Providing a protagonist of a crime fiction series with a supporting cast is a task that should be approached with both caution and malice aforethought. Caution because once a character is introduced as a part of the protagonist’s life, he or she is hard to get rid of. Readers notice when a parent, sibling, best friend, neighbor, boss, or lover drop from sight, never to be mentioned again. In soap operas, characters cluttering up the canvas are sent off to boarding school, on an extended business trip, or placed in a coma. Then they can be brought back if and when they are needed. The logistics of a crime fiction series are trickier. Even introducing a character and having him/her spend significant time with the protagonist can set up reader expectations – especially if the protagonist and this character are together in the final scene of the book. In Death’s Favorite Child, the first book in my Lizzie Stuart series, Lizzie and John Quinn, the Philadelphia homicide detective she meets in Cornwall (England), share a final scene. Readers asked me what was going to happen next with Lizzie and Quinn. Clearly Quinn worked well as both antagonist and ally, but I had to figure out what would happen next.
But I had thought about the “presence” in the series of Lizzie’s absent mother, Becca. That was malice aforethought. I love film noir femme fatales. I knew that if Becca ever put in an appearance, she would be one. I had the idea of a series arc in which Lizzie sets out on a “hero’s journey” when her grandmother dies. I was able to build toward Lizzie’s decision to look for her mother. She goes in search of Becca in You Should Have Died on Monday. In that book, Lizzie also connects again with her best friend, Tess, who lives in Chicago. Tess, a travel writer, is first introduced when she and Lizzie vacation in Cornwall. Tess does not appear again until this fourth book because she – conveniently — lives in another city and because the relationship between the two women was strained by the events in Cornwall.
The lessons I learned in my first series were invaluable when I set out to create a second. Hannah McCabe debuts in The Red Queen Dies. She is a police detective in a fictional, near-future Albany, New York. Unlike Lizzie, McCabe comes from a “nuclear, two-parent household”. I spent some time thinking about McCabe’s parents because McCabe must be a protagonist who can understand and navigate her world. McCabe reflects the changing demographics of the 21st century; she is biracial (black mother/ white father). McCabe’s mother (a famous poet) is dead. Her father (an award-winning journalist/newspaper editor) has retired and is adjusting to post-employment. McCabe’s older brother, a scientist, has returned to Albany to take a position at UAlbany. McCabe, herself, majored in Psychology and Criminal Justice as an undergrad at UAlbany. With this background, readers will not be at all surprised by McCabe’s references to literature, social science, pop culture, and world events.
Even though she is in her 30s, McCabe lives at home with her father. This is a part of the series backstory. McCabe was concerned about her father’s drinking after her mother died, and she wants to keep an eye on him after his heart surgery. But, as she says, they are company for each other. They respect each other’s privacy and give each other space. From the standpoint of the series, this living arrangement has another major benefit – McCabe has her own ready source of information about Albany, past and present. Her father knows the city and the people, and he has all of the issues of the newspaper he edited at his fingertips. (Remember this is the near future. Documents are even easier to archive on a portable device and search as needed).
Because this is a police procedural series, I have an ensemble cast that includes the head of the forensics unit, the medical examiner, and the other cops in the station house (particularly McCabe’s boss, Lt. Dole; Mike Baxter, McCabe’s rookie partner; and another detective team, Sean Pettigrew and Walter Yin). In the background are the media and the politicians in Albany and at the national level who play minor on-stage roles but who exercise influence. A couple of characters who were supposed to have been one-time only are insisting on reappearing because of the series arc. If everything goes as it should, no one will have to be put into a coma. So far they’re all playing their part and pulling their weight.
Frankie Y. Bailey is an associate professor in the School of Criminal Justice, UAlbany (SUNY). She has received nominations for Edgar, Macavity, and Anthony awards for her non-fiction works. She is the author of a mystery series featuring Southern crime historian Lizzie Stuart. Her near-future police procedural series (set in Albany, New York and featuring Detective Hannah McCabe) debuts with The Red Queen Dies (Minotaur Books, September 2013). Bailey is a past executive vice president of Mystery Writers of America and the immediate past president of Sisters in Crime. She is also a member of Romance Writers of America. www.frankieybailey.com
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