10 mystery and thriller books starring older women

Reference books.

Clementine “Clemmie” Lakefield leads a simple life in her retirement community in Sun City, South Carolina. She plays cards, teaches substitute teaching and has learned to text her niece and nephew; but Clemmie is not who she claims to be. Behind its carefree facade, it hides a whole life of secrets. When Clemmie’s grumpy neighbor disappears, Clemmie suddenly finds herself in the spotlight at the center of a dangerous plot. From international bestselling author Caroline B. Cooney comes Before she was Helen, a gripping mystery that explores the danger of facing your own past life.

Too often, our protagonists are expected to be under 45, especially if they are women. I myself am guilty of this age bias. After going through all the books I’ve read so far this year, I was shocked to realize that almost all of the leads were under 45 (give or take).

Ageism is a constant struggle in a world that places immense social capital on young people. Unfortunately, most of the young people in my own social circles are convinced that they should “settle in” after 30 and say goodbye to adventures, new experiences and growing up. I repeat: 30 years. It’s not even middle-aged. Really, everyone still has dreams and ambitions well beyond the age of 30 and continue to grow as a person.

In thrillers and detective novels, it is interesting that most of the detectives and protagonists are under the age of 30. There is a romantic aspect to the troubled detective with a dark past or the rebellious private investigator with a natural escape from authority. But the characters can be any age and fit into these molds. As an added bonus, the older characters bring a lot more experience to the table. Young prospects can make obvious mistakes because they are still learning. On the flip side, older prospects have likely made these mistakes before, so the ones they make are all the more interesting.

The role of women in thrillers and detective novels in particular can be troubling. Too many books I have researched for this article have started with the death of a young woman, which is already horrific. On top of that, older women are being sidelined as witnesses or counselors to younger ones, which is ridiculous because, as I mentioned before, they have so much to offer. To that end, here is a list of ten detective novels and thrillers that put older women front and center.

Note that by “older women” I generally mean women over 45. Because older women of color were difficult to find, some people may be under 45. Finally, I have included the exact ages for the protagonists where they are specified.

Three Things About Elsie cover by

Three things about Elsie by Joanna Cannon

Age: 84

Role: detective

Florence lives in the Cherry Tree Home for the Elderly and has fallen. As she waits to be rescued, her mind begins to wander. She begins by rehashing secrets from her past that could have serious ramifications if revealed. Worst of all is that her anxieties are magnified by puzzling little events that happened during her stay at the home, such as staff starting to discuss her move to another home after she reported that several of her property had been moved or disappeared. Then there’s the new resident who looks eerily like a man from her past who died over 60 years ago.

Cover of Partners In Crime by Gallagher Gray and Katy Munger

Partners in crime by Gallagher Gray and Katy Munger

Age: 84

Role: detective

Lil considers herself an 84-year-old and has a fondness for Bloody Marys and detectives. Lil’s nephew TS retires, but eight hours later is frantically called back to the office when one of his company executives is found dead in the partner room. His demanding former boss asks TS to limit the damage, and who he calls besides his smart and savvy Aunt Lil to find the killer.

Cover of Murder in the Rectory

Murder in the rectory by Agatha Christie

Age: 70 (character ages as the series progresses)

Role: detective

I can’t come up with a list of older female roles without nodding to Miss Marple. Murder in the rectory is the first of 13 books by Miss Marple, all of which are worth reading. In the sleepy village of St. Mary Mead, Colonel Lucius Protheroe is found dead in a parish priest’s office shortly after the same parish priest declared that the colonel’s death would be a favor to the community. It seems obvious who the killer is until Miss Marple digs deeper and finds that everyone in St. Mary Mead had a motive for murdering the Colonel.

Granny's Got a Gun cover

Granny has a gun by Harper Lin

Age: 70

Role: detective

This news is about a retired CIA agent named Barabara Gold who is bored to lose his mind in aptly named Cheerville, a small town in New England. But things eventually get interesting when a man is poisoned at a book club meeting. Despite her retirement, Barbara is determined to find the killer.

cover of Death in His Hands

Death in his hands by Ottessa Moshfegh

Age: 72

Role: detective

This metaphysical mystery / thriller features an elderly widow who stumbles upon a haunting note that says, “Her name was Magda. No one will ever know who killed her. It was not me. Here is his corpse. Although there is no corpse anywhere, our narrator is terrified and intrigued. She can’t help but imagine who Magda was and soon becomes obsessed with the mystery. The narrator begins to search the city archives to find out what happened. The line between reality and imagination begins to blur as the narrator questions whether the note is just a joke or part of something more sinister.

The other woman cover

The other woman by Sandie Jones

Age: elderly

Role: antagonist

This domestic thriller is a bit different as our older female character, Pammie, is actually the antagonist and future mother-in-law of Emily, our protagonist. Emily is madly in love with Pammie’s son, Adam. But unfortunately for Emily, Pammie will do anything and everything to keep the couple from getting married. The question is why.

cover of Now you're one of us

Now you are one of us by Asa Nonami

Age: elderly

Role: antagonist

Although the protagonist of Now you are one of us is a newlywed named Noriko, there’s an older central character named Great Granny who makes things… scary. Noriko moves into the multigenerational Shito house after marrying their son. Although the family pampers her, Noriko can’t help but feel deeply disturbed when a man violently dies after warning her about the Shitos. On top of that, the family has some weird rituals and deep secrets that Noriko must uncover before getting lost.

Blanket White on the Lam

Blanche on the Lam by Barbara Neely

Age: middle-aged (exact age not specified)

Role: detective

Blanche is a black housekeeper who is on the run in North Carolina after some legal trouble in New York. She claims to be the housekeeper of a white family while strategizing for her next move. Unfortunately, Blanche works for the wrong family. After a disturbing encounter with the black gardener, Blanche is convinced that something is wrong with the family and that her own life is in danger.

cover of Aunty Lee's Delights

Aunt Lee’s Delights by Ovidia Yu

Age: middle-aged (give or take)

Role: detective

Rosie Lee is a widow living in Singapore who refuses to become a leisure lady. Instead, Rosie is building a culinary empire with her restaurant, Aunty Lee’s Delights. Things are going well until a body is found in one of Singapore’s top tourist spots and one of Aunt Lee’s guests does not show up for a dinner party. She knows the two incidents are connected, and her detectives throw her into a motley group of characters as she begins to connect the dots.

cover of When Death Comes to Fly

When death comes to fly by Valerie Wilson Wesley

Age: 30 or 40 (the character gets older as the series progresses)

Role: detective

When death comes to fly is the first book in the Tamara Hayle series. Hayle is a smart and brave ex-cop turned private investigator who is just trying to raise her teenage son in Newark. Sadly, her ex-husband, the last person on the planet she wants to interact with, shows up for help. Someone kills her sons and because the police refuse to investigate the deaths of the black boys, Tamara must step in to find the killer before her own son becomes the next victim.

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