opinion: from eighteen to thirty with nothing in between.

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.)

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6 thoughts on “opinion: from eighteen to thirty with nothing in between.

  1. The heroine of the crime/thriller trilogy I am writing at the moment is 17 at the beginning and 19 by the end. I originally intended her to be a little bit older but ran into some issues with that…mainly that if she were between 20 and 23 she would be at university and that is not something everyone does/aspires to, so I thought it might be a turn off for some readers – plus it would mean big shifts in location and a lot of scene setting and explanation. Her boyfriend is in his early 20s. Not sure if this would fall into the age range you are looking for? It is quite a sensitive topic, age – if I had made them both late 20s I think they might not do the things they do. People get more sensible! (Well, some people do…not sure I have.) Anyway, the first book, Silent Saturday, was published this year and you could always preview the first chapter by looking at amazon’s “click to see inside” feature, to see if it is your sort of thing.
    Best wishes
    Helen

    • Hi Helen! That’s a good point about university not being everyone’s cup of tea. I never went (lamentably) and I actually had a chip on my shoulder about it when I was that age, with the fervent anti-snobbery that I suffered from back then. And you’re quite right that the choices people in their late-twenties make can be much different to those in their late teens. I wonder if the same applies from late-twenties to late-thirties? I am still unsure if I am any smarter than I was at 19 though. Thanks for your reply – I’ll look into your book! 🙂

  2. Fiona,
    Interesting piece. If there is an absence of crime fiction starring 20-30 year olds, that’s probably because publishers don’t think this cohort don’t want to read it. Of course, that don’t make it so. There’s also a question of how you define different sub-genres. For example, I think a lot of YA fiction has a cross over with crime and is even very noir. Stand By Me by Stephen King is just one example. In terms of books I’ve read which feature 20-30 yea olds as major characters, you might want to check out Shotgun Rule by Charlie Huston and Elizabeth Hand’s Generation Loss. They are just two I have read that spring to mind.
    Cheers,
    Andrew

    • Hey Andrew – yes, you’re probably completely right about the publishers. I know many people in that age bracket are far too busy with study and travelling to Berlin (it seems to be what all the cool kids are doing) to read crime, but sometimes it seems like a self-fulfilling prophecy. As you say, I think I’ll keep more of an eye out for YA books that might be of interest – I’m part of a YA book club as well, so I can bully the other members into reading some of them with me.

      And cheers for the suggestions – I am googling them on another tab as I write. I’m glad you could think of some!

  3. As is often the case I am late to the party on this topic but thought I’d throw my 5 cents worth in anyway

    I suspect a lot of crime fiction protagonists reflect the ages of their creators and based on what I see at writer’s festivals there are few crime writers under 30 (or even 40) hence the relative lack of characters in that age range.

    But age can also be a bit of a problem as far as credibility goes – especially if a protagonist is to be an offical of some kind – it is simply unlikely that a policeman or woman under 30 is going to be heading up an investigation or otherwise taking charge – at least in the real world they would still be making their way up the career path and a rookie cop is simply not going to be terribly credible as a long-term protagonist and let’s face it procedurals do make up a large chunk of the crime fiction market.

    That said I can think of a few series which do have younger lead characters…

    Canadian author Robin Spano has written several novels featuring a newly trained cop who starts out in the undercover unit – she was in her early 20’s in the first book (the only one I’ve read).

    I’m not sure her age is ever mentioned but I think Adrian Hyland’s Emily Tempest is in her 20’s – she is the protagonist of two brilliant Aussie crime novels (Diamond Dove and Gunshot Road)

    Ben H Winters has just published the second book in a planned trilogy featuring an under 30 policeman facing the end of the world

    I think the main policeman in Michael Duff’s THE TOWER was probably under 30, and got the impression the female lead in his latest novel, DRIVE BY was also around the 30 mark.

    Leah Giarratano’s Jill Jackson was also late 20’s at least in the first couple of books…and there are probably a few more that I can’t think of right now 🙂

    • Oh, you are good! That’s a really decent list.

      You’re completely right about credibility – while these twentysomethings are probably a core part of some cases, they’re not the lead investigators who are able to collate all the information together and thus be interesting to readers. I do feel that there are interesting stories in these characters that we know and love now – what did they do when they started out, do they have any interesting stories to tell?

      Thanks so much for this comment! 🙂

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