JACKI LYDEN, host:
Some collections are timeless. Take the collections of characters you'd find in a detective or spy series. All these years, Nancy Drew remains a teen-ager, James Bond has never had a midlife crisis. But some authors are actually signing up their characters for the early-bird special at Denny's. Some of these sleuths are getting older, along with their authors, sliding from gumshoes into bunion supports. Martha Woodroof of member station WMRA spoke with three authors about their characters aging on the page.
MARTHA WOODROOF reporting:
Ex-cop Matthew Scudder has prowled the streets of New York City through 16 novels over 30 years. These days he's beginning to slow down, and he's having to struggle a bit to keep up with new technology and baffling cultural shifts. Scudder's aging, just like you and I and his creator, author Lawrence Block. Block says he writes other detective series whose protagonists remain pretty much fixed in time.
Mr. LAWRENCE BLOCK (Author): But with Scudder, there was a level of realism in the books that was such that it seemed only appropriate that he age in real time, that he be affected in one book by experiences he had undergone in an earlier one and so on.
WOODROOF: Scudder drinks his way through the first four novels of the series. In the fifth, as Block puts it, the character comes to terms with the pathology of his drinking and stops. Eleven books later, in the just-published "All the Flowers Are Dying," Matthew Scudder, now in his 60s, has some perspective on his drinking years. Here's Lawrence Block reading a passage from the book in which Scudder muses upon the death of an old friend.
Mr. BLOCK: (Reading) `I'd been to his service at a funeral parlor on West 44th, where someone played a favorite song of his. It was "Last Call" by Dave Van Ronk, and I'd first heard it when Billie Keegan played it for me after a long night of whiskey. I'd made him play the song over and over. Keegan worked for Jimmy back then, tending bar on weekday evenings. He'd long since moved out to California. And Van Ronk, who wrote the song and sang it a cappella, had died a month or so before Jimmy. And so I'd sat there listening to one dead man sing a song to another dead man.'
WOODROOF: Allowing a character to develop and change and, yes, age over the course of a series keeps them interesting to both readers and authors. Novelist Nevada Barr just brought out her 13th mystery featuring park ranger and backcountry detective Anna Pigeon.
Ms. NEVADA BARR (Author): The emotional and psychological thrill for me is thinking new thoughts, and a character will help you do that. So if Anna couldn't grow, it would just be too tedious to keep writing her. I'd have to kill her.
WOODROOF: But Anna Pigeon has grown spiritually. In the first book of the series, "Track of the Cat," she's a 38-year-old park ranger who shies away from anything religious.
Ms. BARR: (Reading) `There hadn't been a God for many years, not the nightgown-clad patriarch of Sunday school coloring books, not the sensitive young man with the inevitable auburn ringlets Anna had stared through in the stained-glass windows at Mass, not the many armed and many faceted deities of the Bhagavad Gita that she'd worshiped alongside hashish and Dustin Hoffman in her college days.'
WOODROOF: Time passes, things happen, Anna Pigeon changes. In the just-published "Hard Truth," author Nevada Barr ends the book with 51-year-old Anna, now married to a minister, caught in a contemplative moment.
Ms. BARR: (Reading) `And standing in the quiet, the sun on her face, she realized the world was new again, or ancient once more. Loomis Lake(ph), the fragrant pines, the edged breezes, none were touched with cruelty, pain, sickness. People, humanity, were blessedly short-lived, blessedly unimportant, truly non-events floundering about in paradise.'
WOODROOF: Age does bring these fictional detectives perspective and balance, which they seem to share with their aging creators. In the mid-1980s, author James Lee Burke introduced us to Dave Robicheaux, a Cajun law enforcement officer. Here, Burke reads a passage from the first book "Neon Rain," Robicheaux describing himself.
Mr. JAMES LEE BURKE (Author): (Reading) `My hair and brushed mustache were still as black as ink, except for the white patch above one ear. And I convinced myself every morning that living alone was no more a mark of age and failure than it was of youth and success.'
WOODROOF: Robicheaux is cocky and full of himself in the 1980s, and James Lee Burke's series chronicles the character's ongoing and sometimes reckless romance with life. In the soon-to-be-published 14th book "Crusader's Cross," Dave Robicheaux is older and sadder but also more attuned to the slow, rich rhythms of southern Louisiana and its Caribbean culture.
Mr. BURKE: (Reading) `I sold the bait shop and dock to an elderly black man named Batiste(ph) and moved into a shotgun house on East Main on the banks of the Teche in a neighborhood where the oak and pecan trees, the azaleas, confederate roses and philodendron manage to both hide and accentuate the decayed elegance of a bygone era.'
WOODROOF: Burke says one of the big reasons he keeps writing Robicheaux is that he wants to get his beloved southern Louisiana atmosphere just right on the page. But he's also happy to admit that the series finances his writing career.
Mr. BURKE: I guess I could say that had I not written the Dave Robicheaux novels, I'd probably be throwing a morning paper route
(Soundbite of laughter)
WOODROOF: James Lee Burke will bring out the next Dave Robicheaux novel sometime in the summer. New novels in Lawrence Block's Matthew Scudder and Nevada Barr's Anna Pigeon series have just been published. Installments of all three series regularly make best-seller lists. All of us are aging. Maybe we're drawn to detectives who, from book to book, are going through the same perplexing process. For NPR News, I'm Martha Woodroof.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.