In a recent Wall Street Journal, Alexandra Alter talked about the dangers of having your literary characters, especially detectives, age in real time. She cites several examples of authors allowing their characters to develop the infirmities and declines that come with advancing years, as well as those who freeze their heroes in time so that while the world changes, they don’t.
The original detective heroes like the Continental Op and Philip Marlowe didn’t face this worry. Their series were relatively short compared to what we now consider a successful run: seven novels and some short stories for Marlowe, compared to 21 for John Sandford’s “Prey” series; Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple racked up 12 novels, against 40 for Robert B. Parker’s Spenser. Sam Spade, the quintessential tough-guy detective, exists in only a single novel, The Maltese Falcon.
The appetite for series now requires at least a book a year, and authors with contemporary settings have to face the fact that the world changes around their heroes. Do the heroes change with it? Some do. James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux, once young enough to be played in a movie by Alec Baldwin, is now 73. Michael Connelly’s 60-year-old Harry Bosch has to deal with the vagaries of contemporary retirement. But some, like Spenser or Kay Scarpetta, don’t. In fact, the biggest surprise in the article was how many authors began with their heroes aging, and then arbitrarily froze them in time when the series became successful.
It made me think about Eddie LaCrosse’s age, and how that affects his ongoing adventures. I created his prototype character when I was 18, but I wanted him to be worldly and sophisticated, so I made him roughly 35, which is his age in The Sword-Edged Blonde. At the time I thought that was mature enough to give him the perspective I wanted. However, by the time the book actually came out I was over 40, which meant I was now writing about a character a decade younger than me. Further, and strange as it seems, I’m continuing to age. So I’m faced with the dilemma of what age Eddie should be in each book.
Luckily I’m freed from the worries of the modern world, since Eddie’s world is fantasy and only changes when I change it. But I still want him to be believable, and part of that is aging. I don’t have a set time frame, like Stephanie Plum (Kinsey Millhone ages one year for every 2 1/2 books, so she’ll be about 40 when the series concludes). But he does progress. In the framing story of Dark Jenny I think he’s about thirty-eight, settled into his relationship with Liz and established in Neceda. In the next book, Wake of the Bloody Angel, he’s about the same age. Which works out to real-time again, one year per book, by default. But it’s not deliberate, therefore I can’t be held to it. Ultimately, Eddie’s as old as I say he is.