Neil Plakcy lives in south Florida, where he’s the president of the Florida chapter of Mystery Writers of America as well as a college English professor.
Though his own surfing is limited to the Internet, he’s written six mystery novels in the Mahu series, about an openly gay homicide detective in Honolulu who surfs big waves in his free time. He does have some experience to bring to his golden retriever mystery series, though—eleven years and counting with a very bossy golden named Samwise. His website is www.mahubooks.com, with information on his mystery, romance and mainstream novels.
by Neil Plakcy
One of the big questions a writer of a crime fiction series has to face is whether or not to age his characters. Some of the most moving books I’ve read have been the last in a series -- No Country for Old Men, by Joseph Hansen, or The Remorseful Day by Colin Dexter, in which the series hero faces his aging and mortality.
When I began writing my first published mystery, Mahu, I didn’t know the book was going to expand into a series. But once I finished that book, in which Honolulu homicide detective Kimo Kanapa’aka is dragged out of the closet, the character wouldn’t leave me alone. He knew there was more to his story to be told. I made the decision to age Kimo through the next five books, spacing them out about a year apart so that in a traditional publishing schedule I wouldn’t fall too far behind.
One of the important things about Kimo’s character arc has been his gradual coming out process. I often say at events or on panels that coming out isn’t just an event, it’s a process, and one that takes a character through several steps. In Mahu Surfer, the second book in the series, Kimo starts to get comfortable with being gay, and makes some gay friends. In the third book, Mahu Fire, he gets a boyfriend, and by the most recent book, Mahu Blood, they’ve moved in together.
All those life events meant that Kimo needed to get older as time passed. That isn’t a problem; unlike some authors, I was lucky enough to start with a character in his early thirties. He’s got a long, productive police career ahead of him.
I faced a different challenge when writing my golden retriever mysteries. In the first book in the series, In Dog We Trust, my forty-two-year-old human hero, Steve Levitan, adopts the year-old golden retriever belonging to his next-door neighbor when she is murdered. Not a problem for him when it comes to a series--but as all dog and cat lovers know, our companion animals have a much shorter life span than we do.
In her “Cat Who” series, Lillian Jackson Braun never seems to age either her protagonist, Jim Qwilleran, or his cats, Koko and Yum-Yum. She’s also never clear about how much time has passed between cases, though a few background details change-- Jim and the cats move to the north country, for example, and eventually into a converted apple barn.
What was I going to do about Rochester, though, my crime-solving golden retriever? I wanted my series to be more realistic than Braun’s. That means a couple of things. First, I wanted to avoid the dreaded “Jessica Fletcher syndrome.” My books take place in a small town in Bucks County Pennsylvania, similar to the one where I grew up. It’s nestled in a bend of the Delaware River, and it’s not exactly a hotbed of crime. How often could I have the dog discover a dead body?
In the second book, The Kingdom of Dog, Steve takes a full-time job at Eastern College, where he has been an adjunct instructor. He’s still bonding with Rochester, so he gets permission to bring his dog to the office every day. Then when the murder happens, Rochester’s right there to discover the body.
That’s an important point for a series involving a big dog-- Steve can’t just bundle Rochester into a shoulder bag and take him around town. The crime and the solution have to occur someplace Rochester would naturally go.
Being a big dog, too, Rochester has a shorter expected life span than a little dog. The Yorkie my partner and I had lived to be eighteen, but our golden, Sam, will have at least a few years less. He’s eleven and a half now, and I can see that he’s slowing down considerably. He’s given up on a lot of the behavior he gave to Rochester, like pulling forward on the leash, jumping around like a deranged kangaroo, and getting into other kinds of trouble.
So I’m confronted with a real problem. If I move my golden retriever series forward year by year, soon Rochester will be too old to do much investigating. But at the same time, I need to find crime scenes he can visit and places where murder can occur that won’t be too unrealistic.
For now, I’ve been doing that by moving him around Bucks County, which still has enough rural patches that big dogs are welcome. I’m working on the third book now, and Rochester’s going to agility trials, which are a lot of fun to watch (and to write about). The dog show circuit is full of interesting personalities—at least one of whom is bound to wind up dead.
I think about a year has passed during the course of these three books. If I can continue that progression, he’s still got a lot of good crime-solving years ahead of him. But readers have to keep wanting to read about Rochester in order for me to keep coming up with cases for him to solve!