Must be time for Beth's Smart Bitches Day.
This is perhaps not so much of a rant or a bitch, but more of a personal exploration of what sort of Old Crank I enjoy. I know the kind I don't like, the Old Crank with the heart of gold--there's some analogy there to the prostitute with the heart of gold as well.
Old Crank with a Heart of Gold only APPEARS to be an Old Crank. Actually "OCw/HOG" is only acerbic because he or she has been deeply wounded by love or honor in the past. This OC is not nasty and biting by nature, and as soon as member of the opposite sex who is reasonably the same age shows up, then OC's barbs will melt away, displaying the Heart of Gold previously mentioned. Yeah, but no thanks.
I'm descended from a long line of cranky old women. (I think there are some brothers in there who are not angelic.) I have ancestors who were executed as witches during the Salem Witch Trials. Think their neighbors enjoyed them much? No, I don't think so either. My great-grandmother was famous in our family for sniping at kids during Christmas, "Don't tear the paper!" Gee, thanks, Nana. Nothing more fun than slipping your fingers under the tape to carefully ease the paper off a present. Nana would pick up all the paper, smooth out the creases, and disappear up into her room, muttering all the while about the dangers of exuberance during celebrations.
Then she would appear again with her presents to us--all wrapped in strangely familiar paper with creases across the tops of the boxes. Adults would elbow us painfully in the ribs if one of us happened to point out that she had guilted us into providing her with free paper. (And no, we were not allowed to tear that paper either. Wrath of Nana was not to be incurred.)
My favorite Old Cranks are The Duchess in Laura Kinsale's Flowers from the Storm, and Signora Castelli in Liz Carlyle's No True Gentleman. They are demanding, cranky, and brook no disagreement from their favorite male offspring. (Maybe part of their charm is that the heroes genuinely respect them?) There are so many wonderful scenes in Flowers from the Storm, but in this context, I especially love the scene wherein The Duchess is trying to intimidate Maddy; she accuses Maddy of not respecting her elders. (I'd pull out the quote here, but my book is in the bedroom guarded by a cranky, eh, sleepy husband.) Paraphrasing, Maddy replies that she thinks that as she gets older there is every chance that Maddy will herself be an Old Crank. Yes!
Opinionated, lively, intelligent, and strong women can turn into Old Cranks very easily.
Where this begins to slide sideways for me is when the Old Crank is set up primarily as a side-kick to the hero. This guy tends to have a Heart Of Gold, one which is melted by finding a female Old Crank (often the older nurse/governess of the beguiling heroine). There's only one Romance I can think of where this romance of the older male character works--as comic relief.
Errol Flynn has Alan Hale as his robust and older sidekick through most of his movies. In Robin Hood Alan Hale is Little John, but Herbert Mundin plays Much, The Miller's Son. Maid Marian's nurse is Una O'Connor, "twittering like a hen." Neither Much nor Bess are attractive, but when they meet he likes her sharp tongue. Soon she's twittering over him, rolling her eyes, and it's funny and sweet.
But to me this only works if the older characters start off as comic characters. I enjoy seeing the hero and heroine set aside some of their pride and defenses to come closer to each other. If the older secondary characters are also loosing their sharp edges, it all becomes too much like an old Boston Cream Pie. Mushy, wet, and too sweet. It reads to me as if there's a pink cloud of fuzzy love surrounding the central couple. Anyone who comes too close to the pink cloud is sucked in and emerges on the other side as a cooing, sighing turtledove. Ew. One per book please.
I would like a story about Old Cranks falling in love, but I would want that to be a romance on its own merits, filled with snappy put-downs and reality checks. I imagine the dialogue would be great, and if we could all stand a few euphemisms in the sex scenes for various sagging body parts, I imagine the sex would be great too. (All that experience!) If the Old Cranks were surrounded by idiotic young 'uns running off to rescue various TSTL heroines held captive at the top of the highest tower, I could get into the Old Cranks waving them good-bye at the door, Princess-Bride-style.
What I most object to is the idea that once the young couple are filled with love, then the loving glow they create washes over the secondary characters so that they are helpless but to fall in love themselves.