Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Older protagonists

Back when I posted about the humor and fun in Colin Cotterill's Anarchy and Old Dogs, I neglected to mention two salient facts about the protagonist, Dr. Siri Paiboun: He's seventy-three years old, and age and experience have brought him wisdom and perspective:

"Inspired by the industry of his colleagues, Siri went directly to the ward of private rooms, found one empty, and lay back on the starched sheet for a brief rest. He woke four hours later. He considered this his contribution to the project. A team needs an alert, conscious leader. To make himself even more qualified for the job, he stopped off at the canteen for noodles. These were the leadership qualities he most admired in himself."
Closer to home than Siri's Laos, this year's Bouchercon in Alaska included a panel on geezer noir, and Busted Flush Press published Damn Near Dead: An Anthology of Geezer Noir, to which Cotterill contributed a story. (You'll find a review of the collection at Crime Spree if you scroll down to the sixth page.)

Your questions, readers, are this: What older crime-fiction protagonists can you think of? What role does their age play in the stories in which they appear?

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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22 Comments:

Blogger Linkmeister said...

Obviously Miss Marple. How old was Commissaire Maigret?

Here's a blog entry from June of this year about real-life LAPD detectives retiring after 29+ years or more on the job.

November 21, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

I was thinking of adding "other than Miss Marple" to my post, but I thought I'd give readers the chance to discuss her. Why did Christie make her an elderly woman, for instance? Would the character have been as effective had Christie made her a bit younger?

I'm not sure how old Maigret was, but I think Simenon took him through to retirement age which, even in pre-Sarkozy France, would probably have brought him up around sixty. I've always thought of him as being in his mid to late fifties, for some reason. The character always had that empathy and understanding one would not expect in a young person.

And thanks for that link.

November 21, 2007  
Anonymous sandra seamans said...

Mrs. Pollifax in the Dorothy Gilman series. I think like Miss Marple, the feeling is that an elderly lady is harmless. She can travel or snoop about without the worry of who's taking care of the children. And most people don't notice the elderly unless they're slowing them down.

November 21, 2007  
Blogger Uriah Robinson said...

That was brilliant passage you highlighted, and makes me want to read Colin Cotterill.
More for the TBR mountain.

November 21, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Thanks, Sandra. I don't know that series, but I like your assessment. The last part reminds me of what Retancourt, a police officer in Fred Vargas' books says, that no one pays any attention to a "plain" woman, which lets her do all the detecting that she wants to do. (You'll find a discussion of that passage here.)

November 21, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Uriah, that is a delightful passage and actually typical of the tone in the two novels I've read thus far in the series. If you like it, there's a good chance you'll enjoy the books.

November 21, 2007  
Blogger Maxine said...

Chief Inspector Wexford (Rendell) was never young, and now (book 21?) he is positively decrepit, as well as being a grandparent. It is interesting how the books featuring him now are about an older person's perspective of the job and the world, as it has changed immensely over the period of the books. I like Wexford's mix of bemusement and irritation at the young ways, yet open-mindedness, refusal to bow to political correctness (which the younger generation finds shocking), etc.

Adam Dalgleish (P D James) is really old, but he is an absolute cheat as she was writing about him years ago, in the 1970s I think (I read the books at that time) -- then seemed to drop him for a while, then resucitated him but seemed not to have made him as old as he should be, even though he lives in today's time.

I was going to say Miss Marple of course, but had been beaten to it! Hercule Poirot was no spring chicken either.

November 21, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

I like that description of the older Wexford’s perspective. Is the character the same age as the author? I’ve read just one Wexford novel, The Veiled One, so I know nothing about how the character’s views change.

Dalgleish would be an interesting spin on the question as an old(er) character created by a younger author. That would make him a mirror image of Andrea Camilleri’s Salvo Montalbano, a middle-aged character created by an elderly author.

November 21, 2007  
Anonymous KarenC said...

Well Rebus is now 60 and forced into retirement. Ian Rankin particularly mentioned Rex Wexford the other day as somebody who never seems to age / or change that much. Everything around him does but other than a very slight deterioration in health, he's about the same as he always was (he did muse with great affection that he's in danger of his daughters being older than him).

Morse was also getting on a bit when he eventually died, but then again, he was ageless in many ways.

Kurt Wallender's another that's not as young as he thinks he is :)

November 21, 2007  
Blogger Uriah Robinson said...

The first Wexford book was published in 1964, and I don't think the poor man has been promoted in 43 years!

November 21, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Yes, one imagines that forty-three promotionless years might color anyone's perspective.

November 21, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Karen: I always thought Wallander was conscious of the need to lose a few pounds, cut back on the drinking, and so on. I have not read anything Mankell has written since Linda Wallander joined her father on the force. It will be interesting to see if that changes his attitudes and professional practice.

There appear to be dueling opinions about whether Wexford changes as he (and his creator) age.

An older author is not necessary for an older character, of course. One can argue, in fact, that a younger author has the potential to create a more memorable elderly character simply by being forced into greater use of his or her imagination. The editor of the Damn Near Dead anthology of "geezer noir," Duane Swierczynski, is still several years short of forty, I think.

November 21, 2007  
Anonymous Michael Walters said...

Reginald Hill wrote an amusing preface to his novella 'One Small Step' (in which he mischievously took Dalziel and Pascoe forward to 2010 - the story was published in 1990) about his characters' failure to age in real time. Dalziel comments: 'Just how old are we supposed to be, anyway? I mean, if I were as old as it felt twenty years back when this lot started, how come I'm not getting meals on wheels and a free bus pass?' Hill tells his character that it's 'the chronic dualism of serial literature'.

'Chronic's the bloody word,' growled Dalziel.

But, then, Bart Simpson and 'Just' William Brown are forever eleven, so who's counting?

November 22, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Thanks. I recently bought a collection in which "One Small Step" appears. I've read just the first story, about the origin of the Dalziel-Pascoe team. Hill was obviously having fun with notions of time and origin. All I knew about the final story until now is that it involves the first murder on the moon, which must be the oddest concept that any writer of mainstream crime stories has set to paper.

Regarding Hill's comment that the characters had barely aged ten years in the twenty he had been writing the series, one thought has occurred to me from time to time. An author might take a year to write a series novel whose action covers the span of a week. (Is that what Hill means by chronic dualism?) When the next book in the series comes around, how much should the characters have aged? Why, a week, of course.

I'm happy with Bart Simpson the way he is, Give him five fingers on each hand and make him twenty-eight years old, and he wouldn't be the same. But that might make for an entertaining self-referential episode of The Simpsons, though.

November 22, 2007  
Blogger Maxine said...

Wexford has definitely aged with the series, along with the author herself - I have read all the books (except the most recent, not yet out in PB). I agree with Karen that the main "sign" of his ageing, apart from daughters growing up and having their own children, etc, is his increasing irritation with the changing world.
On his promotion, I guess he is quite happy being boss of a small police station: maybe he likes being a big fish in a delightful rural retreat of a small pond (albeit with an abnormall high murder count!) than a smaller one in a bigger pond. Whatever, Uriah certainly puts his finger on it with that "43 years" -- who ever had a job, promotion or no, for that long? In the police, I feel pretty sure he'd be forced into retirement by now.

I've really enjoyed reading the Dalziel/Hill thread, thank you Michael and others for that. I've read most of the D-Pascoe books but have stopped recently as I didn't like the last few-- too slow.

I had another idea-- the Kinsey Millhone series of Sue Grafton (A is for...etc, currently on T.) The series has been going for nigh on 20 years, but takes place in much slower time than reality, so Kinsey has not aged, and they are still stuck without email and the internet, pretty much. Sue Grafton has written interestingly about this but heaven knows where. I rather like the series, though it has its formulaic elements that are a bit irritating.

November 22, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

What will Sue Grafton do after Zed is For ...?

With respect to the series' taking place in time slower than reality, perhaps her time is closer to reality. I mentioned above that an author may take a year to write a series novel whose action spans a week. Picking up the action a week rather than a year later in the next book is an understandable course.

November 22, 2007  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

"When the next book in the series comes around, how much should the characters have aged? Why, a week, of course."

Yeah. JD Robb's "in Death" series is up to about 25 books, but careful reading shows that one case ends and the next often begins only 2-3 weeks later. In the latest, the principals have only been married about two years, and they didn't reach that state of grace until the third book.

Since it's a police procedural of sorts, that makes sense, too; real cops even work concurrent cases sometimes.

Happy Turkey Day.

November 22, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Bill James' Harpur and Iles have aged just a few years in the more than twenty that he has been writing the series.

This discussion reminds me of daily comic strips whose characters age in real time. This has always struck me as a trivial gimmick.

If J.D. Robb can find enough material in a brief span of her characters' lives to spend 20 or 25books exploring, more power to her.

And a Happy Thanksgiving to you, too.

November 22, 2007  
Anonymous Maxine said...

I read about the first 16 of the Robb books because I bought them all in one go (crazy I know) -- I really liked them at first but the forumla began to pall after a while. Events move on a bit....but so slowly -- eg Mavis gets pregnant etc. I think if the characters aged a bit faster (and hence developed as characters and didn't stay mainly as plot devices) the series would be better. It has such great potential, the character of Eve Dallas is interesting, but it just takes too long to find out, for example, her back story, one gets hints and flashes but too slow over quite so many books.
However, Nora Roberts chruns out 2 a year and so I presume she feels she can continue at this pace and do very well out of it, and good luck to her. But I am less keen on this series than in one where the characters develop (whether or not they age).

November 23, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Did you read all sixteen of the books consecutively? That might have magnified your impatience.

For some reason, I don't think much about character development as long as the author can keep the characters interesting. I shall have to examine this notion further.

I did notice that some of Bill James' more recent Harpur & Iles books flagged a bit once he had rid the books of a psychologically shaky chief superintendent, This character had beens an intriguing and oddly necessary target and foil to the manipulative Iles.

November 23, 2007  
Blogger Maxine said...

Well, I don't want to bore you but yes I did, and the reason is that I was reading PW one day about 2-3 years ago and they gave this Robb book a starred review-- which said (I thought) that Robb had written these 16 (or whatever) books and in this new one, she mixed Eve's past and present in a clever way to solve the mystery of the series. Intrigued, I looked on Amazon to see the books weren't available here (they are now but I didn;t know that would happen), so I bought all 16 via second-hand US mass market editions -- I did not want to risk missing out on one, so I just got the lot from "single copy" sellers on Amazon Marketplace.
Then, of course, I "had" to read them all to get to this alledgedly breakthrough book. But it turned out to be not that at all -- it turned out to be a book about somebody else's past, and Eve comes in as a sort of minorish character to solve an old mystery. So I am still left not knowing much about Eve's past (some of the main series reveal a bit here and there), and the 2 a year new additions just got a bit relentless.

Sorry if this is cluttering up your blog with the boring ramble of an obsessive neurotic.

November 23, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

What you ought to do is wait about ten years, then read the books again, at greater intervals and perhaps in scattershot order. I am a tolerant soul, you see, sticking up for the beleaguered author.

November 23, 2007  

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