A Tale of Two Novels

I’m always reading something, and quite often more than one thing at a time. (I’m one of those read-while-eating/read-while-cooking/read-before-sleeping/read-while-peeing people.) And though I mean well, I don’t take as much time as I should to review/comment on what I read, because, well, I’m busy reading.

But a couple of weeks ago, I read two particular books within a few days of one another that I really did want to comment on, so I jotted some notes for myself, and then Bones came back, and I fell in love with Thor, and I came up with an idea for a novel, and explosions (some of the nuclear sort) went off at work, and well, I still want to talk about my experiences with these two novels.

Both titles are the latest entries in long series. Both used to be buy-them-on-release-day-take-the-afternoon-off-work books for me.  Now, however, that can’t-wait anticipation only applies to one of them; the other was a wait-four-months-to-get-the-library-ebook-version, and even then, I wasn’t sure I’d read it.

The first book was Concealed in Death, by J.D. Robb, and the second was Takedown Twenty, by Janet Evanovich.

I have a long history with both series. I discovered the In Death books in the fall of 2000, plowing through the first eleven in two weeks and then began the impatient wait for the next one.  Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series was similar – I discovered it in 2002, when Hard Eight was released.

Part of why I liked the Evanovich books was because they reminded me of the In Death series: each book a standalone mystery with characters I liked, also telling a larger story, as Steph’s relationships with the other characters grew and changed in what felt like a similar way.  (And not even limited to the guys – her partnership with Lula is similar to that of Eve and Peabody to a certain extent.) Character growth!

Here’s something that’s true, and I wish the internet understood it: not everyone likes the same thing, and when they do like it, it may not be for the same reason. And that’s cool. That’s good. (Why is it that we can like the idea of everyone being unique, and talk about celebrating our differences…and yet feel so threatened when people don’t agree with us about a TV show, film, or book?)

Sorry …digression. Because, yeah – for me, stories are all about the characters, and how they change as a result of whatever happens. But I do get, absolutely, that that’s not true of everyone. I know people who still love the Plum stories for the humor (and even if I didn’t, I’d respect the fact that the books still hit the bestseller lists, so someone is clearly enjoying them.)

But for me? I read for the characters, and when Stephanie stopped growing (former fans of the series disagree about exactly when that was, but for me, it was around book thirteen or fourteen) I began losing interest. I’ve not bought one for two or three years now, but at least read Notorious Nineteen within a week or two of its fall release. The fact that I waited for four months this year doesn’t bode well for the next one.

You see, Eve is still growing in the In Death books – though maybe ‘growing’ isn’t quite the right term in every book. ‘Reacting to what’s happening around her in ways that surprise or interest me’ might be more accurate.  Specifically, in Concealed, I liked watching her struggle with the question of Sebastian, liked seeing her navigate that ethically boggy ground.

But Stephanie? It’s not really a question of growth.  She can’t grow, can’t change, because that would necessitate her choosing between the guys, would involve her figuring out what she wants to do with her life, and that would end the series, or at least take it in such a different direction that Evanovich is apparently unwilling to risk it. But even accepting that a new book in the series is going to be like the last ten or so, the most recent few have seemed tedious to me. (Didn’t Stephanie at least used to react in some fashion to being shot at?)

And there was a point where the guys themselves were interesting to me. (I was Team!Morelli, btw, though I saw the appeal of Ranger.) But now? They’re going through the motions, the same way Stephanie is.  (And despite the angst we get from her about loving both of them, at this point, neither one of them are really convincing me they want her.  Joe regularly passes her off to Ranger to take home after one of her dangerous escapades, and even Ranger seems bored, as he swoops into save the day, makes sure she has a steady stream of black cars to drive, and tries to get her to sleep with him. Been there, done that…in every book.)

That’s the problem, I think. Stories can either be character-driven or plot-driven, but if they’re the latter, the story has to at least be interesting. And when you’re limited to recycling the same plot…you need your characters to do interesting, surprising things, which none of these can do.

The Evanovich books are similar to many sitcoms. Almost by definition, character growth in situational comedies is slow, if not non-existent: if things change too much, the situation that provides the framework is threatened, so the story resets itself at the beginning of every new episode, with little or no reference to anything which happened the week before.

Admittedly, some sitcoms allow character growth (which is one of the reasons I enjoy The Big Bang Theory) but I’ve been bored by the reset button story device ever since I realized that no, Gilligan was never getting off that island.  And Stephanie, Ranger, and Morelli are on the same kind of island.

Meanwhile, the In Death series has enough characters, in enough different relationships and points in their lives, that the stories rarely, if ever, feel repetitive to me, either in terms of plot or character reactions.  Although Eve and Roarke’s relationship remains primary in all of them, not every book has to be about their marriage, as this one isn’t. Instead, Concealed gives us backstory on Mavis, insights into her and Eve’s friendship, and, as noted above, tests Eve on the ethical front (and Roarke is part of that.)

It’s not that I don’t recognize the inherent differences in the tone of the two series. The Plum stories are screwball comedies where nothing bad ever really happens, while the In Death books are genre-bending romantic/procedurals with a side of scifi.

But the first dozen or so of the Plum books managed to show character and relationship growth along with the laugh-till-you-cry moments, and now they don’t.  And the absence of that makes every scene, every chapter, feel like something we’ve seen before – because we have.

You know, I do like to re-read favorite books, and will watch beloved films and TV episodes repeatedly. Maybe that’s why I’m still, eventually, reading the Plums – Takedown Twenty was like a re-read of whatever the one was with the monkey, only with a giraffe instead. But I’m not going to pay to re-read a favorite novel every year.

On the other hand, the next JD Robb, Festive in Death, has a release date of September 9, and I’ve already pre-ordered it.   

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2 thoughts on “A Tale of Two Novels

  1. I was excited to see this post. It just made me say yes! I agree with all of this. Well for me, I discovered the Stephanie Plum novels first, I’d say in 2000, then the In Death books in about 2002. For me each was dangerous to read in public, but for different reasons. The Plum books were likely to make me laugh like a loon and I’d get funny looks. The In Death books often make me cry…and I’d get funny looks. I loved them both.

    But now, I just have no desire to read the Plum books. The last I read was 17. I keep thinking I’ll want to read them again, but each time a new one has been released since that one , it’s just; eh. It is like you said, the characters are just stuck where they’ve been for so long now. No progression. I think Evanovich is afraid to have Stephanie pick either Morelli or Ranger (and I’m also team Morelli). I understand she’s probably afraid to alienate the fans of either man by having Stephanie commit to the other, but I know she’s lost me because of that inability, and have to think she’s lost others too over that.

    I think maybe with the In Death books the fact that it was originally intended to be just a trilogy (which I’ve read in a couple of different places recently) might have worked out for the best to make it a long running series success. There was no fear in getting Eve and Roarke together because there wasn’t a need to stretch out the tension since it would wrap in 3 books. Once they were together and they decided to extend the series I’m so glad they went the route they did. Have the characters continue to grow, introduce new people, and have the couple grow even stronger as a team with the tension (mostly) coming from other sources and not from doubts about the relationship. I love seeing Eve becoming more and more comfortable admitting she loves Roarke, admitting she needs and relies on him, and opening herself up to others (and yes that reminds me so much of Bones and Brennan’s opening up).

    I think JE is afraid of the “Moonlighting curse” and like with so many TV shows trying to put off having the couple commit to a monogamous relationship they limit themselves and eventually strangle the story and lose the fans.

    But hey, what do I know. What like in shows/books/movies often is not successful and what I dislike often becomes a big hit. I’m just glad that there are things I enjoy that are also successful so that I can continue to enjoy them.

    And I also have pre-ordered the next In Death.

    • It’s interesting that we found the series in reverse, with you moving to JDR from JE.

      I think with JE it’s more than the MC, though. There’s an active fandom for the Plum verse (or used to be, at least – my BFF was active in it for years) and there’s a solid split between “Babes” (as they call themselves) – Ranger fans – and “Cupcakes” (who are rooting for Joe.) And whichever one she chooses, JE will lose the other group, probably in ways that will make the Bones blow-ups in S6 look cheerful in comparison.

      The question, though, for me, is how many of those die hard fans who are rooting for one or the other she still has left. The people I know who still buy the books all read them for the laughs and don’t seem to much care that the books hit the reset button and apparently always will.

      Another thing I heard yesterday, from a credible source (and which makes a lot more sense to me than the JDR flap) is that the Plum books are being at least partially ghostwritten. (And actually, it would be pretty easy to ghostwrite these, I think, since the plots are recycled, and none of the characters are are going anything particularly surprising at this point.)

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