I was looking for a change of pace

after finishing Suzanne Collins’ excellent but unrelentingly bleak Hunger Games, something cheerful, like a murder mystery, so I picked up Earlene Fowler’s Spider Web, the latest in her Benni Harper series.  A note at the beginning of the book led me to think about another type of pace: the connection between the passage of time in the real world and in the world of a long-running fictional character.

Spider Web is Fowler’s fifteenth novel about Benni Harper.  The first in the series, Fool’s Puzzle, published in 1994, took place in November 1992.  The current novel is set in March 1998.  Fowler mentions in her note the problems of remembering (or researching) details of technology used twelve or thirteen years ago, but she has, I think, another reason for fastening her series to an internal calendar.  Benni’s husband suffers from PTSD induced by his service in Viet Nam.

Another series with a strong internal timeline is Sue Grafton’s, beginning with A Is for Alibi, published and set in 1982.  The latest novel, U Is for Undertow, published in 2009, takes place in April 1988.  So Kinsey Milhone has aged about six years in the nearly thirty years Grafton has been following her adventures.  She lives and works in a world much less affected by cell phones and computers, and makes us realize how fast technology has moved in the past quarter century.  (V Is for Vengeance is scheduled for November 2011.)

Not all writers treat the passage of real and fictional time the same way.  Marcia Muller has written 27 books featuring Sharon McCone since Edwin of the Iron Shoes was published in 1977.  Talk about technology flying past!  Sharon and her colleagues have aged a few years, yes, changed jobs and relationships, at a much slower pace than real time.  But they have adapted to cell phones, computers, and all the rest of modern technology.  Muller identifies days and months within the books, but not years.  Coming Back, published in 2009, feels every bit as contemporary now as the first book did nearly 35 years ago.  (City of Whispers is due in October 2011.)

I was surprised when I pulled Janet Evanovich’s first Stephanie Plum novel, One for the Money, off the shelf and saw that it was published in 1994.  Stephanie, Joe, Ranger, and the rest of the gang exist in a timeless world, flying through their cases at a furious rate, unhampered by reality.  One book a year (Smokin’ Seventeen will be out shortly) in our lives, one case every few weeks in Stephanie’s.

I don’t know exactly how or why these authors, or many others who have kept their characters alive through many books and many years, make their decisions.  No doubt some plan their methods in advance, while others are taken by surprise by success.  These four authors have proved that there is no one solution to keeping series characters growing without growing old.

Paper books are in no danger

in my library.  This afternoon I found myself pre-ordering three more from the Mystery Guild:  Charlaine Harris’ Dead Reckoning (the latest Sookie Stackhouse novel), Steve Berry’s The Jefferson Key (a new suspense thriller featuring Cotton Malone), and Earlene Fowler’s Spider Web (the latest installment in her Benny Harper quilt-themed mystery series).  All three will be available in ebook form (at prices comparable to the Mystery Guild’s), but I’m a long-time fan of these series and have all the previous books in hard cover.  I don’t want to break up the sets.

New books and old books seem to be widely available in electronic form.  Many publishers are making ebooks available as soon as the traditional versions hit the shelves.  And old classics, especially those no longer under copyright, abound.  Many of these are free or very inexpensive.  I certainly don’t begrudge a dollar or two to whoever has done the work of digitizing a book worth preserving.

But there’s a long stretch in the middle, books still under copyright but no longer current.  Over the last few weeks I’ve popped over to the Amazon site frequently, wondering if this or that old favorite is available as on ebook.  The answer is often no, but many are still around in print.  And I’ve been buying them, reminded by my browsing of books I really want to read again.

And if I want to read them again, why can’t I just pull them off my bookshelf?  Because I’ve lived in this house for thirty five years, and if I’d kept all the books I’ve owned over that time, the place would look like one of those trainwrecks on cable TV, a hoarding disaster.  I may not be a dedicated housekeeper, but you can see all my furniture.  The only obstructions on the floor are Nutmeg’s belongings.  She chews on newsprint, but as far as I can tell she doesn’t read.