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.