The Feisty Old Ladies

(This blog post was originally written for my friends at Jungle Red. They were interested in how, in Riviera Gold, housekeeper Mrs. Hudson is living amidst the millionaires and retired party girls in 1920s Monte Carlo.)


I once knew a pair of aged anthropologists, man and wife, known for their detailed and subtle reports on various African peoples. The papers, books, and academic degrees were all in his name—but no one seemed to remark on how unlikely it was that this eminent academic always managed to ingratiate himself into the women’s world with so little fuss.

Of course, he hadn’t. Instead, his diminutive English wife would leave him by the men’s fire to slip into the women’s quarters, admiring a baby here, stirring a pot there, soothing a fallen toddler, then settling down to needlework, conversation, and note-taking.

Invisible, subtle, all-seeing.

Similarly the grey-haired ladies of crime fiction, especially those Golden-Age women rendered “superfluous”—the actual term used in newspapers and government reports—by the deaths of the Great War. Miss Marple and Miss Climpson, like the widows Pargeter and Pollifax of the next generation*, pull out their knitting, fumble for their spectacles, don a look of wide-eyed innocence, and come out with questions that would make a man stammer and blush.  Even Lord Peter Whimsy recognized what a terrible waste of talent this was.

One might think that a century later, with average life expectancy hovering near eight decades, the grey-haired lady detective might be coming into her own…

Well, no. The feisty old lady has yet to have a #MeToo movement of her own, and is as blithely overlooked by society as ever she was.

But that doesn’t make her any less of a blast to write.

To be fair, the old lady I’ve been writing about this last year is not a detective, being far too occupied with beating crime off with a stick. And though this femme d’un certain âge is more limited than the story’s 25-year-old protagonist when it comes to physical strength and quickness of step, she is compensated by the migration of strength upwards to her heart and her wits. A woman in her seventieth year has seen enough of life to know what matters and what—or who—does not.  She knows when to go around barriers and when to confront them face-on, forcing an opponent into retreat. She knows how to bully and to charm, when to call on friends and when to strike out alone, when to warn and when to step back and let people make their own mistakes.

Writing an older woman also lets me put together scenes where the younger folk are as shocked—shocked, I tell you—by her uncompromising attitudes and her hitherto unseen skills as they are by the unexpected contents of her lingerie drawer.

Subversive, entertaining, colorful, and just a little thought-provoking: what more could a writer ask for, as she delves like an anthropologist into characters who keep her occupied for a year of writing? Especially when the writer is in her sixties herself.  Role model, anyone?

But I’m curious: if you’re in the neighborhood of 70, is it what you imagined? And if you live far from that neighborhood, what do you think you’ll be like when you get there?

(*Miss Marple is a long-lived character by Agatha Christie; Miss Climpson is in two Dorothy Sayers novels; the Mrs. Pargeter series is by Simon Brett, and Mrs. Pollifax comes from Dorothy Gilman.)

Posted in


  1. KarenB on August 13, 2020 at 8:32 am

    I haven’t reached 70 yet, not even quite 60, but if current trends continue I will be less “nice” to keep other people happy and more likely to say what I’m thinking. I don’t think I’ll ever be good at being a sweet little old lady. Feisty curmudgeon is more likely.

  2. Alice Wright on August 14, 2020 at 2:53 pm

    As I’m now on the shady side of 70 I do think I am less “sweet old” and more feisty outspoken. I don’t give two hoots in Hell what people think of me and have found a well placed, “Well, bless your heart, you are an idiot” stops people in their tracks. Those who know me have learned not to engage in a verbal exchange as I have no desire to back down or shut up. I’m old, I can say what I damn well please, and if you don’t like it, too bad…I’ll gladly hand you your head, verbally of course.

  3. Gail McNaughton on August 16, 2020 at 5:16 pm

    I’m next door to 70 by a few months….never could I have imagined how cancerous experience and expertise would become in today’s world. My professional medical training counts for nothing against what various entertainers and news pundits have to offer. My life experience counts for nothing compared to the ‘mommie blogs’ and chat rooms found online. This is now a world where fame has trounced accomplishment, and tweets have voided discourse. The meme is the new essay, and what was slouching towards Bethlehem to be born turns out to be a self-indulgent imbecile.

    • Laurie King on August 16, 2020 at 5:22 pm

      On the other hand, feisty old ladies are always popular, with sensible people….

  4. Mer Boel on August 17, 2020 at 8:25 am

    I’m 64. I love feisty old ladies and aspire to be one myself! Am in the midst of overcoming years of “catering to others”, and I didn’t even have children! I have read almost all books in the series you mention (of course as well as ALL of your writings), and find inspiration abounds. I’m always looking for strong female leads in fiction as well as in “real” life. I say “real” in quotes because to me, the characters I come to know in fiction are as real as anything else — they live in my mind and heart.

    • Laurie King on August 17, 2020 at 11:04 am

      Hi Mer, thanks for this, and yes, it’s always great to know that other people out there think the sixties isn’t old, just grey….
      Enjoy your summer’s reading!

  5. Sharon on August 23, 2020 at 11:02 am

    Not quite 50 here, but looking at my mother, her 70s have been her most interesting and outgoing decade yet. She did an interview about voting access with her senator this week, is on the board of the women’s prison where she’s been an advocate for community reintegration, etc. A far cry from the substitute teaching and library volunteering that occupied her 60s. She made deliberate choices when she turned 70 to refocus her energy on causes that mattered more to her, and has been impressively effective.

    • Laurie King on August 23, 2020 at 4:20 pm

      Hooray for your mom, and all like her!

  6. Leslie S Klinger on August 28, 2020 at 1:18 pm

    Let’s not forget Miss Amelia Butterworth, the model for Miss Marple and succeeding “feisty old ladies,” created by Anna Katherine Green in “That Affair Next Door” (1897) and appearing in two other novels. She was a constant thorn in the side of Inspector Ebenezer Gryce, who learned to respect her “snooping.”
    You may have forgotten that Sara Paretsky wrote a lovely story about Amelia meeting Holmes for our “In the Company of Sherlock Holmes” anthology!

    • Laurie King on August 28, 2020 at 1:25 pm

      How could one forget Sara’s take on Ms Butterworth? All Great Male Detectives need an old lady to put them in place.

Leave a Comment