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Meanwhile, Back At The Ranch

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Every once in a while, I do this thing where I post questions on FB in order to get answers that mean…I don’t know what.

The questions are always about mysteries, and mystery writers, and mystery reading.  Sometimes I don’t do questions so much as I do comments.

I also always do this from my phone, which means that the proofreading is even worse than usual. 

Over the last couple of days, I posted two things:

First, a question about the detectives in detective series, asking what age people preferred them to be, and if that age was different if the detective was a woman.

Second, a complaint about one of the Great Cliches of long-running series:  the book or episode where the murder victim is the wife/husband/significant other of the detective.  Sometimes this isn’t a book or an episode, but merely the back story.  Either way, I have become heartily tired of it.

The complaint generated very little in the way of response.  I have a sneaking suspicion that a lot of people like the Great Cliches of the genre, and that I’ve just got professionals’ disease.  I read so much of this stuff and with so much attention, I’m sick of what other people can love because they don’t run into it so often.

The quesion about age, though, did generate a lot of response, and I found those responses odd.

Most people wanted their detectives to be around 40 or 50 if a man, and around 30 or 40 with a woman. 

And a lot of the people who said this were considerably older than those ages themselves.

The general opinion seemed to be that a detective much younger than that wouldn’t have the wisdom or experience to be a good detective, and a detective much older than that wouldn’t be in good enough physical shape to make a good story.

Since I’m of the little grey cells persuasion not only of detective writers but of detective readers, I found this odd.  My detectives never spend their time racing around chasing crooks or escaping from psychopaths. 

But I also found it odd because a fair number of the people who responded in this way read Christie on a regular basis, and both Christie’s most famous detectives are elderly.  Poirot is at least 60 when we first meet him in A Mysterious Affair at Styles.  Miss Marple is over 70. 

Maybe it’s just my age and my predisposition, but I find myself drawn more and more to older women detectives, even when that means the woman has to be an amateur.  I’m not really big on amateur detectives.

Maybe this is a case of What It Looks Like.  I’m Getting On, so to speak, and I’d like to see some examples of women who are also Getting On who are living what I think are interesting lives.

Interesting is a rather loaded word.  It seems to me that whether or not you believe in God and the afterlife, the simple fact is that we get only one chance at this life here, and the best idea would be to put it to good use.  All of it.  The thought of sort of just sitting back and letting the last twenty or thirty years spin out doing not much of anything does not please me.

Nor does the fact that so many of the people around me seem to just hate the idea of being older.  I live on the edge of a couple of Upscale Enclaves of the sort where aging seems to have become the equivalent of leprosy.  Women, especially–but also men, more and more frequently–not only dye their hair but get face lifts, they work out and diet until they’re more skeletal than they ever were at twenty, they force themselves into three inch heels that would have killed their feet long before they got arthritis.

And there are others that are even worse–except that I don’t know how I’m using the word “worse.”  Consider Carolyn Heilbrun, the mystery writer Amanda Cross, who killed herself a few years ago because, she said in a note she left to her friends, she didn’t intend to endure the indignities of getting older.  Here was a woman in good health, with a successful career, financially comfortable, surrounded by friends–and she didn’t want to endure the indignities of getting older? 

What did that mean, exactly?  She didn’t want to get sick, or watch her body breaking down?  She didn’t want to be increasingly invisible because people don’t look much at older women?  She didn’t want to live around a lot of old fogeys in a retirement community?

Miss Marple did her best work because she was mostly invisible–and because people assume that “little old ladies” must be vague and naive and sort of stupid, none of which she was.   She sat and she knit and she had tea and she listened, and she knew more about evil than a case-hardened homicide detective with twenty years on the job.

Okay, Miss Marple is fiction–but certainly there are many older people, and especially older woman, who do a great deal with their lives.  They’re not all breaking down physically, or even slowing up very much.  A friend of mine posted on FB that she had just spent the day with her 85 year old aunts, and they’d run her ragged.  My own father was vigorous and independent in his own  home well into his eighties.  His father was an absolute dynamo, walking almost ten miles a day every day until he just fell over from an illness he’d decided to ignore on the conviction that he was eighty three, and there was no point in fussing about it.

Okay, I agree, it would be a little silly to watch a detective chase a murderer across the rooftops of New York when he was 85, but then I don’t read the kind of book–or write the kind of book–where people chase other people across rooftops.

And most 83 year olds are not in the kind of shape my grandfather was in.

Still, it seems to me that people get a lot done in that interval between 60 and 80, and maybe people like Carolyn Heilbrun wouldn’t feel it necessary to kill themselves rather than face old age if the fact of that was a little more evident in things we read and watch.

I really love Miss Marple, but there are only a few books of hers available, and her more modern imitators tend to go heavy on the cute.

But then, I watch the Joan Hickson A&E Marples–and remind myself that Hickson herself was in her eighties when she made them. 

She died at ninety two.

Written by janeh

July 11th, 2011 at 8:22 am

Posted in Uncategorized

7 Responses to 'Meanwhile, Back At The Ranch'

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  1. Thank you thank you thank you!!
    I love this post!
    I just turned 50 and let me tell you, the older I get, the more I appreciate people who are older! I never want to stop learning and experiencing life. I see no reason that just because I’m older that my life should be boring or uninteresting or that I shouldn’t be smart enough to continue to contribute and continue to get even smarter.

    Miss Marple – who was on Masterpiece last night – was my first role model. I began reading Agatha Christie quite young (in my mind just after I finished Dr. Seuss – but I know that can’t be quite true) and I fell in love with her. I never tire of her mind, and I never tire of her quiet assurance of her own ability and her own cognitive processes. While Julia McKenzie does a very nice job, Joan Hickson was my absolute favorite!

    I certainly can appreciate VI Warshawski and Stephanie Plum on their own merits but, for me, they aren’t nearly as smart or insightful or interesting as Miss Marple.


    11 Jul 11 at 8:40 am

  2. That would have been another of your questions I couldn’t really answer (if I did Facebook) because I like detectives of all ages.

    As for the related question of aging I think the big thing is adjusting (more or less) to the related issues of more and more people I know dying and my own death heaving into view – not quite yet, I hope, but I am now aware that I could die today in a way I wasn’t when I was a teenager.

    Other than that, well, I’m slower than I was and sometimes the joints hurt a bit, and maybe like Miss Marple, people don’t notice me much, but that’s nothing at all. I’ve been blessed with lots of people who were active and interesting and interested and vigorous into very old age. And some of those who do become disabled or suffer slow degeneration of the body, early or late in life, have handled their problems that inspire me, although I may never have their strength and courage should I ever have the same problems. I don’t think it’s necessary to remain healthy and strong until you drop dead at 95 to age successfully; it can be done if you are weak or ill, but it’s much more of a challenge then.

    I have been spending more time with the quite elderly recently and also spent time with the sick and disabled. I don’t know quite what to make of the recent attitudes towards old age and disability/illness exemplified by Carolyn Heilbrun. People like her seem to think that suffering, limitations and weakness is so contrary to what it means to live that their very possibility must be eliminated, even if the only way of eliminating the possibility of pain is by destroying the person who would otherwise feel it. It’s a remarkably self-centred viewpoint, too, in which no relationship with another human being is considered – nothing the sick person might contribute, not merely receive. To a certain extent of course, these beliefs are based on the idea that the individual and the individual’s control of everything that happens to him/herself is the be-all and end-all of human existence. But even if that were true, who, on examining their own existence could really believe that it’s possible or even desirable to eliminate suffering? We learn from our suffering – and if we look outside ourselves long enough to recognized the existence of another human being, we’d know that there’s always some suffering in any relationship worthy of the name – when it ends, as it develops through trials and tribulations.

    But for some people, all it comes down to is ‘I can’t do what I used to be able to do, it’s really hitting home now that sooner or later I’m going to be killed by something (failing heart, accident, stroke..), and I can’t keep on facing this so I’m ending it all.”

    Nothing about learning to enjoy new and different things, like a late acquaintance who took up growing orchids when he couldn’t handle gardening any more. Nothing about friends or relatives they might provide with companionship or advice – or receive the same from. It’s almost a total disengagement from human society and even the physical world – all in the name of individual choice and unwillingness to accept that the individual isn’t all-powerful.

    Oh, well.

    Joan Hickson is by far my favourite Miss Marple. I haven’t gotten all her DVDs yet..

    Now I must go out to try to get to another concert. We have a choral festival on, and I get one of the more obscure local holidays off.



    11 Jul 11 at 11:41 am

  3. Well, I read mysteries with protagonists from young to old, but when you say “detective,” I think of the physically active type, so that’s how I answered. But…we have an adjunct professor who teaches for us sometimes, but we always have to check to make sure she’s not trying to summit K2 that semester or something, and I’m pretty sure she’s in her 70s at least. So sure, older is fine.

    Cathy F


    11 Jul 11 at 12:49 pm

  4. I’ve just turned 75 and do have physical problems. I no longer drive at night and restrict my driving to the local area. Two of my favorite modern detectives are Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Malone and Margaret Maron’s Judge Deborah Knott. Both make nothing of driving hundreds of miles in a day or staying up until midnight. That isn’t really believable if you made the detective 75.

    I didn’t see the question about the Great Cliche but I have heard that in real life, the murderer is usually known to the victim.


    11 Jul 11 at 5:30 pm

  5. This IS the woman who keeps insisting that hard-boileds are mysteries? What do you suppose that does to your average? Spenser, Mike Hammer and company have to be young and tough enough to be beaten up in Chapter 2 shot shot in the next to last chapter and still take out the bad guy with their bare hands.

    You also asked the wrong question. Instead of “what age should the detective be?” try asking “what ages were your five favorite detectives in their first published story?” “Should be” often gets a very different answer from “is” or “was.”

    On principle, I’d agree with the answer–a bit past physical peak in order to have backstory potential. And I think Gregor and Patience both fall or fell within the specified age ranges. But that doesn’t keep Miss Marple, Nero Wolfe and Max Carados off my shelves.

    Credit if I could remember my source to the person who suggested that the character ought to be at least ten years younger than the writer so he wouldn’t be too old to be credible while the author still wanted to write. Clearly not necessary if the character is taken out of history and will never grow old, of course. Miss Marple is a white-haired old lady in 1930 and not obviously any older in 1965.

    Of course, there’s always William the Marshal and Gerhardt Blucher–both leading cavalry charges in their seventies. But real life often includes things which wouldn’t be accepted in fiction.


    11 Jul 11 at 5:48 pm

  6. And Alexander the Great was leading cavalry charges at 21 or thereabouts, and the average age of those magnificient Bands of Brothers of WWII (and all wars before and since) was probably in the low 20s of not the high teens.

    In my 70s I struggle to get out of bed in the mornings.


    11 Jul 11 at 8:43 pm

  7. I was taking a PT test once, and overheard the First Sergeant chew out the grader for being overly generous with me. The grader said “I know, Top–but look at that old man out there still trying to do PT.” I couldn’t have been more than 37. War is most certainly a young man’s game. A VERY young man.

    But in addition to Blucher and the Marshal, look up de la Valette at the Siege of Malta.


    11 Jul 11 at 10:19 pm

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