Ageing and Detective Fiction
Detective fiction is recognized as an important popular cultural space for the representation of older people and their concerns. According to Hepworth, detective fiction brings focus to dangers of ageing, depicting crimes in which frailty and the need of care make older characters vulnerable to manipulation and exploitation by others. Detective fiction, however, can encourage the reader to see older people beyond their stereotypes, as many mystery plots include the uncovering of hidden, and often unexpected, pasts of older characters that insist upon their individuality. Finally, detective fiction can challenge the dominant perception of older people as an inactive and unproductive subject by presenting older characters as competent detectives (Hepworth 1993). The serialization that is common in the genre also enables representation of main characters’ ageing process. Ian Ranking’s Rebus series, for instance, depicts the ageing detective’s anxiety about retirement and the loss of professional identity (Alegre 2011).
Women authors such as Amanda Cross have utilized detective fiction to represent and explore older women’s identities, life choices, and concerns that are often marginalized (Domínguez-Rué 2016). Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple and other older female detectives play with and interrogate cultural stereotypes associated to older women such as spinsterhood, domesticity, and limited life experience and in so doing, critique the masculine premise of the genre (Brennan 2004).
Key Research Findings and Examples
As Todorov (1977) puts it, detective fiction is a narrative which contains a narrative – a story of the mystery – within it. As this story unfolds, it engages the reader in the act of detection. Recently an increasing number of detective fictions – in both printed and cinematic form – feature an older character with dementia. This bears important political and ethical implications as the prevalence of dementia increases in many ageing societies (Burke 2018; Orr 2018; Sako 2016; Strauss 2017). Whether detective, suspect, witness, or victim, these characters complicate and stimulate the detective/reading process, an effect often reinforced by the internal focalization of the narrative. Highlighting the process in which people make sense of the world through narrative, these texts raise questions about the status of memory, narrative, and self and their connections, questions that lead to a rethinking of the agency and subjectivity of people living with dementia (Cohen-Shalev and Marcus 2012; Medina 2018; Wearing 2017). Many works including Turn of Mind (LaPlante 2011), Elizabeth Is Missing (Healey 2014), and The Night Guest (McFarlane 2013) develop the mystery in the context of care to explore the agency and vulnerability of the protagonist with dementia, addressing issues such as social isolation and marginalization of older people, abuse and exploitation in care, and advocacy for people living with dementia. These works represent the experience of the protagonist in affective and engaging manners, inviting the reader/audience to recognize the protagonist’s and her own struggle in the hermeneutic pursuit. They therefore enable an encounter with the older subject living with dementia that has ethical potential.
Future Directions of Research
There is a risk that the representation of older people in detective fiction reproduces homogenizing and reductive views about older people. Presentation of older characters as victims of crimes may reinforce the stereotyped image of older people as frail and vulnerable (Hepworth 1993). Detective fiction that associates people with dementia with mystery/crime for a narrative effect potentially furthers prejudice against them (Capstick et al. 2015). It can also reinforce the gendered discourse of ageing as seen in the films Cortex (Boukhrief 2008) and The Memory of a Killer (Van Looy 2003), which feature a male protagonist with Alzheimer’s. Presenting him as a hero/competent detective, they affirm the agency of people living with dementia but in a way that masculinizes successful ageing, implicitly rendering older women as unproductive (Medina 2018).
As a popular narrative genre characterized by the significant reader/audience engagement with the text, detective fiction has much potential, if not without risk as suggested above, to contribute to a better cultural understanding about ageing and related issues such as dementia and care.
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