FROM JACK REACHER TO SHERLOCK HOLMES
THE ENDURING POWER OF PREQUELS
“LET’S START AT THE VERY BEGINNING”
Those of you humming the song that begins with the title of this piece will likely know the next line is “A very good place to start…” but, for us authors, that’s usually not true. Think about it—most authors leap into their characters’ lives midstream, hinting at backstory, while tackling the crime/mystery/potential international calamity at hand. Typically, as readers, we want to get on with the story and are happy to be drip-fed details of our beloved characters’ personal history along the way. However, there’s certainly something of a trend of revisiting the early lives of characters, to the delight of both authors and readers.
Recently, Lee Child brought us No Middle Name, an anthology of tales introducing us to a young Jack Reacher. As a great fan of the Reacher books and of Child’s writing, I enjoyed the frisson of thinking “…of course Reacher would do that…” or “…uh-oh, you have no idea what’s coming…it’s Reacher, you fool…” as I read about the young Jack who—while I don’t believe he was ever at a truly “tender age”—was shown to us as a character in development, with some traits already firmly established and some being influenced by situations to which we readers were finally being made privy.
I also relished the chance to be “on the spot” when Faith Sibley first met Thomas Fairchild, in Katherine Hall Page’s The Body in the Boudoir (yes, my reading is pretty eclectic…but I bet yours is too). Having come to know the life Faith and Thomas had built throughout this enduring series, the chance to meet them before their relationship existed, and to see its beginnings in the light of the knowledge of all they would face in the years to come, was something Hall Page managed with great skill, not allowing the storyline to become mawkish…because there was an engaging mystery to solve along the way.
We’ve all become familiar with the estates of deceased authors allowing others to take their characters forward in time (Ace Atkins and Reed Farrel Coleman are each doing a splendid job with the characters Spenser and Stone, respectively, created by Robert B. Parker, for example). We’ve also seen icons like Sherlock Holmes and James Bond be transported back to their youth by the likes of Andrew Lane (Young Sherlock) and Charlie Higson and Steve Cole (James Bond). There, the anointed authors have the chance to not only weave exciting new tales inhabiting the sometimes rather sketchy (double entendre intended) backstories of our beloved protagonists, but also to appeal to an entirely different age group of readers. In another instance, the original publishers of the late R.D. Wingfield’s Jack Frost novels have used one of their own people, James Henry, to take Jack back to his “happily married Detective Sergeant” years in 1980s Denton in FIRST FROST.
These are examples of prequels being created because there is a demand from readers to find out more about the early lives of characters they have come to know over the years, where new authors have the chance to create works unencumbered by any insights the original creators might have possessed about their characters’ genesis. However, as in the case of Child and Hall Page, there’s an undeniable popularity at the moment for authors to return to the roots of a character they have created. Lynda La Plante has penned Tennison, where the eponymous Jane is a 22-year-old WPC just starting out in the world of policing. On her website, La Plante tells us she was prompted to write the book because readers often asked her what Tennison’s life was like before they met her in Lynda’s original books. Lynda had to admit to herself she didn’t really know so she thoroughly enjoyed the process of answering the question for herself and her delighted readers.
In a rather darker place, Thomas Harris wrote Hannibal Rising in 2006, giving us the chance to meet an eight-year-old Hannibal Lecter, with whose later-life “tastes” we had already become acquainted in Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs. Even Agatha Christie collected stories featuring Hercule Poirot that had first appeared between 1923 and 1935 in the 1974 anthology Poirot’s Early Cases (Hercule Poirot’s Early Cases in the USA). She went so far as to allow him to fail when tackling a case (The Chocolate Box) while a police detective in Belgium (Poirot had already retired from the Belgian police force when he appeared in Christie’s first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles in 1920).
Some authors have gone even further. Tom Clancy introduced us to multiple characters from his “Ryanverse” in Without Remorse in 1993, when he already had a string of Jack Ryan successes under his belt, and, as we know, his Jack Ryan books continue, overseen by Clancy’s estate.
Writing the early life, or defining moments in a character’s arc—long after that character has “been out there” in the readers’ world—is a challenge that allows authors to either better understand what they created, or to even have a second chance at getting the beginning “right.” Louise Penny openly admitted she had no idea about the detail of the case that had stalled Gamache’s career when she used that as part of his backstory in her first book, Still Life, but was able to develop that scenario as the books and years passed. In my own case, I had written the short stories and novellas that introduced the characters I developed in The Cait Morgan Mysteries, and The Wise Enquiries Agency Mysteries half a decade before any of the twelve novels featuring those characters appeared. I have been thrilled to recently take the opportunity to rewrite and re-edit those original works, ensuring that the people those characters became (due to my choices in developing them) are both tangible and accurately referenced in those “genesis” tales. It’s been a challenge as an author, because I admit that while I create detailed backgrounds for all my characters before I ever let them loose in a story, I haven’t noted every nuance I have introduced as my lead characters have grown throughout multiple volumes. However, I’m delighted that sales of my anthology, Murder Keeps No Calendar, suggest it’s a popular move on my part for readers, allowing them to gain insights into critical initial meetings between characters who later have chosen to work (or more!) together.
When it comes to prequels, there’s no doubt we readers each have opinions about why beloved characters are the “people” they are, based upon our personal interpretation of the words we’ve read on the page, so it’s great fun for us to read how their creators take us back to earlier times in their lives. But authors, beware! Sometimes our readers know our characters’ backstories even better than those of us who created them, so—while it’s certainly a satisfying process—there’s a great deal of work involved with choosing to “start at the very beginning.”