Where do We Go From Here, Now That All of the Children Are Growin’ Up*

AgeingParentsAn 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.


Filed under Anthony Bidulka, Domingo Villar, Elizabeth George, Elizabeth Spann Craig, Henning Mankell, Tarquin Hall

22 responses to “Where do We Go From Here, Now That All of the Children Are Growin’ Up*

  1. Thanks Margot for the shout out and I’m happy to provide some inspiration for your always excellent posts. The book that was the subject of my post definitely did tackle this issue of how adult children and their fully functional but ageing parents can rub along together even though the film adaptation ignored this theme entirely. As someone who is tackling this very issue in my own life it did strike me that these kinds of relationships are relatively new because, as you say, it’s terribly recent that humans been living so long and so healthily.

    Aside from the excellent examples you have pulled from your encyclopaedia-like brain I think of Peter Temple’s TRUTH when thinking of this subject – the strained relationship that Stephen Villani has with his father is central to his character and is very realistic I think.

    • Bernadette – Thanks so much for the kind words *blush.* I think it’s very interesting that These Foolish Things (Which I confess I’ve not (yet) read) addresses the issue of adult children and their parents but the film doesn’t. I wonder if it’s because the road isn’t always a smooth one. As you say it’s a new landscape and there aren’t a lot of ‘rules, and perhaps the film wanted to be more ‘feel good’ than that. Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing…
      Thanks also – very much – for bringing some Truth to my blog post. 😉 You’re absolutely bang on about Villani and his father. That relationship matters in the book and in Villani’s personality. Oh, and folks, it’s a tremendous book for a number of reasons. Please. Read. It.

  2. This hits too close to home. I just visited my mother in Alabama, who is in her eighties and experiencing health problems. It would be interesting to read fiction with this type of relationship, although it does remove the escapism element from reading. I have read one Wallander novel.

    I am also interested in books that feature sibling relationships in adulthood.

    • Tracy – You’re absolutely not alone. Many, many working adults are facing the same new world you are with their parents. That may be one reason why we’re seeing more such relationships in crime fiction. People can identify with that situation. As you say that may mean you lose the escapism but at the same time it does make one feel less alone perhaps.
      You’ve also raised a fascinating question about adult sibling relationships. Thank you!! I will put my mind to that…

  3. virginiagruver

    Nice blog. Do you think we will be able to have older protagonists because of the baby-boomers?

    • Virginia – Thank you :-). And I am utterly convinced that we’ll have more older protagonists. Truly I am. Just as an example, Elizabeth Spann Craig‘s protagonists are in their sixties (except for Myrtle Clover, who is in her eighties). Virginia Duigan’s Thea Farmer is in her, I think, seventies. Mike Befeler’s Paul Jacobson is in his eighties. And Inger Ash Wolfe’s Hazel Micallef is 62. Oh, and she has fascinating relationship with her octogenarian mother – forgot to mention that in the blog post, so thanks for jogging my memory. There are many others too. So I think we’re already seeing that development.

  4. Margot: As I have just turned 60 your post on an aging future is encouraging.

    Wallander’s challenging parent-child relationship goes on to another generation. His relationship with his daughter, Linda, is not always smooth. I enjoyed their new relationship after she became a police officer. I hope Mankell might relent and write one or more books involving the two of them.

    Parents can surprise children. Russell Quant was deeply moved when his mother, Kay, indicated she felt more comfortable for the holidays with her gay son than another son, daugther-in-law and grandchildren.

    I am just reading The Black Box by Michael Connelly. The relationship between Harry Bosch and his teenage daugther, Maddie, becomes more complex as she matures. It is an aspect of each new Bosch book that I have come to look forward to in the series.

    • Bill – Yes, I think the older I get, the happier I get about the prospects for getting, well, older. I am seeing some encouraging signs in fiction, that’s for sure.
      You make such an interesting point too about the way these relationships go on to other generations. Besides the terrific examples you offer, you’ve made me think of Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourn Shreve and her relationships with her grown children. And yes of course there’s the Wallanders too. I wonder if Mankell will bring them back; I hope he does too. And of course Harry Bosch has to re-negotiate his relationship with Maddie as she starts to grow up and away. It’ll be interesting to see how the interact when she’s completely on her own. Thanks for putting that ‘spin’ on it.

  5. Skywatcher

    The BBC series NEW TRICKS has a trio of retired policemen working for a younger, female Superintendent. One of the men is widowed and childless, another is married and has a grown-up son, whilst the third has been divorced several times and has to financially help out all of his ex-wives and his children. The three detectives are in their sixties and seventies, and all of them suffer from the various ailments of age (in the first episode there is a lovely scene where they sit in a pub and discuss the various different medications that they are taking). On the other hand, they have the advantage of a lifetime of experience, and no longer have the pressure of trying to climb up the career ladder.

    Their boss has to deal with crankiness and eccentricity, but also has an elderly mother of her own. In a few episodes she has to deal with finding a retirement home for her. Whilst it is chiefly a detective show, the problems and concerns of age form a number of the sub-plots, and it is enormously popular in Britain.

    • Skywatcher – That sounds like a really interesting premise for a TV series. Just the scenes and plot points you’ve mentioned have encouraged me to see if I can get hold of some episodes here. I love it that no-longer-young characters are getting solid roles like that.
      You’ve made me think of the film Space Cowyboys. It’s not crime fiction but makes some well taken points about what it’s like to be in one’s 60’s and up and still want to be an active part of, well, life. It features Clint Eastwood, Tommy Lee Jones (terrific in the role here), James Garner (whom I’ve always very much liked) and Donald Sutherland. As I say, it’s not crime fiction but has some great scenes.

  6. kathy d.

    Aside from the topic in general about aging parents and relationships with their children, but also their drive to continue their own lives, in specific I loved the portrayal of Mrs. Quant in Flight of Aquavit, and how Russell, her son, tries to understand what her drives and goals are at the point in her life when she is staying with him. Very interesting. But the food! In reality, we’d all gain 30 pounds eating like that in about a month.

    • Kathy – Right you are about the food! If the food I read about in crime fiction were real, I’d weigh about the same as a beluga whale. And I agree completely with you about the relationship between Quant and his mother Kay. She’s portrayed very well and I like the fact that there are things about her that Quant never knew. It’s a whole process of re-discovery and I like that about both of them.

  7. Hi Margot – an interesting post as usual and thanks for directing me to Bernadette’s post which I have left a comment on ( I would have got there eventually but much more slowly). As well as crime fiction, I read a fair amount of travel literature. It’s quite interesting how many women travellers only began their explorations one they had finished looking after an elderly parent e.g Dervla Murphy or Isabella Bird. It seems staying at home can make the imagination flourish.
    Brining the topic back to crime fiction, there are lots of instances of women looking after ageing parents in Christie’s novels and what is striking is how affectionate these portrayals can be. Even Miss Marple is sent to the Caribbean by her clearly affectionate nephew as a tonic for her health.

    • Sarah – Thanks for bringing in literature other than crime fiction; I like it when my perspective gets broadened. It is interesting to see how often people have those travel adventures or otherwise start a big new chapter in their lives after they’ve finished caring for an ageing parent. We see that in crime fiction too and yes, Christie wrote more than once of women looking after their parents. And I’ve always liked the relationship between Miss Marple and Raymond West. It too is affectionate and I think well-portrayed.

  8. In the book I am reading at the moment Alibi by Joseph Kanon [winner of the Hammett Prize in 2005] Adam the narrator tries to protect his mother by stopping her marrying Gianni, who he believes is after her money as well as being a war criminal. This leads him into all sorts of trouble and strife.

    I love the TV series New Tricks, but when you remember some of the old actors, James Bolam and Denis Waterman, playing parts many years ago it is quite sobering.

    • Norman – Alibi sounds like it has an interesting premise; I’ll be eager to hear what you think of it when you’ve finished.
      And I know what you mean about actors who portray older characters. I’ve had that experience too. I feel the same way when music I loved when I was young is played on ‘oldies’ radio station *sigh.*

  9. kathy d.

    Music that I loved when I was young, what a topic. My favorite r&b, pre-Motown, during Motown, the trios, quartets, quintets: They’ve all been “oldies” for so long. But sitting and watching a PBS fundraiser with r&b singers singing “oldies” and watching the huge audience sing all the words and get up and dance, still gets me up to dance. And they’re still the greatest. So call them “oldies,” but whatever they’re called, they’re still the best.

  10. And of course as much about living longer and quality of life, which in the crime genre is perhaps even more pertinent, and that’s where the family aspect, as in life, is so crucial – very pertinent for Christmas Margot – thanks, as always,

    • Sergio – Ah, yes, indeed. It’s not just how long one lives but what one’s life is like. You’re quite right too that the interactions that affect quality of life really are an important part of what makes crime fiction what it is. Thanks for showing me that side of this whole theme.

  11. And this is showing up again and again with the Barbara Havers relationship standing out. We are all living through it. And a friend just had to care for an aunt with no children for some years. After two parents, that was just too much.

    • Patti – I know what you mean. So many people are living that reality. And as you say, it’s not just parents, it can be aunts, uncles, grandparents, and others too. It’s a reality of life that we’re seeing more and more.

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