The fifth book in my series is coming out this October. (No, wait–marketing wouldn’t like that. The fifth book in my Clare Fergusson/Russ Van Alstyne series, All Mortal Flesh, is coming out this October 3rd.) St. Martin’s Minotaur has been generous with the ARCs, shipping them hither and thither in a spiffy yellow box proclaiming THE BEAST BREAKS OUT. (The Beast = the Minotaur. Get it? Breaks out? The Labyrinth? Yeah, I know. Toss me that ball of thread, Ariadne.)

So I’m getting emails from booksellers and readers who have gotten hold of one of these ARCs. There seems to be one consistent reaction, and alas, it’s not, “Let’s not wait for the awards! Let’s just give you an Edgar right now!”

It’s, “You can’t end the series this way!”

Well, I don’t. I’m busy working on Untitled Clare Fergusson No. 6 right now. But for two years now I’ve been running around warning readers that this will be a limited series. That I have an end to the story in mind, and it’ll take place within six or seven books. I suspect that because Things Happen in All Mortal Flesh and Somebody Dies, people figure this is the end. It’s not. But there will be an end, and that gives some people the willies.

How did we get to the place where every series is supposed to go on and on, world without end, amen? Any crime fiction lover can think of five series off the top of his or her head that ought to lay down the ghost. (And they aren’t all written by someone whose name rhymes with Hobbert Farker.) Yes, publishers and agents like the easy sell of a series. But I know too many writers who have been encouraged by their publishers and agents to do a stand-alone to believe they’re the sole culprits. Yes, readers demand more- of-the-same-only-different, but they manage to find some enjoyment when writers like Harlan Coben, Laura Lippman, George Pelecanos and Sarah Strohmeyer leave their series characters and go off on a lark.

I think it’s us. The authors. I think we fall in love with our characters and we can’t bear to let them go. In the worst cases, we can’t bear to let them fail, or f— up, or fart, and they begin to take on the glossy sheen of the Mary Sue. (Kay Scarpetta and Anita Blake may be the most well-known examples currently populating the NYT List.) In series that go on too long, protagonists begin to ossify, becoming a representation of a human being instead of the real thing. (Yes, I know, they’re not real human beings to begin with. Work with me, here.) That’s not necessarily bad. I don’t expect Brother Cadfael to have a crisis of faith and leave the monastery. I don’t want Bernie Rhodenbarr to get married and start burgling his neighbors in Scarsdale. But when the story question revolves around the character–will they or won’t they?–for God’s sake, move things along, answer the question, and bow everyone off stage gracefully.

Other genres have found ways to have their cake and not overeat it, too. Science fiction and fantasy are well-known for limited series, in part because they ask a broader range of story questions than crime fiction: How will we deal with global warming? What do we owe to God? Romance writers, who have to have a new pair of protagonists for every book, link families or friends together to create on ongoing world–but even the biggest family has to run out of members sooner or later. Crime fiction deals with some of the most important and relevant issues in our world today. But our overarching story questions are rarely more than “how will this cop/DCI/PI/lawyer/reporter deal with the crime and chaos in his or her life?”

Bantam Dell editor Kate Miciak once told me, “The best authors are a little cold.” You have to be, to kill off a beloved character as Dana Stabenow and Elizabeth George did. Or to say, (you knew I was going to get to him, didn’t you)

I won’t plug them in and have them take a cruise where the chef gets killed and only Patrick and Angie can solve it. That sort of Hart to Hart shit, I don’t want to go near it.

as Dennis Lehane did.

Write big. But think short.