Monday, 21 December 2009

Time and the Detectives


Time management is an important consideration for authors of mystery series, even though we don’t always pay it enough attention when our series characters start out on their fictional journeys. I’m not talking here about time management in the sense of how does one find the time to write the books, but rather in the sense of connecting the chronology of the series to real time.

The classic illustration of the problem is the obituary of Hercule Poirot in The New York Times – ‘by conventional reckoning, Poirot must have been over 130 years old when he solved his last case’). Similarly, Ruth Rendell’s Inspector Wexford was already a senior cop when his first case was published in 1964. It’s sometimes said that authors should start out with young detectives – but ageism isn’t a great solution to the problem! We need and want senior sleuths to figure in series!

So what is an author to do? My own method – I don’t for a moment suggest it’s perfect, but it’s the best I can do – is to elide time somewhat. An example in the Harry Devlin series is the way I dealt with the passage of time between the events of First Cut is the Deepest, and those of Waterloo Sunset. I acknowledge very specifically the passage of time in Harry’s life, and in the redevelopment of Liverpool. But I reduced (in effect) the length of the interval between books. Harry was 32 when All the Lonely People was published; that was my age when I started writing the manuscript. Suffice to say that he’s aged much better than me.

So far, time pressures haven’t been acute in the Lake District Mysteries. But I am planning to deal with them in much the same way. This is fiction, after all. Of course, I’d be interested in the views of others on this tricky subject – it’s one where, I suspect, the right answer is that there is no right answer.

13 comments:

Michael Walters said...

An interesting post, Martin. I remember Reginald Hill wrote about it amusingly in the preface to 'One Small Step' (in which he had great fun in taking Dalziel and Pascoe to the then distant future of, um, 2010...) in which he concludes that his fictional time runs on parallel tracks to real time, but more slowly. But, as he points out, it becomes a particular problem when the books refer to real events - as in 'Under World' where the references to the miners' strike place the book firmly in the mid-1980s. Mind you, I recall that being even more of a challenge to the screen-writer when the BBC filmed it in the late 1990s...

Margot Kinberg said...

Martin - Such an interesting question (as always!). The passage of time is really an important consideration; there's no doubt about that. I like the way you solved in your Harry Devlin series. As for me, I think I'm going to have time pass more-or-less as it does in real life for my Joel Williams. He's in his fifties now, so that gives me some time : ). You're right that there is no right answer to this question, but for me, much as I love the Poirot novels (and I do), "normal" passing of time works better. Christie did that with Tommy and Tuppence Beresford and it worked, at least for me.

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

I think I'm just going to sit back and read your comments...I need some help with this area, myself!

Elizabeth
Mystery Writing is Murder

Ann Elle Altman said...

I have read all of Christie's books and I always assumed that the detective was just relating his stories from the past. Interesting thoughts you've brought out.

Also, I've gone into a bookstore in America to try to find your book and it wasn't there but I think I will try the internet. I'm sure I'll find it on amazon. I love mysteries set in the Lake District.

ann

Deb said...

Look at how P.D. James has handled Dalgliesh's aging--by just updating events. Correct me if I'm wrong, but in some of the very early books, don't we learn that Dalgliesh's wife and son were killed during WWII--or was it childbirth? As time went on, James made fewer and fewer references to Dalgliesh's wife and his past. Also, in a very early Rendell, Rexford is described as "elderly." That was 40-plus years ago!

It's funny, but at first I thought you were talking about how to manage time in a story so that events play out in the appropriate time frame. I always liked the Inspector Frost books for that--most of them take place over the course of just a couple of days, with events snowballing, but the author (can't think of his name right now--sorry) kept everything on track and time-appropriate.

So "time management" can have a number of meanings when you're writing.

Dorte H said...

"We need and want senior sleuths to figure in series!" We do indeed! And the readers of crime fiction WANT their favourite detectives to live on forever and a day :D

I like your solution which is quite like Enid Blyton´s Five series. Those children must have had twenty holidays every year. But who cared?

I also have a problem with one of my manuscripts as a town council election takes place in it which means it cannot just be any old year. So what do I do when I send it off to the next publisher? Let it take place in 2005 or change the year and the whole calendar into 2009?

Martin Edwards said...

Michael, the A Small Step reference is highly relevant to the topic!
I hope we finally manage to meet up in or around Manchester in 2010...

Martin Edwards said...

Margot, the Beresfords illustrate the topic perfectly. I very much liked their early adventures, though I found one or two of the later ones relatively disappointing. But not because of the time management issue.

Martin Edwards said...

Ann Elle - I hope you track the books down, and I hope even more that you find them to your taste!

Martin Edwards said...

Deb, from memory, I think Mrs Dalgleish died in childbirth. Adam is another good example of the significance of this topic.

Martin Edwards said...

Dorte, my feeling is that, in choosing the year, it's best to do what works for your story. If it doesn't fit in with the real life equivalent year, not to worry.

James Fulford said...

Poirot is an exceptional case, because he was elderly enough to be retired from the Belgian Police Force at the time of the First World War. See The Mysterious Affair At Styles, in which Japp remembers working with Poirot in 1904. See the timeline here.

A more recent one is Spenser, Robert B. Parker's detective, who was a Korean War veteran in his late thirties in The Godwulf Manuscript, 1973. The world has changed a lot, but Spenser hasn't--he can still bench 250, run five miles, hit the heavy bag, and engage in fisticuffs with the villain of the piece, even though he ought to be 77.

Martin Edwards said...

Thanks for this comment, James. Spenser is a very good example.