By Francine Paino
Overall, fiction provides a brief respite from the realities in our lives. In those few precious hours of distraction, we shut off the conscious minds’ worries and efforts to find solutions to problems or imagining worst-case scenarios. In the face of real-life crises, the subconscious needs to see an issue with fresh eyes and a different perspective, perhaps even finding a new approach. It seems that the most popular category for that escape in the U.S., as revealed by the Nielson Bookscan Services, is the mystery/thriller/crime novels, which beat all others by two to one. But if we seek to escape from real-life problems, why is this genre more popular than romance or comedy?
Explanations are offered everywhere, even in psychology periodical. One reason for the popularity of murder, mayhem, and crime is that they allow a safe way to immerse oneself in high drama without the destructive aftermath touching the reader in reality. Another is that it is exciting to be emotionally flung about as if on an amusement park ride. Then there is the experience of entering the mind of the criminal—oh, horror—something we don’t get to see in real life—at least not before the evil deed is done. Readers can also figure out, see or at least suspect what will happen before it happens, and hopefully, by the end, there is the satisfaction of Yes. Makes sense. It was in the clues all along. Most often, that is not the case in life. These reasons help explain why this genre is the most popular, but why are stories with elderly sleuths so well-liked?
Unlike the many Mediterranean, Native American Indian, and Asian cultures, and despite the growing economic difficulties and stresses on those societies’ families, their elderly are respected; their knowledge and wisdom are put to good use, whereas in the U.S., youth has become a preoccupation. It has the mind of younger people so entrapped in worrying about maintaining youthful looks that they often miss the grace, wisdom, and knowledge acquired with age and experience.
Aging in a culture that puts enormous emphasis on being young or appearing to be youthful creates a constant struggle for those susceptible to that fetish, and yet—interest in stories employing older people in mysteries is widespread.
In mystery fiction, older protagonists have already made the mistakes that younger detectives haven’t yet experienced. Senior detectives, whether professional or amateur, see the world through more experienced and seasoned eyes. Thus, their mistakes are different and perhaps even more interesting.
Neha Patel, writing for Book Riot, suggests several mystery thriller books starring older women, starting with the Grande Dame of Mystery, Miss Marple, who at age 70 solved the first of her 13 mysteries in Murder at the Vicarage, by Agatha Christie.
Before She Was Helen, by Caroline B. Cooney, explores the dangers of confronting your own past life.
In Three Things About Elsie, by Joanna Cannon, the sleuth is 84-years-old, and in Partners In Crime, by Gallagher Gray, Lil is a feisty woman of 84, who considers herself “84-years-young,” and has a love of playing detective and Bloody Marys. (My kinda-gal!)
A metaphysical mystery/thriller, Death in Her Hands by Ottessa Moshfegh, has a 72-year-old widow coming across a haunting. The only clue is a note saying, “Her name was Magda.”
Writing for Early Bird Books, Paul Wargelin offers a list of feisty, intelligent, and frequently underestimated amateur sleuths over the age of 60, beginning with Grey Mask, by Patricia Wentworth, about a retired governess. Written two years before Agatha Christie’s first Miss Marple novel, Ms. Wentworth went on to write 32 Miss Silver mysteries.
In Tish Plays the Game, by Mary Roberts Rinehart, Tish Carberry isn’t suited for retirement activities, preferring to use her idle hands and mind to solve mysteries.
Stephanie Matteson’s Murder at the Spa introduces Charlotte Graham, a successful actress who, after four-decades of screen and stage success, takes on the role of a sleuth in real life.
“Does age really bring wisdom?” asks Rochelle Melander, writing that “Recent studies affirm this adage. Older adults…recover quickly after making a mistake and use their brains more efficiently than younger adults.” In Melander’s article Crime Fiction: Savvy Sleuths Over 50, she offers some fascinating crime stories featuring elderly sleuths.
In Celine, by Peter Heller, Celine is an artist and P.I. in her late 60s, and in Rage Against the Dying, by Becky Masterman, a fifty-nine-year-old, ex-FBI agent is haunted by the unsolved murder of her protégé. After an attempt on her life, she feels the need to unearth the truth.
Not to be accused of gender discrimination, here are two books starring elderly gentlemen. Don’t Ever Get Old, by Daniel Friedman, about an 87-year-old retired Memphis police officer, Buck Schatz, who learns that a Nazi officer who’d tortured him might still be alive with a stash of hidden gold. He teams up with his grandson, and together, they get more than they bargained for.
Summer of the Big Bachi, by Naomi Hirahara, is set in L.A. and Hiroshima. Japanese-American gardener Mas Arai, age 69, is hiding a secret. He finds himself facing bachi—the spirit of retribution when a stranger shows up asking about his old gambling buddy Joji Haneda. Joji is murdered, and Mas must try to make things right.
Perhaps one of the qualities that fascinate readers, and they may not even realize it, is that often the elderly almost disappear, even standing in plain sight. They are overlooked, leaving them free to move about, observe, listen, eavesdrop, and study circumstances without anyone even realizing what they’re doing.
These, and many other senior Grande Dames and Grands Hommes of mystery, shows how being older does not mean life stops. There is still inquisitiveness, a desire for adventure, and the need to use one’s brain. There are still mysteries and crimes to be solved—and they do it with humor, grace, and aplomb.
Grab a bunch and enjoy!