Saturday, January 10, 2015

Harry Bosch and the problem of aging characters

One problem that writers of series fiction face is the issue that characters must age as the series progresses (just like real people do).

The producers of television series face a similar problem. M*A*S*H, a popular sitcom about U.S. Army doctors during the Korean War, ran for eleven seasons, from 1972 to 1983. The problem? The actual Korean War only ran for three years, from 1950 to 1953.

In the case of M*A*S*H, viewers were more than willing to suspend their disbelief. The final episode, which aired on February 28, 1983, was watched by more people than any other television event to that date. (The final episode was 2.5 hours long; and there were reports of the sanitation systems in several large cities being overwhelmed by so many people flushing their toilets at the end of the unusually long episode.)

Friends was another long-running sitcom. This show’s topic was not the Korean War, but the exploits of a group of single twentysomethings living in New York City. Friends ran for ten years, from 1994 to 2004.

Like M*A*S*H, Friends was also highly rated, and generally pretty good as mass-market television goes. However, the show was undoubtedly affected by the natural aging of the characters (not to mention the actors).

At the beginning of the series, the premise was wholly fresh and believable. As the characters and the actors entered early middle age, however, the original setups and situations were no longer quite as fresh and believable. Several of the characters got married and had children.

Married thirtysomethings who have kids don’t do the same things that single twentysomethings do. They approach life differently. It would certainly have been possible to continue Friends with a more mature, thirtysomething angle (there actually was a series called Thirtysomething which ran in the late 1980s), but that would have been a very different sitcom. The series had probably reached its natural end when the plug was pulled in 2004.

Which brings us to the topic of aging characters in series fiction. M*A*S*H and Friends were both locked into fairly rigid timeframes: the Korean War in the case of M*A*S*H, and that brief period of relatively unencumbered early adulthood in the case of Friends. A fictional series can of course be more flexible. But time still takes its toll.

The fictional detective Harry Bosch is probably the most popular and well-loved recurring character in modern crime fiction. Generations from now, Bosch will without a doubt be ranked alongside Hercule Poirot and Sherlock Holmes.

Harry Bosch made his first appearance in The Black Echo, published in 1992. Readers were immediately drawn to Bosch, and we may suppose that author Michael Connelly liked him, too. As of 2015, Connelly is still writing Harry Bosch novels. Connelly has written around twenty-five of them in total.

Readers of the Harry Bosch series will know that Bosch is a Vietnam vet who was born in 1950. This placed him in his early forties when the series began—not a kid, by any means, but still young enough to chase bad guys on foot and engage in shootouts.

More than twenty years later, though, Bosch is now in his sixties. He is past retirement age, but working for the LAPD on a deferred retirement (DROP) contract.

Connelly has skillfully managed Harry’s age. While the Harry Bosch novels are still fast-paced page-turners, readers will notice that they have become a bit less focused on physical action than they used to be. More troublesome is the fact that Harry will eventually have to retire completely.

Although I can’t claim any knowledge into Michael Connelly’s plans, I have noticed the character development of Bosch’s teenage daughter, Maddie. In the latest Bosch novel, The Burning Room (2014), Maddie is a 17-year-old girl who is planning a career in law enforcement. She spends time at the shooting range, and she participates in the police Explorers program.

This compels one to ask: Is Michael Connelly planning a crime series with Maddie Bosch as the main character? It isn’t too far-fetched, when you think about it. While Harry Bosch is becoming too old for active-duty law enforcement, he could remain behind the scenes in an advisory role for Maddie for quite some time. So there could be a transition of sorts, which would hopefully carry over the existing fan base.

It might work. And if any writer can successfully transition the reader base of a hard-boiled, middle-aged male detective to a young female one, Michael Connelly can.

But a Maddie Bosch detective series will necessarily be different in tone. The scenarios will also be different. Connelly, moreover, will have to balance the demands of old readers and new ones.

Readers of the original Harry Bosch series will demand an ongoing active role for Harry. New readers, drawn to the idea of a young female detective, will want to see Maddie doing the things that a normal single twentysomething female does. She’ll have to go on dates, for one thing. But will Harry Bosch readers want to read about Maddie Bosch’s love life? Throughout the series, Harry has had a number of romantic relationships—but these have been minor subplots. A young woman who barely takes time out for relationships may be less believable than a hardened, been-there-done-that, haunted-by-his-past, middle-aged man who is fully absorbed in his work.

Maddie can replace Harry Bosch, in other words, but she can’t simply step into his shoes. She will have to find shoes of her own. And longtime Harry Bosch readers may or may not like those shoes.


All of this is purely speculative on my part, of course. I have no idea what Michael Connelly ultimately plans to do with the Harry Bosch series. But one thing is certain: Ten years from now, the seventy-five year old Harry Bosch will no longer be believable as an active duty detective on the LAPD.  And since Harry Bosch is Connelly’s most popular (and most lucrative) series character, the writer will be forced to make a decision.