Private Eyes Who Just Won’t Stay Dead (Even If Their Creators Are)
“No question about it. Once you die, you really start losing control of things.”
—Mike Hammer in Murder, My Love (2019),
by Mickey Spillane & Max Allan Collins
That whirring sound coming from the mystery section of the local cemetery these days? It might just be another dead author spinning in his grave…
In the last few years, we’ve been subjected to an orgy of literary reincarnation (some call it “continuation literature;” some tag it them as “zombie franchises”) as beloved detective characters created by often equally beloved but no-longer-with-us authors are exhumed and once again forced to go through their paces, with varying degrees of success, sometimes for years and years. We all knew the goodbye would be long, and we never suspected it would be this long.
In a few instances, the results have been honorable and respectful; sincere and heartfelt tributes; literary debts repaid by current authors to honour their own personal heroes.
Sometimes, however, the motivation is far less compelling. Not all these “ghost writers” are quite so honourable. Often it seems to be more (or even exclusively about) the bottom line: grab a hired pen, squeeze out a book with the deceased author’s name and their character in extra large type featured prominently on the cover, slip in a more discreet byline for the actual writer, and turn a quick buck while the franchise still has name value.
It’s a formula that the always commercially savvy (and still living) James Patterson has milked well in the last decade or so. And he isn’t even dead.
- Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Even Holmes‘ death didn’t stop this series — Doyle himself brought him back. And he’s never gone away since. By the time I finish this sentence, at least one more tribute, pastiche or reimagining of the world’s greatest detective will have been written.
- Lou Largo by William Ard
New York private dick Lou Largo must have been pretty hot stuff in his time. When creator Ard passed away after having written just two books in the series, Lou’s adventures were continued, credited to Ard, but actually written by Lawrence Block (one book) and John Jakes (three books).
- Nero Wolfe by Rex Stout
Between 1986 and 1994, Robert Goldsborough wrote seven Wolfe novels, and in 2012, he began writing more.
- Philip Marlowe by Raymond Chandler
Chandler’s world-weary gumshoe has been passed around more times than a drunken co-ed at an Ivy League frat party, with authors as varied as Hiber Contreris, Roger Simon, Sara Paretsky, Dick Lochte, Paco Ignacio Taibo II, Robert Crais, William F. Nolan, Max Allan Collins, Benjamin Black , Lawrence Osborn, Robert B. Parker and Joe Ide all taking their shots.
- Archy McNally by Lawrence Sanders
Edgar-winner Sanders wrote seven books featuring his Miami Beach ne’er-do-well gumshoe, and after his death, his estate chose Vincent Lardo to carry on the series. Lardo ended up writing eight more.
- Mike Hammer by Mickey Spillane
Max Allan Collins‘ sincere and reverent continuation of Mickey Spillane’s Hammer series, was not only agreed upon and worked out between the two authors before Spillane’s death, but actually built upon manuscripts and papers left behind by the late legend.
- Sam Spade by Dashiell Hammett
An genuinely heartfelt tribute, by perhaps the most fervent of Hammett’s disciples, Spade and Archer, written by Joe Gores, was published in 2009.
- Spenser by Robert B. Parker
I’ll be the first to admit I was wrong about Ace Atkins’ revival of Parker’s beloved sleuth. What I thought would be a crass, hollow attempt to milk a cash cow turned out to be about as enthusiastic and respectful a tribute as could be imagined, with Atkins blowing the dust off and kicking up his heels, breathing new life into the franchise, starting with Lullaby in 2012. But Silent Night (2013), a Christmas-themed Spenser novel written by Parker’s long-time agent, Helen Brann, is to a must to avoid. Give coal instead.
The continuation of Parker’s other series has likewise been hit-and-miss. The nadir was reached when a Jesse Stone novel by TV scribe Michael Brandman was deemed “one of the worst books of the year” by Entertainment Weekly. Which may explain why acclaimed mystery writer Reed Farrell Coleman was brought in to continue that series (and has done well both commercially and critically). Coleman’s apparent secret was to not try to imitate Parker — “I like to say that Bob and I use the same camera, but attach different lenses,” he once explained.
Meanwhile, the Hitch and Cole western series (continued by Robert Knox) has drawn mixed reviews. Most recently, Edgar winner Mike Lupica has been brought in to continue the Sunny Randall series) series. The jury’s still out on that, although it looks promising.
- Hercule Poirot by Agatha Christie
When the much loved mystery author passed away, she had already made plans to ensure nobody would continue her series. She did this by killing off both Miss Marple and Belgian P.I. Hercule Poirot in final novels, and arranging to have both novels (which had been locked away) published posthumously. This didn’t deter the Christie estate, however — in 2014, The Monogram Murders by Sophie Hannah was published, and several more have followed, in a big “fuck you” to to Dame Agatha.
- Sid Halley by Dick Francis
Like Mickey Spillane, Dick Francis actually knew and approved of his literary successor — it was his own son, Felix. Father and son collaborated on four novels, and when Dick passed away in 2010, Felix took over the reins, and began writing solo. In 2013, he even brought back Francis’ best-known character, jockey-turned-sleuth Sid Halley, in Refusal.
- Ghost Writers: Have Pen, Will Travel
Don’t be afraid of no ghosts…
Respectfully compiled by Kevin Burton Smith.