Photo: Dulcie Gray, British actress, plays the role of Miss Marple in a scene from the Agatha Christie play 'A Murder Is Announced', Sept 21, 1977. Photo: Peter Cade/Central Press/Getty Images
Senior Citizen Sleuths Join the Murder Club
A new sub-genre of mystery novels feature protagonists in their 70s, 80s and 90s who are clued in, not clueless / BY Nathalie Atkinson / November 19th, 2021
It’s the perfect, clichéd caper plot: you know, the one about seasoned veterans doing One Last Job before retirement. But what if they already were retired?
The sub-genre of senior citizen sleuthing is rife with possibility, given the microcosms provided by small villages or retirement communities. The combination of murder and deceptively sweet old ladies did, after all, work a charm for Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple. Think of these books as grey-haired campus novels, without the colleges and dorm drama, where characters are happily retired after long careers and pursuing new interests.
There are other advantages, too. “Being retired (or semi-retired) means the characters can throw themselves wholeheartedly into the intrigue at hand. You’re not interrupted by the fact that you either have to feed the baby or go to work and make a living,” explains British novelist Rosalind Stopps, a writer who features three septuagenarian sleuths in The Beginner’s Guide to Murder, in a telephone interview. “That leaves you free for so much more setting the world to rights and sort things out. And if you had a lot of time on your hands, why wouldn’t you?”
Pensioners who investigate sinister doings are on the rise on the page and have become such a crossover trend that they have recently infiltrated prestige streaming as well. In the hit Hulu series Only Murders in the Building (in Canada on Disney+ and Stars), for example, true-crime enthusiasts played by Steve Martin, 76, and Martin Short, 71, team up with their hip, young neighbour (Selena Gomez, 29) to solve a recent murder in The Arconia, the historic New York luxury apartment building where they all live.
John le Carré’s final novel, Silverview, also features a pair of retired intelligence agency handlers, and explores what happens after leaving a career behind. For those who think it would be great if The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel was a police procedural, here are our favourites of the latest books featuring amateur, silver-haired sleuths.
The Thursday Murder Club
It began, for me, last fall with The Thursday Murder Club. Author Richard Osman is a quiz-show host and television personality from England who is as famous and recognizable there as Alex Trebek. But it was the premise that made me pick up his debut novel, a murder mystery about a motley group of pensioners who live at an upscale retirement village in Kent.
Here, retirees Ibrahim (psychiatrist), Ron (union organizer), Elizabeth (MI5 operative) and Joyce (nurse), all well into their seventies and eighties, meet once a week to solve complicated cold cases. A murder on their doorstep sets things in motion. Initially, they are unlikely friends thrown into the intrigue by circumstance, but an affectionate friction develops, and they soon discover they are vulnerable on their own, but, working together, they are formidable. It’s a tender, funny, and hopeful book about people attuned to the vulnerabilities age as well as its advantages.
Osman’s comic crime novel became a runaway international bestseller and sold more than a million copies in Britain alone, outpacing Barack Obama’s memoir to become the bestselling book of 2020 (and third of all time in the U.K., putting him alongside Dan Brown and JK Rowling in the history books). Now that the story has been optioned by Steven Spielberg’s production company, readers have been known to yell “Helen Mirren” at Osman from across the street. This is their suggestion for casting Elizabeth – the Dame has, after all, previously played an elite assassin of a certain age in Red and Red 2. Ol Parker, the Best Exotic Marigold and Mamma Mia! sequel filmmaker, is slated to direct.
Over the pandemic winter, while anxiously waiting the second installment of the The Thursday Murder Club, I chortled my way through the gang’s capers a second time, and then a third – giggling at Joyce’s asides about shopping at Tesco versus Waitrose, or Elizabeth’s classification of people not by status but by personality, judged entirely by which weekend newspaper they read. Finally, I had to admit that I needed more of the same. Osman’s wildly popular novel may lead the pack, but there are others just as gleefully vivacious. And as the saying goes, there’s little more dangerous than someone with nothing left to lose.
The Postscript Murders
In the spring, Elly Griffiths delivered The Postscript Murders, about the seemingly unremarkable death of a gregarious 90-year-old at a seaside apartment complex for the elderly in West Sussex, England. There, a group of neighbours (including a retired BBC producer and a monk-turned-barista) form a friendship through the process of investigating what turns out to be – surprise! – murder.
The author peels back the layers of the older characters, who are presumed to be the same because of their age, but who have hidden talents, as well as helpful experience and contacts from their working lives. They discover that the deceased, kindly aunt Peggy, was a “murder consultant” who had been thanked in the acknowledgments of many bestselling mysteries, which sets the gang on a road trip to a crime writers festival in Scotland.
The Grandmother Plot
By summer I’d found two more, both by award-winning children’s author Caroline B. Cooney, who wrote the bestselling young-adult novel The Face on the Milk Carton. Cooney, 74, has lately turned to older subjects with a pair of whodunnits set in a retirement community and a care home, respectively. In Before She Was Helen, a semi-retired Latin teacher in her 70s named Clemmie lives in Sun City, a retirement community where everyone has shed their personal and professional identities.
Helen maintains a distant but cordial relationship with the neighbours with whom she plays cards, until the man in the adjacent villa doesn’t text her one morning to let her know he is okay. She soon discovers none of the residents are as benign as they seem (like herself). The U.S. author’s other novel, The Grandmother Plot, explores how a stoner artist named Freddy has done the right thing and moved to small-town Connecticut to be near his ailing grandmother.
He’s devoted to her and makes regular visits, so when someone is murdered in the memory care facility where she lives with dementia, he gets involved in unearthing the killer with the help of an older, fellow family guardian, Mrs. Maples. With events unfolding over a week, it’s a cozy mystery rich with empathy and humour.
A Beginner’s Guide to Murder
In Stopps’ novel, A Beginner’s Guide to Murder, Grace, Meg and Daphne are London acquaintances in their seventies who meet in Pilates class. They band together to protect a teenage girl in a dangerous situation, hatching a murder plot they carry out, although not according to the original plan. “I wanted my women to be feisty and go about righting wrongs,” the author says. “They’re more vigilantes than sleuths, you might say—like an older, female version of the Three Musketeers.”
Stopps’ previous book was her debut, The Stranger She Knew (published as Hello, My Name is May in Canada), which was shortlisted for the Paul Torday Memorial Prize, awarded to U.K. writers who publish their first novel at 60 or older.
“You start to be aware of what you’ve done and what you haven’t done as you get older,” Stopps says about choosing this age cohort for her trio of women. “There’s less time for dreaming. You actually come to terms with what you’ve got and have become, and get a bit realistic about it.”
Yet she wanted to emphasize that, after the age of 70, there can still be escapades. “The idea of having an adventure or two rather than actually waiting at home behind curtains or keeping yourself safe is very attractive to me, especially over the past two years during lockdown.” This is something the author knows firsthand — she eloped a few years ago, at 64 – around the time her first novel was published, and after a long career working with families of young children with disabilities.
The characters not only pause to muse on the seasons of their lives, but they also make swift (some might say rash) decisions due to their heightened awareness of time passing. That’s another interesting facet of the elderly sleuth – the different calculus of personal risk. As with Osman’s novel, the group engages in some perilous fieldwork. “For them it’s more important that the young ones get their chance,” Stopps adds. “I think that’s a really common thing as well. If you look for example at an Extinction Rebellion protest, there’s a lot of older people.”
As Osman, 50, recently told the Guardian newspaper, he was initially inspired by the retirement community where his mother lives, as well as by The A-Team, an 80s TV series that was a favourite when he was a child. “I’ve got people for whom consequences don’t really matter that much. And I’ve got people who are consistently overlooked.” If you recall, in Agatha Christie’s novel 4:50 from Paddington, Sergeant Cornish describes an older amateur sleuth as “fluffy and dithery in appearance, but inwardly as shrewd as they make them.”
Stopps says her characters are “given a certain role in society, so they would never be suspected of shoplifting or indeed, murder.” Yet their glory days aren’t entirely behind them. Typically, senior-sleuth mysteries assemble a team, each with their own special skills. And the twin themes of aging and fellowship are vindicated in the novels – as is the downfall of those who don’t take “old dearies” seriously.
The Man Who Died Twice
Much of the fun is the way this sub-genre —and Osman in particular — play with the juxtaposition of wiliness. Take his unflappable Elizabeth, a former MI5 operative, who reminiscences about her Cold War days in East Berlin, and the cloak of invisibility bestowed by a society that respects its elders, but seldom takes them seriously. “People really don’t buy that Elizabeth is a harmless old woman for very long,” Joyce muses in The Man Who Died Twice, Osman’s follow-up to The Thursday Murder Club. “With me it lasts much longer, but Elizabeth doesn’t have that gift.”
Osman’s latest caper involves the spycraft of Elizabeth’s past, and I found myself longing for a crossover with acclaimed (and le Carré heir apparent) Mick Herron’s MI6 Slow Horses series about spooks, loyalty, treachery and incompetence.
The appeal of these novels is their willingness to navigate the gradations of age, from friendships across generations and how older people contend with being underestimated or dismissed outright. The authors are on to something, given that the neo-noir feature film, Sniff, was recently announced, about retired detectives who investigate a suspicious death in an upscale retirement community, with a cast that includes Mirren, Danny DeVito, Al Pacino and Morgan Freeman.
In The Man Who Died Twice, the new adventure begins on the heels of the first case, as the gang adjourn their weekly meeting for lunch – with wine – at 11:45 a.m. Which is just another joy of retirement.