The Sunset Years of Agnes Sharp

Image of The Sunset Years of Agnes Sharp (Miss Sharp Investigates)
Release Date: 
August 29, 2023
Soho Crime
Reviewed by: 

“Just like Halloween has a hint of menace underneath the festivities, life in Swann’s Sunset Hall mandates coming closer to grim death.”

Blame Agatha Christie for starting the trend: clever mysteries, usually not very gory, with senior-citizen protagonists. Now Leonie Swann, a noted German author, extends this to entire communities of seniors in The Sunset Years of Agnes Sharp. Maybe that shouldn’t be surprising, since “assisted living” seems to be the new term that a quarter of the population is worrying about: either longing for it, avoiding it, or wishing they could persuade a relative to sign up.

That’s the range of views Swann taps for this quirky and entertaining murder mystery. Agnes Sharp is one of the long-term residents of Sunset Hall. She struggles to keep track of her false teeth, resents having to answer the door because it means tramping down the stairs where the stairlift has failed, and suffers from ringing in her ears when her emotions rise too high. It’s not fair that she has to manage so much: “Because Lilith was lying out in the woodshed, a bullet in her head and a smile on her lips. It was going to be a tough day.”

As the mishaps multiply—a missing firearm, another corpse in the neighborhood, police poking around trying to be helpful—Sunset Hall acquires a new resident, the exhilarated (on the surface) and still clearly thinking Charlie, whose long white fluff of hair and frivolous feather hat could suggest undercurrents of death and disordered thinking. But Instead, she quickly becomes an asset to the group. Which is just as well, since Agnes has harsher issues surfacing than just a bit of dementia or a lot of tinnitus.

For aging readers, Swann’s slapstick version of the drawbacks of becoming an “old person” may sometimes sting: Marshall, who seems to have the most connection to the missing gun that’s become so worrying, keeps forgetting what he’s searching for as he pulls books around. “Was he looking for a word? A picture? . . . He didn’t know, but he knew it was important. Vitally important.”

Or the consequences of Agnes trying to organize sleuthing expeditions, which often involve her limping home or collapsing on the sofa. (Far too familiar for some?) Swann adds frequent light-hearted diversions—Hettie the house tortoise makes cameo appearances and gets dragged along for investigations, Marshall has a crush on Agnes, the police can’t grasp what’s going on—but there is also an aspect here totally unlike anything penned by Agatha Christie: Agnes Sharp, our “eyes on the scene,” has a dark interior with grim experiences that keep poking into her day-to-day experience. Each new threat to the seniors presses her closer to facing her past.

When Agnes opts to go undercover in a new and hotly promoted “assisted living” location that seems to put a lot of faith into drugging its occupants, risks multiply. So do the chances that Agnes will break under her self-assigned role as the one in charge of the murder investigation.

By all means, pick up The Sunset Years for diversion and a good laugh (or wince) at how we all may endure the indignities of losing our youth, as well as for the opportunity to read Leonie Swann in a strikingly good translation into English (thanks to Amy Bojang). But just like Halloween has a hint of menace underneath the festivities, life in Swann’s Sunset Hall mandates coming closer to grim death. After all, why is Lilith in the woodshed with a bullet in her head?