Can You Imagine Us Years From Today*

As any crime fiction fan can tell you, one of the genre’s appeals is the way in which it reflects society. Whether they do so deliberately or not, crime writers hold up a mirror to society, so we can see our values and assumptions reflected in their work. Just as one example, crime fiction shows us social attitudes towards those who are elderly. And no, this post isn’t going to be only about elderly sleuths such as Mike Befeler’s Paul Jacobson (although I’m going to mention them). Rather, it’s going to be about how age affects the way people see others.

For instance, consider Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple. She’s getting on in years when we first meet her in The Murder at the Vicarage, and throughout the twelve novels in which she appears one of the patterns we see is that people sometimes dismiss her because of that. In 4:50 From Paddington for instance, Miss Marple’s friend Elspeth McGillicuddy witnesses a murder while she’s on a train. She tries to alert the conductor but there is no dead body, nor has anyone reported a missing person. Because of that, but mostly because of Mrs. McGillicuddy’s age, the whole thing is dismissed as a bad dream she had. Miss Marple believes her friend though and goes with her to the police station. That doesn’t get them very good results either. Again the two are dismissed mostly because they are ‘of a certain age.’ It’s not until Miss Marple demonstrates with the help of her friend Lucy Eyelesbarrow that there really is a body that anyone pays close attention. And then there’s The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side (AKA The Mirror Crack’d), in which Miss Marple is recovering from a bout of illness. She’s got a live-in nurse who treats her with the indulgent condescension that must be extremely frustrating for the elderly. But Miss Marple finds a way to outwit Miss Knight and gets the chance to take a walk on her own. That’s how she gets drawn in to the case of the killing of new resident Heather Badcock…

It is a deeply-entrenched part of the U.S. Southern culture to treat one’s elders with respect. ‘Yes, Ma’am’ and ‘No, Sir’ become automatic responses when children speak to adults, and even adult children know better than to be rude to their parents and other elders. And yet we can still see that underlying assumption that ‘older’ means ‘feeble and unable to think clearly.’ That’s certainly frustrating to Elizabeth Spann Craig’s Myrtle Clover, whom Craig introduced in the first edition of A Dyeing Shame: Death at the Beauty Box.  Myrtle Clover is an octogenarian former teacher who lives in the small town of Bradley, North Carolina. She may be elderly, but that doesn’t mean she wants to be put out to pasture so to speak, and little frustrates her more than to be treated with condescension. For instance, in Pretty is as Pretty  Dies, Myrtle’s son Red, the local police chief, tries to manage his mother’s life and ‘volunteers’ her to join a local woman’s church group. Myrtle gets very angry at this condescension but she goes off to the church to meet with the other members of the women’s group. When she gets there she finds the body of recently-arrived real-estate developer Parke Stockard. Red does everything he can to keep his mother out of the murder investigation and is dismissive about her input. That doesn’t stop Myrtle though. Craig has a light touch, so we can smile at the way the locals so easily dismiss what Myrtle Clover has to say. But at the same time it highlights what must be a deep source of resentment for those who may be physically elderly but have an awful lot worth sharing and heeding.

We see this same kind of issue in Tarquin Hall’s series featuring Delhi private investigator Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri. Puri is a very dutiful son in many ways and always treats his mother Mummy-ji with courtesy. He has a genuine affection for her too. But even that is somewhat indulgent and condescending. For instance, in The Case of the Missing Servant, Puri and his team investigate several cases. At the same time, Puri seems to have made an enemy who takes a pot shot at him. When Mummy-ji hears of this, she wants to find out who is responsible. Puri of course makes it clear that she can’t do that and definitively (although politely) dismisses her input. And yet, it’s Mummy-ji who finds out who is responsible. It’s not just Puri who treats her with that kind of polite condescension. In The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing, Mummy-ji and her daughter-in-law, Puri’s wife Rumpi, attend a kitty party, where a group of women get together for food, drink, and conversation. A big part of the kitty party is a prize draw. Each woman puts a little money into a kitty. Later one woman’s name is drawn and she wins the kitty. At this party though there’s a robbery and the money is stolen. Mummy-ji thinks quickly and manages to scratch the robber. Later, she and Rumpi go to the local forensics laboratory to try to find out who stole the money. Here’s a bit of what happens there:

 

‘They had spent the last couple of hours inside the…building, where the son of one of Mummy’s oldest friends worked as a laboratory technician…
When Mummy-ji had asked him to run a DNA test on her fingernail cutting he’d responded: “Auntie-ji, I think you’ve been watching too much of CSI on Star TV, isn’t it?”’

 

We see in this reaction both the courtesy that young people are taught to use towards the elderly, and the underlying assumption that Mummy-ji hasn’t much of use to add to the investigation. Of course, people who feel that way about Mummy-ji do so at their own peril…

Chris Well’s retired bus driver Earl Walker is treated dismissively too. When we first meet Walker in Nursing a Grudge, he is a resident of the Candelwick Retirement Community. Grieving the loss of his wife Barbara and bitter about the shooting that left him disabled, he’s content to keep to himself. Then one day another resident George Kent suddenly dies. At first Kent’s death is put down to natural causes. But Walker begins to suspect that Kent was murdered, and with good reason too. Still, nobody believes Walker at first. He’s not taken seriously and neither are any of the other residents. They’re elderly and some are in poor health so the authorities aren’t inclined to pay serious attention to what they have to say. Walker knows that the other residents have important information and he uses it to piece together what really happened to George Kent. But it’s clear that although the staff and authorities are courteous enough to the residents, they dismiss them at least at first.

Mike Befeler’s Paul Jacobson is not only elderly but he also deals with short-term memory loss. So even though he hasn’t lost any of his intelligence, shrewdness or ability to think, he has to compensate for that memory loss and he does so by writing down everything that happens every day. That way he can remember what happened when he reads his journal the next day. And that’s in part how he and some friends solve the mystery of the death of Marshall Tiegan in Retirement Homes Are Murder. What’s interesting is that although Jacobson and his friends are thoroughly familiar with what goes on at the retirement home where they live in this novel, they’re not taken seriously at first. In fact, Jacobson is even suspected of the murder. It’s a very interesting look at how society sees those who live in retirement homes.

Of course not all fictional elderly folks are treated this way. In Johan Theorin’s Öland Quartet for instance we meet Gerlof Davidsson. He’s an elderly former fisherman who’s lived on Öland all his life. Davidsson knows everyone and he knows the island’s history very well. So he is a rich resource for modern-day mysteries connected with the past. And he is respected as such by the younger members of his family. We see that same kind of respect in Tony Hillerman’s novels. His Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn have been raised to regard the elderly as having a lot of wisdom and much to offer and that’s how they treat the elderly characters in this series.

And that’s one thing I really like about crime fiction. It lets us see who we are and what our societies are like. And that includes the assumptions we make about the elderly and how that affects the way we treat them.

 

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Simon and Garfunkel’s Old Friends/Bookends.

12 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Chris Well, Elizabeth Spann Craig, Johan Theorin, Mike Befeler, Tarquin Hall, Tony Hillerman

12 responses to “Can You Imagine Us Years From Today*

  1. Margot: I would like to refer to a trio of fictional Canadian seniors appearing in crime fiction.

    Emily Micallef, the 87 year old mother of sleuth Hazel Micallef, in the series by Inger Ash Wolfe is active, alert and enjoying life more than her 60 plus daughter. She is a memorable character in the series.

    George Wilcox, identified as the murderer on the first page of The Suspect by L.R. Wright, while in his 80′s is a credible killer. He proves passion still burns deep among octagenarians.

    Arthur Beauchamp has been practising law for almost 50 years. William Deverell’s character keeps getting pulled out of retirement in his 70′s to deal with cases. While fretting about his abilities he remains a skilled courtroom performer and a very witty man.

    • Bill – Thanks For these suggestions. You’ve filled my post out nicely and I appreciate it. All three of these characters put the lie to the assumption too many people have that the elderly can be easily dismissed. Condescending to any one of these folks because of age is done at one’s own risk…

  2. Fantastic examples.
    I do think Mummy-ji has a better sense of detection than her son. Despite her age, and with a reluctant daughter-in-law, she accomplishes almost as much as her son does with his army or helpers.
    And let anyone dismiss Miss Marple at their peril. She is the best.
    Bit of the same with Tuppence in N or M too- she’s old, she is female, they decide she cannot serve the country. But does she give up, no way- she manages to find out what’s going on and acts on her own.
    Great idea for a post.

    • Natasha – Thank you :-) – And you’re right; Mummy-ji is a natural detective isn’t she? I love the way she gets information and finds solutions when no-one’s looking, so to speak. And you are absolutely right about Miss Marple. Interesting point too about Tuppence Beresford. In both N or M and Postern of Fate, she’s no longer young, and people don’t take her seriously. They are proven wrong….

  3. Some great examples here, Margot. Another good one is the coroner Siri in Colin Cotterill’s The Coroner’s Lunch et seq. Of the three I have read, the first is the best, a lovely depiction of the courtesies of age and the lack of respect shown by some younger types….who get their comeuppance of course!

    • Maxine – Thank you :-) – And thanks very much for mentioning the great Siri Paiboun series. Right you are indeed that The Coroner’s Lunch shows the way some young people dismiss the wisdom older people have – and regret it… And it’s interesting too because we also see the contrast between traditional respect for the elderly and the ‘new attitude’ of the then-new government in Laos.

  4. I do have to mention the wonderful Henry in Sue Grafton’s series. Although he’s not involved in the detection per se, he is a wonderful example of how men can still be attractive into very old age.

    • Sarah – Oh, he is indeed a great example! Thank you for bringing him up. So many people are quick to dismiss the elderly as not having that kind of appeal, but he does!

  5. As a short story writer, I must say that stories about elderly people are more difficult to place. The prejudice about older women especially exists. Many outlets, for instance, say no stories about people with Alzheimers.

    • Patti – Now that’s interesting! I didn’t know that about short-story publishers. It’s a shame too because I’ve read some wonderful stories that include older women both with and without Alzheimers. I wonder if this speaks to a larger societal tendency… Something for me to think about.

  6. Mike Befeler does another interesting thing with his career…he does a lot of presentations and programs at retirement centers where he gets the opportunity to spend a lot of time with the age groups featured in his mysteries. I’m betting he hears a lot of stories about how older folks are treated.

    I’m a big fan of mysteries with quirky older characters. They have a special appeal, maybe because I’m getting older. I’ve mentioned Aunt Gladys from Cindy Keen Reynder’s stories (I think she was a stripper in her younger days), and I also love Mr. Contreras from Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski novels..

    • Pat – Thanks for bringing up Befeler’s other career. I should have mentioned that but didn’t; glad you stepped in. I’d be willing to bet too that he hears an awful lot… I’m sure those folks have an awful lot of wisdom to share too.
       
      And yes I do remember that you’re a fan of Aunt Gladys and I can see why. Characters like her add a lot to stories and are good reminders that ‘older’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘unable to function.’ And yes, Mr. Contreras is terrific. I can see why Warshawski is as fond of him as she is.

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