Why Are Elderly Protagonists Having a Moment?

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Julia is a professional nerd who can be spotted in the wild lounging with books in the park in Brooklyn, NY. She has a BA in International Studies from the University of Chicago and an MA in Media Studies from Pratt Institute. She loves fandom, theater, cheese, and Edith Piaf. Find her at juliarittenberg.com.

I often read articles about how different the various generations are, specifically in the United States. I have even contributed to this generational difference discourse with a piece about what characterizes a “millennial” novel. Hand-wringing over what divides generations stretches back into history as well, with Gertrude Stein defining her and the writers of her ilk as “The Lost Generation,” who had a separate perspective because of their experience with The Great War. While there’s value in understanding how historical experiences shape us, it’s equally important to read books from a variety of perspectives, especially around aging. Interestingly, right now it’s clear that elderly protagonists are having a moment.

Classic books about older people having adventures are common, especially thanks to Agatha Christie’s older detectives (Poirot and Marple). Abby Corson, author of The Concierge, wrote for Refinery29 about her love of older protagonists, stating, “When it’s a story in which an unlikely hero with a dodgy hip and chip on his shoulder solves a mystery or embarks on a quest, that just feels more satisfying.”

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Older people getting involved in solving crimes is gaining popularity again. Richard Osman’s book The Thursday Murder Club is a popular book series about a group of retirees in a sleepy English village who start solving cold cases, and its movie adaptation is underway with Helen Mirren and Pierce Brosnan attached. In the same vein, Jesse Squanto’s Aunties series follows a group of older women who help their younger family members deal with hiding bodies so weddings go off without a hitch. Their experience as older women who have seen and been through a lot is important to the story and the way they deal with the plot craziness.

Older protagonists are having a moment because there’s something comforting about imagining the many years of experience we’ll all have when we get older. We live in a youth-obsessed culture, from college-aged founders to the yearly annoyance of the Forbes 30 Under 30 List. At the same time, climate “doomers” present a difficult version of the future that feels hopeless (driven by the truth of climate change, but taking the wrong conclusion, in my opinion). Whatever it looks like, there is a future: many of us will get old and we will continue to have lives full of wacky experiences. Reading books about how older people deal with them fills me with hope.

The Elderly Making Moves

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Vera Wong’s Unsolicited Advice for Murderers by Jesse Q. Sutanto

Jesse Squanto gives us another great older woman solving mysteries with Vera Wong, master of tea and amateur detective. She runs a tea shop and, one morning, finds a dead body in it. She knows there’s more to the mystery than meets the eye, and she chooses to pursue the case herself instead of leaving it to the police. Vera assembles a list of suspects and gets information from them easily because the great stealth of being an older woman is not being suspected of too much.

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Killers of a Certain Age by Deanna Raybourn

After a long, successful career of assassinating people, four killers are being forced to retire at 60. Their skills are no longer relevant to the organization they work for. Billie, Mary Alice, Helen, and Natalie are sent on a retirement trip, where they’re immediately tracked down by another member of their former organization. The women realize the trip was not given to them as a celebration but as a death sentence, and they have to fight their way out.

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Late Bloomers by Deepa Varadarajan

After a 36-year marriage, Suresh and Lata Raman chose to get divorced. Their adult son and daughter are unhappy and confused, while also harboring quiet judgments of their parent’s choices. Sureah is giving online dating a shot, while Lata enjoys alone time for the first time in her life. Priya and Nikesh, their kids, are also dealing with their own relationship drama, so naturally ever family secret explodes in a big mess.

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Four Squares by Bobby Finger

On his 60th birthday, the closest people in Artie Anderson’s life announce they’re moving across the country. To top it off, Artie injures himself and has to seek help at the local queer senior center, GALS. As an older gay man, he doesn’t have a lot of people around him after losing his partner years ago and becoming a bit reclusive. Artie is not entirely aligned with the other seniors at GALS, who are more demonstrably celebratory about being alive. Forced to grapple with losing some of his independence and getting more involved in the community, Artie faces the past 30 years of his life that have led him to where he is today.

Reading never gets old

After starting with these books about elder protagonists, you can dive deeper on novels with older main characters, or, if the mystery element appealed to you most, dive into some of the best mystery novels.

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