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The New Retirement Role Models: Literary Characters

Authors Tana French, Elly Griffiths and Nicci Gerrard talk about how their older characters can age authentically

By Emily Wilson

When Elly Griffiths (the pen name of Domenica de Rosa) started writing her series about forensic archeologist Ruth Galloway, who lives in a remote cottage by the sea in Norfolk, England, she made the main character about her age at the time, nearing 40.

Two characters from Miss Marple, smiling. Next Avenue, Elly Griffiths author
Miss Marple in Miss Marple: Greenshaw’s Folly from PBS  |  Credit: PBS | MASTERPIECE

Galloway teaches at the university there and has a complicated love life involving Detective Chief Inspector Harry Nelson, whom she sometimes works with as an expert on bones. The first book in the series, "The Crossing Places," came out in 2009.

In the 13th book of the series, "The Night Hawks," (the latest, "The Locked Room," is out in the UK, but won't be released in the United States until the end of June), retirement is a continuing plot point. Galloway is almost 50, and although Nelson is only 51, he's under a lot of pressure from his boss to retire after decades on the force, but he can't imagine himself without his job.

"Getting old should be treated like an adventure and kind of a challenge."

"I think it's interesting that we define ourselves very much by our jobs," Griffiths, now 58, said in a video call from Brighton, England. "I'm lucky I'm in a job where you don't have to retire."

Nowadays, a lot of people don't so much retire as go on to the next thing, Griffiths said. Her husband left his job as a corporate lawyer to study archaeology, and now he's considering a third career making wine in Italy.

"When we first met, he mentioned he'd always wanted to be an archeologist," Griffiths said. "I thought, 'That's so sweet.' But when he went back to university to be an archeologist, we had two young children, and it was less sweet. But it gave me the idea for Ruth, so it worked out for both of us."

'A Good Reason to Have Role Models'

Nicci Gerrard, 63, journalist and author of books including "What Dementia Teaches Us About Love," says fictional characters tend to be young.

"I think we're very bad [at] writing about people becoming old, and the word retirement implies letting go of things and becoming more inactive," she said in a video call from Suffolk, England. "It's not the end — it's a new stage of your life."

A headshot of a woman. Next Avenue, Elly Griffiths author
Elly Griffiths  |  Credit: Courtesy of Elly Griffiths

Ellen Goodman, Pulitzer Prize-winning author and founder of The Conversation Project, dedicated to honoring people's wishes for end-of-life care, agrees.

With more Americans over 60 than under 20 and people living longer, we need to update our view of retirement as a period of continuous rest and recreation, Goodman said.

"We can't afford to have a population that has no involvement for twenty-eight years or so," she noted. "We need these people, and that's a good reason to have role models."

Gerrard says many of her friends who have left traditional jobs have gotten involved in projects that make a difference. When her father died in 2014, after living with dementia for 10 years, Gerrard co-founded John's Campaign, to extend visiting rights for family members of patients with dementia in hospitals in the United Kingdom.

"I hate the word 'retirement,' and I kind of hate the word 'hobby,'" she said. "Getting old should be treated like an adventure and kind of a challenge."

With her husband, Sean French, Gerrard writes bestselling thrillers under the name Nicci French. Retired characters fit in well in these books, she thinks.

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"They almost always start with someone who thinks they're leading a settled life, and then that's challenged, usually by an outside event," she said. "Retirement can be a rich premise for this type of story."

Older Characters in Crime Fiction

Griffiths thinks crime fiction does a fairly good job of having older characters. Last year she and 11 other bestselling authors wrote short stories featuring Agatha Christie's legendary detective Miss Marple.

A headshot of a woman. Next Avenue, Elly Griffiths author
Nicci Gerrard   |  Credit: Bill Waters

Re-reading Christie's books to prepare, Griffiths says she was struck by all the characters past age 60. She also brought up Colin Cotterill, who writes books about a coroner in Laos who's over 70.

Griffiths and Gerrard both mentioned Ian Rankin, the Scottish writer, who since 1987 has written a series of bestselling books featuring the detective John Rebus. Rebus officially retired in 2007's "Exit Music," but he has come back to investigate cold cases. Rankin has said that Rebus feels real to him, and that means he needs to age.

Writer Tana French, 49, known for her Dublin Murder Squad books, says she likes writing about people in a sort of liminal state, where anything can happen to them. In her recent standalone book, "The Searcher," the protagonist Cal Hooper is, like Gerrard mentioned, unsettled.

Hooper, who's divorced, has recently retired from the Chicago Police Department. He's moved to the west of Ireland where he's bought a home that he's fixing up. A teenager starts hanging around, wanting Hooper's help in finding out what happened to a brother who's disappeared.

French says she wanted to write about someone who had cut all ties.

"I like writing characters who are at transition points," she said by video call from Dublin. "You're redefining yourself, your identity is in flux, you're moving from one perception of who you are and where you fit in the world to a different perception."

Hooper had a black and white idea of what it meant to be a good person, French said — treat people well and get things done — but now he's realizing things aren't that simple. Looking for the brother makes him think about what it means to be a detective without a badge and the ability to ask questions of anyone he chooses. 

"He's wondering how much of being a detective came from outside and how much came from him," French said. "He ends up finding out how a cop is defined with no force behind him, literally and figuratively."

A woman standing outside smiling. Next Avenue, Elly Griffiths author
Tana French  |  Credit: Penguin Random House

French said she enjoyed setting the book, which has elements of a Western, in the west of Ireland, unlike her others, all set in Dublin.

She needed to make Hooper American, she said, otherwise he would have connections even in the small town — someone would have played rugby with his brother or poker with his dad. A stranger coming to town and shaking things up is a trope of Irish drama as well as in Westerns, she says; an example is the play "The Playboy of the Western World" by John Millington Synge, first performed in 1907.

Ruth Galloway, in Griffiths' books, has no plans to retire soon. Griffiths said she might, except that she's just gotten her dream job as head of the department — with a corner office and her own coffee maker.

Griffiths said she just had lunch with a friend, who's dealing with something similar — she is now a high court judge at 56, and she thinks she's the exact right age for that job.

But according to Griffiths, people are most interested not in her characters retiring, but in what will happen with the married cop and the archaeologist who have a child together.

"I think a lot of my readers are probably wondering if Nelson is ever going to get together with Ruth," she said. "A romance between 50-year-olds is something you never used to see in books."

Emily Wilson lives in San Francisco. She writes for a number of outlets including Smithsonian.comDaily Beast48 HillsHyperallergicLatino USAWomen’s Media CenterCalifornia Magazine, and San Francisco Classical Voice. For years she taught adults getting their high school diplomas at City College of San Francisco. Read More
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