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.