Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Teach Your Children Well; Their Father's Hell Did Slowly Go By*

When a murder is committed, real-life and crime fiction sleuths get their information from a lot of different sources. Of course there’s DNA and other forensic and physical evidence. In today’s world, that’s often the task of forensics teams that collect and analyze the evidence, and then inform the detective. But that kind of evidence often doesn’t give the sleuth important background information that could help in figuring out the motive for a murder. That background can be very important to a crime, and the people who can often best provide it are people who’ve known the victim’s family, been in the area, and have a “longer” perspective on the crime. So it’s little wonder that many of the more interesting characters in crime fiction are elderly witnesses who provide vital clues about the victim’s history. It’s often that history that leads to the crime, so it makes sense for sleuths to pay attention to what those elderly characters have to say.

Several of Agatha Christie’s novels include elderly characters who have valuable information to share. For instance, in The ABC Murders, Hercule Poirot finds out who committed a series of murders that are connected only by a set of cryptic warnings that Poirot receives before each killing, and by an ABC railway guide left near each body. The murders seem to be the work of a crazed serial killer, but Poirot discovers that the motive for them doesn’t stem from madness at all. As he and Hastings get to know more about the victims, Poirot interviews various witnesses, including Lady Clarke, the wife of Sir Carmichael Clarke, who’s one of the murder victims. Lady Clarke’s in poor health and, in fact, is kept sedated quite a lot. So what she says is often dismissed. Poirot, however, finds her a most valuable resource, and she gives him two important clues about the murders he’s investigating.

In Christie’s Dead Man’s Folly, we meet old Merdell, who keeps the boats and ferry at Nasse House, a country home belonging to Sir George and Lady Hattie Stubbs. He and his family have been a part of the local landscape for a very long time, and he’s got a lot of wisdom to share, although even members of his own family don’t always listen to what he has to say. Hercule Poirot visits Nasse House when his friend, detective novelist Ariadne Oliver, asks him to come. She’s at Nasse House setting up a Murder Hunt – a kind of scavenger hunt – for an upcoming fête, but she’s come to believe that something more is going on than simply preparations for a big event. On the day of the event, Marlene Tucker, a schoolgirl who was playing the part of the “victim” in the Murder Hunt, is murdered. Poirot and the local police work together to find out who killed Marlene Tucker and why. In the process of finding out more about the people in the area, Poirot has a very illuminating chat with Merdell, who gives him several important clues. Later, when Poirot figures out what those clues really mean, he’s able to see what the motive for the crime was.

Elders and their wisdom are much respected in the Navajo culture, so Tony Hillerman’s Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn pay attention to what the elderly characters they meet have to say. For example, in The Ghostway, Chee is investigating the death of Albert Gorman, a Los Angeles Navajo who’s moved to the Navajo Reservation. He’s also looking for a missing young kinswoman of Gorman’s, sixteen-year-old Margaret Billy Sosi. Chee’s investigation and his search for the missing teenager take him to Los Angeles, where he finds that Gorman lived near a retirement home. Chee makes an effort to speak to some of the residents of the home, and learns some important information about Gorman’s habits, his visitors and his sudden departure from Los Angeles. Chee also meets Bentwoman and Bentwoman’s Daughter, who live on the outskirts of the city. They’re elderly kinswomen both of Margaret Billy Sosi and of Albert Gorman. When Chee visits them, he learns extremely valuable information about the family’s history; he also finds out where Margaret is.

In Alexander McCall Smith’s The Kalahari Typing School for Men, Mma. Pecious Ramotswe is approached by a client, Mr. Molefelo, who wants her to help him with an unusual quest. He’s become a very successful businessman, but he is ashamed of some things that he did as a young man; he stole a radio, and he he got his girlfriend pregnant and did nothing to help her. Now, he wants to make amends, and he wants Mma. Ramotswe to find his former landlady, Mma. Tsolamosese, and his former girlfriend, Tebogo Bathopi, so he can make things right. Mma. Ramotswe agrees to help, and it’s not very long before she locates Mma. Tsolamosese. Finding Tebogo is a little more difficult, but Mma. Ramotswe visits her friend, retired bank teller Ntombi Boko. Through her conversation with Mma. Boko, Mma. Ramotswe finds out what’s happened to Tebogo, and is able to help her client do what he sees as the right thing.

Lilian Jackson Braun’s sleuth, former investigative reporter Jim Qwilleran, has a soft spot for elderly folks who have stories to tell. While not a particularly patient man, he does make the time to listen to older characters who fill him on the history of the places and people he investigates. In several novels, too, Qwilleran learns important information about a crime through his conversations with older characters. For instance, in The Cat Who Blew the Whistle, Qwilleran investigates the disappearance of Floyd Trevelyan, manager of a local credit union. When Trevelyan disappears, so does a fortune that has been invested in a new project: a former steam train that’s been renovated for use as a site for posh meetings, weddings, and other excursions. Then, there’s a knifing at a local tavern. Qwilleran’s convinced that the two events are related, so he looks into the history of trains in the area, and into the Trevelyans’ history. He soon meets Ozzie Penn, an octogenarian who used to be on the crew of an old steam train. Since Penn also happens to be Floyd Trevelyan’s father-in-law, Qwilleran finds out quite a lot from him about Trevelyan, and that information helps Qwilleran to discover the truth behind his disappearance, and connect it with the murder.

In Martin Edwards’ The Serpent Pool, DCI Hannah Scarlett and her Cold Case Team are investigating the six-year-old drowning death of Bethany Friend. As a part of the search for answers, Scarlett interviews Daphne Friend, Bethany’s mother. Daphne is elderly and not in good health; in fact, since Bethany’s death, Dapnhe’s mental health seems to have suffered as much as her physical health. She’s well enough, though, to give Scarlett some valuable information about her daughter’s past. She also tells Scarlett something about Bethany that proves to be a connection between her death and two other, more recent deaths.

We meet several older characters with important stories to tell in Yrsa Sigurðardóttir’s’s My Soul to Take. Reykjavík attorney Thóra Gudmundsdóttir is asked by a client to take on a very unusual case. Jónas Júlíusson is the new owner of an upscale spa/resort. He wants to sue the former owners of the land and buildings, because he claims they are haunted, and the former owners didn’t tell him. Thóra doesn’t believe in ghosts, and isn’t eager to take on this case. However, the chance for a spa getaway is appealing, and of course, there’s the fee she could earn. So she agrees to come to the spa and find out what’s going on. Thóra hasn’t been there long when a brutal murder occurs; the body of a young and successful architect, Birna Hálldorsdóttir, who was staying at the hotel, has been found on the beach not far from the hotel. When Jónas is accused of the crime, Thóra agrees to defend him and gets involved in the investigation. She finds out that Birna had stumbled on some very old secrets that were being kept by several people in the town. Thóra’s search for the truth about what happened many years earlier leads her to more than one interesting elderly character, including a remarkable woman, Lára, who gives Thóra important information about long-ago people and events that led directly to Birna’s murder.

Stories from the past are very often useful when police are investigating a present-day murder. Even when the murder isn’t tied in with very old events, that background information can prove useful, and it often comes from elderly characters with good memories and rich stories. What’s your view? Do you enjoy those stories? Which novels have you liked where elderly characters have figured into the crime’s solution?

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young's Teach Your Children.


  1. Sad how seldom we seem elderly people on TV or in the movies. It was very nice to see Ann Guilbert in PLEASE GIVE this week. Even though she played the stereotypical elderly woman: grumpy, demanding, cantankerous. The woman in Summer Lunch-I may have the title wrong-an Italian film were all in their nineties and portrayed sympathetically.

  2. Patti - I haven't seen Please Give, but I'm glad that Ann Guilbert did a good job; she's talented! You're right, too, that very often, elderly people are not portrayed sympathetically. Yet, they do have a lot to offer....

    I'd heard that Mid-August Lunch was quite good, but I haven't seen it. I'll have to look for that one.

  3. I love elderly sleuths like Marple and Elizabeth's Myrtle. They often get other older ones to talk about the past whereas a younger person would not be as eager.


  4. Clarissa - Oh, I love those sleuths, too! I did a post on that back in February, which is why I didn't focus on sleuths here, but aren't they great??

  5. I enjoy books were the sleuth listens to the elderly characters. Among my favorites are the Lilian Jackson Braun and Tony Hillerman stories. Both deal with elderly characters in different ways, but with respect.

    Thoughts in Progress

  6. Mason - That's one of the reasons I like those series, too. You get to meet all kinds of characters, including elderly folks, and I like your use of the word, "respect." It suits those characters are treated.

  7. I completely agree! In my medical school classes, we learned about the ways the elderly hold on to certain details with so much clarity. Awesome post and blog!

  8. Saumya - Why, thank you! That's very kind. I'm glad that you learned about the unique ways the elderly can have of remembering. Sometimes, they have great wisdom, too, so I always like it when the sleuth pays attention to what they have to say...

  9. I think the elderly in crime novels can give special insight to a case...especially a cold case. I LOVE cold cases that figure into a modern crime and would love to try my hand at one soon. Then an older person could offer some information about the time of the crime.

  10. Elizabeth - Oh, me, too! Cold cases are so fascinating, aren't they? And they do allow an older person who was "there at the time" to add insight. Funny thing.... a cold case ('though not a really, really cold case) is in my WIP...