Wise Old Women – Elderly Detectives

I have often thought that the most admirable old women in literature were the spinster detectives, and there are many to choose from.  My two favorites emerged at about the same time – the end of the roaring twenties, the “Golden Age” of detective literature.  Miss Marple made her debut in a short story in 1927 (“Tuesday Night Club”) and her first novel-length appearance in 1928 in Agatha Christie’s Murder at the Vicarage.  Patricia Wentworth’s Miss Silver solved her first case in 1928 in Grey Mask.  I got to thinking about these two recently (just finished a Miss Silver novel) and realized that the two ladies presented interesting models for old age.

Neither Miss Marple nor Miss Silver ever marries.  Miss Marple lives in a house called Danemead, “the last cottage on Old Pasture Lane,” in the little English village of St. Mary Mead.  She has apparently never worked and has “independent means of support.” She has learned all she needs to know about humanity by closely observing those around her.  As she points out frequently, “very painful and disturbing things happen in villages sometimes.” As far as I recall, Miss Marple never takes remuneration for setting the world to rights, but she often helps her nephew (an officer of the law), who supplements her income in later years.  Miss Marple has a soft look about her with clouds of white hair and pink cheeks; she presents as a kindly grandmother or a favorite great aunt.

Miss Silver was not so fortunate; she worked tirelessly as a schoolteacher and a governess for many years before inheriting a little money with which she acquired a London flat.  To supplement her modest legacy, she supports herself by taking on “discreet private inquiries” – all references are by word of mouth, and word travels fast among the genteel class of Brits.

Miss Silver knows children very well indeed from her years in the classroom, and to her, all adults are just tall children, still trying to get away with things.  There is nothing “soft” about Miss Silver; she wears a rigid hair net, very thick stockings, and prickly tweeds – every inch the governess.  Both ladies are proficient and constant knitters, but I will come back to that.

Christie was 38 when she wrote the first Miss Marple; Wentworth was 49 when Miss Silver was birthed.  Both authors wrote books well into their eighties, and it would be interesting to study how their descriptions of old age evolved as they themselves aged.

There are at least four reasons the two old ladies are such successful detectives.  For one, they are brilliant readers of human nature.  They have closely monitored the world (a relatively small world in both cases) and learned all the lessons there are to learn.  They are able to winnow out the facts, even in emotionally charged situations. “I have cultivated the habit of close observation,” says Miss Silver.  “These things are not really difficult to perceive.”  At least for old ladies who pay attention.

Secondly, they are great knitters.  There is no cheating in knitting.   If one drops a stitch, one needs to chase it down.  Patterns are important; all the parts must fit together.  Miss Marple and Miss Silver will patiently untangle a skein of yarn, just as they untangle a situation.  They will quietly knit until a shape emerges (usually a bootie or other piece of infant attire – the ladies have countless great-nieces and -nephews).  The incessant click-clack of their needles mesmerizes those whom they are subtly examining; people relax into truthfulness.

Third, they are detached.  They are able to stand back from the emotional turmoil of the moment and ask the pertinent questions.  Who stands to gain?  Who loved the victims and who hated them (sometimes the same person)?  What makes sense given the facts?    Being detached also means they bring no false pride to their work; they are not afraid to follow the facts or their instincts.  They could not care less what anyone else thinks, although they are empathetic to the sufferers in any situation.  And they don’t care who gets the credit, endearing them to the law enforcement officers (always men) with whom they work and who are happy to get the case solved and take the bows.  This, of course, also means their favorite bobbies are happy to take suggestions and share information.

The fourth reason that these ladies are able to discover the murderer when even Scotland Yard is stymied is that they are always underestimated and often not even noticed.  They can find a reason to insinuate themselves into almost any situation, and then they listen and watch – and knit.  Both do more cogitating than they do actively pursuing clues, but they do sometimes take the initiative.  The old ladies faint away in households where they wish to spend the night, and they gladly offer to sit with sick patients or recently bereaved widows – if they hope they can learn something.  And they are kind.  “Now suppose you sit down here, dear, and just tell me all about it,” says Miss Marple over and over again.  Being old is often about being invisible, but these ladies use it to their advantage.  People sit down, watch the knitting needles click, and tell these old ladies everything.

There are many other old lady detectives – Mrs. Bradley (Gladys Mitchell), Mrs. Pollifax (Dorothy Gilman), and countless others.  Please feel free to suggest your own favorites.  My point is that they exemplify ways we can make the most of old age.  I don’t like being marginalized in any way, but it is nice to remember that we can use our status (or lack of it) to it our own advantage – and that of others.

I’m trying to write my own old lady mystery these days, but I once wrote a story (“Essentials”) about a younger woman whose imagination is sparked by the thought that she might be involved in a murder investigation.  Of course, I am not suggesting in any way that we need murders to liven up our lives – but to paraphrase Samuel Johnson, there is nothing like a death to “concentrate the mind wonderfully.”

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