If you want to play God, be a writer. That’s what I’ve told writing students for years. Because, when you think about it, the blank page allows you to create or recreate the universe in any way your imagination so chooses. Even if you opt to work within established parameters, the framework of a cozy, let’s say, or a PI novel, what happens within those boundaries is still completely up to the author.
A brilliant example of this is Jonathan Lethem’s Gun, With Occasional Music (brilliant title, as well). Pretty much in the form of a classic hard-boiled detective novel—something I know a little bit about—Lethem’s book features super-evolved animals like gun-toting kangaroos. He does this and he makes it work. And that’s the trick of it. Sure, you can create any universe you want, but the challenge is making it work for the reader.
While the Moe Prager novels don’t feature gun-toting kangaroos, that doesn’t mean I didn’t make some serious choices when I started down this road. I knew the Brooklyn neighborhood of Coney Island would be the central allegorical feature of the novels. It would be Moe’s touchstone. I was weary of the morose, hard-drinking, hard-hitting, quick-on-the-draw, white loner PI. That character had been done to death. And no matter what I would do, I wasn’t going to better the masters of that character. So I chose instead to make my PI Jewish, happily married, a father, a drinker, but not a drunk. He would have a stable source of income. But the best choice I made was to have Moe Prager age in real time as the years go by.
In the first Moe book, Walking the Perfect Square, Prager is in his thirties. He’s been a uniformed cop for ten years and has just gotten done with the final surgery for his ruined knee. In the sixth Moe book, Innocent Monster, Moe is in his sixties. Moe Prager changes because we change as we age. He’s crankier now, more set in his ways. He’s more philosophical, less physical. He can no longer just flash his old badge and have people believe he’s still a cop. He has a certain world-weariness that’s been hard-earned. Read the other books in the series and you’ll understand just how hard-earned.
See, one of the few things I didn’t like about Chandler’s Marlowe was his static nature. I guess I just have trouble with the “Next Case!” conceit, where one case ends with the client walking out of the detective’s office and the new client walking right in. Like the finer red wines Moe and his brother Aaron sell in their stores, aging brings a certain complexity to people that isn’t as evident when they’re raw and young. Writing Moe as a sixty-something is as much fun, if not more fun, than writing him in his thirties. Choosing to age Moe as I aged may not seem as radical as having gun-toting kangaroos, but it was a great choice nonetheless.