Since the beginning of the 20th Century, nursing homes and care homes for the elderly have been a part of the social and cultural landscape in a lot of places. They are by no means a universal phenomenon of course; in a lot of cultures, families see it as their responsibility to care for the elderly personally. In fact, that cultural difference is the stuff of a post in and of itself. But there are many cultures in which elder care homes have become a part of life. The people who are in such homes have a lot of wisdom and history to offer, and sometimes, they have their own secrets too. What’s more, they have the time and perspective to notice things. So it’s not surprising that we see such homes in crime fiction.
In Tony Hillerman’s The Ghostway, for instance, Navajo Tribal Police Sergeant Jim Chee is on the trail of the person who killed Albert Gorman, a Los Angeles Navajo who had recently moved to the Reservation. At the same time, Chee’s been looking for sixteen-year-old Margaret Billy Sosi, who’s gone missing from the school she attends. Chee comes to believe that the two cases are related when it turns out that Sosi is distant kin to Gorman. The search for answers leads Chee to Los Angeles, and to one of the last places Gorman was seen before he left for the Reservation. Nearby is an elder care home, and Chee notices that several of the residents spend time outdoors and might have seen something useful. It turns out that he’s right, and he gets a valuable clue from what he’s told. This story also presents an interesting perspective as Chee reflects on the difference between the way the elderly are cared for in the dominant-culture community, and the way they are cared for in his own Navajo community.
The decision to move, or to move a loved one, into an elder care home is not an easy one. And once the decision has been put into motion, so to speak, that doesn’t mean everything runs smoothly. We see that, for instance, in Catherine O’Flynn’s The News Where You Are. TV presenter Frank Allcroft has hit a sort of plateau in his life. He’s happily married and has a close relationship with his eight-year-old daughter Mo. But he’s facing some challenges, one of which is the sudden death of his mentor and predecessor Phil Smedway. Smedway was killed in a hit-and-run incident while he was jogging. But a visit to the site where the tragedy occurred suggests to Allcroft that maybe this wasn’t an accident. The road is straight and clear, with plenty of room for even a sleepy or drunk driver to swerve to avoid Smedway. And the weather was clear at the time of the incident, so visibility wouldn’t have been a problem. At the same time as Allcroft starts asking questions about what happened to Smedway, he’s dealing with a complicated relationship with his mother. She is unhappy adjusting to life in the elder care home where she lives, and Allcroft, of course, feels a sense of guilt that she is there at all. Although this plot thread doesn’t involve a crime, it does give the reader a look at how difficult it is to decide that a care home is necessary, and to choose which home is the right one. It also gives the reader a sense of the way families deal with the issues that come up after a loved one has moved to an elder care home.
We see those issues too, by the way, in Elizabeth George’s novels featuring Inspector Thomas ‘Tommy’ Lynley and Sergeant Barbara Havers. In a story arc in these novels, Havers comes to the realisation that she can no longer care for her mother, and she doesn’t have the funds to arrange for her to be in the kind of top-of-the-line home that would give Havers peace of mind. It’s not an easy situation, and George doesn’t make light of it.
James W. Fuerst’s Huge introduces us to twelve-year-old Eugene ‘Huge’ Smalls. He has his issues and problems, but what he wants more than anything is to be a detective, just like Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade or Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe. He gets his chance when his grandmother hires him to find out who stole the sign from the property of the elder care home where she lives. One of the steps Huge takes is to talk to some of the home’s residents and employees. He doesn’t get a vast number of clues from his interviews, but readers get to see a bit of life in an elder care home of the time (the novel is set in the 1980s). And although there are challenges and issues, it’s not portrayed as an unpleasant place.
Neither is the retirement home in Mike Befeler’s Retirement Homes are Murder. In that novel, the first of his ‘geezer lit.’ novels, Paul Jacobson has retired to an elder care community in Hawai’I after the death of his beloved wife. He makes a group of friends who turn out to be very helpful when Jacobson is accused of murder. One day, he finds the body of fellow resident Marshall Tiegan stuffed into a trash chute. Jacobson is a likely suspect, since there was no love lost between him and the victim. What’s more, Jacobson has serious short-term memory loss. He can’t remember at any given time what happened the day before, or even a short time before. One of his friends encourages him to keep a journal in which he writes down everything he does, so that he can look back at it as a reminder. That journal helps both to clear Jacobson’s name and to lead to Tiegan’s killer. In this novel, we see the daily ‘ins and outs’ of life in a modern elder care environment. We also see how the residents can form interesting friendships with each other, and a sense of community.
In Jørn Lier Horst’s Dregs, Chief Inspector William Wisting and his team investigate the grisly discovery of a left food clad in a training shoe. Then another, similar, discovery is made. And another. There’s no easy way to identify the feet, so the team starts by looking for anyone who’s disappeared from the area. Interestingly, of the group of people who have gone missing in the last year, four of them are from the same elder care home. Then there’s another disappearance, also related to the home. The home itself is well-run and managed, and there’s no evidence of abuse or neglect. In fact, it seems a good place. Wisting soon learns that there’s another bond among the residents who’ve gone missing. They’d known each other for sixty years, and had a connection that started during World War II. So these deaths could be related to past incidents. As Wisting and the team sort the case out, we get a bit of a look at the way elder care facilities are run, and about the long-term bonds that can form among the people who live in them.
Anthony Bidulka’s Russell Quant series features Ash House, a retirement/elder care home run by Ethan Ash who later shares the responsibilities with Jared Lowe. Quant’s first encounter with Ash House is in Sundowner Ubuntu, when Clara Ridge hires him to find her son Matthew, whom she hasn’t seen for twenty years. It turns out that Matthew is a former lover of Ethan Ash’s so in the course of that investigation, Quant gets to know Ash and his daughter and he and Ash begin a relationship. Saying more about that will spoil an important story arc in this series. But Ash House plays a role in a few of Quant’s investigations. And it’s depicted as a warm, home-like sort of place – a place for the ‘swinging senior’ set, as Quant puts it.
Elder care facilities are an increasingly common part of a lot of cultures as the population ages. They offer a lot of benefits to families as well as many challenges, and as I say, they aren’t by any means embraced universally. But they are interwoven into our society, and so it makes sense that they are interwoven into crime fiction too. Which depictions have stayed in your memory?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Neil Young’s Old Man.