Saturday, October 16, 2010

The Seasoned Sleuth: Not Your Mama's Miss Marple

By Pat Browning

Did someone say the first Baby Boomer is old enough to collect Social Security? My, how the time flew.

Savvy mystery writers age their series characters accordingly, making their female amateur sleuths older, although not necessarily slower. They age in real time without turning into cartoons. We’re not talking geezer lit here.

My favorite characters are still the women they always were. They’re survivors. They’ve come to terms with life and death. Call them seasoned sleuths instead of senior sleuths. “Seasoned” doesn’t automatically translate to “old” as “senior” does.

Take Agatha Raisin, the feisty heroine of M.C. Beaton’s long-running series. Agatha’s been hanging around crime scenes since retiring in 1992, but she hasn’t retired her high heels. In LOVE, LIES AND LIQUOR (2006) she’s also wearing flimsy knickers “in the hope of a hot date.”

Agatha hasn’t mellowed a whit despite arthritic twinges that make her think of a hip replacement. After opening her own detective agency, she’s dealing with murder, jewel thievery and romantic entanglements when her hip starts to hurt. For a moment she feels old and sick, but not too old and sick to face someone holding a gun and snarl, “Fry in hell, you bastard.”

Agatha’s polar opposite is the 70-something Charlotte Graham of Stefanie Matteson’s 10-book series. A retired but still glamorous actress, Charlotte ages gracefully and philosophically. In MURDER UNDER THE PALMS (1997) she visits friends in Palm Beach, where fate reunites her with a man she fell in love with more than 50 years earlier.

Their shipboard romance had lasted four days. He went on to become a famous bandleader. They find the old attraction is still there and it’s easy to pick up where they left off.

Quoting: “She had reached the point in life where now was what mattered. Because the next day, the next week, the next year, either or both of them might not be around. Maybe this was what Ponce de Leon had discovered when he’d come to Florida seeking the fountain of youth … (T)hat only by coming to terms with death can you really find life.”

Charlotte and her old flame work together to solve a couple of murders and a mystery dating back to World War II.

In DEAD MAN’S ISLAND (1993) Carolyn Hart introduces her 70-something sleuth, Henrie O, who is more cosmopolitan than Agatha Raisin, more driven than Charlotte Graham. Henrie O is a former foreign correspondent right out of a 1940s movie, with “dark eyes that have seen much and remembered much.” She is, in the best old-fashioned sense of the word, a dame. Think Lauren Bacall.

In a murder mystery set on a remote island off the South Carolina Coast, Henrie O answers a call for help from her first love. At one point she muses, “Loss is the price of love … But it’s kinder to let each generation climb that mountain unknowing. If we knew at twenty what we know at sixty, it would make the climb that much harder and harrowing.”

Six books later (SET SAIL FOR MURDER, 2007), Henrie O is still dealing with ex-lovers, this time on a Baltic cruise. In a scene touching on the dilemma of the older woman, Henrie O sits on a vanity bench to remove a pair of favorite earrings:
(quoting) “I looked into the mirror. When I’d first worn them, my skin was smooth and unlined, my dark hair untouched by silver. I balanced the earrings in my palm, looked dispassionately at my silver-streaked hair, the smudges beneath my dark eyes, the lines of laughter and sadness on my face. I felt caught between past and present. Perhaps the truest sign of old age is when the heart stubbornly looks backward instead of forward.”

But the definitive word on the seasoned woman comes not from a fictional sleuth but from an actress who portrayed the older woman to perfection. The late Bea Arthur starred on TV as “Maude” and as one of the “Golden Girls,” and later took her one-woman show on the road.
In a 2002 interview with reporter Sarah Hampson for Canada’s Globe and Mail, Arthur sings a song from her show:

(quoting) “We’re like birds who are perched on the limbs of a tree/When the time is right we simply fly away/That other birds come and take our places/But they won’t stay/We come and go/It was always so/And so it will always be.”

The song illustrates her answer to the reporter’s question about why she continued to work at her age. Arthur says, “… while we’re here, we have a chance to sing. … In other words, be ballsy, make a point and have an interest.”

That describes the mystery writer’s seasoned sleuth to a T.

Bea Arthur publicity photo from the Web


ssantangelo said...

What a great post to start my day!


Mark W. Danielson said...

Wise words, Pat. We all have our time to sing, but some sing louder than others.

Anonymous said...

Hi, Susan, and thanks for stopping by. I just read your Shoreline Times interview and am intrigued by your writer's journey. Your book, RETIREMENT CAN BE MURDER, has great reviews and sounds like a book I want to read. Best of luck with it, and your series!
Pat Browning

Anonymous said...

Hi, Mark:
And some of us can't carry much of a tune, but we try. (:
Pat B.

Ben Small said...

Enjoyed this post very much.