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Strychnine and Stereotypes: Older Women in TV Murder Mysteries

2013 April 4

Won’t you have another cucumber sandwich? Why, I don’t know what you mean, they taste just fine to me…

I love the clichés of twee British TV murder mysteries – the village fete, the teacup switch, the gunshot in the dark room – but what I like best is the presence of lots of fantastic old ladies, a group which are underrepresented in nearly every other type of television genre.

In 1999, people over 60 made up 21 percent of the UK population, but just 7 percent of the television population (source) and in 2012 a BBC report (PDF) flagged the absence of older women on TV as a major problem.

I’ve said in another post that for the most part in popular culture, old women are given one of just two identities: dear old biddy or evil crone. In Twee British Murder there is a greater range of stereotypes to be found, although the biddy/crone dichotomy is still there. Through by no means a comprehensive list, I’ve identified five overlapping Twee British Murder character options for older women.

1) The Help

Rosalie Williams as Mrs Hudson

Rosalie Williams as Mrs Hudson. Image: Granada


An army of elderly female housekeepers, cooks, nurses, cleaners and secretaries form a vital part of the machinery of Twee British Murder.

Although they are rarely the killer, and tend to be only incidental victims (when they Know Too Much, for example) they have a vital dramatic function, especially as witnesses.

The cook remembers that someone different from usual offered to take the breakfast tray up to her mistress, the former nanny recalls a crucial detail from a suspect’s past…

It’s these long-suffering souls that make up the bulk of body-finders too, although they’re almost always questioned and dismissed with no further contribution except looking anxious.

But why are the servants and employees so swiftly ruled out? This 1928 article, 20 Rules for Writing Detective Fiction, states that:

A servant must not be chosen by the author as the culprit. This is begging a noble question. It is a too easy solution. The culprit must be a decidedly worth-while person — one that wouldn’t ordinarily come under suspicion.

Of course! Servants are a bunch of crims already: making one of them the murderer would be TOO OBVIOUS.

Moving on. An atypical member of this category is Sherlock Holmes’ tolerant landlady, Mrs Hudson. This is from The Adventure of the Dying Detective:

The landlady stood in the deepest awe of him and never dared to interfere with him, however outrageous his proceedings might seem. She was fond of him, too, for he had a remarkable gentleness and courtesy in his dealings with women.

I am a little obsessed with the 1980s Granada series starring Jeremy Brett as Holmes. In this series, Mrs Hudson (played by Rosalie Williams) is an important part of the small ‘family’ which surrounds the detective. Here’s one of my favourite Mrs Hudson moments, from The Cardboard Box, at 4:40mins in:


2) Frail Rich Lady

Often bedridden, with elaborate medical care requirements, and generally found in a spooky old house surrounded by squabbling, grasping relatives, these women are often trying to make a last minute change to their will when they meet their demise.

Frail Rich Ladies tend to be victims, but can occasionally turns out to be killers. Letitia Blacklock in A Murder is Announced, Laura Welman in Sad Cypress, and Amelia Barrowby in How Does Your Garden Grow? are classic examples from the Christie canon, as is Emily Arundell from Dumb Witness.

Bearing in mind the underlying biddy/crone stereotype binary, most of the above examples are on the biddy side of things. But there’s a fabulous Frail Rich Lady getting her crone on in one of Baroness Orczy’s Lady Molly stories, The Woman in the Big Hat (PDF). She’s 12mins in:


3) Eccentric Spinster

Eccentric Spinsters are also occasionally widows. The important thing is that they have been manless long enough for their eccentricity to flourish.

This is my very favourite old lady character type, and one that I aspire to. One of the best examples is the three sisters in Agatha Christie’s Nemesis. Here they are having tea with Miss Marple, at 7:09 mins in:



I love how there’s a bit of a maiden, mother and crone thing going on, with Clothilde, the more bookish, stereotypable-as-mannish, serious one (crone), Anthea the ‘girly’, immature one (maiden) and their more well-adjusted sister Lavinia, who tries to keep everything under control (mother). Lavinia’s the one who had been married, of course, so she’s coded as noticeably more ‘normal’ than the other two.

The Bradbury-Scott sisters above are at the biddy end of the spinster spectrum, but there’s a fantastic crone version called Honoria Lyddiard in the Midsomer Murders episode Written In Blood. She’s at 5:28 mins in:



Eccentric Spinsters can be victims, witnesses or killers, and can often be found providing another dramatic function: introducing a supernatural, prophetic red herring.

This provides a contrast with the detective’s rational method and cheap thrills for the viewer, as well as obfuscating the sequence of events for both. Prunella Scales turns in a scene-stealing performance as psychic Eleanor Bunsall in another Midsomer Murders episode, Beyond the Grave, and in Dumb Witness one of the two Miss Tripps receives a message for Poirot, at 15:13mins in:



4) Village Busybody

A provincial murder mystery staple. Like the servants and staff, this character provides vital information and misinformation, clues and red herrings for viewers. Without this character, there might be no mystery at all. She is a key witness, frequently a victim because she’s seen or heard something she shouldn’t have, but never the killer.

Although she’s only middle-aged in the TV adaption, Caroline Sheppard is worth a mention because of Agatha Christie’s comment in her autobiography that:

It is possible that Miss Marple arose from the pleasure I had taken in portraying Dr Sheppard’s sister in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. She had been my favourite character in the book – an acidulated spinster, full of curiosity, knowing everything, hearing everything: the complete detective service in the home.

My New Year’s resolution this year was to get the word ‘acidulated’ into every tenth conversation.

While Caroline Sheppard is relatively harmless, her crone counterpart uses her knowledge to manipulate others. Mrs Rainbird is an extremely camp example of this in the Midsomer Murders pilot The Killings at Badger’s Drift at 22mins:


5) Wise Woman

Joan Hickson as Miss Marple

Joan Hickson as Miss Marple. Image: BBC

*Puts on What Would Miss Marple Do? t-shirt*

There’s not enough space here to do her justice, and I haven’t managed to find the perfect clip, but I wanted to share this: in her autobiography Agatha Christie likens Miss Marple to her grandmother in that “though a cheerful person, she always expected the worst of everyone and everything, and was, with almost frightening accuracy, usually proved right.”

That “frightening accuracy” is the hallmark of the Wise Woman, and Marple isn’t the only one in this role solving murders – I’d also put forward Gladys Mitchell’s creation Mrs Bradley.

The glamorous TV version of Mrs Bradley played by Diana Rigg departs pretty drastically from the description of her appearance in the books (she is emphatically witch-like: “She possessed nasty, dry, claw-like hands, and her arms, yellow and curiously repulsive, suggested the plucked wings of a fowl”). Nonetheless, she still provides a worthy crone counterpart to Miss Marple’s biddiness. In this clip, she’s driving away from her ex-husband’s funeral at 3:40mins:



Zoe Brennan, in her book The Older Woman in Recent Fiction, links both Miss Marple and Mrs Bradley (as well as other older women detectives such as Miss Silver and Miss Pym) with feminine archetypes, from fairytale witches to the Furies. This is a connection which Agatha Christie clearly had in mind when one character gives Marple the nickname ‘Nemesis’.



For some more info about why this all matters, have a look at Understanding Age Stereotypes and Ageism (PDF). It’s also worth noting that while Twee British Murder is good on age diversity and features a lot of women characters, it fails dismally across other diversity strands.

3 Responses leave one →
  1. April 15, 2013

    Interested to see what the 20 rules for detective fiction were, I checked this link:

    I see that, throughout, it uses the male pronoun for both the detective and the reader. Surely, even in 1928, women must have read detective stories, even if they weren’t yet permitted to detect. In fact, it only once alludes to a woman:

    “A really fascinating crime is one committed by a pillar of a church, or a spinster noted for her charities.”


  2. May 11, 2013

    I adore Joan Hickson’s magnetic performance as Miss Marple. It was one of my favourite things to watch when I was growing up. I think this is partly because she was also one of the best female characters on television.

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