An excellent post from Bernadette at Reactions to Reading has got me thinking about one of the most fundamental changes in our society in recent decades: people are living longer. Go ahead, check out Bernadette’s post. I’ll wait. You really should follow her superb blog if you’re a crime fiction fan.
…Back now? Thanks! Today it’s a fact of life that people routinely live into their 80’s and beyond. And if you add to that the ageing of the ‘Baby Boomers,’ it all means that many, many working adults have to negotiate completely new relationships with their ageing parents. Most 60-plus folks don’t want to be ‘put out to pasture.’ Yes, they may be less physically fit than they were but that doesn’t mean they want to be left on life’s sidelines. Most of them want to do things with their lives and for the most part, they can. At the same time it’s hard to escape the fact that ageing brings with it physical and other challenges. For their part, adult children have to learn to see their parents differently. Yes, they are still ‘Mum and Dad,’ but they are more vulnerable in some ways. At the same time, any adult child of an ageing parent can tell you that parents don’t want to be condescended to, ‘hovered over,’ or ‘managed.’ And one can’t blame them. They are still mature adults. It’s an entirely new world out there for adult children and their parents and because it’s a relatively recent phenomenon, we aren’t always really sure how to handle it. But it is a reality so of course we see it in crime fiction too.
Just so you know, this isn’t going to be a post about elderly sleuths. Not really. There are plenty of them though and if you’re looking for some ideas, please feel free to email me (margotkinberg(at)gmail(dot)com) and I’ll try to help. But we do see a lot of adult child/elderly parent relationships in crime fiction.
Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander faces exactly this kind of challenge. He’s a busy police inspector in the town of Ystad. As it is he has a somewhat troubled relationship with his father because they are in some ways very different people (fans will know though that they also have some eerie similarities). Wallander’s father for instance never wanted him to be a cop and in that way he’s very disappointed with his son. As the series begins (with Faceless Killers), Wallander is facing life on his own after his wife Mona left him. He’s also involved in a very difficult and complex murder investigation when an elderly couple is found murdered at their farm. He also has to negotiate a relationship with his father which isn’t easy to do. On the one hand, the two aren’t close. On the other, Wallander is concerned about his father, who lives alone and doesn’t take care of himself. The way Wallander tries to balance visiting his father and doing his best as a son with his own busy life forms an important thread through some of the Wallander novels. So does the tricky balance of trying to respect what his father wants while at the same time acknowledging the fact that his father can’t take care of himself any more.
Elizabeth Spann Craig’s Red Clover is the chief of police of the small town of Bradley, North Carolina. In general the town isn’t what you’d call crime-ridden but his job, his wife Elaine and their son Jack keep him busy. Red loves his mother Myrtle, a retired English teacher who now writes a column for the local newspaper. But he has his own ideas about what her retirement ought to be like. He envisions her as volunteering at the local church, watching her TV shows and in general, relaxing and enjoying retirement. Myrtle on the other hand is still very much interested in life. She doesn’t want to be ‘put out to pasture’ and she certainly doesn’t want to be ‘managed.’ So in Pretty is as Pretty Dies she completely ignores her son’s pleas to stay out of the investigation when Parke Stockard is murdered. Stockard is a malicious and spiteful real estate developer whom no-one exactly mourns when her body is found in the church. Myrtle can’t resist the chance to find out who the killer is, if for no other reason than that she wants to prove that she can still hold her own in life. Her relationship with her son is an important thread through these novels.
Elizabeth George’s Sergeant Barbara Havers has a very difficult relationship with her mother. Havers is a busy police officer whose job requires odd hours and lots of time. Her mother however has been diagnosed with dementia and can’t live very easily on her own. And yet Havers’ mother wants to live in the house she’s always had. She doesn’t want to be ‘managed,’ either. So Havers starts out with looking for a caregiver for her mother. That works well enough at first but as her mother’s condition deteriorates things get more difficult. In For the Sake of Elena, Havers has to balance some difficult choices about her mother with an equally-difficult investigation into the death of Elena Weaver, who was a student at Cambridge when she was murdered during her morning run. In this novel there’s a really interesting and powerful discussion of what it’s like to be an adult child who has to take painful decisions that often lead to guilt. We also see how difficult those choices can be from a logistical standpoint, to say nothing of the finances involved.
Domingo Villar’s Vigo police inspector Leo Caldas has a somewhat easier time working out a relationship with his father. Caldas’ father is still in fairly good health and is living out something he’s wanted to do since the death of his wife. He’s a vintner who’s developed his skill to the point where he’s making some decent wine. So Caldas doesn’t (yet) have to deal with difficult decisions about care for his father, or managing his father’s financial matters. But it’s still a somewhat delicate relationship at times. Caldas’ father loves his son and wants him to be well and take care of himself. And yet he knows that Caldas is an adult who doesn’t want his parents managing his life. For his part Caldas knows that his father is getting older and won’t be able to manage the vineyard alone indefinitely. He gets concerned about his father living alone and trying to manage things without a lot of help. And yet he also knows that his father wouldn’t consider moving to Vigo – the pace of life is too fast for him there. Caldas’ interactions with his father form a really fascinating part of this series (at least in my opinion).
One of the fictional adult child/older parent relationships I like best (so do feel free to differ with me if you do) is the relationship between Tarquin Hall’s Delhi private investigator Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri and his mother Mummy-ji. Puri loves his mother and treats her with the respect that a ‘properly brought up’ son should. It’s obvious that he cares very much about her. At the same time though, he wants her to live the ‘typical’ (if there is one) life of an ageing, retired woman. He most certainly doesn’t want her getting involved in any investigation. That however doesn’t suit Mummy-ji at all. And as we learn in The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing she’s quite an able detective. In that novel she and her daughter-in-law Rumpi (Puri’s wife) attend a ‘kitty party’ where all of the guests put money into a kitty. A winner’s name is drawn and that guest takes home all of the money. During this particular party, a thief steals the kitty. But Mummy-ji finds a very clever way to identify the culprit. Mummy-ji lives her life exactly as she chooses without appearing to do so and the way Puri deals with that is an important ongoing thread through this series. So is their overall relationship.
There’s also a terrific depiction of an adult child/older parent relationship in Anthony Bidulka’s series featuring Saskatoon private investigator Russell Quant. For as long as Quant can remember his Ukrainian mother Kay has lived on the family farm in rural Saskatchewan. His relationship with her has always gone by certain ‘rules,’ but those ‘rules’ change in Flight of Aquavit when she decides to spend Christmas with him instead of with either of his siblings. The two hadn’t been very close but they are re-introduced to each other when she moves in for a few weeks. On the one hand Kay wants to take care of her son. She also doesn’t want to be beholden to him. So she cooks, cleans and so on. On the other she has her own ideas about what counts as ‘a decent meal’ and what counts as ‘clean’ and they aren’t always the same as Quant’s are. For his part, he suddenly finds himself in the position of being responsible for his mother’s well-being in a way he never was before. It’s clear that they love each other but their relationship has to be re-negotiated as the series goes on.
Gone are the days when most people died in their 60’s. Today adult children and their parents have to decide how they’ll work out their relationships. It’s an ongoing process and there aren’t a lot of ‘rules’ for how it should be done. That’s what makes it so challenging and so interesting.
Thanks Bernadette for the inspiration. I know your post wasn’t exactly about ageing parents and their adult children but as always, you got me thinking. I’m grateful.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Alan Parson Project’s Games People Play.