Sleuthage, or Ageing Sleuths!

Sleuthage, or Ageing Sleuths!

Posted on May 16 by Jack Batten in Mystery
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At one point in Widow’s Walk, the twenty-ninth novel in Robert B. Parker’s masterful series featuring Spenser, the Boston private eye, Spenser says to another character in the book, “In all the years I’ve known you, you haven’t aged any more than I have.”

    The joke in this remark is that at the time—Widow’s Walk is a 2002 book—Spenser would have been all of seventy-two years old!

    Spenser never mentioned his age in the book nor did he bring up the subject in specifics at any other time in the series. But he occasionally dropped autobiographical details that, for those who cared to do the math, revealed just how ancient he grew in the sleuthing business. Spenser told us more than once that he boxed Jersey Joe Walcott in a professional heavyweight bout, and he let it drop a couple of times that he fought in the Korean War. These were events of the early 1950s, and if we assume Spenser was about twenty at the time, then he had reached his seventies in the early years of the twenty-first century.

    But Robert B. Parker never allowed passing time to take the edge off Spenser, even as a septuagenarian. It was clear that in each book Parker kept the books contemporary as the decades passed. He made sure the technology was more or less up to date, cell phones and computers assuming their place in everyday life (Spenser adopted the former, though not with any fancy add-ons, and mostly disdained the latter). But no matter how the rest of the world evolved, Spenser’s appearance and fitness were never allowed to change or diminish, no wrinkles for him, no sagging muscles. He continued to outpunch young punks, remained the fastest man on the draw in gunfights, still got himself up for twenty-four hour stakeouts. Spenser flourished as the unconquerable hero until the very end of the series, which came only with Parker’s death in 2010 (he was 77, about the same age as Spenser).

    While Spenser’s performances as a geezer seemed remarkable, they were also ludicrous—actually delivering a KO blow to an adversary forty years junior? —and it was with the need to avoid this risible element in my own books that I set out in 2013 to write a new book featuring Crang, the smartass Toronto criminal lawyer who operates more like a private eye.

    I had already written four much earlier Crang novels, the last of the four being Blood Count, which dated back to 1991. Crang’s age hovered somewhere in the early forties in that book, and as ever, he came across as a guy whose sleuthing was mainly of a ratiocinative nature. Though he was a fairly fit fellow, he didn’t get into fist fights if he could finesse them with clever chatter. And as for guns, they were as ignorable to Crang as they were to most urban Canadians.

    So, twenty-two years after Blood Count, when I began the new book, Take Five, I realized Crang would now be in his early sixties. That struck me as probably too ancient for a guy who carried on as a private eye, even as one who relied mostly on brain power. I was aware that elderly PIs have been known to survive the fictional profession’s built-in menaces to mind and body; one notable example was the central figure in L.A. Morse’s enchanting 1981 novel, The Old Dick, a PI who described himself as “about a million years old” (he was actually seventy-eight) and bore up under several assaults on his person. But, not wanting to subject Crang to such risks, I cheated with his age. I made him fifty in Take Five and only marginally older in its successor books, and hoped that finicky fans of Crang wouldn’t mind. Maybe they wouldn’t even notice that, in twenty-two years, Crang had blown out the candles on his birthday cake only ten times.

    But more important than Crang’s age, I needed to be sensible in scenes in the new books that demanded a certain degree of physicality on Crang’s part. He was pretty much of a softy in the early novels, usually preferring flight over a standup fight when a showdown with very bad guys loomed. That was an attitude to which I gave renewed emphasis in the fifty-year-old Crang. Better to be alive and possibly regarded as cowardly than triumphant and dead as a doornail.

   Or, as an alternate to flight, I put luck on Crang’s side when danger threatened. In Keeper of the Flame (2016), a muscular killer slipped up behind Crang, who was standing on the edge of the roof on a twelve-storey Toronto office building, intent on pushing Crang to his doom. Crang caught a last second glimpse of the villain, ducked and it was the attacking adversary who flew over Crang and off the roof (though not to his death since he crash landed on a balcony immediately below the roof).

    Crang himself wasn’t above counting on rescue from friends when he found himself in a physical jam. In Booking In, a Crang book to be published later this year, a bully with a punch comes at Crang from the side and lands a blow that flattens our man. Does Crang rise to the fight? Not him. He leaves the response to a young female pal of his named Sally whose fanatical dedication to Zumba, a gym routine that combines muscular samba dances with squats and lunges, has turned her into a fighting machine, and it’s Sally whose fist crunches the bully’s nose.

    As I see it, that’s a typical Crang situation in the greying period of his life. Rather than allowing him to carry on as if the passing years hadn’t worn him down in the slightest degree, as Robert B. Parker had done with Spenser, I preferred to portray Crang as the sleuth who looked and acted his age at all times. It seemed more sensible that way and definitely not so open to possible jokes and mockery from the readers. 

Jack Batten

Posted by Kendra on December 6, 2014

Jack Batten

Jack Batten, after a brief and unhappy career as a lawyer, has been a very happy writer for many years. The author of forty books, Batten has also reviewed jazz for the Globe and Mail, and, for twenty-five years, movies on CBC Radio. He currently writes the biweekly Whodunnit column in the Toronto Star. He lives in Toronto.