Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Nothing But A Number...

One of the major societal changes of the most recent decades has been in our perception of aging. No longer do people retire as if on cue at the age of sixty-five; economic realities frequently don’t permit it. So, many people are actively involved in earning a living until they’re older. What’s even more interesting is what’s happened to the kinds of lifestyles that older people are now living. Some people argue that the so-called “Baby Boom” generation is paving the way, as it always has. In this case, it’s paving the way to a new perception of what older people are “supposed to do.” It used to be the case that the elderly were consigned to “bit roles” in life, which consisted mainly of doting on grandchildren, puttering around the house and yard and most assuredly becoming spectators in life, rather than active participants. Well, I’m told (I’m not a grandparent yet) that doting on grandchildren is still much loved, but otherwise, there really is no “mold” any more for the older person. To give an example or so from real life, music legends Paul McCartney and Mick Jagger are sixty-six; Comic legend Eric Idle is sixty-five and actor David Suchet is sixty-two. There are many more examples that I’m sure you could share. None of those folks shows any signs of living the traditional “elderly person’s” life. A very interesting exchange of comments with Patricia Stoltey reminded me that these changes have found their way into crime fiction, too.

Even in classic crime fiction, older characters played some important roles. For example, in Agatha Christie’s Dead Man’s Folly, two older characters are critical to the plot. They provide Hercule Poirot with important information that helps him solve the murder of fourteen-year-old Marlene Tucker during a fĂȘte at Nasse House, the country property of Sir George Stubbs. In Death on the Nile, Poirot investigates the murder of wealthy and beautifully Linnet Ridgeway Doyle, who’s shot while she’s on a honeymoon trip up the Nile. On the boat are several elderly characters, including Salome Otterbourne, a novelist, Marie Van Schuyler, a wealthy American “blueblood,” and Mrs. Allerton, a widow who’s brought her adult son, Tim, with her on the cruise. All of these characters play interesting roles in the novel and, in their own ways, each provides Poirot with an important clue to the murder. There are, of course, other Christie novels in which older characters are either victims or provide clues.

Of course, Christie’s most famous elderly character is Miss Jane Marple, one of her sleuths. Miss Marple makes her debut in The Murder at the Vicarage, in which she helps Inspector Slack find the murderer of Colonel Protheroe, a much-disliked local magistrate. In that novel, she’s already an elderly spinster, but her mind is as sharp as any young person’s, and sharper than many others. The same might be said of Tommy and Prudence “Tuppence” Beresford, who make their debuts in The Secret Adversary. They’re a young couple in that novel, but they age as the series continues. In By the Pricking of My Thumbs, the Beresfords, now in their sixties, investigate the disappearance of a resident from a nursing home, and that leads them into a very dangerous series of old child murders.

Many of today’s novels also feature elderly major characters, and they frequently don’t play traditional roles. For example, Lilian Jackson Braun’s sleuth, Jim Qwilleran, is a former newspaper reporter-turned columnist who lives in the small, rural town of Pickax. In The Cat Who Went Into the Closet, Qwilleran befriends Celia Robinson, an elderly widow who later moves from Florida to Pickax to be nearer her family, who lives there. Once she moves there, Celia opens her own catering business. She also helps Qwilleran investigate many of his cases. Also featured in that series (in earlier novels) is Iris Cobb, an elderly antique expert who eventually opens a co-owned antique business.

Rita Mae Brown’s Mrs. Murphy series also includes an interesting elderly character. Miranda Hogendobber is the widow of the former postmaster of tiny Crozet, Virginia. So she fills in as postmistress until Mary Minor “Harry” Haristeen takes over the role. Even after that, though, Miranda leads an active life. She helps at the post office, she’s active in her local church, and she helps Harry with her sleuthing. Miranda is uninhibited by social niceties, as many elderly people are, and she’s the only one with the gumption to stand up to the town’s social leader, Marilyn “Big Mim” Sanburne. Interestingly enough, as the series goes on, Miranda finds a new love interest in an old flame, Tracy Raz. It’s very interesting to see this evidence that romance is not necessarily the privilege of the young.

There’s a particular reverence for the elderly in Tony Hillerman’s Jim Chee/Joe Leaphorn novels. To a great extent, that’s because those novels focus on the Navajo culture, and it’s the Navajo way to respect the elderly. For example, one recurring character is Frank Sam Nakai, a yata'ali, a Navajo healer and Chee’s uncle. Nakai often offers Chee good advice, which Chee respects. In fact, Chee is learning to be a yata'ali himself from his uncle. Chee also gets valuable information and clues from other elderly characters. For instance, in The Ghostway, he’s investigating the murder of Albert Gorman, a Los Angeles Navajo who’s moved to the Navajo Reservation. He’s also looking for Margaret Billy Sosi, a Navajo teen who disappeared shortly after Gorman’s murder. Chee makes connections between those events and at one point, traces Sosi to the home of an elderly kinswoman, Bentwoman’s Daughter and her mother, the very elderly Bentwoman. Both give Chee helpful information about the murder and disappearance.

There are also plenty of elderly sleuths. For example, Elizabeth Spann Craig’s sleuth, Myrtle Clover, is in her eighties. She’s a retired schoolteacher who isn’t content to spend her days watching her favorite soap opera and baking cookies (a good thing, as cooking is not her main strength). She writes an advice column for the local paper, the Bradley Bugle, and she’s also an observant sleuth. In A Dyeing Shame: Death at the Beauty Box, she investigates the murder of her hair stylist. In Pretty is as Pretty Dies, she finds out who killed the unpopular-but-wealthy newcomer to town, Parke Stockard. Her husband, police chief Red Clover, would prefer she act more like a “real” grandmother, but he knows better than to lock horns with Myrtle very often.

Colin Cotterill also features an older sleuth. His Dr. Siri Paiboun is seventy-two when he takes on the responsibilities of being the chief medical examiner for Laos. At first, he doesn’t want the job. He has no background in forensics, and besides, he’s looking forward to retirement. However, he’s “volunteered” for the job and, given the political climate of the historical era featured in the books (the mid-to-late 1970’s), he feels he cannot refuse. So he reluctantly takes up his duties in The Coroner’s Lunch, in which he finds the murderer of the wife of a prominent government official. Dr. Siri begins his new career at a time in life when most people would imagine he would be ending his working life. His character is an interesting example of the new trend towards taking up new interests and careers later in life.

Patricia Stoltey’s The Desert Hedge Murders features an interesting group of elderly characters. Her sleuths are retired Florida circuit-court judge Sylvia Thorn and Sylvia’s brother, Willie Grisseljon (neither of them young). They get involved in two murders when Sylvia reluctantly agrees to accompany her mother’s travel group, The Florida Flippers, to Laughlin, Nevada. The group no sooner arrives in Nevada when a body is found in the room of two of the group’s members. At first, there seems to be no connection between the body and the tour group, but when one of the members goes missing, things turn more dangerous. After another death, it’s clear that there is a connection and Sylvia, her brother Willie, and The Florida Flippers investigate the murders.

In crime fiction, age is no longer a barrier (if it ever really was) to sleuthing and to playing major roles in stories. It’s not the barrier in real life that it once was, either. What do you think of this trend in crime fiction? Which novels featuring elderly characters have you enjoyed?


  1. As well as Dr Siri who you've already mentioned I also enjoyed the character Gerlof in Johan Theorin's ECHOES FROM THE DEAD - he's in his 80's but he helps his daughter find out what happened to her young son who had been kidnapped many years earlier - he was a fabulous character

  2. Featuring older characters in novels is great. Like you said our society is not slowing down, why should characters in the books we read. I adore the character of Myrtle in "Pretty is as Pretty Dies." She's a character you'd love to know in real life.

  3. Bernadette - I'm glad you mentioned Echoes of the Dead That one and The Darkest Room are both on my TBR list. I haven't gotten there yet, but everything I hear about both is so good I'm going to have to get to them soon. It sounds as though Gerlof is exactly the kind of character I had in mind for this post.

    Mason - Oh, I agree! Isn't Myrtle the best?! Folks, I really do recommend Pretty is as Pretty Dies. You're right, too, that people aren't slowing down just because they're getting older these days. There's no reason that fictional characters should.

  4. I agree with Bernadette that Gerlof is a beautiful character, and his parts in both those Theorin novels are so beautifully observed. In the second novel, the way in which he imparts information about his past for his great-niece in return for bits of gossip about her case (she's a policewoman) is lovely. There is also a great bit where the great-niece is investigating a crime and Gerlof advises her to ask the old ladies in the area whether they saw anything - because he knows that a car driving down a road is a major excitement to them, so they will remember the details of every one. Sure enough.... (life on a small island!).

    I too like novels about older people (the senior generation) as they have had more varied life-experience and more time to think about things, and are interested in a wider range of topics than just one ;-) ;-)

    I did read one much recommended novel on the basis that it featured a protag in her 60s but I am afraid I did not like it. It was the one by Inger Ashe Wolfe - about a crazed serial/ritualising killer, etc... But much byplay occurs between the protag and her mother - the two live together and the very elderly mother is always nagging the elderly daughter to eat her breakfast, etc, which is quite funny.

    Another elderly-ish character I like is Harry Bosch, who is retirement age. I think Michael Connelly has been setting up his past couple of books to give Bosch a career once he passes the mandatory retirement age for the LAPD.

    The book I've read recently and most enjoyed that is almost exclusively about the over-50s is The Unit by Ninni Holmqvist, translated by Marlaine Delargy. It isn't a crime novel, at least not in the usual meaning of the word, but it is a very charming but bleak social satire, very very human. I loved it. It has many levels, one of which is what a society would be like if it were peopled by relatively old people who have not had children - very creative and scientific. Fascinating. (I have a review of this book in the press at Euro Crime.)

  5. I have, occasionally, gotten some slack from people about Myrtle's age and her activity level. And, actually, my Memphis series also features an elderly protagonist, but she's not as old as Myrtle. But mostly I do get encouragement for what I'm trying to do.

    I have a great aunt who was water skiing well into her 60s. And my grandmother (who Myrtle was based on) was active into her 90s.

    Thanks so much for the plug, Margot! :)

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  6. Maxine - OK, I will now *have* to move those Theorin books up on my TBR list. They sound just wonderful.

    I think elderly characters really can have more to say and more to think about than younger ones do. I also like the fact that they're no longer inhibited and say what they think. That can make for terrific dialogue in a novel. The elderly also, I think, have a more long-headed perspective on life that's quite refreshing.

    I admit, I haven't read The Calling. In a way, I'm glad to hear you didn't like it, although of course, I'm sorry you read a book that disappointed you. I read a few reviews and the overview/synopsis and decided to give it a miss, so it's good to hear from someone I respect as much as I do you that it wasn't good. Maybe I said, "no," because at the time it first "made the news," I wasn't in a "serial killer" frame of mind. That said, though, I'm sure it was interesting to see the interactions between the mother and daughter.

    I hadn't thought of Harry Bosch as an aging protag, although of course, he is. I think it's because Connelly stays focused on other things. Come to think of it, Ian Rankin's Rebus is up there, too, now. It'll be interesting to see what happens to both of them as they finish their police careers. You may be right that Connelly is planning a new career path for Bosch, and Rankin has said that Rebus will be back, too. I, for one, am eager to see what happens to those guys.

    Thanks for your comemnt about The Unit, with which I'm not at all familiar. It certainly sounds intriguing!! I look forward to your review of it. Sometimes, it's good to get a little "out of the genre," so to speak...

  7. Elizabeth - It's my great pleasure to feature your Myrtle series; it's a great series. I can imagine that you've had people bringing up the age thing with you. I suppose that makes sense. But really, don't listen to them. You make it work. I really am eager for your Memphis Barbecue series. Folks, this series (which Elizabeth authors as Riley Adams) features a sleuth who also promises to be really interesting! Also not a "spring chicken," LuLu is in her 60's. The first title in the series, Delicious and Suspicious, will come out on 6 July.

  8. Hi Margot, Thanks for mentioning me (and the Flippers) in this excellent post. I love the mysteries with older characters (Elizabeth's Myrtle Clover is one of my favorites). I would also like to add Aunt Gladys in the Cindy Keen Reynder mysteries and Paul Jacobsen (with short term memory loss) in the Mike Befeler "geezer lit" series.

  9. I have been distracted by my children's various problems for a few days and I see you have taken the opportunity to discuss some more mature protagonists.
    Gerlof Davidsson in the Theorin books [they are wonderful] is one of my favourites, and about the only one older than me!
    It is interesting that some crime fiction authors, e.g. Andrea Camilleri, and some translators, e.g. Steven Murray, have their careers take off when the rest of us are retiring.

  10. Patricia - It's my pleasure to mention you, Desert Hedge... and the Flippers. Like you, I think that older characters can add so much to a story, and in your case, it's really ineresting that you've got older characters in two different phases in their lives. There's Sylvia and her generation and her mother, and hers. I like the reminder that people evolve and change and grow all through life. They don't reach a point at sixty five and then just stay there, static.

    I agree completely about Myrtle Clover, too! I just love that character : ). I haven't read Mike Befeler or Cindy Keen Reynder, but thanks for the tips. One of things I like best about the crime fiction community is the way we learn from each other. I'm going to have to look into reading some things from those authors.

    Norman - So nice to have you back : ). I am sorry to hear your home life has been chaotic lately. For parents, children's problems tear at us more than just about anything else, so I hope all is well now.

    So many people (as you can see) have recommended the Theorin books that I must read them - soon. I'm glad you reminded me of them. And yes, there are so many authors who start their writing careers later in life. In a way, that's especially desirable because authors with life experience have more background for creating interesting books.

  11. I think a great deal of the emergence of older protagonists has to do with the baby boomers getting older and wanting to read about people their age - just as teens want to read about teens.

    "there are so many authors who start their writing careers later in life. In a way, that's especially desirable because authors with life experience have more background for creating interesting books." I shall remember this. I don't think I'd be considered 'later in life', but I'm certainly not 'early'. I think I'm mid-afternoon.

  12. Elspeth - LOL! I'm about in the same stage of life, so I live by that thought ; ). And I agree; those who are - er - no longer in their first flower of youth want to read about people who are in a similar part of their lives. I also think that the Baby Boomers have changed the way we think about older adults, so there are a lot more interesting things to read and write about : ).

  13. Margot I sometimes wish I had less life experience. ;o)

  14. Norman - LOL! I know what you mean - me, too.

  15. Hi Margot, just to note that Bernadette rather liked The Calling - which is why I decided to read it - so if you want a view from the positive side, so to speak, do check out Bernadette's blog. But I stand by my own views on it - I hated the murders in it, could not be doing with the murderer, and did not think that the protag (a local chief of police) was very well done from the procedural point of view, though her home life was quite well done. I also found the ending a bit predictable, and not even a believable one. Oh well, I am sorry to be down on a book. This one was quite talked-about because the author is a pseudonym of an apparently well-known Canadian author, but she (he?) had accidentally (?) taken the name of a real author, hence the "Ashe" had to be inserted in the name of #2 (or some such account).

    Life experience, yes, sometimes I do think I have too much of a certain sort of it, too.

  16. Maxine - Thanks for mentioning Bernadette's view on The Calling. I always like to find out even widely divergent views on books. And I trust both of you, so I'll have to check out that post.

    I had read that interesting bit about the author's name. Of course, that insatiably curious side of me would like to know who the author really is. On the other hand, I can understand the wish for privacy, too. Intriguing...

    As far as life experiences go, well, I've a long list of too many, as well....; )

  17. Yet another vote for Theorin´s Gerlof (and of course Myrtle, but you know her already).

    Another great protagonist who should be an octogenarian by now is Reg Wexford. I noticed that it was Ruth Rendell´s 80th birthday the other day, but contrary to Rebus who has followed ´real time´, she has kept Wexford relatively young.

  18. Dorte - OK, OK *hands up in mock surrender*! I promise to read Theorin! Very soon!

    I hadn't thought about it, but you have a point about Reg Wexford. He is a great character, and I like him very much, but as you say, he didn't age in real time.

  19. Reg Wexford gets delightfully grumpy and irascible with all this political correctness we have to put up with these days - and he usually turns out to be right about whatever he was getting cross about (nothing to do with the age of the author I am sure!)

  20. I must enter Emily Polifax into the discussion. She might not exactly fit into the "crime fiction" category but she has to be the most charming and delightful spy in print today.