Spinsters and Spies: My Favorite Older Women in Crime Fiction
Crime fiction is kinder than most genres to older women. Where they can be a little harder to find in other genres, mysteries and thrillers like to give the woman of mature years some time in the spotlight. She may be a sleuth or—less common but perhaps more interesting—a villain. Either way, the woman over sixty has a few decades of adventure left. Her age gives her wisdom, experience, and the advantage of hiding in plain sight. Whether you are the law enforcement officer tasked with bringing her to justice or the miscreant trying to evade her detection, you’d be wise to remember this: Older women have seen it all. Ignore them at your peril.
Any list of elderly women in crime fiction must begin with Jane Marple. One of Agatha Christie’s two most famous detectives (and the only amateur), Miss Marple is the sleuth who unravels crimes as easily as she unravels a poorly knitted sleeve. Watching her neighbors from the vantage point of her front window, Miss Marple is a keen student of human nature, extrapolating character and motivation from the various scandals of her village of St. Mary Mead and applying her knowledge elsewhere. Her intimate acquaintance with this vibrant little microcosm enables her to understand criminals and victims alike. More than once, this dithery, fluffy little woman manages to uncover the cruelest of crimes. Her nephew Raymond says she has a mind like a sink. He’s not wrong.
Blanche White from the Barbara Neely series beginning with Blanche of the Lam is the youngest on the list, but women in their fifties are absolutely “of a certain age,” and if any character deserves to have rules bent for her, it’s Blanche. Resilient and resourceful, Blanche uses her position as a Black domestic service worker to observe and investigate. If being unobtrusive is a superpower for older women, Blanche is Wonder Woman. This four-book series was ground-breaking when it was published in the 1990s and gathered a signifiant collection of well-deserved awards.
Judith Potts from Robert Thorogood’s The Marlow Murder Club has a whisky habit and sports a kicky cape. She is a 77-year-old crossword puzzle creator who lives happily on her own terms in a mysterious house on the Thames until she witnesses a riverside murder and undertakes to investigate it herself. Judith is a delectably prickly foil to the sweetly deceptive marshmallow fluff of Marple. Dogged as a pit bull.
Richard Osman’s The Thursday Murder Club boasts several engaging characters, none more interesting than Elizabeth Best. Now a pensioner living in an English retirement village, Elizabeth is a former intelligence agent with secrets to spare. Details of her past work are doled out in delicious crumbs, providing context for her indefatigable sleuthing. She may be 76, but she is still a force to be reckoned with as she and her elderly pals band together to uncover all kinds of wrongdoing. Elizabeth would never go gentle into that dark night.
Speaking of spies, no list of older women in crime fiction would be complete without the irrepressible Emily Pollifax. Introduced in 1966’s The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax, she is a bored widow on the cusp of ending it all. Frightened by the extent of her ennui, Pollifax takes herself off to the headquarters of the CIA where she offers her services as a courier. After successfully extricating herself and a pair of valuable assets from mortal peril, the intrepid Pollifax is officially brought on board for a series of special missions. She was played by both Rosalind Russell and Angela Lansbury in film adaptations, but nothing is better than the books themselves. Wily and resourceful, she draws on her life experience and her common sense to superb effect. Marple on steroids.
But spies and spinsters aren’t the only older characters of interest. Sometimes women of a certain age don’t investigate crimes—they commit them. To wit:
The Little Old Lady Who Broke All the Rules is the first book in the League of Pensioners series by Catharina Ingelman-Sundberg. Martha Andersson is 79, living in a retirement home, and fed up with bad meals and infantilizing attendants. With the help of her friends, Martha embarks upon a life of genteel crime, living large on the proceeds. There are three novels in the series, all translated from the Swedish.
Something about Scandinavia must be turning the elderly to crime. Helene Torsten’s An Elderly Lady Is Up to No Good features Maud, an 88-year-old woman who goes a little further than Ingelman-Sundberg’s Martha. When Maud’s serene and settled way of life is threatened, she decides the occasional murder will suit her nicely. There are two books starring Maud, a character who is frequently underestimated because of her age and her apparent frailty. But Maud is the last woman to turn your back on if you have something she wants.
About Killers of a Certain Age by Deanna Raybourn:
Billie, Mary Alice, Helen, and Natalie have worked for the Museum, an elite network of assassins, for forty years. Now their talents are considered old-school and no one appreciates what they have to offer in an age that relies more on technology than people skills.
When the foursome is sent on an all-expenses paid vacation to mark their retirement, they are targeted by one of their own. Only the Board, the top-level members of the Museum, can order the termination of field agents, and the women realize they’ve been marked for death.
Now to get out alive they have to turn against their own organization, relying on experience and each other to get the job done, knowing that working together is the secret to their survival. They’re about to teach the Board what it really means to be a woman—and a killer—of a certain age.