Dicks That Were Allowed to Grow Old
For sure, there have been long-running private eye series, but very few of them have been allowed to age in any realistic manner. Oh, a Korean War vet may quietly become a Vietnam vet as a series progresses, or a rough-and-tough hard-boiled shamus may suddenly become as coy as an elderly dowager when the subject of actual age comes up, while another aging dick may offer a meaningless token concession that he wasn’t getting any younger. Like, who is?
Hercule Poirot was already a fussy old fart when he made his debut in The Mysterious Affair at Styles. Sifting through the novels and short stories, H.R.F. Keating once concluded that Poirot must have been around 130 years old, in his final appearance in Curtain (1970). Meanwhile, Dominic Martell gleefully points out that “in real life Nero Wolfe would have keeled over from a massive coronary about the time Dewey was defeating Truman.”
But of course we all know the non-galloping gourmet lived well into the Nixon years.
Still, there have been a few notable long-running series which have allowed their heroes (and other regular supporting characters) to age more or less realistically, if not exactly mathematically. A series like this can become essentially one long novel, a serialized chronicle of one detective’s life and times.
Here are a few:
- Nameless by Bill Pronzini
First appearance: “It’s a Lousy World” (1968 August, AHMM)
Final appearance: Endgame (2017)
Pronzini’s flagship private eye arrived already middle-aged, and has gone through major health scares, personal crises and countless other slings and arrows, eventually finding love, domestic happiness and even a first name, noting with passing of time with the same dogged, unflinching eye that he’s brought to his cases.
- Dave Robicheaux by James Lee Burke
First appearance: Neon Rain (1986)
Final appearance: Not yet.
James Lee Burke has has aged Robicheaux, who is now somewhere his early 70s, and very much aware of time passing. Not dark yet, but getting there…
- Easy Rawlins by Walter Mosley
First appearance: Devil in a Blue Dress (1990)
Final appearance: Not yet.
World War II is just over, and Easy is a young man when we first meet him in Devil in a Blue Dress (1990), by Mosley has continued the series, jumping ahead a few years at a shot, each book offering a vivid snapshot of the black experience in America—and particularly Los Angeles–in the latter half of the 20th century; a sort of alternative social history that burns through the genre, right up to (so far) post-Watts Los Angeles. Through it, Easy has slowly become a property owner, a family man and occasionally even a wise man, although that same hot blood burns in his veins.
- Bernie Gunther by Philip Kerr
First appearance: March Violets (1989)
Final Appearance: Metropolis (2019)
Bernie Gunther is an ex-cop turned private eye in late-thirties Berlin, wondering why so many of his missing persons cases are on behalf of Jewish clients when we’re introduced to him in March Violets (1989), and by the time we bid adieu in Metroplois (2019), Bernie’s been put through the historical wringer; a bitter, defiant man who’s bounced from post-war Germany to a Soviet prison camp and on to Argentina, Cuba, Croatia, Greece and even the French Riviera, fighting every damned step of the way to do the right thing.
- Charlie Parker by John Connolly
First appearance: Every Dead Thing (1999)
Final appreaance: Not yet.
According to the author (quoted in Aging Heroes by Kevin P. Thornton), “The spark for Charlie Parker was an image of a man going to visit the grave of his wife and child, flowers in the back of the car. For me the big thing was letting the characters grow older.” Which he has certainly done–his most recent, as of this writing, The Dirty South (2020), is only a few paragraphs in before the perpetually haunted Charlie is cursing “not for the first time” the necessity of reading glasses.
- Philip Marlowe by Raymond Chandler
First appearance: The Big Sleep (1939)
Final appearance (so far): Only to Sleep (2018; by Lawrence Osborne)
No, Chandler never let Marlowe really age, although he sure slathered on the bitter cynicism as the series progressed, but Lawrence Osborne’s Only to Sleep (2018) turned in arguably the best non-Chandler Marlowe ever, positing Marlowe as a tired, cranky old man living in Mexico, still not quite ready to go into that good night. Heartbreaking at times, and entirely credible.
- Mike Hammer by Mickey Spillane (and Max Allan Collins)
First appearance: I, the Jury (1947)
Final appearance: Not yet.
The last few Hammers that Spillane wrote acknowledged that Hammer was getting older, and after the author’s death in 2006, his literary successor Max Allan Collins has made a concerted effort to continue the process, based on the numerous notes, partial manuscripts, letters and other fragments Spillane left behind. But since Collins isn’t setting thre books chronologically but setting the books according to the presumed dates of those notes, Hammer has aged in fits and starts. So while Collins (and Spillane) have Hammer “pretty old” in King of the Weeds (2014), he’s younger (and more feisty) in some of the subsequent books. It makes you wonder how old Spillane, if he were still here, would have allowed Hammer (and Velda) to become. As Hammer himself muses in Murder, My Love (2019), “No question about it. Once you die, you really start losing control of things.”
- V.I. Warshawski by Sara Paretshy
First Appearance: Indemnity Only (1982)
Final Appearance: Not yet
Bless her heart, Paretsky started out trying to age the prickly P.I. gracefully, but consciously called it quits about the time they both hit fifty, which would have been about the time of Hard Time (1999), figuring that part of V.I.’s appeal was her ability to credibly go out there and kick ass. Mr. Contreras, however, has been allowed to age. He is now 3845 years old.
- Hand Me Down My Walking Cane
- How To Gracefully Subject Your Detectives To The Vicissitudes Of Time
Dominic Martell’s great essay on properly aged detectives, which inspired this list. (November 2020, CrimeReads)
- Aging Heroes
Kevin P. Thornton offers a few tips, in this great guest post. (August 2020, Mystery Readers Journal)
3 thoughts on “Talkin’ ’bout De-Generation”
I would add Mike Hammer to that list. Even though Max Allan Collins continued the series Hammer did get older . Spillane has him pretty old in King of the Weeds.
This was too late for Janet Rudolph’s latest issue on aging detectives, so she published it online instead. https://mysteryreadersinc.blogspot.com/2020/08/aging-heroes-guest-post-by-kevin-p.html
Thanks, Kevin. I’ve added a link to it on the page. Great piece. And of course I’ve pilfered some of it.