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Mysteries have perhaps paid even greater attention to old age than has non-genre fiction. The clever elderly woman represented by Christie's Miss Marple owed her success as a sleuth to reliance on the assumption that anyone her age, especially a woman who had never married or borne children, was as harmless as she appeared and could essentially be ignored. Miss Marple of course made ample use of her inoffensive appearance to hear, overhear, and store vital information unwittingly revealed in her presence. When she had heard enough she used her undiminished intelligence to marshal these facts into a plausible scenario and name the culprit. Miss Marple became a template for a succession of similar old ladies - women who, rather than challenging the stereotype of senility, exploited it and trotted it off into the comforts of the cozy.
But not all elderly ladies are on the side of the law. Helene Tursten, the Swedish author of a popular police series, retired her Detective Inspector Irene Huss at the appropriate time and introduced octogenarian Maud who leans as heavily on the popular dismissal of the abilities of the aged as she does on the walker she doesn't need but employs to enhance her convenient frailty. Maud has developed a method to deal with those who interfere with the pleasures she has finally achieved by outliving her family - she murders them. Worse, she gets away with it and the reader is glad she does, if perhaps a bit embarrassed to admit it.
There are, however, increasing appearances of characters who are simultaneously suffering from the onset of dementia and a deepening desire to solve what appears to be a mysterious absence. Emma Healey's ELIZABETH IS MISSING which became a BBC film starring Glenda Jackson, is at once a mystery and an exploration of a mind suffering from a worsening case of dementia. There is nothing charming about the desperate decline of the main character but the reader is deeply engaged by her struggle to solve the absence of her friend and to save her if she can. I read this when it appeared fourteen years ago and have never forgotten it.
THE SUNSET YEARS OF AGNES SHARP deals not with a single protagonist but with a group of elderly men and women who have formed a kind of commune in the English countryside rather than enter one of the large care homes that seem to be the only alternative on offer. Part of their agreement is that if old age has at last finally has robbed one of the members of the desire to continue, then another member on request will help out with a quick shot to the head. Otherwise the residents of Sunset Hall enjoy a life in which their infirmities are tolerated and each has to prepare dinner only once a week. There are also two pets - Hettie the tortoise and Brexit the dog.
As the book opens, one member, Lillith, lies dead in the garden, having been dispatched by her own request. Since this is the first time that anyone has chosen to exit, the group has to figure out how to deal with the consequences. It is just too bad that Lillith chose to take her departure at the same time as certain neighbours are being murdered. They should have thought of this sooner, the reader may think, but it is just the first of moments when the author, rather than the character, leans on the infirmities of senescence to achieve a plot point.
It happens quite often along the way. So too does its opposite. At one moment, Agnes Sharp wants to get hold of something on a high shelf and despite her well-reported physical limitations especially of her knees, she climbs up on a chair to reach it. But she can't get down and when discovered, she leans on the dodge that has served previous old lady sleuths in the past. She doesn't know how she did it, but she's terrified of mice. Eyes roll all round and she's off the hook.
Inconsistencies of this sort are fairly frequent. Sadly, they began to make me wonder just a little whether some of the cast wouldn't benefit from the more structured environment of a profit-making care home. But the problem really lies with the author who, unlike Emma Healey who fully imagined the confusion and even terror of someone with developing dementia, manages to produce a set of characters that do not convince and are difficult to empathize with. Their mental deterioration appears almost to be wilful eccentricity rather than a progress of decay.
In 2005, Swann produced her first novel, written in German and set in Ireland, that also featured a collective cast. That was THREE BAGS FULL, and the detectives were a flock of sheep. It was a charming undertaking and AGNES SHARP is somewhat reminiscent of it, as the human flock is a bit wooly on the whole. But no ram or ewe ever got to read it, whereas here we cannot help but notice that the flock consists of fellow humans. Perhaps if an actual animal had the chance they would have reported, as I am of the later book, that the sheep had wandered too far from the flock to engage us.
§ § Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal. She's been editing RTE since 2008.
Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, December 2023
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