has mystery fans on veritable pins and needles awaiting his new novel, which brings back Boston eyes Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro after more than a decade off the scene.

Another stalwart mechanism to keep a series alive is to kill off a character close to the detective to open up new storytelling possibilities. There are some who still haven’t forgiven Elizabeth George for that very tactic, employed in “With No One as Witness,” and Michael Connelly may well face such heated arguments after the mid-book twist of “Nine Dragons” (Little, Brown: 372 pp., $27.99), which both isolates and galvanizes Harry Bosch’s lone-wolf, antiauthoritarian status.

Still another method is to create a new series and bring the two sleuths together under the same virtual roof. J.A. Jance started off writing about J.P. Beaumont, then introduced Joanna Brady and got the two together in “Partner in Crime” (2003), which was Beaumont’s 16th outing and Brady’s 10th. The late mystery writers William Tapply and Philip R. Craig went a step further, uniting the sleuths of their respective solo series under a dually written umbrella for three cases. More recently, Libby Fischer Hellmann’s “Doubleback” (Tyrus Books: 344 pp., $24.95) reunites Ellie Foreman, the videographer shamus first introduced in “An Eye for Murder,” and police detective-turned-P.I. Georgia Davis, originally a supporting player in the Foreman novels who took a solo bow in last year’s “Easy Innocence” (Bleak House Books: 350 pp., $14.95 paper).

Marcia Muller, however, may have concocted the most audacious scheme to reinvigorate her mystery series. Her capable, no-nonsense detective Sharon McCone arrived on crime fiction soil more than three decades ago in 1977’s “Edwin and the Iron Shoes,” and badly mismanaged publication almost scuppered the series before it had a chance to start. Five years later -- the same year that both Sara Paretsky and Sue Grafton made indelible impressions upon the detective fiction world -- McCone (and Muller) reappeared in “Ask the Cards a Question,” and both women have stuck around ever since, growing older, more seasoned (Muller with many award citations, McCone running a multi-person detective agency) and more respected (and respectable) with each passing year.

When “Locked In” (Grand Central: 282 pp., $24.99) opens, it’s “a typical July night in San Francisco. Mist swirling off the bay, a foghorn bellowing every thirty seconds out at the Golden Gate.” McCone’s on her way back to the office to retrieve a cellphone, a three-block trip from where her car ran out of gas. And then typical becomes atypical when she’s shot in the head: The next thing she knows she’s in the hospital, able to understand every word and every gesture without reciprocating in kind, a victim of “Locked-in” syndrome: "[N]ow a fragmented bullet was lodged near her brain stem, doing more harm than all the criminals and aeronautical malfunctions could. A deadly little piece of metal, that none of her smarts and guts could combat.”

So it would seem, at least: How on earth will Muller write her way out of this brazen predicament she’s placed McCone into? The answer is both surprising and homage-laden, as McCone’s despair and frustration (“I remember when I was younger, laughing at people with disabilities, the horrible words we used . . . Well, join the club. For the rest of your life, somebody somewhere’ll be laughing at you.”) gives way to determination to help her colleagues and her husband, Hy Ripinsky, find out who shot her: “You’ve heard of an armchair detective, folks? How about a locked-in investigator?”

McCone’s resolve is straight out of the playbook of Josephine Tey’s “Daughter of Time,” and blinks of an eyelid allow her to sift through the information her friends and loved ones relate to her at her bedside and zero in on what needs to be investigated next. The thrill is less about finding out who actually shot McCone, because the solution comes across as a footnote, than in watching Muller’s high-wire act, wondering whether she’ll stay on throughout or fall off somewhere in the middle of the novel.

She doesn’t, by the way, but “Locked In,” by virtue of its premise, can’t quite transcend it. Readers are built in to expect that McCone will survive this predicament, just as she has survived her many prior brushes with death at the hands of all manner of assailants. As a result, the element of surprise fades as the story continues and reveals its ultimate hand: How Sharon McCone regains her faculties and, hard-won as her victory is, resumes private investigation with much more than one blink for “yes” and two blinks for “no.”

Sarah Weinman blogs about crime and mystery fiction at Dark Passages appears monthly at