21 March 2017

Be They Sinister or Sleuthy, Seniors Have a Place in Short Stories

by Barb Goffman

Looks can be deceiving. No one knows that better than people who try to slip something past you. Con artists. Murderers. And sometimes even wide-eyed children and little old ladies. When you appear nice and innocent, folks will let you get away with murder.

I've written before about using teenage girls as protagonists. They work well as evil-doers or crime-commiters because no one suspects them. They're young and peppy and can come across as sweet if they try. They're also fearless and their brains aren't fully developed, so they'll do stupid things few adults would. Today, I'm going to focus on the other end of the age spectrum: the senior set. (I know some people don't like that term, but I mean no animus, so please bear with me.)

Imagine you come home to find your house burglarized, with your files ransacked and your computer--with all your notes--stolen. In real life, you'd call the cops, never thinking you personally could find the culprit. It could be anyone. But things are different for fictional Amateur Sleuth Sally.
Sally knows she's been investigating the arson death of poor Mr. Hooper, who owned the corner store. So with the neighbors leaning on their porches or whispering in small groups on their lawns, watching the police spectacle (it's a small town so there's spectacle), Sally goes outside and studies her prime suspects in the arson murder and her own burglary: those very same neighbors.

Is the culprit Oscar, the grouchy guy in the green bathrobe across the street who puts out his trash too early in the morning? Sally heard he owed Mr. Hooper money. Or is it Maria, the skinny lady who works at the library? She lives two doors down, and Sally has heard she spends time with Mr. Hooper when Mrs. Hooper is away on business--or at least she used to until Mrs. Hooper put a stop to it. Or was it Mrs. Hooper herself, the betrayed spouse? Sally has lots of questions and suspects, but she never stops to think about kindly Katrina, the grandmother who lives next door. Surely a woman who bakes cookies and serves as a crossing guard couldn't have done in Mr. Hooper.

You all know. Of course she did. And Sally Sleuth's failure to recognize that appearances can be deceiving will almost be her undoing. (Almost. This is a cozy novel I'm outlining, so Sally must prevail in the end.)

But things don't always tie up so neatly in short stories. In short stories, the bad guy can win. Or the ending can really surprise you. Or both. And kindly Katrina could end up pulling one over on Sally Sleuth. I've made use of this aspect of short stories in several of my own, particularly my latest two.

Everyone loves
cabernet

In my newest story, "Whose Wine Is It Anyway?," seventy-year-old Myra Wilkinson is in her final week of work. She's retiring on Friday after working for forty-five years as a law firm secretary, forty of them for the same guy, Douglas. But as her final day looms, Myra isn't as excited as she anticipated because Douglas has chosen Jessica, a husband-hunting hussy, to replace her. Jessica doesn't care about doing the job right, and this is bothering Myra to no end. Then something happens, and Myra realizes that Douglas has been taking her for granted. So she comes up with a scheme involving Douglas's favorite wine to teach Douglas a lesson and reveal Jessica for the slacker she really is.

The beauty of the plan is no one will see Myra coming. On the outside she's kind and helpful. She calls people "dear." As one character says, she's "the heart of this department." Myra's nice on the inside, too, but she also has sass and a temper, which come into play as she hatches her scheme and it plays out.

Another great thing about Myra is she's known Douglas for so long that she knows his weaknesses, and she makes use of them. (This reminds me of a wonderful scene from the movie Groundhog Day. Bill Murray's character says of God, "Maybe he's not omnipotent. He's just been around so long, he knows everything.") The older a character is, the more knowledge she'll have--information she can use against others.

Towanda!
An older person like Myra also might be willing to throw caution to the wind, seeing she's made it so far already. (That reminds me of a wonderful scene from the movie Fried Green Tomatoes in which Kathy Bates's middle-aged character is cheated out of a parking spot by two twenty-something women, one of whom says, "Face it, lady, we're younger and faster." Kathy Bates goes on to repeatedly ram her car into the the other woman's car, then says, "Face it, girls. I'm older and have more insurance." Granted Kathy Bates's character wasn't a senior citizen, but she had reached the point where she wasn't going to just take things anymore.)

Anyway, so what happens to Myra and Douglas and Jessica? You'll have to read the story to find out. You can read "Whose Wine Is It Anyway?" in the new anthology 50 Shades of Cabernet, which was
published last week by Koehler Books. It includes seventeen stories of crime and wine and is available in hardcover, trade paperback, and e-book. Most of the stories are set in Virginia (where most of the authors live). Why is a book of wine mysteries set in Virginia? Well, our great commonwealth has a thriving, but perhaps not well known, wine industry. We hope to change that.

Getting back to seniors, Myra isn't my only recent senior character. In my story "The Best-Laid Plans" Eloise Nickel is a mystery writer, a grande dame of her profession, and she's being honored for her lifetime achievement at this year's Malice International convention. (Does this convention's name sound familiar? Good.) It's too bad for Eloise that the convention's guest of honor this year is Kimberly Siger, Eloise's nemesis. Then, to make matters worse, a few weeks before the convention, Kimberly insults Eloise in Mystery Queen Magazine. Eloise isn't going to take that, so she plans to make Kimberly suffer during the convention. Because she's known Kimberly for many years, Eloise knows Kimberly's weak spots. And because she's thought of as a nice, aging lady, she figures no one will suspect her of any nefarious doings. Do her plans work out? Read "The Best-Laid Plans" to find out. This story, published in the anthology Malice Domestic 11: Murder Most Conventional,  is a finalist for this year's Agatha Award. It's available on my website: www.barbgoffman.com/The_Best_Laid_Plans.html

So, fellow mystery authors, when you're thinking about your next plot and want a bad guy or gal who can hide in plain sight, think about a senior citizen. The same goes when you're devising your sleuth. A bad guy may not spill his guts if thirty-something Sally Sleuth is nearby, but he certainly might if Grandma Greta is. He thinks she's so innocuous, he won't see her coming--until she pulls a gun on him.

Do you have a favorite character--good gal or bad--who's a senior citizen? Please share in the comments. We can never have enough good short stories and books to read.

18 comments:

Melodie Campbell said...

Grinning while reading this, Barb! And thinking - how true. In the mob book, The Goddaughter Caper, a group of retired mob senior citizens at the Holy Cannoli Retirement Villa figure out a scheme to raise money for a Vegas trip - in a totally illegal and hopefully hilarious way.
My first crime award was a for a short story called "The Perfect Mark," in which a pensioner flips the tables on a young person out to rob her. It's being used in school systems in New Zealand and Finland, partly for the purpose of exposing preconceived ideas about the aged.
Good column! I haven't seen one like this before.

Art Taylor said...

Fun post, Barb--and congrats on the new story!

Barb Goffman said...

Mel, OMG, the Holy Cannoli Retirement Villa. Love it. Let's retire there together someday, and people can underestimate us together. Could you imagine what we could do if we put our heads together?!

And Art, thanks so much for stopping by. I had fun writing this post. It's always fun when you *have to* re-watch favorite movie scenes in order to quote the dialogue correctly.

Eve Fisher said...

Miss Marple! Miss Silver! Miss Climpson! And many more...
I have many seniors in my stories - Matt Stark and her brother Harold pop up regularly. And King's River Life published my "When I Grow Old, I Shall Wear Purple", about a witness protection person in a nursing home - which works great, except that he claims to be from a small town in SD, and that's way too easy to check.
I think nursing homes, retirement centers, etc., are great venues for mysteries, because people are taken at their own valuation - and what if they're lying? Why shouldn't they lie? After all, you're in your 70s or 80s, who cares if you claim to be a retired judge, or a circus performer, or anything else?

Barb Goffman said...

Thanks for stopping by, Eve. Your comment makes me wonder: Why do so many senior amateur sleuths have the word miss before them? Do they have to be single to sleuth? Heck, I'm single but I don't hear people calling me Miss Goffman. (Thank goodness.)

B.K. Stevens said...

Congratulations on your story in 50 Shades of Cabernet, Barb--I read it and thoroughly enjoyed it. Eve's already mentioned my favorite older sleuth, Miss Climpson, who cleverly exploits people's preconceptions about older women as she helps Lord Peter with his cases. Then there's Jessica Fletcher of Murder, She Wrote, though I don't remember how old she was supposed to be. (I have to admit I didn't watch more than an episode or two of the series.) I'll also mention Professor Minerva Woodhouse, from my Woodhouse Investigations stories for AHMM. She's able to help her daughter, private detective Iphigenia Woodhouse, not only by supplying shrewd insights but also by doing occasional bits of undercover work (most recently at a retirement community). She often gets people to open up to her because they assume she's hopelessly, helplessly senile. (She's not--just deeply eccentric and more than a little scrambled.)

Tonette Joyce said...

Love it, love it! I did a blog post some time back on the fact that older people in stories are generally portrayed as wise sages, dithering in senility or other 'colorful characters', never as anyone to be taken seriously as a protagonist. Good for you! I have this high on my TBR list.
Congratulations.

Michael Bracken said...

I've realized that the older I get, the older my protagonists get, though they still lag behind me by a few years. I've only written a handful of stories (mostly genres other than crime fiction) with "seniors" as protagonists, but I have a couple of mysteries--one making the rounds and another only partially written--that feature retired protagonists, and neither story would work if its protagonist were younger.

Diane Gilbert Madsen said...

Loved your blog, and you are so right that seniors can do almost anything in plain sight. In my DD McGil Literati Mysteries, two twin sisters, Glendy and Lucille - both in their 80's - are die hard Cubs fans and will do almost anything to get the reward monies from Crimestoppers.

Barb Goffman said...

Thanks about my story, Bonnie. And thanks again for reading and blurbing the book. We all appreciate it. (The official copy I sent should have arrived yesterday. I hope you received it.) And your Professor Woodhouse is a perfect example of a sleuth who can hide in plain sight because no one suspects her of being anything except old.

Joyce, it's always nice to be taken seriously, isn't it. (No matter how old you are. And no matter whether you're real or fictional.) I hope you enjoy the book!

Michael, thanks for stopping by. I didn't set out to write about senior protagonists, but they just have certain characteristics that are ripe for short stories, especially mysteries. Good luck with your two stories featuring retirees. Knowing your track record, you'll finish the second one and place them both with ease.

Diane, I love the Crimestoppers idea. That has humor written all over it. Very cool!

Leigh Lundin said...

Mystery Queen Magazine… ha! I like that.

John Floyd has a lil ol' lady schoolteacher who trots around after a sheriff solving his crimes. Good thing the sheriff isn't homicidal!

When attending my first convention, people told me how nice and helpful mystery writers are. That's proved true. Except… except for one and ohhhhhh, does that señora citizen deserve the death penalty. And I wasn't even the target!

Barb Goffman said...

Leigh, thank you. I love doing little things like that (Mystery Queen Magazine). I did a little something with some of the names I used in this blog post, but no one has mentioned it. Sigh.

Anyway, I love Angela Potts! She is one of my favorite characters. (Poor Chunky.)

And I must, must, must hear the story about senora citizen. Please message me with the details! Or if it's too juicy to write down ... well, we'll have to figure something out. Any chance you'll be at Bouchercon in Toronto and could share the story in person?

John Floyd said...

Coming into this late, Barb--Loved the column. It's fun to stop and think of how many older folks ARE the stars of the show, in some of these mystery series, on TV and on the page too. And thanks for the kind words, to you and Leigh also, about my crazy old schoolteacher. Angela might be irritating to the "real" law in their little town, but she does find a way to solve the cases, now and then.

Leigh, I'm wondering also, about who you're referring to. If your first convention was the one I'm thinking of, which was also my first convention, I have a sneaky suspicion.

Barb Goffman said...

Thanks for commenting, John. I haven't read all your stories--yet!--but I must tell you that I have a favorite Angela story. There's one involving prison escapees and knitting. I still smile thinking about it. The ending was perfect.

Debra H. Goldstein said...

Enjoyed the column. I, too, enjoy utilizing older folks for their wisdom and their lack of filters. My first published short story, Legal Magic, introduced a group of senior citizen mah jongg players. These same players became the comic foil and co-sleuths (with the 29-year-old protagonist)in my book, Should Have Played Poker: a Carrie Martin and the Mah Jongg Players Mystery (Five Star 2016).

Leigh Lundin said...

Barb, the main name play I think I caught was a Sesame Street reference, not that I’m au fait with the characters. I also like to slip little tidbits into articles, such as this one a few weeks ago:

[… letters of complaint should be addressed to Velma@idontcare.com]

Usually people get the asides (I think), but I was surprised no one seemed to get this Poe reference in my review of B.A. Paris’ Behind Closed Doors:

“Shortly past the halfway mark, I began to see how this must end. The payoff was worth the trip. In approval, I sipped a glass of sherry, a special red from the Montilla region of Spain. Taste the story; I think you’ll like it.”

It may take another glass of the sherry (actually I prefer very dry wines), to relate the story of the señora citizen. I bet John’s right, too.

Teresa Inge said...

Love your new story! Fantastic characters!

Barb Goffman said...

Debra, lack of filters. That's an important characteristic too, and one I actually make use of (a little) in my story. I hope your new book is selling well. I expect it is.

Leigh, yes, Sesame Street references. Mr. Hooper, Oscar, and Maria are all from Sesame Street!

And Teresa, thank you! And thank you for organizing everyone to make this book happen and writing a story yourself. We would not be here without you.