20 March 2020

Geezer, PI


We have a special treat today.  Richard Helms is a retired forensic psychologist and college professor. He has been a finalist for the Short Mystery Fiction Society's Derringer Award six times, winning it twice; and has had five nominations for the Private Eye Writers of America Shamus Award; two for the ITW Thriller Award, with one win; and one  nomination for the Mystery Readers International Macavity Award. He is also a frequent contributor to periodicals and anthologies, and he recently sold his third screenplay. His 20th novel, Brittle Karma, comes out this summer. An avid woodworker, Helms enjoys travel, gourmet cooking, playing with his grandchildren, and rooting for his beloved Carolina Tar Heels and Panthers.
— Robert Lopresti

Geezer, P.I.
by Richard Helms


Last July 4th, my wife and I were relaxing at home, reveling in the lullaby of pyrotechnic explosions echoing across the neighborhood, when our daughter called to report she’d just experienced an earthquake. Rachel moved to Los Angeles six years ago for an internship with the Conan O’Brien Show, and stayed to make a go of comedy writing. On July 4th, however, she rocked and rolled with the swarm of 6.0 and higher tremors radiating from Ridgecrest, about 125 miles away. She was safe, when all was said and done, but thinking about the potential for earthquakes reminded me that I inadvertently wrote my San Francisco PI Eamon Gold (Grass Sandal, 2003; Cordite Wine, 2005) into a Spenser-style age conundrum because of another earthquake.

When Robert B. Parker originated the Spenser PI series in 1972, he depicted Spenser as a Korean War veteran who also boxed professionally against Jersey Joe Walcott. Walcott retired from the ring in 1953. Presuming Spenser was at least 20 when the Korean War ended, he was born no later than 1933. That means today's Ace Atkins version of Spenser is 87 years old!

When I started writing Eamon Gold stories in 1999, he was in his early forties. Part of his backstory was that the house he inherited from his parents, in the Marina District of San Francisco, was destroyed in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. No problem, since it was only 10 years earlier, right?

Wrong. It's a problem. The third Eamon Gold novel, Brittle Karma, will be released by Black Arch Books this summer. It’s now twenty-one years after I first wrote Grass Sandal. By my best estimate, Gold and I are now both in our middle 60s. He was always at least a decade older than his girlfriend, Heidi Fluhr, who is in her thirties. Now he's at least thirty years older. In my head, he's still in his middle forties. History, however, says otherwise.

I dodged this problem with Pat Gallegher, my New Orleans-based marquee protagonist, by writing myself a rule that all his novels take place before Hurricane Katrina, and all his short stories take place between 1999's Joker Poker and 2001's Voodoo That You Do. So, despite the fact that the fifth Gallegher novel—Paid In Spades—came out in 2019, twenty years after Joker Poker, Gallegher is permanently between 48 and 52.

Parker and Atkins solved the problem of a geriatric Spenser by invoking magic, declaring that Spenser, Hawk, and Susan simply don't age, even though all the ancillary characters like Vinnie Morris, Martin Quirk, Lieutenant Healy, and Henry Cimoli grow decrepit and move into retirement.

I happily admit that my Eamon Gold series is a Spenser clone. George Pelecanos would refer to Gold as one of ‘Spenser’s Sons.’ I simply decided, in tribute to Robert B. Parker, to also allow my protagonist and his squeeze to defy the laws of nature and—like Peter Pan—simply never age. Details, right?

Eamon Gold might not age, but his creator certainly does. I recently attended my first Medicare physical exam. The hair that falls to the floor during my monthly visits to Great Clips gets grayer by the year. Things ache that didn’t ache before, and the aches aren’t going away. However, I am remarkably impressed—despite the inevitable pull of gravity and the countdown timer clicking away in my genes—that, at sixty-five, I’m still active and vibrant. My shock at my lack of total dilapidation at a point in life when most of my ancestors were already dead has inspired me.

In Brittle Karma, I include a character who is a porn star in his fifties. Gold is curious as to how he keeps working in a business that seemingly dotes on youth and vitality. The character says, “Easy. There’s a market for middle-aged actors. Boomers, man. They dug in and aren’t letting go. The Sixties kids are retiring, with lots of disposable income and a burning desire not to relinquish their youth and sexuality. If anything, they become even more sexually adventurous as they age. Half the swing clubs in San Francisco cater to people over fifty. It’s like a sea of gray. Granny porn is a real thing these days. People want to watch other people who look like them.”

Likewise, I believe Boomers—still the largest consumer group for genre fiction—want to read mystery protagonists who look like them and share their cultural history. Recently, I penned a screenplay for an independent filmmaker who insisted I use my New Orleans protagonist Pat Gallegher as the lead character. However, I wrote it in modern day, fifteen years after Gallegher’s novel adventures. He’s older by a great margin, and feels it, but in the end, he is still the knight errant of his youth. Our bodies may change, but our character still shines through.

One of my short stories, “See Humble and Die” (The Eyes of Texas, edited by Michael Bracken, Down and Out Books, 2019) was recently selected for inclusion in Houghton-Mifflin’s The Best American Mystery Stories 2020, edited by Otto Penzler and C.J. Box.  This story features a retired Texas Ranger in his early seventies who fends off the boredom of retirement by hanging out a P.I. shingle and serving legal papers. As I wrote it, I saw seventy-five year old Sam Elliott as my protagonist, Huck Spence. And, you know what? It worked. I can still imagine Elliott kicking ass and taking names, and I bet you can too. When it comes to heroics and good old-fashioned knuckles-and-know-how detective action, there’s a market for tough old birds like Huck Spence.

As my character in Brittle Karma noted, the Boomers are dug in and not letting go.  We’re the generation who said, “We’re never growing old!”, and we’re keeping that promise. We deserve literary characters who look and think the way we do, even if we might need to suspend our disbelief, just a tad, to make them plausible.

10 comments:

Michael Bracken said...

I have a similar aging problem with my middle-aged PI, Morris Ronald Boyette. He first appeared in "Feel the Pain" (Flesh & Blood [Mysterious Press]) back in 2003 and has appeared in a handful of stories since then. His latest case, "Dirty Laundry," will appear soon in Tough. Despite a passage of 17 years from his first appearance to now, he's barely aged more than a few days, yet the world around him has kept pace with the real world. I didn't plan it that way; it just happened.

Eve Fisher said...

Welcome and thanks, Richard! Damn straight, we boomers want people our own age to root for. When Sam Elliot is still a hot leading man, and Liam Neeson is a major action movie leading man, Helen Mirren is on fire, etc... keep writing Huck Spence and Pat Gallagher.

Don Coffin said...

A nice piece. I'm currently on my nth re-reading of the Nero Wolfe novels (the first one, Fer-de-Lance, published in 1934, and the final one, A Family Affair, in 1974). None of the major characters age in any significant or noticeable way. Which can be sort of weird if you read a bunch set in different times. (Of course, if they did age, then Wolfe would be in his 90s at the end of the series.)

Jacqueline Seewald said...

You point out a serious problem with series mysteries. Well-written observations.

Steve Liskow said...

Ed McBain once said his 87th Precinct novels covered about three months each, so four meant his characters were a year older. Late in the game, Bert Kling's white streak (or was it Cotton Hawes?) was caused by a burglar's knife instead of a Japanese bayonet.

And how old are Harry Bosch and Elvis Cole now? Weren't they both originally in the Vietnam conflict?

I've kept track of when my Zach Barnes stories and Woody Guthrie stories take place so I keep the ages right. Both started in about 2007, so I'm now in 2012 or 2013.

I'm now several years behind the present. That's good because I don't write a story set in "contemporary" times and then have a huge event make it inaccurate, like the current pandemic. Imagine if I'd published a story two months ago to take place in spring of 2020...

Bruce W. Most said...

While not exactly a Geezer PI problem, I had a similar "aging" issue when I decided to reissue and self-publish two novels originally put out in the mid 1990s by St. Martin's Press. My main character was a woman bail bond agent (Bonded for Murder and Missing Bonds), assisted by her law-student nephew. I wanted to set the revised books in contemporary times. Just one small hitch. The second book has a lot of ties to the missing in action in the Vietnam War. For me to set it 20 years later would have made not only my Ruby Dark character much older, her sidekick would be working at a law firm by then. Moreover, the links back to Vietnam would be a long stretch. So I reluctantly left the two books set in their original time period. Ruby will remain preserved in amber.

O'Neil De Noux said...

Yes. Getting old is a real problem for us and our characters. Had the most problems with my first recurring character, a Vietnam veteran in his late 20s. The first book is set in 1981 and is accurate to that time period. Ten novels later and the books are set today and he's @40. How? Because I'm the writer and I don't want him to be old. He'll stay @40, which keeps his wife young as well. My other series chracters age but the books are set one after the other so they will age slowly.

Robert Lopresti said...

Great piece. When I created my character Shanks he was ten years older than me Now the bastard is ten years younger.

Don mentioned Nero Wolfe. One of the worst mistakes Rex Stout made in that series IMO was in A RIGHT TO DIE. Paul Whippte, who had been a college student in TOO MANY COOKS, came back as a professor with an adult son. Didn't he notice that Wolfe and Archie were the same age they had been? He should have demanded to search the attic for strange portraits.

Leigh Lundin said...

Why not? Dale Andrews wrote an elderly Ellery who'd squeaked into triple digits. Sherlock Holmes must be 197 years old or so, and sometimes that doesn't work.

BTW, in one of those weird stories my brain tends to collect, there's an aged Japanese male porn star who's in great demand across the spectrum and popular with his leading ladies. Go figure.

John Floyd said...

Great column, Rick--good to have you here at SleuthSayers.

You bring up an interesting point. I'm also one of those who practice backstory head-in-the-sand magic--I don't think any of the characters in my five (so far) short-story series have aged a day, and one of those has been going for nineteen years. Like Spenser, my protagonists are totally unaware of the passage of time. Ain't fiction great?

Congrats again on Best American Mystery Stories 2020. Looking forward to being in there with you.