Monday, July 4, 2011

Forever young or aging (un)gracefully: what to do with series detectives?

Thanks to fellow reviewer and prolific crime reader Maxine Clarke (of Petrona and EuroCrime fame), I read an interesting Wall Street Journal over the weekend about the ways in which various crime fiction authors had dealt with (or not) the issue of an aging detective when their popular series' ended up running for decades. You can read Alexandra Alter's article, "The (Really) Long Goodbye", in full here.

It's a topic that has intrigued me for a while, and was brought home to me again recently when I read THE TROUBLED MAN by Henning Mankell, a book that is all about his popular detective Kurt Wallander getting older and looking back on his life and what he has done (interestingly, Alter overlooks this book in her article). When I interviewed Mankell for an article in the New Zealand Listener earlier this year, he told me:

"In all of the Wallander stories there has been questions - why is this? How come this happened? And every one of these questions has been connected to a story, a case you might say, that Wallander must solve - with one exception. That is the last novel, THE TROUBLED MAN - where he himself is the question and the case. That is why I wrote it actually, because I felt there was a book missing, and that’s where he was his own case. Where he in a way tried to find out about himself, his own life."

And also:

"And that had really to do with something, his age... I think when you come up to the 60s there are for most people a need to turn around a little and look at what you did with your life, what happened in your life, and for many people that can be quite scary. Because many people have [frittered] away a lot of their lives, they haven’t done anything really with their dreams that they should have done... So this is also a story about getting old... I really wanted to write about the scary thing of getting a bit older, because that is what Wallander and I have in common, we have the same age."

Personally, as much as I love certain detectives and crime fiction characters, and would love to see them go on and on and on, I think it adds something to series if the character ages and evolves. It's part of life, and different things are important to us at different ages, and stages, of our lives. So I think it's great for literature (and I very much include crime fiction in that phrase, although some critics may disagree) to address that.

For me, the best crime fiction is about much more than it's plot, and even the best characters will get less interesting if they don't evolve over time. The best crime fiction addresses issues about people, and perhaps even about society, and aging is a part of that, and allows the author to address (hopefully in a subtle or subtextual way, raising issues rather than hammering us over the head with them) different things that concern not only their characters, but us as readers. I'm still (only) 32, but I can certainly appreciate this, and I'm sure many older readers might do so, even more.

One of my favourite books of 2010 was THE GLASS RAINBOW, by the incomparable James Lee Burke (Alter did mention this book in her article). In it, Dave Robicheaux (played by aging actor Tommy Lee Jones in In The Electric Mist, pictured above), like Burke himself, is in his early 70s, and along with the murky gumbo of violence and other issues he finds himself entangled with during the book, Robicheaux and his elderly hulk of a sidekick Clete Purcel, also deal with things like aging and mortality. And I personally felt this added to the book. I like what Burke says in Alter's article:

"Mr. Burke, whose books have sold 20 million copies, says he ages his characters as a matter of artistic principle. "Not to do so would be aesthetically dishonest," says Mr. Burke, 74, who sells Robicheaux-themed hats and T-shirts on his website. "You'd be rigging the game."

And of course, Agatha Christie kills off Poirot in his last case (sorry for the spoiler, for those who haven't read it). However not all authors want to age their characters, and I can understand the struggle; not only are there the commercial factors to take into account (it's a brave move to age then 'retire' a bestselling character like Rebus, for example), but I imagine some authors see their characters in a certain way, as do their readers, and aging - with everything that brings to the table, if you treat it realistically - simply wouldn't work for the character and stories they want to write (or read). And if you age them, then at some point you'd have to end them, and not every author can be like Michael Connelly and create a second high quality series (eg his Mickey Haller novels) that likewise satisfies critics and fans as their main character (Harry Bosch) ages. It's a risk, aging your series character, and I can understand that not everyone would be willing to take it.

Some writers start aging their characters, and then change their mind. As Alter says in her WSJ article:

"Patricia Cornwell, who has been writing about forensic expert Dr. Kay Scarpetta for more than 20 years, said she decided to stop Scarpetta from aging further when both she and her character turned 50 five years ago. "People don't want to read about her when she's 80," she said.

Thriller writer Lee Child dutifully aged his laconic, violent drifter Jack Reacher for the first several books, then realized his character would soon be too old to plausibly dispense head-butts and elbow strikes to a room full of villains. So Mr. Child stopped the clock. "I'm going to play his age down a little bit and make the reader assume he's stuck in his mid-40s," says Mr. Child, who recently finished book 16."

Others like Robert B. Parker have decades-long series where the character is near frozen in time, and while the world changes around them, their hero stays forever young. I believe Parker may have even changed Spenser's background in the later books, updating the wars in which he fought to explain his static age.

What do you think about aging detectives, or not? Do your favourite authors age their characters? Are your favourite detectives getting older, or not? Do you care, either way? Would you rather see an evolution of issues (perhaps with a decline of physical skills), or a detective hero who stays forever young?

I'm not sure myself. I loved THE GLASS RAINBOW, and enjoyed the way Mankell aged Wallander in THE TROUBLED MAN, but then, if I'm honest, I might want a MacGyver or Magnum PI remake to focus on the young, action-packed, characters I remember from the '80s, rather than older version.

Something to ponder anyway. I'd love to read your thoughts about this issue.


  1. Great post, Craig. I like the way Connelly has "placed" Bosch over the past 5 or 6 books, with his new contacts in the legal and journalistic professions as well as the fatherhood angle and the various ongoing FBI connections. He now has plenty of options post-retirement! Also agree on Wallender, a few books ago Linda took over as lead in the series but when the actress who played her in the Swedish series tragically died, the author decided to call it a day. It reminds me a bit of the Indiana Jones franchise, which had a refresh a couple of years ago with the introduction of a son. (or someone- a teen version of Indiana anyway, I forget the details). And we've had various TV series Young Superman etc (unwatched by me!).

  2. Craig - This is a terrific post! You're quite right that different authors handle it differently. I agree with Maxine that Connelly's handled Bosch's getting older quite well, and I wonder how he'll work with the character once Bosch has retired. In general I prefer that characters age as a series goes on. It's more realistic that way (although I am a deep-dyed Christie fan, and her Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple did not age, well not in real time anyway). I don't think there's just one way to handle that question, but I do believe it needs to be addressed. I'm actually already thinking about how to go about it with my own protagonist, who's in his early fifties. Good thing to keep in mind...

  3. Craig,

    I think that it depends on how the author treats "time" in the novels. Some don't really seem to have a sense of time passing--it's always the present in each of the novels and little has changed since the last one and therefore the detective doesn't have to change.

    One of my favorite exceptions to this is Steven Saylor's Gordianus the Finder series, which began in 80 BC and so far has progressed to where it is now 46 BC. Saylor in his novels has incorporated historical events into his mysteries.

    Consequently, Gordianus has aged as the series progressed. He is now very close to retiring completely and is now referring some of his cases to his daughter.

    PD James' Inspector Dalgliesh will probably retire in his next novel, although he hasn't shown much of the aging process throughout the novels. One reason for that is that the series is more of a cerebral mystery than an action oriented mystery and Dalgliesh seldom gets physical during the novel.

    I guess I like both types.

  4. Geldof in Johan Theorin's books! He's 85 in The Quarry which I've just started. Is he the best crime fiction character ever, or what?! He first features in #1 Echoes from the Dead, and makes a brief appearence in #2, The Darkest Room. The Quarry is #3.

  5. Both approaches have their pros and cons. It’s great Burke talks of “aesthetic honesty” in relation to his own work but I hope he doesn’t apply the “dishonest” tag to others. On the other hand, I question Patricia Cornwell’s take on it: it seems to buy into the misogynistic belief that older women don’t appeal. Helen Mirren/Jane Tennison is evidence to the contrary - are there more like her in crime lit? (Miss Marple is not the same.)

  6. I'm in the middle of the third book of my Harry Pines series. Harry is sort of in his early forties and I'm decades beyond that. I hope the fates and the fortunes force me to confront this question as times goes on. Until then, I'll ignore it. I do think avoiding literary pretension is the way to go. It's just entertainment, you know. I guess that puts me at odds with Burke and in bed with Cornwell.