The Case of the Aging Sleuths and the Dying Detectives

The great fictional detectives of the last century seldom aged and almost never died. There were exceptions -- Sherlock Holmes and Mike Hammer both (apparently) died, when their creators grew tired of them.
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The great fictional detectives of the last century seldom aged and almost never died.

There were exceptions -- Sherlock Holmes and Mike Hammer both (apparently) died, when their creators grew tired of them. But when the public demanded, those deaths became as exaggerated as the reports about Mark Twain's passing (you remember Twain -- author of Tom Sawyer, Detective?).

You can write if off to simpler times, but it makes good storytelling and commercial sense even today to keep popular detectives frozen in amber. Readers of series fiction come back to spend time with characters they know, familiarity breeding not contempt, but comfort. None of this character growth stuff, and a hero dying? Out of the question.

Agatha Christie cheerfully ignored Hercule Poirot's obvious old age, and wasn't Miss Marple born a spinster? Of course, Christie prided herself on unpredictability, and she did kill off Poirot, but only in a novel she squirreled away in a safe-deposit box, for publication after her passing. Maybe it says something that Miss Jane Marple does not die in her similarly set-aside final series entry.

Erle Stanley Gardner not only kept Perry Mason frozen for 40 years, he depicted Los Angeles in as non-specific a manner as possible, keeping not only defense attorney Mason, super-secretary Della Street, and indefatigable PI Paul Drake ageless, but the world around them, too. Gardner wanted to keep the novels timeless, so they could stay in print forever -- for many decades, he got his wish.

Teen detective Nancy Drew stayed static as well, although those who controlled her destiny began in the late 1950s to update the older novels and their illustrations, removing for a lot of readers the charm of their 1930s origins -- running boards, seamed stockings and all.

Perhaps the most eccentric approach can be found in Rex Stout's wonderful Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin series. Stout kept Wolfe constantly in his mid-fifties and Archie in his early thirties, though the world around them changes, from a post-Prohibition setting in Fer-De-Lance (1934) to J. Edgar Hoover's decline in The Doorbell Rang (1965). The final few novels even include references to Vietnam and Watergate. Most outrageously, a character from Too Many Cooks (1938) returns 26 years older in A Right to Die (1964), while Wolfe and Archie remain untouched by time.

Mickey Spillane did not shy away from making it clear, even in novels written in the '70s, '80s, and '90s, that Mike Hammer was a proud veteran of World War II. He avoided stating Hammer's age, however, and dealt metaphorically with issues of aging by beginning several novels with a weakened Hammer. In The Girl Hunters, Hammer has been on a seven-year bender; in Black Alley (1996) and the posthumous Kiss Her Goodbye (2011), Hammer returns to New York after recuperating from near fatal wounds.

In the current King of the Weeds, which I completed from Mickey's partial manuscript and notes, Spillane more openly addresses the passage of time. Both Hammer and his cop pal Pat Chambers are facing imminent retirement, and the case at hand has roots in the start of their careers.

The successor to Spillane's crown as king of private eye writers, Robert B. Parker, followed Stout's lead and his detective Spenser, a Korean War veteran, was kicking bad guy butt well into the twenty-first century. Sue Grafton's Kinsey Millhone started out at age 32, but the author ages her sleuth two-and-a-half years per book, pledging never to foist a menopausal Kinsey on her readers.

Lee Child's Jack Reacher aged for a while, but the author, sensing rough patches ahead, put on the brakes. Patricia Cornwell has done the same with Kay Scarpetta, and John Sandford with Harry Davenport.

Other mystery masters have chosen to keep the clock ticking for their protagonists. Lawrence Block says that his Matthew Scudder is in his seventies (and has set a recent novel in the 1980s accordingly), and Michael Connelly cops to Harry Bosch being 60. James Lee Burke's Dave Robicheaux is in his seventies (but fit) while Burke's other character, Sheriff Hackberry Holland, is pushing 80.

Bill Pronzini's "Nameless" detective and Marcia Muller's Sharon McCone have grown older, and Walter Mosley's Easy Rawlins has, too. Among other aging detectives are Ian Rankin's John Rebus, Ruth Rendell's Chief Inspector Reginald Wexford, and J.A. Jance's Seattle homicide investigator, J.P. Beaumont. This more realistic approach seems ever-more widespread in the genre, and there are many other examples.

In my Nathan Heller series, I knew I would be moving up through history. So in True Detective (1983), where he deals with Chicago Mayor Cermak and Al Capone, Nate is 27. But in the recent Kennedy Trilogy (Bye Bye, Baby; Target Lancer; and Ask Not), Heller is in his early sixties. And for the first time in these memoirs, the character's death is acknowledged: Nate tells us the JFK material can't be published till after he's gone.

A surprising number of readers have bemoaned Heller's "death" -- though for him to be alive today, he would rival Hercule Poirot's "real" age.

But perhaps that's why so few mystery writers have unequivocally ended the lives of their protagonists. Readers experience something very personal with the best of the fictional detectives, and while practitioners of the craft going all the way back to Conan Doyle may wish to move on, readers often are happy right where they are.

In the line-up that follows are several sleuths whose creators showed them no mercy, as well as several famous detectives who managed to age more or less realistically.

Sherlock Holmes
Tiring of his own creation, Conan Doyle famously killed off the greatest of all fictional detectives by hurling him from a mountainous cliff into a waterfall in The Final Problem (1893). But there are clues that Doyle always intended to bring Holmes back –- the ambiguity of the consulting detective’s death, for one, and the publication of a certain “lost episode” called The Hound of the Baskervilles (1901) for another. Since most of the stories are presented as memoirs written by Dr. John H. Watson, Holmes has a more specifically fixed career than most fictional sleuths, from roughly 1880 to 1914. Holmes lives eternally in Victorian London with its fog, Hansom cabs and gas lights, but Doyle reported his detective’s retirement to a farm to keep bees (around 1903), and his final case on the eve of the first World War in His Last Bow (August 1914).
Perry Mason
Erle Stanley Gardner set the adventures of defense attorney Perry Mason in a vaguely contemporary Los Angeles, avoiding any references that would date the novels. Mason’s private life is largely a blank slate, although a romantic relationship with his secretary Della Street is implied. The wildly successful Perry Mason TV series (1957-1966), however, hinged on Raymond Burr’s iconic portrayal. When Burr undertook a 1985 TV movie, Perry Mason Returns, an older Mason stepped down as a judge to defend his former secretary Della Street (Barbara Hale, as identified in her role as Burr in his), with William Katt appearing as Paul Drake, Jr. (the original Drake, William Hopper, having passed away in 1970). Twenty-five Mason TV-movies followed, with Burr’s intention of concluding with the marriage of Mason and Street undone by his 1993 passing.
Mike Hammer
A pop-culture phenomenon, Mickey Spillane’s controversial tough detective was –- in an echo of Conan Doyle -– badly wounded and left to his apparent death in a burning building in Kiss Me, Deadly (1952). (Spillane had converted to the Jehovah’s Witnesses and had not intended to write further Hammer stories.) Hammer was a WW II combat vet with a specific age implied, and his return in The Girl Hunters (1962) finds him a battered mess after a seven-year drunk following the apparent death of his beloved secretary, Velda. Hammer appears to age through the writer’s sporadic later novels, though he would literally be in his seventies by Black Alley (1996). In the posthumously published penultimate Hammer novel, King of the Weeds, Hammer is contemplating retirement, as is his longtime police pal, Pat Chambers.
Hercule Poirot
Agatha Christie made few missteps in a career that can only be envied by any other mystery writer then or now. But she admitted a major one by “making Poirot so old” –- the effete, fastidious retired Belgian police officer is apparently 62 in his debut, The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920, set in 1916). That would make him 118 in the final Poirot novel written during Dame Agatha’s lifetime (Elephants Can Remember, 1972). Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case (1975) finds him in old age and ailing in the post-war 1940s, although the novel was written in the early ‘40s, to be published only after Christie’s death (she allowed publication shortly before her death). The long-running, excellent UK television adaptations with the definitive screen Poirot, David Suchet, wisely kept their version of Curtain vaguely in ‘40s period.
Inspector Morse
Good though Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse novels are, the long-running UK TV series made the deeper impression. Starring John Thaw as the lovably cranky Morse and Kevin Whately as his working-class sergeant Lewis, 33 movie-length episodes were made, including adaptations of Dexter’s thirteen novels. Morse is a lover of opera and classic cars and crossword puzzles, given to hunches more than deduction, and lent great humanity by Thaw’s performance. The film of Dexter’s The Remorseful Day depicts Morse’s declining health and eventual death, a loss beautifully enacted by Whately and intensified by Thaw’s own death shortly thereafter. A sequel series follows Whately as an aging Lewis, and the current prequel series Endeavour (Morse’s long held-back first name), with Shaun Evans as the young Morse, is set in the mid-‘60s.
Kurt Wallander
Henning Mankell’s 10 Inspector Wallander novels represent a kind of Swedish take on Morse. Wallander, too, loves opera, drinks too much, and is grumpy. But this glum detective isn’t warmed up by a father-and-son relationship like the one Morse enjoys with Lewis. Like Morse, Wallander has difficulty forging lasting relationships with women, although he was once married and has a daughter with whom he suffers a rocky relationship. As he ages, diabetes sets in and by the end of his career (The Troubled Man, 2009), Wallander suffers from Alzheimer’s. Kurt Wallander has been successfully translated to television in a recent BBC series starring Kenneth Branagh following on two successful Swedish TV series with Rolf Lasgard and Krister Henrikssen respectively. Author Mankill contributed original stories to the Henrikssen series.
Veronica Mars
Unlike the other detectives here, Veronica Mars does not emanate from novels, although the character was clearly conceived as a modern-day variation on Nancy Drew, right down to Veronica’s father being a PI. But the sharply written series was also meant to be a contemporary take on the private eye genre, and Neptune, California, seems not so far from Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles. Television sleuths don’t have the non-aging option of literary detectives, and the original Mars three-season run saw feisty Kristen Bell’s Veronica go from high school to college. In the Kickstarter-funded follow-up film, Veronica –- like Bell herself, and the rest of the returning cast members -– is a decade older, and creator Rob Thomas has craftily concocted a mystery around a ten-year high school reunion. Oh, and there are novels now.
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