One of the inevitable facts of life is that we grow older. Hopefully we mature as we do so. Getting older isn’t always easy of course. Not only does it make physical demands but we re-adjust our thinking as we age, and the evolution of thinking isn’t always comfortable. All of us deal with the maturing and aging processes differently. Some fight it hard and given the media’s obsession with appearance, I can see why. Others don’t fight the physical process of aging but they do mourn the loss of their youth and strength. Fitting into a new self as we age isn’t always easy or comfortable but it’s part of the human condition and it’s interesting to see how crime fiction addresses it.
In James W. Fuerst’s Huge, we meet twelve-year-old Eugene “Huge” Smalls. He’s a brilliant boy, but he’s struggled to fit in socially. His main goal is to have his own detective agency and be a PI like Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe or Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade. Huge gets his chance when his grandmother hires him to find out who’s defaced the sign at the nursing home where she lives. Huge begins work on the case and it’s not long before he suspects that his sister Eunice “Neecey”’s friend Darren is the culprit. Darren and his friends have been responsible for more than one “tagging” – using spray paint to mark walls, signs and so on – and Huge believes this is their work. It’s not long though before Darren almost convinces Huge that he wasn’t there and didn’t deface the sign. At least Huge is willing to look for other suspects. In the end, he does find out who painted the sign and why. In the process, Huge also faces himself. He begins to learn just a little about taking responsibility for his own behaviour and he begins to do some other growing up as well. Although this isn’t really a YA novel, it integrates the theme of coming of age and dealing with the social pressures that puberty and adolescence bring.
We also see in crime fiction the angst and discomfort many young people feel as they start their own lives. For example, Caroline Graham’s Sergeant Gavin Troy has detective skills, but he’s young and at first inexperienced, so he’s often uncomfortable around his more experienced boss DCI Tom Barnaby. Barnaby is by no means perfect, but he’s experienced and he sees, if you will, a bigger picture than his Sergeant sometimes does. For his part, Troy has an interesting conflict that young adults often have between admiring and respecting their superiors for their confidence and skills, and resenting their superiors for what amounts to the same reason. In A Place of Safety, for instance, Barnaby and Troy investigate the disappearance of Carlotta Ryan, a troubled teenager who’d been staying with the local curate and his wife. Shortly after the disappearance, another resident Charlie Leathers is found garroted. The main connection between his murder and Carlotta Ryan’s disappearance is that Leathers witnessed a quarrel that Ryan had with her hostess curate’s wife Ann Lawrence just before she disappeared. As the team investigates these events, they have several briefings about it. At one, Barnaby makes an open-ended suggestion about the case. Here’s Troy’s reaction:
“Troy liked this idea of open-ended dialogue, if only so that someone else could make a fool of themselves for a change by finishing it.”
A minute or two later Troy tries the same strategy himself, only to fail utterly and feel like a fool anyway. His response is authentic and is a good reminder of the challenges young adults face as they try to make their mark, so to speak.
There are also challenges and evolution as people move from the young adult years into those years between youth and middle age. No longer the youngest, “freshest,” or most up-and-coming, people often face the challenge in their thirties and early forties of balancing family and career and realising they’re not going to achieve all of their “twenties dreams,” and that that can be just fine. There’s an added challenge too when one is in the public eye, so to speak, so that appearance matters a lot. It’s in this part of life that we find Paddy Richardson’s Rebecca Thorne who features in Traces of Red. She’s a television journalist who has reached a professional crossroads. Her show Saturday Night is losing ratings and what’s worse, there’s an up-and-coming new darling of the network Janet Beardsley, who’s just been given her own show Courageous Leaps. The network Powers That Be want Thorne to work with Beardsley, but Thorne knows that this could be the end of her chance to really make her own career. Besides, it’s not the kind of show Thorne wants to do. What she’s really looking for is a news story that will establish her as one of New Zealand’s leading journalists. She thinks she finds it when she hears the story of Connor Bligh, who’s been imprisoned for years for a series of murders he may not have committed. Thorne decides to pursue the story and ends up getting closer to it than she probably should. As she’s working on this story, Thorne is also trying to work through her personal life. She’s not married and has no children, and part of her would like to take that step in her life. But for a few reasons, she doesn’t feel she can. Along with the “mystery” aspect of this novel, which is compelling in itself, there’s also an interesting look at a character facing the stresses of moving to the next stage in her life.
The changes of middle age also take time and adjustment. Just ask Andrea Camilleri’s Commissario Salvo Montalbano. Montalbano has a good life in a lot of ways. He is successful in his career, he lives in a home he likes, he has a relationship with Livia Burlando, and he never lacks for good food. But as this series has evolved Montalbano has begun to feel the passage of years. In The Wings of the Sphinx for instance, he and his team are investigating the murder of an unidentified young woman whose body is found near a local dumpsite. Gradually Montalbano discovers that she is a foreigner and links her death with the organisation that may have sponsored her emigration to Italy and with the company for which she may have worked. Throughout this novel, Montalbano has bouts of feeling old and decrepit for such reasons as “not being able to handle whiskey and wine any more.” At the same time, Montalbano Two chides him for self-pity. It’s a battle-with-self that reflects the way those in the middle years of life have to re-invent themselves as they face the physical realities of getting older while still wanting to accomplish things.
Interestingly, several elderly characters in crime fiction are very comfortable, so to speak, in their own skins. Yes, they’re elderly, and it is annoying not to be able to do things one once could That’s what Agatha Christie’s Jane Marple thinks. She’s still mentally quite alert, but her health is not what it was and neither is her eyesight, facts which bother her in The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side (AKA The Mirror Crack’d). In that novel, she gets curious about the new council housing in the village and on a visit to that neighbourhood meets Heather Badcock, who lives there. Shortly thereafter Heather Badcock is poisoned, and now Miss Marple and her friend Dolly Bantry look into the matter to find out who killed the victim and why. In this novel, we see how being elderly can be limiting. But it seems to have also freed Miss Marple. She goes where she wants, she has her own opinions and is much less interested than younger people are in impressing anyone. That’s how Joahn Theorin’s Gerlof Davdisson is too.
And maybe that’s the key to fitting into our new selves as we mature. We make the best of that new time in our lives and maybe try to learn something. At least that’s what some really interesting crime fictional sleuths do.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Fleetwood Mac’s Landslide.