By Katherine Sharma
Now that I’m joining the ranks of senior citizens in a few years (I’m holding off true membership till age 65), I find myself more interested in mystery tales featuring older lady sleuths. Of course, Agatha Christie’s Miss Jane Marple, the shrewdly observant spinster of St. Mary Mead, has an international fan base. And Jessica Fletcher, Donald Bain’s retired English teacher and novelist, even won a TV following for the “Murder, She Wrote” series.
There are many other outstanding examples: M.C. Beaton’s Agatha Raisin, a retired PR agent turned PI (with a BBC series); globe-trotting Mrs. Emily Pollifax, grandmother and spy, of the eponymous Dorothy Gilman series; and Eugenia Potter, widowed chef and star of the culinary cozy mysteries of Virginia Rich and Nancy Pickard.
I wondered if there was some special set of skills offered by older ladies to make them appealing to mystery writers. And I came up with five reasons a mystery author might choose to create a gray-haired female detective.
- For one thing, as retirees, and often widows or spinsters, older women have more time to devote to detection without the constant, complicating drag of career and/or family on character and plot.
- Second, their judgment can be informed by age rather than years of police training, so they can draw on long experience with personal and social interactions to pick up the subtle clues to murder.
- Third, these fictional characters can be freed by age, maturely comfortable in their own skins and less constrained by worry over social conventions and sexual politics. This allows authors to create an eccentric, independent, adventurous or even comical character that would be less believable as a 20-something or 30-something heroine.
- Fourth, older ladies can approach evil obliquely and catch it unawares, because there are few people seen as less threatening than a grandmother or maiden aunt.
- And, finally, these fictional sleuths are not just older people, they are older women. Even today, most societies reward men for action, control and dominance, and encourage women to be more observant, emotionally attuned and socially participant. Female detectives can turn that gender bias into an advantage in terms of honed human observational skills.
For some more senior sleuths, check out author Chris Well’s post at http://chriswellnovelist.blogspot.com/2010/07/retirement-is-murder-10-senior-sleuths.html