Recently I put word out in the Twitterverse for any ideas about crime fiction starring protagonists under the age of thirty. The only two I could think of off the top of my head were Stieg Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and the excellent PM Newton’s Detective Nhu “Ned” Kelly from The Old School, both ladies, and both around twenty-four. The other suggestions I received were all YA books: Harry Potter & co, Famous Five, Secret Seven, Pigboy by JC Burke, Darkwater by Georgia Blain, the Henderson’s Boys series by Robert Muchamore. Which leaves a great wasteland from the end of teendom to thirty or so—when I thought about it, I’ve rarely shared an age bracket with a crime hero since I (sadly) got older than Nancy Drew. It’s only now that I have hit the other side of thirty that I share an age-bracket ticky-box with heroes whose experience and education make them a good enough detective to solve a crime and star in a book. This is probably true in reality—but where does that leave fiction?
I doubt there is anyone who only reads books about people their own age—that would be narrow-minded and boring and I would almost entirely be reading about the pursuit of love in all the wrong places (did you consider your attractive best friend? Because that would probably save a lot of pages)—but as soon as I began my dreaded last lap towards the end of high school I realised that there weren’t any books I could find that were about young, post-high-school-drama adults. What happens in those mysterious years after you graduate high school but before you become a professional with a new car and a table instead of a 1987 Mitsubishi Colt and a tea towel thrown over unpacked boxes of Babysitter Club books? How did you learn? How did all those detectives, able to solve a crime with just an experienced sigh in the direction of a crime scene, get so damn good? Are those stories—ones of seeing your first dead body, of going through police academy with those guys from Police Academy, of having your superiors teach you what to look out for—not worth telling? As I said in my last opinion post on the need to assault women in books: anything can be made into a good story with the right author.
This also seems to invalidate younger adults as engaging people. Of course they are: just because they haven’t had an extra few years, which they are hardly personally to blame for (even those annoying successful ones that I hate), doesn’t mean they don’t have interesting experiences. Hell, many people younger than me are much wiser on basically every level. I’m a different person now than I was when I was twenty—I think I was probably more of a jerk back then, but I led a much more thrilling lifestyle than my current one (wake, pull stupid faces at baby for twelve hours, put baby to bed, go on internet)—but I was filled with enthusiasm for just about everything and scooped up knowledge like future Fiona scoops up sultanas (seriously baby why must you always fling them to the ground? They are for MOUTHS.) I work with a pile of people in this very age bracket and they are some of the funniest, smartest, kindest, most politically astute people I know, and I would love to read about them. Incidentally, none of them read crime fiction.
Books are read for many reasons: identification is one of them. When you leave blank a decade of life in a genre you face the danger of alienating that readership. I can’t realistically see a scenario in which a reader will refuse a book on the basis of the characters’ ages, but where do younger readers find their introduction into crime fiction when the more popular titles start with characters twice their age, with family and addiction problems already comfortably intact?
I’m not sure this is a problem that the world should stop and immediately fix; twentysomethings are hardly a marginalised part of society. When you next look at the great wash of books on the crime fiction section, all murky covers, snow, trees and shadowy figures and VERY BIG BUT VAGUE TITLES, consider that today’s internet-powered target-market yoof are turning around and looking elsewhere. (Probably at their e-readers, little paper-saving ruffians.)