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.