Immortal Writers

In the literary world, there are different types of immortality. Some characters (like Sherlock Holmes or Dracula) embed themselves into popular culture and become a permanent part of our book-loving landscape. A small number of writers, the ones college students are condemned to study in introductory literature courses, are so important that no critic, no English professor, no literary snob will ever permit them to fade, let alone die. Obviously, this is the realm of Shakespeare and an exceedingly small collection of lesser lights.

Then there are those who have become commercially immortal.  This group is, perhaps, even more exclusive than the arty Shakespeare group mentioned in the previous paragraph.  There is but one standard for this group: does the writer’s name generate sales?  If the answer is “yes”, then the writer is immortal – or at least as long-lived as the profit margin allows.

This might sound shallow. It most definitely is not intended as such. Commercial success is quite a high standard.  In this case, we are discussing commercial success that is so overwhelming that it extends beyond the real time life of the writer.  To put it another way, there are a few writers that sell enough books that the publishers will simply not permit the writer to die.  They will continue, somehow, to keep producing books well after they have passed.

The following is a sample of these immortal writers, those few who manage to keep the cash registers ringing well after they have passed. 

  • Mickey Spillane. There was a time when Spillane was among the best-selling authors on the planet. His most famous character, Mike Hammer, was so over-the-top tough that he might have been a comic book character. Because he was, at least briefly, as Spillane got his start in the comic book side of publishing. Spillane wrote about a dozen Hammer novels and, if you are fan of the hard-boiled detective genre, all of them are essential reading. Spillane died in 2006. There has been at least a dozen more Spillane novels since then.   How?  A talented crime writer, Max Allen Collins, has taken the helm and kept the Hammer books flowing.
  • Ian Fleming. The creator of James Bond died in 1964. Since then, at least a half dozen authors have contributed to the Bond legend. That is to say nothing about the Bond film universe. As I write these words in early 2021, Bond fans await the release of the 24th  Fleming wrote only 12 Bond novels and another 2 volumes of short stories.  Those multimillion-dollar film plots must come from somewhere!
  • Robert Ludlum. Ludlum died in 2001 but his most famous character, Jason Bourne, lives on. Ludlum launched the character in a relatively humble trilogy in 1980.  Starting in 2004, Eric Van Lustbader – himself the creator of several successful series – took over the Bourne character and has since contributed a dozen titles. 
  • Tom Clancy. There must be something about a super spy that keeps them living forever.  Bond, as mentioned above, is the template.  Jason Bourne is another example.  But with Clancy’s Jack Ryan, we have an altogether different level.  While Bond would never have risen to the level of British Prime Minister, Jack Ryan has become the US President — twice! Additionally, Ryan has been, at one time or another, a Marine, a stockbroker, a CIA officer, and a history professor. I have not read enough of these books to be able to predict whether or not astronaut or Pope are jobs in Ryan’s future.  But there will be a future, of that there is no doubt. Since Clancy’s passing in 2013, 4 different writers have more than doubled his original contribution to the Jack Ryan series.
  • V.C. Andrews. If anyone is keeping track of such things, then Andrews must hold some sort of record for posthumous success. Admittedly, I have never read her books, so I am in no position to judge the quality.  However, there is little doubt of the limited quantity.  I count no more than ten and only one of those, Flowers in the Attic, appears to have garnered any special attention while Andrews while still alive.  Apparently, that was enough.  There are now no fewer than 25 series – that’s series, mind you, as in multivolume works — that have since grown from the relatively meager beginnings.
  • Robert Parker. There are few modern American crime writers with the same elevated reputation as Robert Parker. He wrote roughly 40 Spenser novels. Just Spenser – Parker never reveals the first name in the books. A TV series used the first name David. Writer Ace Atkins has taken over the brand and produced 8 more since Parker died in 2010.

I could make this list considerably longer especially if I decided to broaden the candidates into other areas of publishing.  The comic book world is populated almost exclusively by characters invented by one person then continued through the efforts of others.  Stan Lee (and, to be fair, a number of lesser known collaborators) invented an entire fictional universe of superheroes (the Marvel universe of Iron Man, Hulk, Thor, etc.) that live on via comic books, movies and TV shows.

And speaking of TV, the working model is such so that almost no creator expects to have a final say on a character’s life span.  One need only glance at the plethora of television remakes and reboots to see that characters often outlast their creators.

Al the better for us, the reading public.

Craig Magee