Oline H. Cogdill

Rob Hart is the author of the Ash McKenna series, including New Yorked, City of Rose, South Village, The Woman From Prague, and Potter’s Field, published by Polis Books. He also co-wrote Scott Free with James Patterson. His next novel, The Warehouse, will be released in 2019 and has been optioned for film by Ron Howard. He lives in New York City with his wife and daughter.

Hart’s final Ash McKenna novel, Potter’s Field, comes out in a few weeks. In this essay, Hart discusses capping a crime series: how to do it, why to do it, and under what circumstances a character could be brought back.

How to Say Goodbye to Pretend People
by Rob Hart

On my desk, in my home office, is a set of bookends. Blocks of wood, weathered and rough, cut from something larger. According to the website where I bought them: lumber salvaged from the home of Ray Bradbury.

They were supposed to arrive with a certificate of authenticity signed by his daughter, Alexandra. I can’t remember if the certificate arrived or not. I certainly can’t find it, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t here. My filing system consists of putting things in a pile until I forget about them.

Fahrenheit 451 was a formative book for me. It was the first book that knocked me on my ass and said: “This. This is what books can do.”

So when I saw the bookends on sale, I bought them, and when they arrived, I used them to hold up the things that I wrote.

I think a lot of authors do this, right? We have stray piles of contributor copies and comp books we get from our publisher, but those are earmarked for giveaways or houseguests.

One copy of everything I’ve got words in—from novels to lit journals to the honorable mention page of Best American Mystery Stories—goes into that display between the Bradbury bookends.

And just now I placed Potter’s Field, the fifth and final Ash McKenna novel, into that display. It’s the last time Ash—series character, amateur private detective, good-hearted kid with some bad habits—will go in there.

Which isn’t completely true. In a year, Potter’s Field will come out in paperback. In January, Ash makes a very brief appearance in a short story that’ll appear in Take-Out, my food noir collection. So I’m fibbing for dramatic purposes, but just give me this, okay?

Because it’s the end of Ash’s story. The last adventure of a character I figured would be one and done, and then decided I wasn’t ready to say goodbye. So I got it in my head I should follow him through five books, because the Joe Pitt series by Charlie Huston was five books.

Seriously, that was my entire thought process. I love those Joe Pitt books.

The number was less important than the fact that Ash needed an ending. He’s not an evergreen character like Bosch or Reacher or Rhyme. From the beginning, even when I thought New Yorked was a standalone, I was writing a story about a kid carrying a lot of anger and looking for his moral compass. The story only works if, one day, he finds it.

Even when you know it’s coming, saying goodbye is hard. You get to this point where you feel like you’re the character, or the character is you, or something equally pretentious, and then you have to lock him up in a corner of your head and throw away the key.

Not that my publisher, Jason, isn’t trying. There was a 10-year gap between Dennis Lehane’s last two Kenzie and Gennaro books—which he has helpfully pointed out a dozen times. And we live in the age of the reboot. There’s a Karate Kid show on YouTube now.

I’m not saying this is my last ride with Ash. Except, right now it is.

It’s not about wanting to move on to different projects. It’s not about wanting to flex a new set of writing muscles. It’s those things, too, but it’s also the feeling like I got what I needed.

Ash’s story was meant to be fun, but it was also meant to be therapy—New Yorked was about whether I wanted to leave the city where I was born. City of Rose was about becoming a dad. South Village was about how I relate to the world around me. The Woman From Prague was about how I relate to myself.

And Potter’s Field is about taking that final step and accepting: yes, I am a grown-up now.

I excised the demons I needed to excise and I’m ready for my next adventure: taking a baseball bat to the knees of capitalism and big business in The Warehouse, coming sometime in the back half of 2019 from Crown.

So, when do you know it’s time to say goodbye to a series character?

And I’m not sure I have a very good answer, which is why I’m stalling.

Certainly, you want to go out on top, before people are tired, and I don’t think people are tired of Ash yet. Better to go now than after the reviewers and the readers turn against me.

There’s an element, too, where it’s less about knowing it’s time to go, and more about deciding it’s time. Ash’s voice is like a comfortable pair of shoes. I can slip it on and off with ease, but I can’t wear it forever.

Another reason I wrote Ash was because I wanted to write the origin story of a private detective. See what pushes a person into that life. Once, I suggested to Jason that yes, I’ll do a sixth book, but it’ll be Ash at the end of his career—an old man in postapocalyptic New York, working his last case.

After a long pause, he replied, “At least it won’t be boring.”

But I’m glad to be done. I’m happy to know I told the story I wanted to tell, on my terms, and best of all, I got to finish it, which is a luxury not all artists get—shows and series and movie universes get canceled all the time. You’re not safe just because you have an endgame.

I’m also glad because writing a series is hard, both on a writer and a reader. By book five, I’ve got to remember stuff I did in book one, and know that it’s all linking together. That the arcs make sense. And while the first book is a big, exciting thing, by the time you get to the fifth, you feel like you’re inviting people to a Tupperware party.

I’m going to miss Ash. I miss Ash already. Which is a little funny, because I made him up! But still, I do.

It’s nice to sit here and look at the five books in the series, lined up the way they are, held up by tactile pieces of history, these chunks of wood from the home of the man who put me on this path in the first place.

You could call this moment a beginning, with The Warehouse, or an end, with Ash, but I prefer to think of it as the everything in between. That wide-open space where a made-up character can live or be discovered or born again, depending on the reader.

Rob Hart photo by Anna Ty Bergman