Friday, August 28, 2020

AGING HEROES: Guest post by Kevin P. Thornton

The next issue of the Mystery Readers Journal will focus on Senior Sleuths. Here's a great article from Kevin P. Thornton that expands this upcoming issue. Thanks, Kevin!

Kevin P. Thornton:
Aging Heroes

When Robert B. Parker’s first Spenser story The Godwulf Manuscript was published in 1973, the author was 40 years old and a Korean War veteran. His hero Spenser was 37 and had also been on the same battlegrounds. When the last Parker-penned novel Sixkill came out in 2010, everyone, theoretically, was 37 years older. Yet although the history of the character hadn’t changed - he was still a Korean War Veteran – his age also seemed to remain the same. One of Spenser’s prouder boasts made in several of the early books was he once fought Jersey Joe Walcott, the former world boxing champion. In the real world Walcott retired from the ring in 1953. Had he been alive in 2010, he would have been 96. Parker may have ignored it, but his readers knew. Spenser was getting on a bit.

Every series writer, if she or he is successful enough, will at some point face the problem of aging heroes. Spenser at 37 is youngish, brash, cocky and nearly able to leap small buildings. Nearly four decades on he can still do one arm push ups, and while his adopted son ages from 15 to 37 in real time before he too stops, Spenser and Hawk seem in suspended animation. Realist fans are left to deal with the incongruities of a 74 year old still behaving as an overgrown teenager.

Parker’s way to resolve the mathematical conundra his success had caused was to ignore it. People were still buying the books and Spenser had become a beloved and genre-redefining character, able to survive the occasional pedantic question. It is interesting to note however that later in Parker’s career when he created new series characters Sunny Randall and Jesse Stone, their ages were not so sharply defined and they were able to hide behind an assertive vagueness.

The mathematics of aging in fictional detective series may be divided, broadly speaking, into three categories: 1) real time, 2) meh! it’s fiction, and 3) the mathematical finesse of space in time or vice versa. Spenser falls firmly into the second category, allowing readers to reconcile the numerical anomalies in their own way. Stone and Randall meanwhile are characters from the third group. While the world advances around them, they age in a much slower manner and there are less incongruities. While dogs age and die and phones move from the wall to the pocket, Sunny Randall and Jesse Stone hardly change.

Real time writers, on the other hand, either set out to write a character who ages with them or end up doing so by accident. Both Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch and Ian Rankin’s John Rebus have grown old apace with their stories and have fallen into police retirement, and the challenge their writers face is keeping the characters relevant even as they lose their place in the squad room. Rankin and Connelly have done so, others have not, among them Sara Paretsky – more on her later.

Creating a long-running series featuring a much-loved character can be both a blessing and a curse. As time passes in the real world the writer has to decide how to deal with a fictional timeline. Ruth Rendell had Inspector Wexford still solving crimes in his retirement whereas Sue Grafton keeps Kinsey Milhone at the same age and in the same historical context. Both are real time solutions, both work for the respective characters.

Twenty five years into her most famous series featuring Tony Hill and Carol Jordan, Val McDermid has thought about their ages, but not to the extent it troubles her. “I feel an affection for Tony and Carol, a sympathy for what they’ve been through. Who knows how old they are? They’ve probably aged about one year for every book, rather than in real time. It’s fiction and I can do what I want. I guess they’re about mid-40s.”

John Connolly realized this right at the beginning of his series. “The spark for Charlie Parker was an image of a man going to visit the grave of his wife and child, flowers in the back of the car. For me the big thing was letting the characters grow older. You can take the Patricia Cornwell route, which is to keep your characters a certain age all the way through but the series can’t really develop if you do that because you’re just going to keep repeating certain tropes, the character is set in aspic. The other option is to do what somebody like James Lee Burke has done with Robicheaux, who ages with the writer effectively. Robicheaux is into his early 70s, so the books become meditations on mortality.”

So what is a series writer to do? It is difficult. Most writers don’t know at the time their first book is published that it will become a series. Quite often, if you go back and reread an author’s first book you can see places where a writer might have made her own life easier, had she but known of the looming success. Would Lee Child have changed Reacher if he knew they’d be together – author and character – for a quarter of a century? Was Jesse Stone Parker's attempt at a younger better Spenser?

Perhaps one of the better ways to deal with is the pragmatic approach adopted by Sara Paretsky who aged VI Warshawski in real time until both writer and PI hit fifty. VI stayed there as Sara moved on, acknowledging that part of the attraction of such characters is that they are vibrant heroes able to change their world and keep up with the adventure they encounter. In VI’s case aging in real time would have been a disservice both to the protagonist and the readers.

It would be much easier to write a series character if we knew it was going to be a series. However not knowing doesn’t mean there aren’t timely things a writer can do.

1. Try to avoid tying a character to a specific historical event. If your character was twenty-five serving in the Falklands, no amount of jiggery-pokery can change that he is a sixty-three-year-old pensioner in 2020, and not the strapping Royal Marine he once was.

2. Always try to write younger than you are, so that by book fifteen when you the writer are hitting seventy, your famous protagonist might only be sixty. Readers are accepting older heroes more and more, and it is easier to write from experience. You know what sixty feels like when you are seventy, it’s hard to imagine eighty from the same viewpoint.

3. Trust in your writing and your characters. At the end of the day, fans stick with you because they are invested in your hero and his life. They may sigh inwardly at the anomaly of an OAP-aged Boston detective bench-pressing twice his own weight, but they will stay for your writing. That’s what brought them to you in the first place.

4. Create a hero you hope you can live and grow with. Agatha Christie at one point hated Poirot and wanted to kill him off, Conan Doyle did so with his detective, and Lee Child recently gave Reacher to his brother to continue writing. If you like who you created, it makes it easier to continue with her/him.

5. Be careful with names. When Wilbur Smith wrote his first novel – When the Lion Feeds – his hero was Sean Courtney, pronounced Shawn. Half the buying public insisted on calling him Seen Courtney, which set the Author’s teeth on edge. Where possible, pick a name that’s easy, you may be stuck with it for a long while.

6. Never try to explain the time/age/space anomaly in too much detail. It ups your nerd ranking way beyond where a mystery writer should be, and most of the readers don’t care.

The exception to rule 6 is Reginald Hill. The creator of Joe Sixsmith, and Dalziel and Pascoe, wrote a foreword to the original edition of One Small Step wherein he imagined a conversation he should have had with Andy Dalziel (pronounced Dee-ell, see rule 5) and Peter Pascoe. In it he expounds his theory of dual chronology, touched on lightly elsewhere in this article though not with Hill’s delicacy. As Pascoe says to his author “. . .[so] we should regard historical time, i.e. your time, and fictive time, i.e. our time, as passenger trains running on parallel lines at different speeds?”. Hill concurs.

There is much more to this delightful interlude, and it is worth hunting it down to read and savour. Suffice it to say that Hill explains the inconsistencies of time within space in his series as ‘the chronic dualism of serial literature’, which may not cover all the anomalies discussed here, but is certainly a most elegant way to describe them.

Kevin P. Thornton has over twenty short stories published and available in reputable sales outlets, He is seven time finalist in the Crime Writers of Canada annual Awards. He has never won. He lives in Northern Canada in a town that has been wholly or partly evacuated four times recently due to floods or fires. It’s not that he is unlucky, but don’t believe him if he says he has winning lottery numbers. He is a past or current member of the MWA, CWA, CWC, ITW, SMFS, the Sisters in Crime, Mesdames of Mayhem and Writers’ Guild of Alberta. He like to belong. 


Fred Blosser said...

Edgar Rice Burroughs had a simple answer. He also had the luxury of writing fantasy. Tarzan and Jane had access to a longevity potion from a secret African tribe. John Carter of mysterious origin was already old (although still youthful in appearance, acuity, strength, and stamina) when he transported to Mars, where people live 1,000 years. David Innes never ages in Pellucidar where time doesn't exist. Donald Hamilton and James Lee Burke are two other thriller writers who had/have had long careers with ongoing series characters. In their later books, Matt Helm and Dave Robichaux occasionally gripe about getting old. but each one seems about twenty years younger than they would be in true chronological time.

Kevin Philip Thornton said...

I hadn't thought of Burroughs. Thank you Fred.

Kevin Burton Smith said...

Great article, but I'm still getting over the astounding idea anyone over the age of about twelve would pronounce Sean as "Seen."