My first detective novel, Life Goes Sleeping, was published twenty years ago. The two decades that have since passed have seen the most amazing changes in my life. My daughter Kaitlin is on the verge of college graduation. My son Dylan, born slightly premature the year after my first novel was published, is now six foot four and a sophomore at the Fashion Institute of Technology. I suffered the loss of parents, aunts and uncles, friends, seen nieces and nephews married, and welcomed new grand nephews into the family. I’ve put on some pounds and lost my hair. I’ve been reviewed in the New York Times, gotten a major publishing contract and lost it. I’ve won major writing awards, watched my wife rise to an important position at her job. All of this is to say that the changes I have seen and experienced have changed me and have therefore impacted my writing.
My early writing was heavily influenced by the work of Raymond Chandler. That doesn’t make me particularly special. Almost all detective novelists have to some extent been influenced by Chandler. However, there was one aspect of Chandler’s approach that bothered me. His detective, Philip Marlowe, never really aged. Many series novelists employ this conceit. Their protagonists either never age or, as in the case of the wildly popular alphabet series by Sue Grafton featuring Kinsey Milhone, the protagonist ages at a snail’s pace. When I conceived of my Moe Prager series, I knew that I wanted no part of this static or semi-static conceit. Moe would age.
I have always taken to heart Joseph Wambaugh’s philosophy: It’s not how the detective works on the case. It’s how the case works on the detective. If your detective is always the same age, I thought, then regardless of the case, it will always work on him the same way. It is no accident that Moe owns wine stores with his brother Aaron. Moe’s character, like fine red wine, changes as he ages. I have also always held that the protagonist is the most crucial piece of the novel writing puzzle. An interesting protagonist makes for an interesting series. When a reader closes a detective novel, he or she remembers the character and quickly forgets the plot. Aging Moe seemed like a good way not only to keep the readers interested, but to keep me interested. When I write Moe, I never feel like I’m mailing it in. I may know the setting, know the cast of characters, know Moe’s history, but because he grows older and his life changes from book to book, I always have to discover who Moe is now.
In the series originary novel, Walking The Perfect Square, set in 1978 Brooklyn, Moe is in his thirties, retired from the NYPD for medical reasons, unmarried, childless, and lost. In Hurt Machine, the seventh novel in the series, Moe is in his sixties and his only child, Sarah, is two weeks away from her wedding. Moe has been twice married, once divorced. He had dealt with a miscarriage in The James Deans — “That was always the test, I thought, not how good you were at avoiding the blows, but how you dealt with them after they landed.” In Innocent Monster Moe discusses the trials and tribulations of dating in your sixties — “And even if the bitterness quotient was low, dinner conversation usually degenrated into a discussion of kids and grandkids or comparing whole grain cereals and doses of Lipitor.” In Soul Patch Moe begins to sense the first cracks in his marriage — “We had hit the inevitable impass, that stage in marriage when each day is like a long drive through Nebraska. In the absence of passion, I wondered, what distinguished love from habit?” After the death of his first wife in Empty Ever After, Moe has to confront estrangement from his daughter — “To think that I lost Sarah to him not because of anything he did, but because of my own blindness is irony beyond even my own ability to comprehend.”
Experience can change someone, especially traumatic experiences, but it is experience plus time that allows for lasting change. Aging Moe has allowed me to be true to Joseph Wambaugh’s advice about the case working on the detective. From case to case Moe is a different detective because experience and time have shaped him. He is essentially the same man, but like the rest of us in the real world, he changes with time. I hope in aging Moe I’ve been successful at keeping the interest of my fans. I know that this approach has kept Moe interesting for me.
© 2011 Reed Farrel Coleman, author of Hurt Machine