Tuesday, February 22, 2011

And Then One Day You Find Ten Years Have Got Behind You*

The thing about life is that time passes. Years go by. That might seem like a blatantly obvious thing to say, but it’s got real implications in crime fiction. An interesting comment exchange with Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise has got me thinking about those implications. On one hand, as I often mention on this blog, crime fiction fans want their stories to be realistic. So over time, it makes sense that major characters in a series would age and change, as they do in real life. On the other, an aging character can present all sorts of plot issues. For instance, what happens when a character reaches mandatory retirement age? Or, if a series has a child or teen protagonist, what happens as she or he becomes an adult? This isn’t, of course, an issue in standalones. Authors can choose any age they think will work for a protagonist. But in series, it can get important.

Agatha Christie had a few interesting ways to deal with the passage of time. In her Tommy and Tuppence Beresford series, the two sleuths age in real time. We first meet them as a young couple in The Secret Adversary, in which they form a partnership, Young Adventurers, Ltd., and end up getting involved in international politics and espionage. Later, as a middle-aged couple, the Beresfords return to work in N or M? and By the Pricking of My Thumbs. In both of those novels, the Beresfords have aged, had children, and watched them grow up. While Christie isn’t precise about their exact ages, she does make it clear that many years have passed. Then, in Postern of Fate, the Beresfords return as an elderly couple. Their children now have children of their own, and the Beresfords themselves have retired. I’m not sure whether this series would have continued; Postern of Fate was the last novel that Christie wrote, although it was not the last of her works to be published.

In Christie’s Hercule Poirot series, Poirot’s age is never specified. In fact, in Dead Man’s Folly, Christie says that

“Poirot himself was always reticent on the subject of his age.”

And yet, he was probably not a young man even in The Mysterious Affair at Styles, where he makes his debut. We learn there that he’d been in the Belgian police force and later, that he’d retired from the police. And yet, Christie went on to write about Poirot for nearly fifty more years. On the other hand, Captain Arthur Hastings does seem to age in real time, or at least closer to it. In The Mysterious Affair at Styles, he’s a young man recently discharged from the armed forces. He seems to be thirty, since another main character in that novel is

“…a good fifteen years my senior… though he hardly looked his forty-five years.”

As the years go by Hastings marries, moves to Argentina and then returns in The ABC Murders. Interestingly in that novel, there’s a reference to Hastings’ thinning hair and the fact that he’s getting older. In Curtain, the last Poirot novel, Hastings is an older man with a grown daughter. It’s very clear that both men have aged, but Poirot’s age is never made clear.

Christie’s Miss Marple’s age is never made clear, either. She’s an elderly lady even in her first outing, The Murder at the Vicarage, and throughout the series featuring her there are comments on her age, her health and so on. Christie wrote this series between 1930 and 1971, during which time Miss Marple doesn’t seem to age in as close to real time as do the Beresfords.

Ngaio Marsh’s Inspector Roderick Alleyn seems to age, too, and he rises in the ranks at Scotland Yard. His age isn’t often specified, though. In Vintage Murder, his fifth adventure, Alleyn mentions that he’s forty-two. Later stories, though, aren’t specific. Alleyn marries sculptor Agatha Troy and later, they have a son Ricky who does seem to age in real time. In Spinsters in Jeopardy, Ricky is a young boy. Later, in Last Ditch, he’s a young man. So in that sense, we get an authentic sense of time passing. On the other hand, if Alleyn was forty-two in 1937’s Vintage Murder, and was still an active Scotland Yard Chief Superintendent forty years later in Last Ditch, and if he aged in real time, he would have been quite a bit past Scotland Yard’s retirement age.

More modern crime fiction authors have handled this question of aging in interesting ways, too. For instance, Tony Hillerman continued his series by introducing a second main character. The early Hillerman novels feature Joe Leaphorn, a not-very-traditionally-observant member of the Navajo Nation and the Navajo Tribal Police. In novels such as The Blessing Way and Listening Woman, Leaphorn’s a relatively young man. As he begins to age, and rises to the rank of Lieutenant, we meet a new major character Jim Chee. Chee’s quite different from Leaphorn in some ways. He’s a more traditional Navajo, and he has a slightly different background from Leaphorn’s. He’s also younger (although not decades younger). The Chee and Leaphorn novels don’t focus on the characters’ specific ages. However, in The Fallen Man, Leaphorn has recently retired from his position, and in the novels that follow, he continues to age, although not what you would call dramatically. Chee, too ages and gets more mature although again, not dramatically. Sadly, Hillerman died in 2008; it would have been interesting to see what would have happened as Leaphorn became elderly and Chee himself became more of a veteran.

Ruth Rendell has also had to face the challenge of an aging protagonist. Her Reg Wexford has been solving cases since 1964’s From Doon With Death. Through the years, Wexford has been promoted, his daughters Sylvia and Sheila have become adults, and Wexford’s become a grandfather. And yet, Rendell hasn’t been specific about Wexford’s age. That’s allowed her to continue to create stories about him, although it would seem he’s at least reached retirement age.

Ian Rankin has faced the challenge of his aging protagonist John Rebus by having him retire in Exit Music. We see the passage of time in the Rebus novels in several ways. For instance, Rebus’ daughter Samantha “Sam” has grown from a girl into a woman. Sergeant Siobhan Clarke, who’s worked with Rebus on many of his cases, has also aged and matured. In those ways, Rankin has been rather authentic. He’s allowed his characters to age in real time. And it’ll be quite interesting to see what happens now that Rebus has retired. Will Clarke “star” in some sort of continuation of the series? Will Rebus become a private investigator? There are lots of other possibilities, too.

And then there’s Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch. Connelly made the decision to age Bosch in real time, although he doesn’t usually put too much emphasis on Bosch’s exact age. We’ve seen that passage of time, too, as, for instance, Bosch’s daughter Maddie has grown. In a 2005 interview, Connelly said that he had about five years left to write Harry Bosch novels before Bosch gets too close to the L.A.P.D.’s mandatory retirement age. Now that Bosch is basically at that age, it’ll be very interesting to see what happens next with him. One thing that Connelly’s done is to introduce a new character, Bosch’s attorney half-brother Mickey Haller. They’ve worked together in novels such as The Brass Verdict and The Reversal. Haller has a smaller role in 9 Dragons, too. It’ll be interesting to see what happens to both characters next.

There are a lot of other examples of the ways in which authors handle the passage of time and the aging of their characters – more than I can mention in this one post. What do you think? If you’re a series reader, do you like the characters to age in real time and retire, etc. or is that not important to you? If you’re a series writer, what do you do about the reality of characters aging?

*Note: The title of this post is a line from Pink Floyd’s Time.


  1. What an interesting point.
    We'll have to assume that Marple and Poirot's sleuthing kept them sprightly :-)

  2. No, I don´t want them to age in real time. I prefer something in between Rendell and Rankin´s solutions so that protagonists do grow older by and by - but not so fast that the writer will have to pension them off before the readers have grown tired of them ;D

    And with regard to my own sleuths, I have made sure that Rhapsody and Archibald Primrose are so much younger than me that they can go on solving crime until I am in my nineties. But if I am still going strong then, I may have to come up with a new couple :D

  3. Al - Thanks :-). You know, you have an interesting point. It could very well be that both Poirot and Marple's interest in crime kept them interested in life, and kept them going.

    Dorte - I know what you mean. I like it, too, when a protagonist ages in a close enough way to real time so that it's believable, but not so quickly that the sleuth retires before we're ready. That, I think, is a tough balance...

    And I think you were wise to make Rhapsody and Archibald young people. This way, you have a lot of flexibility as they mature, and that growth can be a part of the plots you write. And they'll be around for a lo-ong time. And I'll bet you still will be going strong in your nineties, and you'll have to come up with a completely new set of protagonists :-).

  4. I think having the protagonist to age is important in a series. However, I don't think the author has to make a great point of the age itself giving the character an exact age. That way it's left to the reader's imagination. They can think the protagonist is 40 or 50 depending on how they look at life. When the writer does feel their protagonist needs to retire from their profession, they could be faced with creating a retirement job for them much like the readers have to face themselves. So there could be endless possibilities there.

    Thoughts in Progress

  5. Mason - That's an interesting point. In today's world, people don't stop living at age 65, or even 70 or older. There is a lot out there, and there's no reason not to have a protagonist take on a new role.

    You also have a well-taken point about not giving exact ages for the sleuth. The reader can imagine someone in her or his 30's or 40's or 50's without having to be specifically told what the character's age is. That gives the author more flexibility, too.

  6. There have been times I've imagined a character one way and the author has blown it by having something like a 40th birthday party. The party would have been better if no specific age were mentioned. I never did finish the series.
    Some things are best left to reader imagination and I think age is one of those things.

  7. Mary - Oh, now that's an interesting point! Authors love it when readers get interested enough in a book to really use their imaginations. Trust me. So when the author gives too much information - like age - that can spoil it for the reader. I hadn't thought of age as one of those things that "counts" as too much information, but why not?

  8. Great post! I do enjoy series and I've noticed some characters do age while others seem stuck. I think I prefer them to age and change and grow. But it some cases, it doesn't seem to bother me much. So I guess it depends on how the author handles the situation. :)

  9. One of my favorite series is inspector Morse (for telly) and in that series Morse dies because in real life he was advancing in age and eventually died. His successor Lewis started his own series. I just love that.

  10. Jemi - Thank you :-). And I think you've got a solid point there about how authors handle aging characters. It really does depend, doesn't it, on how the author approaches the characters. I think if the author shows them changing and growing and evolving over a series, exact age is maybe just a little less important.

    Clarissa - You know, I actually thought of Dexter's Morse when I was writing this post. Dexter handled the end of Morse's career brilliantly (if very sadly) in terms of how to handle the age thing. It may be just I, but I wonder what a written series about Lewis would have been like.

  11. I think, considering that my protagonists are older ladies, I'll just freeze them in time. :)

  12. Elizabeth - Oh, that's funny! And I agree; there's no reason not to keep a protagonist frozen in time. Lots of authors do that brilliantly.

  13. My thought is if you're going to write a series then you'd better let your characters age - especially if you're referencing the time in which they're living. Of course, there's nothing stopping a writer penning a work happening the the vague period of 'around now' but I'd think it would take some thought.

    The question to address is: how much time passes between books? If it's a week, you're fine. If it's years, you've got an issue. If the writer never says how much time elapses, maybe the last book took place yesterday, or even an hour ago.

    Then again, sometimes you've just got to let art flow over you. hehehe.

  14. Elspeth - You've raised a very good point! How much time elapses between books? Sometimes that's made clear in a series, and sometimes it isn't, and you're right; that can affect how quickly a character ages. And you've got a good point, too, that it takes a deft touch to give the reader enough information to place the reader in the stories and let the reader get to know the characters. That involves at least some information on the characters' ages. And as the series goes on, readers expect the characters to go on, too, which means aging. On the other hand, I've read very good series where the characters are frozen, so to speak, in time. I think it depends on the way the author goes about setting the context.