Crime Fiction Alphabet: O is for Old People

Perhaps my inability to really get into YA novels has more to do with the sad reality that I’m closer to receiving my senior’s card than I am to having had a student bus pass.  Anyway, I do rather like old people, both in real life and in my fiction. I know some of ’em are crotchety and curmudgeonly but I was born that way so I fit right in, and I like the fact they know lots of stuff. There are a surprising number of old people in crime fiction who aren’t doddering or silly and they are some of my favourite characters of all.

One of the world’s best-known and most-loved elderly solvers of mysterious puzzles is Agatha Christie‘s Jane Marple, who appeared in 12 novels and around the same number of short stories. The second novel in which she appears, The Body in the Library (1942), is probably my favourite. In St Mary Mead, the village where Miss Marple lives, the body of a woman in evening wear is found in the library of the home of Colonel Bantry and his wife. Both the Colonel and his wife claim to have no knowledge of the woman or how she came to be strangled in their library but village gossip makes their lives difficult. Eventually, after several other (younger) people muddle around, Jane Marple’s shrewdness and ability to observe human nature unravel the complicated story.

Dorothy Gillman‘s series featuring a grandmother turned CIA agent seems to have been written purely to confound the stereotypes normally associated with old people. In The Amazing Mrs Pollifax (1970) our intrepid heroine travels to Istanbul to make contact with a Russian spy who is a double agent for the Americans but must survive a swag of near-death experiences before arriving home safely.

Before her Vera Stanhope novels and the Shetland Quartet Ann Cleeves wrote 8 novels featuring retired civil servant George Palmer-Jones and his wife Molly who had been a social worker before the pair retired and devoted their time to bird watching and crime solving. The first of these is 1986’s A Bird in the Hand in which Tom French, one of the best bird watchers in England has his head bashed in George and Molly have to untangle a morass of rare sighting claims, unrequited love and various other elements of human nastiness.

In 1993’s Dead Man’s Island Carolyn Hart introduces Henrietta O’Dwyer Collins (known as Henry O) a retired journalist who seems to be able to do anything she puts her mind to. I didn’t actually like Henry O as much as I wanted to (a little too full of herself for my taste) but it is always good to see an older person being portrayed as intelligent and non-dithering. In this book she’s really put to the test as a group of people are marooned on an island in the middle of a hurricane and the storm isn’t the only thing trying to kill them.

I recently listened to The Water Room (2004) which is the second book of the Peculiar Crimes Unit series by Christopher Fowler. The two protagonists are John May and Arthur Bryant who should both have retired some years earlier but they have been retained due to their particular skills. In this book they investigate a series of deaths which no one is sure for some time are murders but alongside the main narrative there is an intelligent exploration of the aging process and how old people are treated by society.

Colin Cotterill‘s series featuring Dr Siri Paiboun is one of my very favourite to have an old person as its main character. We first meet him in The Coroner’s Lunch (2004) when Dr Siri is 72 and has been appointed, very reluctantly, as Laos’ first Coroner. As Dr Siri and his able assistants investigate a series of peculiar deaths we are treated to flashbacks of Dr Siri’s life as a doctor, communist activist and husband which is one of the nicer aspects of having old people as protagonists: they have lots of experiences to share with readers.

These are just a few of my favourite ‘old people’ of crime fiction. Do you have any favourite crime fiction tales to feature old people in a more flattering light than the stereotypes would suggest? Are you comfortable with the term ‘old’ or do you think we should refer to ‘the elderly’ or ‘seniors’? I feel like claiming the word old back from its stereotype-laden inferences which is why I deliberately chose it for ‘O’ week but I do draw the line at ‘geezer-lit’ – that is a term I just don’t like and won’t use.

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Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise is hosting the crime fiction alphabet meme which requires the posting of an article relating to the letter of the week. Do join in the fun by reading the posts and/or contributing one of your own. You don’t have to write every week.

This entry was posted in Agatha Christie, Ann Cleeves, Christopher Fowler, Colin Cotterill, Crime Fiction Alphabet, Dorothy Gillman, list. Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to Crime Fiction Alphabet: O is for Old People

  1. Bernadette – I so love your choice for the letter “O!” I’m glad, too, that you mentioned one of my favourites, Dr. Siri. What a great character. And then there’s Elizabeth Spann Craig/Riley Adams’ Lulu Taylor and Myrtle Clover. I love both those ladies. Also there’s E.X. Ferrars’ Andrew Basnett novels, too. I think sleuths who are – er – not 20 anymore have a special kind of energy and passion for life that can make a story spark. I like that (among many other things) about them.


  2. Anonymous says:

    Glad you found such a good category of sleuths for “O,” with such good examples. I have to say that I edit out “old” when I am editing and say “elderly” or “seniors,” depending on the content. A friend prefers to say “older.” Women in their 60s hate “old,” another friend in her mid-70s says “I am old. That’s the right word.”


  3. Maxine says:

    Great post, Bernadette. A bit OT as not involving a book or a crime ;-), but last night I watched a film by Mike Leigh, “Another Year” featuring, you guessed it, old people. It was a low budget film and not much in the way of exciting plot, but totally absorbing because the 2 main characters and a third who appeared in the final segment were so interesting. And totally “unmade up” for the cameras. Excellent! The youth culture is all very well and that’s where the money is (in movies if not in books), but young people’s “issues” are much more same-y than old people’s issues, and hence boring to keep on seeing films concerning them, over and over again (boy gets girl, loses girl, is he gay, etc).


  4. BooksPlease says:

    My granddaughter tells me I’m old, so I suppose I must be.

    Good choices for old detectives – how about George Gently as he nears retirement age? I loved Martin Shaw as Gently in the TV series!


  5. Dorte H says:

    Great post!

    Miss Marple and Dr Siri are certainly also among my favourites. Old people are often fascinating because they have had time to develop so much more personality than teenagers, and they are less scared to show the world who they really are instead of trying to live up to some daft ´ideal´.


  6. Kerrie says:

    Excellent contribution Bernadette. The other ones I love are Mike Befeler’s Geezer Lit series.


  7. Dorte H says:

    NB: it is not crime-related, but Canadian Margaret Laurence´s “The Stone Angel” features a wonderful, stubborn, cranky old woman. That story is definitely on my top ten.


  8. @Maxine I have seen Another Year and really liked it too.

    @Margaret I will share that there isn’t much I haven’t loved Martin Shaw in, from way back in his Professionals days right on to today…I can even come at Adam Dalgliesh when he is in the role 🙂

    @Kerrie I must admit the categorisation has put me off of those particular books – I have a real thing about the word Geezer in the way Americans use it, as in ‘old geezer’ – it seems to have such negative connotations and I don’t think getting old should automatically be seen as negative (like any of us can stop it happening).

    @Dorte thanks for the tip


  9. Nan says:

    The Cotterill books are on the shelf waiting for me, and I look forward to reading them. I LOVE Mrs. P. I’ve read the series over and over. Hercule Poirot quite often refers to himself as old.


  10. Norman says:

    Bernadette, Gerlof Davidsson from Johan Theorin’s Echoes of the Dead made a big impression on me. You don’t usually get an investigator who is in his 80s, suffering from Sjogren’s syndrome [arthritis] and living in a retirement home, and who braves the cold and snow to solve a mystery.


  11. @Norman ‘doh’ – how could I have forgotten him, he’s a terrific character and very believable too in that he has some of the ailments that go along with being older but is still a fully useful human being. I wonder if he pops up in the next book, looking forward to reading that one.


  12. Kathy D. says:

    Oops, sorry that my comment came in as Anonymous; my computer was doing its own thing.


  13. I’ve not encountered the Dr Siri or the Fowler series so I shall definitely look into those, many thanks. I was always quite partial on the Drury Lane series by Ellery Queen about a retired Shakespearean actor who is now deaf, though most recently I re-read Raymond Chandler’s PLAYBACK and there are some wonderful sections devoted to people in their dotage in what you could, without being too dismissive, characterise as being literally and figuratively ‘an old man’s novel’.


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