From Spenser to Sherlock Holmes: How Authors Deal with Aging Detectives

From Spenser to Sherlock Holmes, how to keep detectives young while writing a book a year….

Age is a tricky concept in crime novels. What I’m referring to is the age of the sleuth figure. When this sleuthing person gets involved in tracking a killer, it’s essential for the sake of believability that he or she behave in a manner appropriate to his or her age. Fisticuffs involving the sleuth, for example, shouldn’t match him against a villain who is half his age (I use him and his because very few women sleuths duke it out with bad guys). Readers shouldn’t be asked to swallow the notion that a sixty-five-year-old private eye would outpunch a guy half his age. Some adjustment is needed to accommodate the verisimilitude factor.

One solution is to confine the sleuth strictly to the deep-thinking part of crime solving. No physical stuff, no confrontations that involve showdowns with fists, guns, or other weapons. Just let the sleuth carry on with a hunt for clues and a stitching together of motive and opportunity until the process reveals a murderer. This is the pattern that most authors of cozies follow, and no author illustrates the nonviolent approach to murder investigation more acutely than the American writer Cynthia Riggs who sets her crime novels on Martha’s Vineyard.

What makes the Riggs series stand out is the age of its principal sleuth, Victoria Trumbull. The redoubtable Victoria is all of ninety-two years old, and yet the decades haven’t slowed her by so much as a pace. Nor does she ever fall back on her great age as an excuse for failing to nail a killer as quickly as her fellow citizens of the Vineyard might like. Victoria remains forever confident of her investigative skills, propped up by her intimate knowledge of the Vineyard and its residents. As she says, “I’m related to half of them. I know where they live. I know where the bodies are buried.”

Dependent as Victoria is on ratiocination, she finds it occasionally necessary, even at ninety-two, to turn to a quick piece of physical self-defense. In her most recent adventure in Riggs’s Bloodroot, when a deranged villain who is one third of Victoria’s age and several times her size pulls a gun on her, she whacks the guy once on the wrist with her walking stick and again on the back of his head. The guy topples over, out of commission.

“I hope I didn’t kill him,” Victoria says.

“I hope you did,” says a bystander.

She didn’t.

Another solution to the age problem for crime writers is simply to ignore it, to pretend that age is never a factor. The late Robert B. Parker, author of the vastly entertaining Spenser series of novels, carried this approach to lengths that seemed almost ridiculous.

Parker wrote forty novels featuring Spenser, the Boston private eye. The series began with The Godwulf Manuscript in 1973 and continued to Sixkill in 2011. In none of the books did Spenser talk specifically about his age, but he dropped enough hints, especially in the early and mid-period novels, for readers to figure out his approximate date of birth. He mentioned fairly often that he had fought in the Korean War. Since the war took place from 1950 to 1953, Spenser was likely born in the early 1930s. He also referred frequently to his career as a professional boxer, regularly reminding readers that his most famous opponent was the one-time heavyweight champ Jersey Joe Walcott. Since Walcott’s years in the ring lasted from 1930 to 1953, we can draw the conclusion once again that Spenser came into the world in 1932 or thereabouts.

From Spenser to Sherlock Holmes

  Spenser’s life as a PI endured into the digital age—though he rarely turned to a computer or carried a cell phone—and his penchant for taking on bad guys in physical showdowns never wavered throughout the forty books. This meant that, toward the end, Spenser had crossed into his eighties, still punching it out with guys young enough to be his grandkids. Or would that be great-grandkids? Charming as these activities may seem, Parker’s handling of the age factor gave new meaning to the phrase suspension of disbelief.

For my own crime novels, I seem to be taking an approach somewhere between the Cynthia Riggs notion and the Robert B. Parker solution. My central figure is a Toronto criminal lawyer named Crang who operates more like a private eye. There are six books in the series so far, and in the beginning, I gave Crang several opportunities to engage in punchouts with bad guys. But as the books moved on, I realized that Crang was a little too advanced in age to rely on the physical approach to crime solving. He’s now fifty, not an age when a punch would occur to anyone as the first choice for working out the solution to a puzzle.

Accordingly, I’ve made adjustments in Crang’s attitude. Now, when he is inexorably faced with a situation where a menacing villain makes physical moves on him, he doesn’t look to his fists as a first choice to counter the threat. He relies on more subtle responses. The latest Crang book, Keeper of the Flame, published this spring, offers one typical example of the new Crang’s more subdued handling of a physical threat. In the scene in question, Crang happens to be standing on the roof of a twelve-story Toronto office building, enjoying the view, when a muscle man named Freddie Chamblis, hired to eliminate Crang, rushes him from behind, intent on shoving him off the roof.

What is Crang’s reaction?

Sensing Freddie Chamblis’s presence behind him at the last moment, Crang ducks just as Freddie lunges at him, and it’s Freddie who flies off the roof. (It happens that Freddie doesn’t plunge to his death. If you’re curious about his fate, the book is available in bookstores and online.)

In future books, I intend to keep Crang in a ducking mode. There’ll be no more throwing punches and an absolute minimum of mano-a-mano violence. Crang is going to carry himself the way a man of fifty would. From now on, he’ll be acting his age.

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