Secondary characters are some of the most fun to read and write. They show up in all guises, professions, and levels of helpfulness to the protagonist. Yet, when one of these supporting characters happens to be of an age where they qualify for a senior discount, you get more than your average literary second-stringer.
I’m here to give respect to the elder characters who not only offer the protagonist the benefits of their knowledge learned through a long life, but also possess a sense of humor about the world that comes from having seen it all. And I hope I’ve created a worthy senior character in Grandpa, the cheerfully wily ninety-two-year-old grandfather of my genealogist main character, Lucy Lancaster, in Lineage Most Lethal, the upcoming second book in my Ancestry Detective series.
While older secondary characters show up in every type of crime fiction, some of the best appear in lighter mysteries, including a few of my favorites I’ve highlighted here. Albeit a bit long in the tooth, you’ll find these standout seniors are equally long on great personalities.
Her Royal Spyness, by Rhys Bowen
Standout elder: Grandad
Though Lady Georgiana Rannoch is the great-granddaughter of Queen Victoria and therefore has a long line of royal relatives, it is her decidedly non-regal grandfather who she goes to for help, emotional support, and unconditional love. His name is Albert Spinks, but Georgie calls him Grandad, and he’s a retired Cockney policeman who lives in a semidetached house in Essex with gnomes in the garden. Grandad, with his wheezy chest from living in London’s smoggy weather, is Georgie’s maternal grandfather. He’s solid, always helpful, full of Cockney rhyming slang, and will give up his last two eggs for his granddaughter just for the satisfaction of knowing she’ll get a full meal. Grandad is who anyone would want for a grandfather and, luckily, we regularly get a dose of his cheeky, warming presence in Bowen’s series set in 1930s Great Britain.
One for the Money, by Janet Evanovich
Standout elder: Grandma Mazur
Grandma Mazur is an absolute hoot. She has zero filter on her mouth and keeps a .45 long barrel pistol in her purse—not really to use, but to give it extra heft if she has to wallop someone (and also to feel like Clint Eastwood). Grandma Mazur—whose real name is Edna—is Trenton, New Jersey, skip-tracer Stephanie Plum’s maternal grandmother and lives with Stephanie’s parents. With the first words out of Grandma Mazur’s mouth, she immediately proves herself a delightfully uninhibited foil for Stephanie’s dry, sarcastic humor and tendency to put up emotional walls. Grandma Mazur’s antics make her a scene-stealer in every book in Evanovich’s series, and truly one of the best secondary characters in fiction.
Cockatiels at Seven, by Donna Andrews
Standout elder: Grandfather
Curmudgeon, thy name is Dr. J. Montgomery Blake. Talk about a character who doesn’t give a flying fig about what anyone thinks about him, and that is exactly what makes him such a fantastic character. Grandfather, as his granddaughter, blacksmith Meg Langslow, calls him, is first introduced in the ninth of Andrews’ bird-pun-titled mysteries set in Caerphilly, Virginia. In his nineties, yet fit as a fiddle, Grandfather is a famous naturalist whose renown has given him a humorously general-like personality that Meg is forever having to soften since Grandfather tends to offend everyone in his wake. Yet, every so often, you see that Grandfather’s heart is in the right place, making him and his cantankerous ways a character you want to see again and again.
Murder Lo Mein, by Vivien Chien
Standout character: A-ma
If you, like me, have ever had an elder whose primary language wasn’t English and so communicating meant a lot of gestures, pointing, and speaking in broken sentences, then A-ma will seem happily familiar to you. First arriving on-page in the third book in Chien’s Noodle Shop series set in Cleveland, Ohio, and featuring Lana Lee, who manages her family’s Chinese restaurant, A-ma is Lana’s Taiwanese grandmother from her mother’s side. Newly arrived in America, tiny A-ma has a bit of a mysterious history, two silver teeth, and a great sense of humor. Based on Chien’s own grandmother, what A-ma lacks in dialogue, she makes up in impish charm, a shrewd and observant eye, and an obvious love for her granddaughter.
Aunt Dimity’s Death, by Nancy Atherton
Standout elders: Aunt Dimity and William Willis Sr.
Arguably the sweetest elders on this list, neither Aunt Dimity nor her lawyer, William Willis Sr., are blood relations to former rare-book-specialist Lori Shepherd. Yet both act like guiding lights in her darkest hours, truth-tellers, and, in the case of William Willis Sr., somewhat of a trusted father-grandfather combination that Lori has never had in her life. Both characters are established in Atherton’s heartwarming first book in her long-running series set in Boston and England. While Aunt Dimity herself has died, she continues to speak to Lori with the help of a blue journal and through the tasks she sets Lori in her will, all of which help Lori to understand the past that has shaped her and face her future head on.
Them Bones, by Carolyn Haines
Standout elders: Jitty and Doc Sawyer
Jitty and Doc Sawyer are also elders who aren’t technically related to protagonist and amateur private investigator Sarah Booth Delaney, yet both profoundly affect her life all the same. Jitty, in fact, is truly an elder, having died in 1904 after a long life as nanny and friend to Sarah Booth’ great-great-grandmother. Jitty’s spirit has remained at Dahlia House, the Delaney family home, and appears to Sarah Booth—always in some fabulous outfit—to act as both a ghostly sounding board and a sassy extra layer of conscience. Doc Sawyer, on the other hand, has been Sarah Booth’s longtime physician and has become like a trusted great uncle. Known for an Albert Einstein-like mane of white hair and having a coffee pot that’s always full of the darkest, sludgiest coffee known to man, Doc helps heal Sarah Booth’s physical and mental wounds with humor and grace in each of Haines’ twenty-and-counting mysteries set in the Mississippi Delta.
A Perilous Undertaking, by Deanna Raybourn
Standout elder: Lady Wellie
Another true gem of a senior character, Lady Wellie is officially known as Lady Wellingtonia Beauclerk and is technically the great-aunt of lepidopterist Veronica Speedwell’s benefactor, Lord Rosemarron. However, the family Lady Wellie has truly spent her life protecting is Queen Victoria and the royal family, including Veronica’s biological father, the Prince of Wales. Though Lady Wellie is fairly ancient, you’d never know it by her mental fortitude, which we get a good dose of when she is introduced via a verbal sparring match with Veronica in the second adventure in Raybourn’s series set in 1880s England. Canny and manipulative—but almost always for honorable reasons—Lady Wellie tells it like it is and expects to have her commands obeyed. What’s more, her romantic exploits are the stuff of legends and she makes no apologies for them. When Lady Wellie arrives on the page, it’s with the force of her intelligence, wit, and accumulated years, and you never want her to leave.