Bryant & May: In For The Long Run: Part 1

Bryant and May

I first noticed a problem when I went back to check on a character’s name in Book 12 of my Bryant & May novels.

The character was using a Blackberry. As far as I know these devices have gone; nothing dates faster than technology. I flicked back through earlier books; a Fax machine turned up along with DVDs, flashdrives and things called ‘floppy discs’.

The problem quickly made itself known. The timeline of the books is continuous (most of the  novels begin shortly after the last one ends) but the volumes are published yearly, so that ten years of books cover just ten weeks in the life of my police unit. And that means the technology sort of – slips. My detectives have been rushed from the first appearance of DNA testing to the arrival of Cloud backup in next to no time. As I’m now working on the nineteenth volume, two decades’ worth of technology and current events gets squeezed into a fiction-time period of about six months.

I find it odd that some readers expect your characters to age. I can’t allow each book to be set a year after the last in real time because by now my elderly detectives would be long dead.

To keep the illusion alive I avoid very topical references – who remembers Jedward now? – but there are some I can mention, like anti-capitalism riots, global warming, fashions, songs and long-running TV shows. And Cliff Richard, about whom the first joke was made back in the 1950s.

TONY HANCOCK: (To listless blood donor) Just think, Cliff Richard might get some of your blood! (aside) That’ll slow him down a bit.

The Golden Age authors could get away with creating closed worlds that had absolutely nothing to date them, but I feel modern crime writers need to acknowledge to the real world, otherwise it becomes noticeable by its sheer absence.

But there’s a balance to be struck. We absorb the main themes of the era (a shift to populism, conservatism, intolerance) without needing to go into the minutiae. I’ve written plenty of zeitgeist novels and believe me, nothing dates faster except satire.

Then there’s the matter of the author’s memory – mine is never very reliable, but with well over a hundred characters mentioned in past Bryant & May books it’s hard keeping track of them all. You can be sure that readers will be happy to explain any mistakes you’ve made. So the longer you go on with a series, the more complex it becomes, thematically flip-flopping, adding and removing characters – and before you know it you’re imprisoned by the world you have created.


22 comments on “Bryant & May: In For The Long Run: Part 1”

  1. David Ronaldson says:

    I recently read a novel from the 1980s in which the climax involved a character locked in an office sending a telex message to initiate his rescue.

  2. Cornelia Appleyard says:

    ‘you’re imprisoned by the world you have created.’

    It’s your world – you can do whatever you want with it.
    Witnesses to the same event will give different accounts of it.
    Arthur Bryant’s account may well be an outlier on the distribution curve.

  3. Anna svensin says:

    Lots of people remember Jedward actually, they’re still very famous, worldwide, having just released a new album

  4. Brooke says:

    In one book, various characters (including Crippen and Madame Blavattsky) appear in an inside page graphic, drawn by one of your younger fans. An expansion of the graphic would be interesting…

  5. Bernard says:

    Your approach in B&M is similar to Donna Leon’s Commissario Brunetti stories. These span 28 years, so far, and while the world in which the books are set remains contemporary her central characters hardly age at all.

  6. Brian Evans says:

    It may be my imagination, but there seems to be more crime fiction written now that is set in the past than there used to be. If so, could this be for the avoidance of technology? Even if I could write (I refer to my first clumsy sentence) most of today’s technology is beyond me and I’m happy for it to stay that way, so if I did attempt writing a book, it would have to be set in the past.

  7. bill051 says:

    You may even repeat yourself without realising .

  8. Helen Martin says:

    Most of us are reading the books for pleasure so if the technology in this book is roughly what we hear in references in our “real” world we’re not going to notice anything odd. When we go back to earlier books we just shrug at anything odd. It’s all good and I wouldn’t have thought about the time spans if you hadn’t mentioned them.

  9. Ian Luck says:

    As I have said somewhere before, Blackberry launched a smartphone, the KEY 2, last year. I still have a fax machine at work, and it is still the most reliable piece of equipment for passing messages across a big site. I was clearing my room out the other day – it hadn’t been done since 2007, as I had the entire contents of another room in there, too, and found my minidiscs and two players. Still worked perfectly. Outmoded tech. It’s the way forwards, I’m telling you.

  10. Jan says:

    Wots all this then? Outmoded technology! I’ll have you know I’ve just shelled out £30. On a DVD/Blue ray p!ayer from the RSPCA Charity shop in Crewkerne! How else am I going 2 watch my “Stingray” dvds and the first two series of “Game of Thrones” that my nephew bought me for Xmas the year before last! Mind I suppose G of T will end up on “Pick.”or the Horror channel sooner or later.

    I’m with Mr Luck on this one. Even though all this tidying up he’s getting I involved with is just wasted effort.
    You’ll not be able to find anything for months now Ian and it will just serve you right!

  11. Susanna Carroll says:

    Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct novels are also set approximately in the year they were published, although the main cast only ages about 5 to 10 years between 1956 and 2005. In contrast, Ian Rankin’s Rebus stories run more or less in real time with Rebus ageing and eventually retiring from the police.

    B&M’s floating time line is entirely justified as we all know the stories are based on Mr Bryant’s unreliable memoirs.

    I just checked out Mr Bryant’s guest role in Disturbia, where he almost gets an exact age…on a Kindle Touch which is on it’s way to the nether world of old technology.

  12. admin says:

    God, he’s in ‘Disyurbia’? He crept in everywhere. I’ll have to refresh my acquaintance with that book, not having read it for centuries.

    Jan ‘How else am I going to watch Stingray?’ Try here… – I just watched a bit. Marina manages to stand up while keeping her hands at her sides. It’s really hard to do that.

  13. Peter Dixon says:

    Sherlock Holmes never used the Tube although it existed at the time.

    I think it was James Thurber who wrote an article about soap opera’s pointing out that a particular situation or family event could take 3 or 4 weeks to cover when it would only take a few days in real life, so time was expanded or contracted to enable the story – yet somehow everything came together at Christmas or Easter.

    Surely the biggest killer of plots is the mobile phone – it was lots more fun to have to find a public call box and scrabble for change. The only thing you can do with a mobile is lose signal or lose battery, or get mugged.

  14. Ken Mann says:

    Makes me think of American PIs who are war veterans – on long running series the question of which war they are a veteran of becomes increasingly vague.

  15. Jan says:

    I’ve got that episode in both my apparently outmoded video + DVD collections.
    That Marina is definitely a Pilates puppet!

    The song at the ends proper good isn’t it?

    Did you know that “Stingray” was first British tv programme made in.colour for the American kids tv market?

  16. Jan says:

    oh and Lois Maxwell the first Miss Moneypenny in the Bond movies is the voice of Atlanta Shore Marina’s rival for Troy Tempest’s affections. That Troy Tempest was a two Timing swine.

  17. Kit says:

    Sort of the reverse of Sue Grafton, who started her alphabet series (A is for Alibi in 1982) as a contemporary mystery, and kept so tightly to a realistic story timeline that the last books were practically historical mysteries, as they were still set in the 1980s.

    I agree with Helen Martin; if the technology sounds reasonable, we don’t worry about the time the book is set.

  18. SteveB says:

    When Alan Bleasdale had to choose a Francis Durbridge plot to update, he said he chose Melissa because it hadn’t been made obsolete by mobile phones etc.
    I think Bat out of Hell would update brilliantly though.
    Anyone else think that Line of Duty is getting more and more similar to those old Durbridge plots? The whole, who is Mr X (or H) type of thing, the unexpected person being killed / change of direction at the end of the first episode, etc.

  19. Ian Luck says:

    Jan – the clearout was of necessity, and I threw literally tons of stuff away. The stuff I need – I can find, and when it resembled a poor attempt at being a hoarder’s stash, I still knew where things were, even quite small things, like dental tools, a needle threader, door wedges, watch batteries, and various Doctor Who/Gerry Anderson ephemera. But it is odd to be able to see out of the window again, I will admit. As only used the room to sleep in, the clutter never bothered me at all.

  20. Helen Martin says:

    Jim Garner’s PI series The Rockford Files had a back story with him serving in Korea. That worked mostly as long as you didn’t do the math in the last years. It’s what you do with any series. The one example of how it can go very badly wrong is Rex Stout’s Nero Wolf where Archie carries on as if he were about 35 when he would have had to have been almost 70 and Wolf who knows how old. When you think about the age Archie’s archness is repulsive.

  21. Ian Luck says:

    Helen – Recently, someone released a CD that contained all of Jim Rockford’s Ansafone messages that were heard at the start of each episode. Every one was different – some had a connection with the episode they were featured on, some didn’t, and some were just batshit crazy. I love the idea of this. It would be so simple to just have a generic message, but no, someone with imagination decided to have a bit of fun.

  22. Helen Martin says:

    Jim’s message was straightforward, “Leave a message and I’ll get back to you”. It was the incoming ones that were “batshit crazy” although many were what you’d expect, “Jim, your dry cleaning is ready but we weren’t able to get out the stain. What was that, anyway?” Or “Where’s that 20 bucks you owe me, Rockford? If I don’t see it in the next 24… ‘click'”
    I’m going to look for that CD. I’ll bet I can connect the message to the episode in almost 50% of the cases.

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