After Black Sunday, what was even vaguely funny about the IRA and the Irish Troubles? After a few ETA bombings and assassinations, what was amusing about Basque nationalism?
And so on.
It’s not unheard of for a writer to stop writing about a series character. Sometimes it’s time to move on.
And, by the same token, sometimes it’s time to return.
In 1977, I published Burglars Can’t Be Choosers, the first of a series about one Bernie Rhodenbarr. Four more books followed in about as many years, and then after a few failed attempts at a sixth volume I stopped trying. I turned to other things, and the years passed, as they always seem to do.
Bernie was a hugely popular character, and whenever I made a personal appearance at a signing or conference, the first question I’d get (and often the fourth and twelfth as well) was when I would write another book about him. “Soon, I hope,” I would say at first, but the years kept passing without another Burglar book, and I began saying that it was unlikely there’d be any more of them. “I’d like to write another,” I would say, “but I don’t think it will happen. Though I certainly don’t rule it out.”
And what abut Tanner, someone would occasionally ask. Any chance of a new Tanner book?
“No,” was always my reply. “No, there’s a slim chance of a new Burglar book, but Tanner’s done.”
And, after eleven Rhodenbarrless years, I did in fact produce The Burglar Who Traded Ted Williams, and there have been four more since then. Bernie’s reappearance led to still more readers wondering if Tanner as well might be in for a revival.
“No,” I said. “Never happen.”
Shows what I know.
Here’s how it happened. A paperback publisher had arranged to reprint the Tanner books, and sent me galleys of the first two titles, to see if there was anything that needed to be changed. I was pretty sure I didn’t want to change anything – you pull one thread and the whole sweater unravels – but I figured it wouldn’t hurt me to read the books.
So I did, and what happened was I remembered just how much fun it had been to write them. Now memory’s a curious thing. It’s never as accurate as one thinks, for one thing, and for another one tends to remember the more pleasant aspects of an event and forget the bad part. (And a good thing, let me tell you, or nobody would ever have a second child or run a second marathon.) So the books probably weren’t quite that much fun to write, but that’s how I recalled them. And in fact there had been an insouciance about my writing all those years ago; if it was often lamentably careless, it was as well delightfully carefree. These were fun, I told myself all those years later. And I guess they were.
So why not sign up for some more fun? Why not write some more about Tanner?
Alas, I didn’t see how I possibly could. For one thing, the fellow was a Korean War veteran. By now he was twenty-eight years older than he’d been in Me Tanner, You Jane, which would make him well up in his sixties, and a tad long in the tooth for all of that hopping in and out of various beds and across various borders. Some series characters stay the same age forever, and Bernie Rhodenbarr isn’t a day older than he was in his first appearance, and no one has ever been bothered by this heroic defiance of Time’s winged chariot. But Tanner, rooted in historical and geopolitical realities (or unrealities, as you prefer) struck me as the sort of character who had to exist in real time.
And, even if one was prepared for an action-adventure hero old enough to collect Social Security, how to explain his quarter-century absence? What the hell had he been doing since we saw him last? Sleeping? Not likely, since sleeping was the one thing he didn’t do at all.
Nope, I decided. There was no way to write more Tanner books. The folks at Dutton would be delighted if I did, as it would certainly kick-start the reprint series, but that wasn’t reason enough to do it. There were real impediments here, and no way around them. So I shrugged, as I often do, and said the hell with it, as I often do.
But I forgot to inform my subconscious mind.
What happened was I went to a concert. It was at Lincoln Center, and the New York Philharmonic was playing something or other, but all I recall of the evening is the idea that came to me. There are three things that happen to me at concerts, and I can’t cause them to happen, nor can I stop them from happening. One is sleep, and another is being absorbed in the music, and the third is a state where I’m very much awake but done concentrating on the music, so that my mind wanders.
Sometimes, while wandering, it produces (or allows the reception of) ideas.
Which is what happened that particular evening. All at once I thought of a way to account for the twenty-eight-year gap since we’d last heard from Tanner, and to keep him the age he’d been when we saw him last. The world had moved on, while he’d remained unchanged, fixed – yea, verily, frozen in time.
Once I had the idea, a world of possibilities opened, all of them deliciously Tanneresque. I couldn’t wait to write the book.
I decided to set it in Burma, a country Lynne and I had visited a couple of months earlier, at a time when I had not the slightest idea I’d even want to set a book there, let alone one starring Evan Tanner. And I decided to write it in Ireland, in the town of Listowel, in north Kerry.
If I did so today, I’d take along a laptop. But this was just long enough ago to make me nervous about trying to use a computer that far from home. So instead I took a pen and some legal pads and sat down at a table in my room at the Listowel Arms and wrote the book in longhand.
(The computer, incidentally, is blamed for the fact that books are longer than they used to be. Writing’s become so much easier that writers are self-indulgent, and natter on at greater length than they ought to. Well, I might be self-indulgent, and I very likely natter on longer than I ought to, but that trip to Ireland proved that the computer has precious little to do with it. I wrote every word with a ballpoint pen, and my hand ached at the end of each day’s session, and still the bloody book ran 90,000 words, which made it almost half again as long as Tanner’s earlier adventures, each of which had been pounded out far less effortfully on a Smith-Corona portable. So don’t blame the computer, my friend. Blame the windy old fart who’s tapping away at it.)
And will there be any additional Tanner novels? Is there a chance we’ll hear from him again?
Well, I’d tell you, I’ve learned, as they say, never to say never. Tanner surprised the daylights out of me by reappearing after twenty-eight years. The fellow would appear to have the life-cycle of a cicada. So look for him sometime in 2026.