My favorite daily comic strip is Luann, by Greg Evans. It is, in fact, the only daily comic strip I read, now that Doonesbury is in reruns. I have been following it for thirty years, during which Luann DeGroot has gone from being an eighth-grader to a college freshman.
Yes, thirty-odd years of real time for about five years of comic-strip time. That is normal, of course, when we consider that a typical narrative daily strip of four panels may contain barely a minute of dialogue, and a single scene may take a week or more. But references to what happens outside the world of the strip’s characters — political events, technological changes — are usually kept contemporary so as to maintain relevance, so that the characters cannot age in real time, but in a sort of slowed-down time which I will call Luann time.
I am also a serial murder… uh, a serial reader of murder mysteries; specifically, mystery novels written in series featuring a lead detective and a floating cast of associated characters. Since a novel is not limited by four daily panels, these characters do age in real time, and we get to follow them through promotions and suspensions; marriages, parenthood and divorces; relationships with colleagues, friends and lovers; and reactions to actual events. It can usually be assumed that in such a series the action takes place within a year or so before the novel’s publication.
The authors that I have followed steadily, though not always from the beginning, have been P. D. James (the novels featuring Adam Dalgliesh), Ruth Rendell (Reginald Wexford), Colin Dexter (Morse), Henning Mankell (Kurt Wallander), James Lee Burke (Dave Robicheaux) — all of these now finished — and, still soldiering on, Peter Robinson’s Alan Banks, Ian Rankin’s John Rebus, and Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch.
Until recently I would have included Elizabeth George’s series featuring Detective Inspector Thomas Lynley and and Detective Sergeant Barbara Havers with this group. As George herself has written, she prefers series that “allow[…] the characters to grow, change, develop, and move through time.” Only, as I have just lately realized, the time is not real time but Luann time.
The realization came to me as I was reading her latest novel, A Banquet of Consequences (2015). The first “aha!” moment was when I read about Barbara Havers taking part in a speed-dating exercise that is segregated into age groups, and she — honestly — sits among those in their thirties. Later, Lynley himself is judged (by an older woman) as being in his thirties. Wait a minute, I said to myself, these characters have been around for more than 25 years! What’s going on?
Then there were two specific references that reinforced the impression of elastic time. One was to an episode of collaboration with Cambridgeshire Constabulary said to have taken place “a few years ago,” but the reference is to For the Sake of Elena, published in 1993. The other is to Lynley’s having lost his wife “eighteen months before”; this loss (a senseless murder) happened in With No One as Witness (2005).
What is Elizabeth George’s time frame, then? Let’s begin, not at the beginning, but with Playing for the Ashes (1994). This a pivotal novel in the series in several respects: it’s where Barbara first meets her neighbor Taymullah Azhar and his eight-year-old daughter Hadiyyah, who become her steady friends; it’s were Isabelle Ardery makes her first appearance, as a detective inspector with what EG calls the Maidstone Constabulary (actually the Kent County Constabulary, soon to become the Kent Police), before she is (in later novels) transferred to the Met and promoted several times to eventually become Lynley’s boss; and it’s where, at the novel’s end, Helen Clyde agrees to marry Lynley. In this novel one of the central characters tells us that she was born in 1962, and we also learn that she is thirty-two. Ergo, the novel clearly takes place in the year of publication, and we are still in real time.
But in Deception On His Mind (1997) Hadiyyah is still eight, while in Just One Evil Act (2013) she is… nine. It seems, then, that Luann time began for Elizabeth George around 1995.
It could, of course, be that in all the novels after 1994 the action takes place in the 1990s (I don’t recall any years being actually numbered). But this is belied by the presence of the latest technology (laptops, memory sticks, smartphones) in them.
I still like Elizabeth George. She is still brilliant at concocting convoluted plots that, somehow, make sense at the end, and in which it’s very hard to suspect the eventual culprit almost till the end. But from now on I will have to read her novels more in the way that I read Luann, divorced from actual time consideration, than the way I read my other favorite detective series.