Act Your Age, Not Your Shoe Size*

Act Your AgeI always love getting inspiration from you folks who are kind enough to read this blog. For me, it’s one of the best parts of blogging, really. The other day, I got a terrific idea for a post from crime writer and fellow blogger K.B. Owen, who writes the historical Concordia Wells series. Her novels reflect the end-of-the-19th-Century culture in which they take place, and her blog has all sorts of interesting information on that time period. You’ll definitely want to check out her site and her books.

K.B. suggested this post’s eponymous song lyric as something to think about, and she’s absolutely right. We all get the message at some point or other that we should ‘grow up,’ or ‘act our age.’ And in some ways, that makes sense. At a certain point in life, we do need to take adult responsibility for what we do. We also need to learn the adult skill of thinking beyond our own perspectives and desires, and consider others. In other ways, too, we need to learn to behave in adult, socially-acceptable ways, given our cultures.

But sometimes, ‘Act your age!’ doesn’t refer to that kind of maturity. It means, ‘Behave in the ways that are stereotyped for your age group.’ And that can be limiting. Is it really so important to stop reading children’s literature just because you’re not longer chronologically a child? Do we have to stop using crayons and markers because we’re adults? Why not blow bubbles or watch a beloved cartoon film?

Certainly this question of how we’re ‘supposed to’ behave comes up in crime fiction. Here are just a few examples to show you what I mean; I know you’ll think of lots more.

Robert Crais’ Elvis Cole is a grown man who has a successful L.A. private detection agency with his partner Joe Pike. In many ways he behaves like an adult, takes adult responsibility for what he does, and so on. But he owns and wears a Mickey Mouse sweatshirt, and has a Pinocchio clock in his office. Is that a case of ‘not acting his age?’ I don’t see it as a problem, and neither does he. In fact, there’s an interesting contrast between his maturity and that of a client in Lullaby Town. In that novel, Cole is hired by famous Hollywood director Peter Alan Nelson to find his ex-wife Karen and their son Toby. After years of self-involved immaturity, during which he simply didn’t want to be responsible for his share of marriage and parenting (hence, the breakup), Nelson has decided he’s ready to be a parent. Cole knows it’s not that simple, even if he does find Karen and Toby. But he finally agrees to take the case. It turns out that finding his client’s ex-wife and son is only the first part of quite an adventure for Cole and Pike. And the novel shows some interesting perspectives on what ‘counts’ as ‘grown up.’

Hannah Dennison’s Deadly Desires at Honeychurch Hall features former journalist Katherine ‘Kat’ Stanford, who’s living with her mother, Iris, in the former carriage house on the estate of Honeychurch Hall. She’s gotten to know the Honeychurch family (interested readers should check out Murder at Honeychurch Hall for the details), and struck up a sort of friendship with seven-year-old Harry Honeychurch, son of the present earl. Harry’s been sent away to school, as many boys of that social group are. But he’s miserable there and keeps coming back to his home. Kat gets involved as Harry’s parents try to work out what the best choice is for their son, and it’s an interesting debate. Just how ‘grown up’ should a child be before going away to school? At what point is a child supposed to ‘stop acting like a kid?’

Older people, too, are often expected to behave in a certain way, and that can be at least as limiting. For instance, Elizabeth Spann Craig’s Myrtle Clover is a former English teacher who’s now in her eighties. Her son, who’s the local police chief, really wishes she would ‘act her age,’ and do things such as knit, work crossword puzzles, get involved in church activities and so on. Certainly he doesn’t want her investigating crime. But Myrtle is absolutely not ready to be put out to pasture, as the saying goes.  She wants to be as independent as ever, and has no interest in being restricted to doing things older people are ‘supposed to do.’ So there’s an interesting ongoing tension in this series between Myrtle and her son. From his perspective, it’s a matter of keeping his mother safe; after all, criminal investigation can be very dangerous. From her perspective, it’s a matter of self-determination and not being condescended to, just because she’s elderly.

Michael Redhill/Inger Ash Wolfe’s Emily Micallef doesn’t want to be condescended to, either. She is the octogenarian mother of Redhill’s sleuth, Port Dundas, Ontario, DI Hazel Micallef. Emily has retired from service as Port Dundas’ mayor, but that doesn’t mean she wants to slow down. As one example, she plays poker regularly, and as she tells her daughter,

‘We don’t play for nickels…’

There may be people who don’t think that regular poker nights (and subsequent morning-after hangovers) are ‘acting your age’ for an eighty-plus person. But Emily Micallef doesn’t really care very much whether people think she’s behaving like an elderly woman ‘should.’

And then there’s Derek B. Miller’s Sheldon Horowitz, whom we meet in Norwegian by Night. He’s an eighty-plus former New Yorker who’s moved to Norway to be nearer his granddaughter Rhea and her Norwegian husband. Instead of settling into life as an old man living with his granddaughter, Horowitz gets drawn into a series of adventures when he inadvertently witnesses the murder of a young woman. He rescues her son, and they go on the lam, since the killers are probably going to go after the boy next. Horowitz certainly doesn’t ‘act his age,’ if you go by stereotypes of what elderly people are ‘supposed to’ do. But that doesn’t stop him.

It’s all very well (in fact, important) to develop some maturity about some things. But is there anything really wrong with hopping on a hopscotch pattern or making a paper plane? Now, if you’ll excuse me, I just got this great set of crayons…   Thanks, K.B.!


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Prince’s Kiss.


Filed under Derek B. Miller, Elizabeth Spann Craig, Hannah Dennison, Inger Ash Wolfe, K.B. Owen, Michael Redhill, Robert Crais

28 responses to “Act Your Age, Not Your Shoe Size*

  1. Wow, that was fast! Terrific post, and thanks so much for the shout-out, Margot! Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to watch “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas.” *wink*

  2. Agatha Christie’s Cat among the Pigeons considers ‘acting your age’ in a number of different ways – but my favourite is the woman who ‘takes a bus to Anatolia’. Everyone is a bit taken aback that this middle-aged mother is so relaxed and adventurous, but Christie plainly approves, as does the reader.

    • Oh, absolutely, Moira! I love that story thread, especially if you think about others’ reactions to her. As you say, Christie certainly approves of her, and the reader is definitely meant to do the same. She adds to the story.

  3. Sometimes, I think, the characters who don’t act their age are the most fun to read. 🙂

  4. Really like the sound of Norwegian by Night – I certainly want to be a cool septuagenarian and octogenarian when the time comes!

  5. I’m with Myrtle – the pasture is for cows and old goats. 🙂

  6. Margot: The examples have been on the old resisting being typecast. Let me head to the other end of the spectrum. Flavia de Luce is a precocious young scientist/sleuth in the series by Alan Bradley. She is perpetually being put down for acting older than her age!

  7. Col

    I did enjoy the Crais book mentioned and hope to get to the Miller one day!

  8. Janet Fearnley

    Another thought provoking post! I love the use of older/young or other untypical perhaps eccentric characters in stories. The stereotyping of people we do makes us feel comfortable no doubt. However, we should remember we are each individual, unique and perhaps wouldn’t want to be considered as part of a stereotyped group so why do it to others? Maybe the recent upsurge in adult colouring books, to use to relax/unwind, is another example of how being less conventional might be good for us too!

    • I’m glad you mentioned those new colouring books for adults, Janet. I was thinking about them as I was putting this post together, and they’re great examples of acting in ways that aren’t stereotyped. And they can be fun, too. As you say, we are all unique, and putting people into ‘categories’ because of their age restricts them. And characters who don’t fit those categories really can be the most interesting.

  9. Glenn

    Loved this. I have always been a great believer in acting ‘appropriately’ where it is expected, but I am the big baffoon when in the company of my grandchildren. I love to read them books in all the silly voices I can muster (even my own) and fully enjoy the looks on their faces when the troll comes or a dragon. Why should we limit our imaginations as we age? I still splash in puddles at 50 and will continue to do so until my joints give out. Great post Margot/

    • Thanks for the kind words, Glenn, and I’m glad you enjoyed the post. I’ll bet your grandchildren enjoy having you read to them, just because of the life you put into the characters and stories. As you say, why should we limit our imaginations just because we’ve added another year (or two, or whatever…) to our ages? And I still scuff through leaves at my age, and probably will for as long as I can.

  10. Margot, I also want to read Robert Crais one day. He is one of many writers of detective fiction I heard about after taking to blogging. I’m thinking, there’d be no fun if we acted our age. I hope I never grow up.

    • I agree with you, Prashant. What’s the fun of acting our age in all things? In that sense, growing up is overrated. I do hope you’ll enjoy Crais when you get the chance to read his work. I think he’s very talented, and his Elivs Cole and Joe Pike are interesting characters.

  11. So funny to see rows of coloring books for adults in stores. I wonder if I could stay in the lines now.

  12. SteveHL

    Doesn’t it seem like a lot of fictional detectives choose to do that job because it’s a kind of an adult version of a kid’s game? Because it’s fun? Not the people who actually work in law-enforcement, perhaps, but in many other cases? Certainly some do this strictly for the money, but clearly others do not.

    Nick and Nora Charles would be a perfect example. They are wealthy. They solve crimes only as a challenge, as a game they play.

    Likewise Ellery Queen wouldn’t be interested in routine police work. You would never find Ellery at a stake-out. He just enjoys solving puzzles. In the short story “The Adventure of the Mad Tea-Party”, he even goes a step further. After the case has been solved and the murderer captured, one of the people involved wonders what a series of bizarre clues had to do with the crime:

    “But the most puzzling thing of all,”
    she said with a pretty frown. “Those
    perfectly fiendish and fantastic
    packages. Who sent them, for heaven’s

    Ellery had, of course.

    She sat up and measured him with a
    severe glance. “Mr. Queen! Is that cricket
    in the best detective circles?”

    He grinned sleepily. “I had to do it, you
    see. Drama, Miss Williams…Oh, it was
    devilish clever of me, I admit.”

    If you don’t have enough of a challenge solving a case, just add some more, I guess.

    And don’t forget, no famous consulting detective ever exclaimed, “The investigation is afoot!”

    • You make a very well-taken point, Steve, and I like your examples a lot. In all of those cases, you see that the sleuth has a sense of the investigation as a sort of game. And you’re reminding me of a few Agatha Christie stories in which one or another character sees an investigation in the same way. Christie’s sleuths don’t usually see it that way, but the characters sometimes do. Interesting!

  13. The older I get, the less I want to fit the norm, or care about what people think of my behavior. You have mentioned a lot of books I want to read, Margot, especially Norwegian by Night. And I liked Bill’s thoughts on not having limiting expectations of children either.

    • I think Bill makes a very well-taken point, Tracy. And I hope you’ll get to read Norwegian by Night. Not everyone raves about it, but it’s innovative, and I absolutely love the Sheldon Horowitz character.

  14. This is terrific! I now have a lot to ponder. Thanks for such a great posting. As for acting my age, I don’t think I’m acting; my over-the-hill pace is genuine! As for detectives acting their age, I think authors have to be careful about such things since readers want to identify with and respect the protagonists; thus, if readers become annoyed with characters, the authors will soon find themselves working elsewhere.
    Your posting gives me a great catalyst for some theme-specific postings at my blog — Talking About Detective Fiction — and I invite everyone to stop by and respond to the open-door questions in today’s posting.
    Now, even though I am sliding down the far-side of my over-the-hill trajectory, I must return to reading, especially some of the authors and titles suggested in your great posting.

    • Thanks for the kind words, Jason. I’m glad you enjoyed the post. And trust me; you’re not the only one who’s not twenty any more… I think you make a very well-taken point, too, that authors do have to be careful about just how ‘not acting your age’ they use. Characters can, indeed, become annoying if they’re completely immature. It’s one thing to make a paper plane or use crayons once in a while; it’s another to behave in ways that are completely inappropriate for one’s age.

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