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Sell By Date on Thriller Heroes

One of the best reviewers in Asia is Mark Schreiber, who pens reviews for The Japan Times. His most recent offering comes under the heading of “Vietvets come in from the cold war.”

On Sunday 16 July 2006 Mark Schreiber reviewed:

THE LAST ASSASSIN by Barry Eisler. G.P. Putnam's Sons, 2006, 334 pp., $24.95 (cloth).

WHITE TIGER by Michael Allen Dymmoch. St. Martin's Minotaur, 2005, 308 pp., $ 24.95 (cloth).

THE TUNNEL RATS by Stephen Leather. Hodder and Stoughton, 2005, 501 pp., £6.99 (paper).

Schreiber scored a direct hit when he warned that authors should realize that we are approaching a time when fictional heroes (at least of the action variety) won't be Vietnam vets. Time rolls on. And ultimately time rolls over us, hero or not. The inevitability of age will undo Vietnam vet heroes as contemporary action heroes just as happened with vets from earlier wars. Much in the same way no writer of contemporary fiction is recycling WWII or Korean War Veterans as the leading man in crime fiction; unless, it is an old geezer found face down in the mud outside of the barn, pitch fork in one hand and freshly signed will in the other.

Placing a recognizable time tag on a main character for a continuing series requires planning. I figure an author has about a dozen books before his vet hero starts enjoying a cup of warm milk as he swallows a bunch of pills for his heart, bladder, liver and kidneys before crawling into bed alone to watch Jay Leno. While the movie actor playing James Bond is turned over every few years as the producers decide the arteries have hardened in the existing lead. This is a good lesson for any author contemplating a series of books based on a hero with a military background. I wonder whether in editorial meetings behind closed doors the editor, marketing and sales guy, the cover design guy, or the bean counter in the brown suite ever think about the shelf life of a fictional character beyond the current book.

“But the hero was a body guard in Dallas the day JFK was shot,” says the editor.

”Everyone knows where they were on that day.”

“I wasn’t born on that day,” says the marketing guy.

“So how old is the hero?” asks the design guy who already has a cover in mind.

Editor blushes. “He has no age.”

There is a hush in the room. The marketing guy clears his throat, “How old do you have to be to get a secret service job? At least ten years old,” he says laughing into his hand.

The bean counter has punched his calculator madly. “Assuming he was twenty-two years old in 1963, that makes him 65 years old. And he’s running down bad guys, jumping over walls, dodging bullets.”

The editor says, “It’s a book that will appeal to the Baby Boomers.”

There is a lot of eye rolling around the table. Even Baby Boomers will have to give up sooner or later, surrender to the fact heroes are like hockey players, once they hit 35 years old they are off the ice, doing radio commentary, selling used cars, entertaining those at the bar with stories of what real hockey used to be like.

Once an author links a hero or anti-hero to a large historical event or person, he/she automatically has an expiry date. Longer than a shelf life of a loaf of bread, but still a sell by date looms. Readers are fussy about the background of characters in a novel so it isn’t an alternative to make them men and women without a past. The infinitely difficult path is to create a bio for the character who may become a continuing character without explaining he learned how to fly Cobras during the second Gulf War. But one day that second Gulf War hero will be restricted to casting him as an old geezer face down in the mud in front of the barn door or Larry’s Dive.

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