What Are We Going to Do About the Other Generation?*

Sandwich GenerationAs people live longer, we’re seeing more and more of what’s sometimes called ‘the sandwich generation.’ By that I mean adults who are taking care of their elderly parents, but at the same time helping to launch their young adult children into their own lives. Sometimes those young people are still living at home.

It can all get very complicated, especially if the young people run into job, drugs, or relationship problems, or have unexpected children of their own. It’s even more complicated if the elderly parent involved has dementia or other health problems. Put all of that together and you have the potential for a great deal of stress. It’s a fact of life for many people, and we certainly see it in crime fiction.

One of the more famous such characters is Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander. As if his job wasn’t stressful enough, Wallander also deals with his elderly father, who has dementia. Their relationship is complicated already, and is made all the more so by the older man’s illness. It doesn’t help matters that Wallander’s sister doesn’t live close by, so she can’t step in and help. At the same time, Wallander is also concerned about his daughter Linda. She’s grown and out of the house as the series begins, but he worries about her, and thinks that at times, she’s not making wise decisions. Their relationship, too, is complicated, and they’ve had their share of estrangement. But he does care about her and tries to be a part of her life.

Elizabeth Spann Craig’s Myrtle Clover is a retired teacher who’s now in her eighties. Although she’s in relatively good health, and certainly of sound mind, that doesn’t mean her son Red doesn’t worry about her. He’s the police chief of Bradley, North Carolina, so he’s all too aware of how much risk there is, especially for an elderly woman. But Myrtle is not the type to be ‘put out to pasture,’ and she’s intrigued by solving crimes. So she’s a constant source of concern to her son. At the same time, Red and his wife Elaine are raising their young son, Jack. He’s a healthy boy, but very active, and of course, his parents want to keep him safe. The Clovers certainly don’t have a restful life, but being in the ‘sandwich generation’ means that life’s never boring for them.

In Catherine O’Flynn’s The News Where You Are, we are introduced to TV presenter Frank Allcroft. He’s happily married, and the proud father of eight-year-old Mo. But he’s gotten to a sort of crossroads in his life. For one thing, he can’t let go of the death of his predecessor, Phil Smedway, who was killed in an apparent hit-and-run incident. Allcroft finds himself drawn to the place where Smedway died, and can’t help asking questions about what really happened. At the same time, he’s concerned about his mother, who has recently moved to an elder care home. She’s having trouble adjusting to live in that new environment, and that adds stress to their already complicated relationship. Still, he cares about her, and wants to make sure that she’s as comfortable and well cared-for as possible.

Tarquin Hall’s Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri is a successful Delhi PI. Much of his business is concerned with ‘vetting’ potential spouses for each other’s families. But sometimes, he gets involved in much more serious cases. In his private life, Puri is a proud father (his children are grown and on their own) and a dutiful son to his beloved Mummy-ji. Although the family is a healthy, loving family, that doesn’t mean that Puri never feels the pressure of being between two generations. For one thing, his daughter’s just recently had a baby boy of her own, so there are all kinds of family events connected with that. And new parents often need grandparent-ly help. And then there’s Mummy-ji. She’s energetic and active, and gets involved in more than one investigation of her own. Puri loves his mother, but she certainly causes him concern (not that that stops her).

Michael Redhill (who writes as Inger Ash Wolfe) has created an interesting ‘sandwich generation’ character in the form of DI Hazel Micallef. She and her team work out of Port Dundas, Onatrio. Hazel is in early sixties, and thinking about the transition between a full-time life of work, and retirement. She is also very much caught between two generations. For one thing, there’s her octogenarian mother Emily, who is Port Dundas’ former mayor. Emily is very much her own person, and absolutely not one to sit around and knit. But at the same time, she is in her eighties, and her health and stamina aren’t what they were. So Hazel is concerned about her. It doesn’t help matters that she and Emily don’t always agree, and both are very strong-minded. On the other end, so to speak, is Hazel’s younger daughter Martha. Here’s how Hazel describes her in The Taken:

‘Jobless, loveless, dogged by depression and unable to make a constructive choice…’

Hazel loves her children, but it’s not always easy to be Martha’s mother. It’s not always easy to be Emily’s daughter, either.

And then there’s Wendy James’ The Lost Girls. Documentary maker Erin Fury has decided to do a film detailing the impact of murder on families. As a part of that, she wants to look into the 1978 murder of fourteen-year-old Angela Buchanan. So she asks Angela’s now-middle-aged cousin, Jane Tait, and Jane’s brother Mick, as well as their parents, for interviews. No-one in the family really wants the murder raked up again. But Jane’s daughter Tess wants to know the truth. So the interviews go forward. As we learn about the murder (which was never solved), we also learn more about the family. Jane is very much a ‘sandwich generation’ parent. She is the mother of a university student, and that has its own challenges. But she is also the daughter of Doug and Barbara Griffin, and that adds more challenges. Doug has dementia, and rarely speaks. In fact, he’s just been moved to a care home. Barbara is in reasonable health, but she needs support as she gets accustomed to life without the husband she’s known. Against this backdrop, we learn what really happened when Angela died, and who really killed her.

More and more, as life spans increase, adults find themselves very much between two generations. It’s not an easy position to be in, but it is real life. And it can add important character development and plot layers to a novel.



*NOTE:  The title of this post is a line from Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II’s The Other Generation.



Filed under Catherine O'Flynn, Elizabeth Spann Craig, Henning Mankell, Inger Ash Wolfe, Michael Redhill, Tarquin Hall, Wendy James

26 responses to “What Are We Going to Do About the Other Generation?*

  1. Granted, we can’t all stay fit enough to face murder in our seniority years, like Mrs. Marple did it. And interesting, as it defines much about what readers enjoy and can possibly identify with.

    One the dark side the flaw stems from superficial, supposedly super-successful over-achievers who, on closer inspection, turn out to be cowardly little vultures who had never dared to leave the parental nest and face real life on their own.

    On the beneficial side the opposite is true: The chance to create and assign believable characters, especially those around the protagonists & antagonists, increases the density of the work, gives loads of oft entertaining data to the readers minds, and proves us being capable of creating more than a solitary hero in a world of John & Jane Does.

    Additionally the reminder that all living beings have their flaws and dysfunctional moments IS a mature factor in believable crime fiction. Half-World (lesser criminals) characters tend to be cynical, disillusioned about society’s virtues, and struggling to keep a balance between the normalcy upon which they prey but pretend to belong to nonetheless, and the monstrosity at the final destination of the major criminal pathways. Surroundings within which all have their own dark secrets to hide make it harder for the investigator, and allow a cunning villain to exploit those moments of doubt to trick people into murderous schemes or produce false alibi! 😉 I shut-up now, am just one more guy who never graduated at Tilton university after all…

  2. It’s another intriguing difference between contemporary crime fiction and the older stuff that detectives these days have families and all the baggage that comes with them. Lots of the greats of the past had no family at all (that we knew about) or they were very peripheral, like Miss Marple’s nephew. Alleyn had a mother, but she was perfectly fit and active if I recall correctly. And occasionally, like Inspector Purbright in the Flaxborough books, there was a wife in the background but we never got to meet her, and I don’t recall any mention of children. Personally, I’m not enthusiastic about the move towards concentration on the ‘tec’s private life on the whole, though sometimes it can add an interesting dimension. It certainly makes them feel more ‘real’ but can take away from the actual detection element if not carefully handled…

    • You really have me thinking about the difference between fictional detectives of the past, and those of contemporary crime fiction. I may have to do some research on that and really look into it. As you say, we don’t see a lot of Miss Marple (or Poirot)’s family. And even going a little more recently, we don’t see that blending of crime fiction and home life that you see in today’s books. Certainly we don’t see the challenges (like the ‘sandwich generation) that we see in today’s crime fiction. On the one hand, that movement (and as I say, I do at some point want to find out more about that) has meant characters who feel more real – more authentic. On other, it also means there’s a risk of those sub-plots and story arcs taking too much attention away from the plot itself. It’s not an easy balance to strike. Trust me.

      • That would be a fascinating post, Margot. As is this one. It’s no surprise that we see fiction change with the times. It’s both fascinating and predictable (in a good way). I think more people can relate, or at least have empathy for, characters juggling home life and what ever circumstance their writer throws them into the middle of.

        • I think, too, that readers can identify with characters who have those home-life pressures, Sue. I actually think readers have always been able to do that, but there really is (or so it seems to me) a movement towards exploring character home lives and pressures more. I’ll have to see what comes of that when I look into the matter more.

  3. Margot: In the Maisie Dobbs series by Jacquelyn Winspear we have a combination of Maisie watching out for her elderly Dad in a setting of the 1930’s. Would a Golden Age writer of that era have the sleuth concerned and caring for an aging parent?

    • Oh, that’s an interesting question, Bill! I haven’t read of as many of those situations in books written by Golden Age writers, and it reflects, I think, a change in the way sleuths are portrayed. I think this is an absolutely fascinating topic, and certainly ‘fodder’ for a post at some point. Thanks.

  4. Kathy D.

    Does Hercule Poirot have relatives?

  5. I’ve noticed more and more books are beginning to include elderly characters with more of a role. In addition, I’ve noticed that Alzheimer’s is also being included in more stories as we as a nation are being faced with more people suffering from this terrible disease. Great post, Margot.

    • Thank you, Mason. And you have a well-taken point about characters with Alzheimer’s. As we learn more about Alzheimer’s, and as the population ages, it’s understandable that more books address the topic. And it can certainly add a layer to a story.

  6. Tim

    I wish I could add something sensible (and relevant to crime fiction), but instead I can offer only this: I fee badly for my son as he is now sandwiched, and I am an annoyingly crusty old slice of bread. Now, with that having been said, I will give some thought to coming up with examples from crime fiction for your thought-provoking posting. All the best from the Gulf coast!

  7. Kathy D.

    I don’t mind reading about adults dealing with their children or their parents, including Irene Huss’s coping with her elderly mother. I’m amazed at the excellent health of Paola Falier’s parents in Donna Leon’s series.
    But when it comes to dementia, it’s hard as I dealt with a parent with this illness, and it got tough, but she lived in an excellent assisted living facility for the last six 1/2 years of her life.
    Alice La Plante’s book was a hard read. My mother knew the people around her, including the facility’s staff, and she knew her relatives except she referred to my nephew as “the boy”. Friends have gone through this, too.
    It’s sad what La Plante’s character went through in a facility for people with
    dementia and then later in jail where she was mistreated and no consideration was given to her illness.

    • I’m glad you mentioned Alice LaPlante’s Turn of Mind, Kathy. It certainly does show the reality of life with someone who has dementia. I’m sorry to hear that you had to go through that in your own family. I think it is possible to craft a well-written novels with those ‘home life’ situations. The key is to keep the focus on the plot and character development. If the author does that successfully, then those details can add to the story.

  8. Interesting theme, Margot. I think, people in the 40-55 age group are usually under more stress than other adults because that’s the stage when they have to look after their aged parents on one hand and settle their children on the other. Question is when do they enjoy life. By the time your parents have passed on and the children are settled in life, you are too old to do anything about yours. Where did the years go, you wonder.

    • That’s a good point, Prashant. The years do go by so quickly, or so it seems. As you say, you want to make sure your children are settled in life, and then there are your parents. It can all be quite a burden. Sometimes, though, it goes more smoothly, I think, especially if everyone is in good health.

  9. SteveHL

    K. C. Constantine’s books are often as much about family relations as they are mysteries. There is quite a lot about two of the main characters mothers, one wonderful, the other, suffering from dementia, both nasty and pitiable. And there is one very positive relationship between in-laws, instead of the usual evil mother-in-law.

    • Oh, that’s a great example, SteveHL. Thanks. I really do like the Rocksburg mysteries, and that’s part of the reason why. And yet, there isn’t so much focus on the families that the mystery is lost, if I may put it that way.

  10. I do like novels and series where there are extended family relationships and we get the sense that the protagonist is not just a sleuth. The DI Hazel Micallef series is a great example. I need to read more of that series.

    • Sometimes, including those relationships can really make for a good story, Tracy, so I can see why you like learning more about the sleuth that way. And I like the Hazel Micallef stories, too.

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