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 fête 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?