Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The New 30

by Eva Dolan

When you think about 'women of a certain age' in crime fiction who comes to mind? Miss Marple, Vera, Jessica Fletcher...I'm struggling here. Because you know what? There just aren't that many of them. 

One of the most impressive books I read last year was Turn of Mind by Alice LaPlante, an elegant novel about a sixtysomething woman with Alzheimers who is accused of murdering her best friend.  Jennifer was a brilliant surgeon, a fiercely intelligent and spiky character whose identity and memory is being slowly but irrevocably broken apart. Through a fractured narrative we get glimpses of who she was and we see how capable she is of murder. It's an ambitious work, edging into literary fiction, but what really struck me about it was the originality of having an older woman at the heart of things.
And I began to wonder why you don't see that more often in crime fiction. Despite women being the largest consumers of the genre and, judging by their presence at events, a loyal fanbase, they seem to stop being of interest to crime writers once they're too old to make a pretty victim or a - eugh - feisty investigator. They become hard faced senior coppers, the murdered teenager's saggy mother, and when they're pushed into background roles, there and gone in a couple of paragraphs, the language can get distinctly Medieval; do the words 'hag' and 'crone' really still have a place in contemporary fiction? Turns out they do. See also; housecoats and blue rinses.
It's common complaint that as you age you become invisible and right now that is the only way fiction is chiming with real life. But when I look at women of my mother's generation I see a lot of highly capable professionals, well put together and worldly; children of the sixties who broke free from the constraints their own mothers were bound by.  
These are women we should be writing about. In the crime genre they're the women we're writing for and they deserve books which reflect their experience and intelligence rather than being treated as pieces of ugly plot furniture. Two authors who've done just that are the late A.S.A Harrison and Louise Doughty. Both stories could have been hung around women in their twenties or thirties - they suffer and enact the same betrayals after all - but these books share a heightened sense of jeopardy because their heroines are mature women with more to loose.

The Silent Wife by A.S.A Harrison has been touted as this years Gone Girl but it's actually a far more interesting book. Both deal with the implosion of a marriage, both are structured around a 'him' and 'her' narrative, but that's where the similarities end. Jodi is in her forties, a therapist who believes in accepting peoples flaws, which is why she turns a blind eye to her property developer partner's serial adultery. Until he falls in love with a much younger woman who wants commitment. At first Jodi responds with serene passivity, believing this affair is as meaningless as all the others. But from the very beginning we know she will become a killer and as Harrison describes the meticulous rituals of Jodi's life and the play acting of a perfect marriage, we feel this threat drawing ever closer, and know that eventually she will have to accept her new status as the spurned woman and act accordingly. Even if that means murder.

Louise Doughty's Apple Tree Yard centres on woman who we meet in the dock at The Old Bailey, on trial for a crime which appears to result from an affair she's had with an unnamed man. Yvonne is an intriguing heroine, a highly respected geneticist, married with two grown up children, and at fifty-two she is the woman who seems to prove that you can 'have it all.' The affair begins as a moment of feverish impetuosity, a meeting of eyes, a dash to privacy, then intense secret meetings followed by lonely, late night self-doubt, but despite everything she stands to lose she can't stop, and the spiral of temptation and destruction is laid out in a first person narrative, which swings between clinical and febrile, speeding the reader along to the final, nerve-shredding court scene where all illusions will be stripped away.  
While a handful of books don't make a trend the authors I've mentioned prove that it's possible to craft compelling crime narratives around women in their forties, fifties and sixties and - for the mercenary minded out there - do so with real commercial success. 


Thomas Pluck said...

I agree that older characters of both sexes need more representation. It enriches the story and raises the tension, as they must survive on their wits.
I grew up with my grandmother- Antoinette was a tough old bird- and my great-uncles, all WW2 vets who lived through the Depression- so I do my best to include older characters in my stories without diminishing them.

I'm reading "Started Early, Took My Dog" by Kate Atkinson and it has a retired officer, Tracey Waterhouse, by far my favorite character. And also an aged actress who's losing her marbles, who is also fascinating.

Al Tucher said...

The shortage of interesting older female protagonists isn't as dire in short fiction. Of course, now I'm groping for an example, but that might be due to my similar vintage.

Maggie Craig said...

Very interesting post. As a writer with her bus pass - although only my knees make me realize I'm not still 30 - all my own heroines are in their 20s or not much older. Mmm. You've set me thinking!

eva dolan said...

Tommy - those stories need telling don't they? a totally different world and disappearing fast, such a good thing that there are writers documenting it.

one of the things i loved about FREE BIRD was the care your man was written with.

Al - no, i think you're right. maybe short form writers have more freedom...

Maggie - hah, my mum's the same, eighteen year old mind ** year old body! thanks for the kind words.

John McFetridge said...

So, what do you make of Inger Ash Wolfe's series? An older woman protagonist written by a young(ish) man. It's possible the whole, "Who is Inger Ash Wolfe," got the the thing off on the wrong foot for some people.