Well, I’ve Been Afraid of Changing*

Female Mid-Life CrisisIn a recent post, I mentioned that getting safely into and through middle age can be a challenge. The traditional name for that time of change is the ‘mid-life crisis.’ Of course, the mid-life crisis doesn’t drive everyone to desperation. But it can be difficult. It certainly affects men (that was the topic of my other post), but it affects women as well. It’s a time of re-assessing one’s life, and that’s not always a comfortable process. It isn’t in real life, and it isn’t in crime fiction either.

In Agatha Christie’s Cat Among the Pigeons, for instance, we meet Honoria Bulstrode. She is the Headmistress of Meadowbank, one of the most prestigious girls’ schools in the country. She has never married, but has always been proud of her academic and business achievements. She still is. But as the novel begins, she’s beginning to feel a sense that everything is dull. While she doesn’t really articulate the question of, ‘Is this all there is?’ she does feel a sameness and lack of challenge about her work. She’s even considering choosing a successor and then retiring. Everything changes though when the new games mistress Grace Springer is shot in the Sports Pavilion late one night. The police are called in and begin their investigation. Then there’s a disappearance. And another murder. Now there’s a real crisis at the school as parents begin to withdraw their daughters en masse. One pupil, Julia Upjohn, finds what she believes is an important clue, and she takes it to Hercule Poirot, who knows a friend of her mother’s. Poirot is concerned for Julia’s safety and intrigued by the events at the school, so he investigates. The school suffers a great deal from the crimes, but Miss Bulstrode is convinced that it can survive and even find new life. That determination gives her a new-found sense of purpose.

Fans of Andrea Camilleri’s Salvo Montalbano will know that Montalbano has a long-running relationship with Livia Burlando. Livia has a house in Genoa, and is an accomplished professional in her own right. She loves Montalbano and she does enjoy their time together. Still, she also feels time ticking away. In The Snack Thief for instance, she has the opportunity to look after a young boy when his mother disappears and is later killed. That experience makes her think of what she might have been missing out on by not being a mother. Montalbano doesn’t really want to commit to being a father, and he’s even struggling with making a permanent (i.e. marriage) commitment to Livia. She’s hardly old-fashioned, but she would like to have some more permanence in her life – that is, until Montalbano does something to infuriate her. When that happens, she gets just as strong a feeling that she’s been wasting too much time with him. There is that feeling of restlessness in their relationship that sometimes happens during the middle years of life.

In Pascal Garnier’s The Front Seat Passenger, Fabien Delorme gets the terrible news that his wife Sylvie has died in a car crash. They were married for a number of years, and their relationship had gotten stale, but he still feels a real sense of loss. What’s worse though is that he learns his wife was not alone in the car. She’d taken a lover Martial Arnoult. That wound to Delorme’s pride is deep, and he becomes determined to find out more about this man. He discovers that Arnoult left a widow Martine, and he becomes obsessed with her. That obsession leads to tragic consequences for several people. At one point, Delorme overhears a conversation between Sylvie’s friend Laure and his own friend Gilles:

“Hey, did you know about Sylvie?’ [Gilles]
‘…No, she never mentioned anyone. I know their relationship wasn’t great any more, but there was never any question of a lover. In fact, she disapproved of that kind of thing. I used to tell her to have an affair, to give her confidence, nothing serious, but it didn’t seem to appeal to her. You think you know people, then it turns out…”

Through that conversation, Delorme learns that he wasn’t the only one feeling restless as the years passed…

Val McDermid’s Trick of the Dark introduces Charlie Flint, a psychiatrist who’s hit a difficult crossroads in her life. Her professional life is in tatters; in fact, she’s even facing litigation. What’s more, she’s hit a personal snag as well:

‘Seven years she’d been with Maria…the seven-year itch. She hadn’t even known it needed scratching until Lisa glided into her life.’

Falling in love with Lisa Kent is causing Charlie to question everything about her life. So for her, it’s a welcome distraction at first when she receives an anonymous letter calling her attention to a recent murder: the killing of Philip Carling. Charlie soon learns that the dead man’s widow Magdalene ‘Magda’ is the same Magda she once babysat. The message about the murder has come from Magda’s mother Corinna, who was once Charlie’s mentor at Oxford. Charlie returns to Oxford to look into the matter and finds that Corinna has a disturbing reason for wanting her to investigate. It turns out that this murder ties past and present together in a frightening way.

And then there’s Hannah Dennison’s Murder at Honeychurch Hall. After the death of her beloved husband Frank, Iris Stanford has a time of real self-assessment. She had originally planned to open an antique shop with her daughter Katherine ‘Kat.’ But on what seems like a whim, she changes her mind and moves to Little Dipperton, a small Devon village. Kat’s astounded when she finds this out, and goes to Little Dipperton to find out for herself what’s going on. When she gets there, she discovers that Iris has purchased the carriage house of Honeychurch Hall. The house is in disrepair and Iris has a broken hand from a car accident, so Kat stays on to be of whatever help she can. Not long after Kat’s arrival there’s a disappearance. And then a murder. Kat wants to protect her mother if possible, so she gets involved in the investigation that DI Shawn Cropper is conducting. Little by little, and each in a different way, Kat and Shawn get to the truth about what’s been going on at Honeychurch Hall. Kat also finds out some surprising things about her mother. As the story unfolds, we see how Kat had always viewed her mother in a certain way, and it’s interesting to see how that perception changes as she (and Iris) come to terms with Iris’ evolution.

The mid-life crisis can have terribly damaging effects. It can also lead people to a new perception of their identities that allows them to prepare to move on into older adulthood. Either way, it’s a watershed time and makes for a solid plot thread in a crime novel. These are just a few examples. Over to you.

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Stevie Nicks’ Landslide.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Andrea Camilleri, Hannah Dennison, Pascal Garnier, Val McDermid

24 responses to “Well, I’ve Been Afraid of Changing*

  1. Great topic! Of course it is now the turn of the ladies! I have an excellent example of that in Louise Doughty’s Apple Tree Yard: a serious, respectable middle-aged scientist, devoted wife and mother, who suddenly falls into a relationship of sheer lust and reckless danger. Almost as if she has enough of a lifetime of being good.

    • Marina Sofia – Oh, I’ve heard such great things about Apple Tree Yard. It’s on my wish list and I just haven’t got it yet. But I’m very keen to read it and yes, it fits perfectly within this theme. Thanks 🙂

  2. Ah, but behind every woman with a mid-life crisis is a man who drove her to it… 😉

    (Sexist? Me? Whatever do you mean?)

  3. I’ve been waiting for this post! You listed some good examples. I think women go through a type of MLC too. We all stop to consider what we’ve accomplished as the go over that hill. Great post.

    • Thanks, Clarissa. You have a good point that no matter which gender we are and what our life’s circumstances, we do that sort of self-assessment. Glad you enjoyed the post.

  4. Love it, Margot! My own MLC has manifested in going to concerts by all the bands I used to love in the ’80s that I didn’t actually see in the ’80s. Though I missed Stevie Nicks whose lyrics contributed your post’s title, I did see Bruce Springsteen twice. If only Tom Waits would tour…

    • Thanks, Angela! I know exactly what you mean about bands-we-didn’t-get-to-see. I haven’t had as much chance to do that as I’d like, but I’ve done a bit of it. I think it’s a way of getting in touch with that young, energetic, hopeful self. And there’s the ‘great music’ thing… I hope Tom Waits tours, too; that would be a great show.

  5. Some great books mentioned here. I love Car Among the Pigeonsbut never thought about the mid life crisis bit. But you’re right. It’s about tradition v. New in many senses.

    • Thanks, Sarah. It’s interesting that you mention tradition vs the new in Cat Among the Pigeons. That’s exactly what Miss Bulstrode herself discusses in the novel.

  6. Kathy D.

    And, oh gosh, in The Snack Thief, Livia didn’t even know the betrayals that were ahead of her, as Salvo declines further in his own midlife crisis. If she knew, she would be furious. Their relationship would be in peril. The latest Camilleri book Angelica’s Smile is a humdinger.
    And who is to say that it isn’t a woman who has driven another woman to a midlife crisis? It happens. Or a job? Or children? Or illness? Or just plain old aging?

    • Kathy – Good point; lots of things can lead people to the sorts of self-assessment that come with the mid-life crisis. And it’s probably a bit different with each one. And you’re right about Livia. She has almost as tough a time with Salvo’s mid-life crisis as she does with her own…

  7. Margot: Ontario Provincial Police Inspector Hazel Micallef is not in a crisis but the issues are adding up when the series starts in her 61st year. She has a bad back, a long term alcohol problem, is residing with her mother, has no love life and her detachment is in the process of being re-organized. Mainly I see her getting tired. Past 60 myself I empathize with her.

    Now if you were writing about mature women in crime fiction not in crisis I would put Joanne Kilbourn of Gail Bowen’s series at the top. During the 20 years of the series she has endured heartaches and headaches but she has gracefully aged. She has successfully parented her birth children, made a good second marriage, is enjoying her grandchildren and is doing well in raising a precocious adopted teenage daughter. She is a model for us all.

    • Bill – She is, indeed. In fact, the reason for which I didn’t mention her in the post is just exactly that. She’s moved into middle age and is moving through it successfully. No mid-life crisis there at all, although of course she has issues and challenges as we all do. As to Hazel Micallif, you’re right. It’s a bit more difficult for her, and the fact that she lives with her mother doesn’t make things an awful lot easier. She doesn’t have the anchors in her life that a lot of people in middle age do, and as you say, being in her sixties means that she doesn’t have the stamina that younger people often do.

  8. Kathy D.

    I think aging is one of the most common causes of mid-life crises. Just seeing what some women go through to stop that process, the money spent, the procedures endured, the health problems that occur. It’s all enough to cause a mid-life crisis.
    But many women persevere admirably, and take on new projects, hobbies, travels, and more.

    • Kathy – There is a hugely lucrative industry (actually, several) built around that desire to look and feel as young possible. Many women spend thousands for surgical procedures, and then there’s the cosmetics industry. That drive to look younger can lead to a kind of desperation, but as you say, a lot of women don’t get too caught up in it. They take the physical process of aging in stride.

  9. Col

    Loved the Garnier book, Margot. I enjoyed a book recently by Judy Nedry – AN UNHOLY ALLIANCE. Not too sure if she is suffering with a mid-life crisis, but as a recovering alcoholic, divorced from her husband and an older woman to boot – she has a few elements of personal baggage to tote.

    • Col – Very glad to hear that you enjoyed the Garnier. If you haven’t tried his other work, I do recommend it. I think it’d be up your street. As to the Nedry, thanks for mentioning it. I put it on my list after I read your excellent review of it. Haven’t gotten to it yet *hangs head,* but I will.

  10. And now with the plot device of early Alzheimer’s it pops up more and more. Behavior turns out to be linked to that.

  11. Lovely list Margot, and I agree with Sarah: what a refreshing way to look at Cat Among the Pigeons. I’d also add Miss Pym from Josephine Tey’s Miss Pym Disposes – she was a French teacher living a quiet life, then suddenly wrote a book that became a best-seller. Suddenly rich, she gave up work and simply started living the life she wanted – which is quite straightforward and luxurious, nothing dramatic. But I think we can all admire her….

    • Moira – Oh, I think we can too. And you’re absolutely right that her decision to re-invent herself and really try to ‘stretch,’ so to speak, is a great example of the way people deal with that mid-life restlessness. That was a gap I didn’t even think of until you filled it. And thanks for the kind words.

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