The Times, They Are a-Changin’*

1960sTo say that the 1960s was a decade of major change is an understatement. It was a time of so many social, political, economic and other changes that some people have called those years ‘revolutionary.’ And perhaps they have a point.

Crime fiction, like other genres, tells the story of those changes and we see them reflected in many different novels, both from and about the era. Space is only going to allow for a few examples, but I’m sure you already understand what I mean.

One of the major changes that took place during the 1960s was the role of students, especially university students. Certainly students had spoken out on campuses before, but in many countries, this decade saw the rise of student protests that really resounded in ways they hadn’t before. In John Alexander Graham’s The Involvement of Arnold Weschler, for instance, Hewes College Classics Professor Arnold Weschler is faced with a difficult dilemma. He’s not himself particulalry political, but his brother David is. One day, Weschler is called to the office of College President Winthrop Dohrn, who wants to discuss the recent activities of a radical student group that’s come to campus. Dohrn believes that David Weschler is one of the leaders of the group. He wants Arnold to contact his brother and stop the group from causing any more trouble. The Weschler brothers have been estranged for a long time, but Arnold knows that his job may depend on his response. So he reluctantly agrees. That’s how he gets drawn into the group and gets to know the members. He even develops some sympathy for some of their views. That is, until there’s a kidnapping and then a bombing that kills Dohrn. Now Weschler has to find the killer and clear his brother’s name before he’s arrested.

During the 1960s, there was also a deep and serious questioning of ‘Establishment’ politics and economics. Many people, even those who didn’t identify themselves as Communists per se questioned the socioeconomic status quo. And there were plenty who did identify themselves as Marxists. Perhaps the best look at the leftist point of view and goals of that era can be seen in Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s series featuring Stockholm homicide detective Martin Beck and his team. This is only my opinion, so feel free to differ with it if you do. But for me, this series encapsulates a lot of what this set of politics embraced. Each of the ten novels in this series is about a self-contained murder mystery. But throughout the series, there’s a great deal of social critique too. There are critiques of police power, social class divisions, ‘Establishment’ corruption and other important issues with Swedish society.

Another major change in society was a change in the roles of women. Bit by bit, women had been seeking full citizenship for a long time, and had made solid strides (e.g. suffrage, working outside the home and so on). But in the US at least, women were still regarded as best-suited for ‘home and hearth.’ During the 1960s this began to be questioned more and more. And it wasn’t just a matter of wanting to work outside the home at financial parity with men (although that was certainly an issue). I’m also talking here of what you might call women’s sexual liberation. There was still very much a double standard when it came to what was expected of ‘ladies’ and what was expected of men. And women began to insist on being as much in charge of their own destinies as men were. You see that in the non-crime-fiction work of writers such as Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan. But you also see it in crime fiction. In Ellery Queen’s The Fourth Side of the Triangle, for instance, we meet noted fashion designer Sheila Grey. She’s a well-off and successful single woman who has no desire to get married and ‘settle down.’ She puts it this way:
 

‘In fact – I’m speaking only for myself – I reject the whole concept of marriage. I’m no more capable of being happy as a housewife, or a country club gal, or a young suburban matron than I am of renouncing the world and taking the veil.’
 

Certainly she doesn’t identify herself by her ability to cook, clean, sew or look after children. She’s independent both economically and sexually. One night, she’s murdered. Inspector Richard Queen is assigned to the case and his son Ellery of course takes part in the investigation. In the end, they find that the victim’s modern way of thinking about herself and the role love should play in her life had a part in her murder.

One of the other major changes of the 1960s was the move of drug use from certain bohemian, artistic and musical circles to the mainstream. Any crime fiction fan can tell you that drugs have been associated with crime fiction for a very long time. But during these years, ‘average’ everyday people had easier access to them and their use spread. There’s a mention of that in Agatha Christie’s The Third Girl (published in 1966), in which Norma Restarick and Hercule Poirot don’t exactly get off on the proverbial right footing. She wants to hire him until she actually meets him and concludes that he’s too old to help her. For his part, Poirot isn’t at all impressed with Norma’s appearance or manner. When she disappears, though, Poirot works with detective novelist Ariadne Oliver to find out what happened to her. The trail leads to fraud and murder and real danger for Mrs. Oliver. Drugs have their role to play in this novel, and it’s interesting to note that their use has gone beyond just the ‘artsy’ set by this time.

Questions of relations between the races had been simmering for a long time. But matters came to a head during the 1960s. We see this in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Admittedly it’s about an earlier time, but it raises issues that became a major point of conflict during the ’60s. In that novel, Tom Robinson is accused of (and quickly arrested for) the rape of Mayella Ewell. Robinson claims he’s innocent, but because he’s Black and Mayella Ewell is White, he’s assumed to be guilty. Prominent local attorney Atticus Finch takes this case and goes to what you could argue are heroic lengths to prove that his client is not a rapist. Although we could hardly say that race is no longer an issue, there were some major strides forward taken during these years. In fact, Walter Mosley discusses this in Little Green, which takes place in 1967. PI Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlins is persuaded by his friend Raymond ‘Mouse’ Alexander to find a Black man named Little Green. Little Green disappeared after joining a hippie group, so Rawlins starts there. He discovers that a young White woman nicknamed Coco may know something about the group, so he contacts her. At one point, they meet in a local restaurant, where something happens that certainly makes Rawlins think:
 

‘…because you’re a young white woman and I’m a middle-aged black man and a waitress just took our order without even a second look.’
 

Admittedly this story takes place in Los Angeles. In a smaller town things might have been different. But the move forward in race relations was an important part of the 1960s.

Geoffrey McGeachin’s St. Kilda Blues (which takes place in 1967) also discusses many of the changes that took place during the 1960s. I’m just diving into that one, to be honest, so I’m not yet thoroughly enough versed to discuss it on this blog. But I can say this. Melbourne cop Charlie Berlin has to deal with the drug culture, the hippie movement, and other major social changes as he searches for what could be a serial killer.

There were of course many other dramatic changes in the 1960s – changes in technology, music, popular culture, cinematography and lots more. A decade that started out as looking very much like the 1950s ended up as something completely different. The times they definitely were ‘a-changin’. Which novels evoke this time for you?

ps. Just look at the two ‘photos of the Beatles and you’ll see the changes that took place during the 1960s. From ‘mop-tops’ in suits to hippies….
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a Bob Dylan song.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen, Geoffrey McGeachin, Harper Lee, John Alexander Graham, Maj Sjöwall, Per Wahlöö, Walter Mosley

Still Crazy After All These Years*

CandleThere’s a lot of excitement here at Confessions of a Mystery Novelist… Today is no ordinary day. Today this blog celebrates its fifth blog birthday :-)

Confessions of a Mystery Novelist… is at least as much yours as it could ever be mine. So thanks to all of you for five years of great insights, great book recommendations and ideas, and mostly, your friendship. You mean more to me than you could possibly know. Champagne and cake at mine for all of you!

To those of you whom I’ve met in person, I’m really sorry. I promise I’ll pay for the damage ;-)

For now, here’s a look back at some of the craziness that’s gone on around here for the past five years. Thanks to Paul Simon for the music!

 

 


 

 

*NOTE: the title of this post is the title of a Paul Simon song that also serves as the video’s soundtrack.

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In The Spotlight: Liza Marklund’s The Bomber

SpotlightHello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Liza Marklund has become both well-known and popular, and it’s about time this feature included one of her novels. So let’s remedy that today. Let’s turn the spotlight on The Bomber, the first of her Annika Bengtzon series to be published, but not the first chronologically.

The real action in the novel begins a week before Christmas, when a major explosion rocks Stockholm. The city was chosen as the site for the upcoming Olympics, and to many people’s shock, the explosion went off in Victoria Stadium, in the Olympic Village. Annika Bengtzon, crime editor for Kvällspressen, gets a late-night/early morning ‘phone call about the event and soon rushes to the scene. At first it’s believed that the only injuries were to a taxi driver who was in the area. But then the body of an unknown victim is discovered in the wreckage.

After a short time, the victim is identified as Christine Furhage, one of Sweden’s business and civic leaders, and head of the committee that brought the Olympic Games to Stockhom. One theory is that this is a terrorist attack by people who do not want the games to be held there. There’s even the possibility that this is the work of a man who’s actually set explosions before, and who has since disappeared. Those in power, both in the Swedish government and on the Olympics Committee, don’t want anyone to panic, so they’re not eager to have either of those theories widely discussed.

Soon enough though, another possibility arises. There is reason to believe that this might have been an ‘inside job’ – the work of someone either on the committee or closely associated with the Olympic Village. If so, this opens up a whole new avenue of exploration. As the police follow up on different leads, Annika Bengtzon and her team begin to look more closely not just at the obvious possibilities, but also at the victim’s personal life.

Then there’s another explosion. This time the victim is Stefan Bjerling, a construction worker who was employed by one of the subcontractors used to build Olympic Village. Other than the fact that he was killed in another Olympic Village building, there seems to be no immediate connection between this victim and Christine Furhage. Now Bengtzon and her team have to re-open the terrorist angle on this story as well as continue looking into each victim’s personal life.

As Bengtzon begins to get closer to the truth about these bombings, she also unwittingly gets closer to real danger for herself. In the end though, she and her team find out who is behind the bombings and what the motive is. It turns out that the motive has nothing to do with terrorists who may want to sully Sweden’s reputation.

One very important element in this novel is Bengtzon’s work life at Kvällspressen. News gathering and reporting is a very ‘high-octane,’ sometimes very stressful job. There is a great deal of pressure to get a big story first and to get as many people reading about it as possible. At the same time, there’s also pressure to be accurate. This means that when a major story breaks, there are long hours, sometimes uncomfortable working conditions and more. Everyone’s nerves get frayed, and sometimes it boils over into arguments among members of Bengtzon’s team. The atmosphere gets very tense at times, but most of the members of the team are professionals who want to do the job well.

Because the story is about a sleuth who’s a journalist, we also see how news professionals go about their jobs. They learn the truth from interviews, from looking through whatever records they can get and from sources in the police department and other places. As Bengtzon and her team work this case, we also see that journalists are often not welcome. Not at crime scenes, not at the homes of the bereaved, and not at police stations. Readers also get a chance to see the intense competition between news outlets and among journalists to be the one with the major story.

For this sort of reason, Bengtzon has to be tough. And she is. She is intelligent, outspoken and not afraid to go after the story, no matter where it leads. She’s sometimes faced with extremely difficult decisions, and she has to make and live with a lot of ‘judgement calls.’ That means that sometimes she’s not exactly popular with her team. But for her, getting the story is more important than protecting anyone’s feelings. It doesn’t make her life any easier that she’s a woman in what’s traditionally been a man’s world, and has been recently promoted (over a rival) to her present position. She faces criticism on a regular basis.

Perhaps Bengtzon’s most difficult choices have to do with balancing her work life and her home life. She loves her husband Thomas Samuelsson and their children Kalle and Ellen. But the demands of being a wife, mother and full-time crime editor take their toll. On the other hand, Bengtzon loves her profession (if not always her particular job). When a story breaks, she feels no option but to cover it. This tug-of-war causes more than a moment of conflict in the story, and Bengtzon doesn’t come out unscathed.

Another important element in this novel is its Stockholm setting. Marklund places the reader there in several ways. Certainly there’s the geographic setting. But there’s also the lifestyle and cultural context. Along with a look at the life of a busy crime reporter and a busy newspaper, readers also get a look at life in modern Stockholm.

One more interesting note is in order about the story. The Bomber was first published in Swedish in 1998. Readers will notice that some of the technology is quite different to what we’re accustomed to now. So the novel also gives readers a look at how journalists got their leads and got their stories out in the days before social networking and online news.

The Bomber is the story of a Stockholm news outlet responding to a major story that involves murder and some very highly-placed people. It features a protagonist who’s trying to balance a home life with a very demanding job, and a mystery that isn’t nearly as obvious as it may seem. But what’s your view? Have you read The Bomber? If you have, what elements do you see in it?

 
 
 

Coming Up On In The Spotlight
 

Monday 25 August/Tuesday 26 August – Gone Baby Gone – Dennis Lehane

Monday 1 September/Tuesday 2 September – A Hank of Hair – Charlotte Jay

Monday 8 September/Tuesday 9 September – Dead Simple – Peter James

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I’m Old-Fashioned*

Old FashionedIn many ways it’s good – very good – to live in modern times. There’s better technology, better medical care and lots of other societal improvements. And while there is still bigotry and that may always be, there are fewer ‘-isms’ that limit people now than there were. But some of those things we may think of as ‘old-fashioned’ can actually be pleasant. Here are just a few examples from crime fiction to show you some things that may be old-fashioned but that perhaps people actually miss…

In Agatha Christie’s The Murder on the Links, Captain Hastings is on his way back to London by train. Sitting in the same coach is a young woman who is in many ways very modern in her outlook. They strike up a conversation, and she pokes a little fun at him for his old-fashioned ways. But on a more serious note, she says,

 

‘You’ve been dug out of the backwoods, you have. Not that I mind that. We could do with a few more of your sort.

 

Hastings and the young woman, who calls herself ‘Cinderella,’ part company and at first it looks as though they won’t meet again. But when Hastings and Hercule Poirot travel to France to investigate the murder of Paul Renauld, Hastings and Cinderella have what you might call a reunion. Although she is a modern young woman, she appreciates Hastings’ somewhat traditional outlook on life.

Isaac Asimov is perhaps best known as an author of science fiction, but he also wrote detective stories, including a trilogy featuring New York City police officer Elijah ‘Lije’ Baley. In The Caves of Steel, Baley and his new partner R. Daneel Olivaw are assigned to investigate the murder of noted scientist Dr. Roj Nemennuh Sarton. This isn’t going to be an easy case though. For one thing, life is difficult in the futuristic New York that Asimov depicts. Earth has become overcrowded and most humans have little better than a subsistence lifestyle. For another, there is an ongoing feud, which sometimes flares, between Earthmen (descendants of those who never left the planet) and Spacers (descendants of those who have explored outside the planet). Baley is an Earthman and the victim was a Spacer. What’s worse, R. Daneel Olivaw is a positronic robot. If there’s anything that Earthman dislike more than Spacers, it’s robots. That’s because they are perceived as a threat to humans. Despite these challenges though, Baley and Olivaw work together to solve the murder. In one plot thread in this story, there is a real mistrust among humans of old-fashioned, traditional things such as spectacles (instead of contact lenses). In fact, the interest in such things is known as Medievalism and is regarded as holding people back. And yet, there is a secret group of people who think fondly of what even Baley admits were simpler times. The question of preserving these things forms an interesting layer in the story.

In some ways, Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse is old-fashioned. There are several examples of this in the series featuring him; we see one in The Daughters of Cain. In that novel, Morse and Sergeant Lewis are on the trail of the person who killed a former don Felix McClure. At first it seems that the murderer was McClure’s former scout Ted Brooks. But when he disappears and is later found dead, things aren’t quite that simple. In the course of the investigation, Morse meets Eleanor ‘Ellie’ Smith, a prostitute who may be connected with the case. The two develop an interest in each other despite the fact that she’s a suspect in a murder investigation. Smith is a very modern young woman. She wears nose rings, uses language that Morse would prefer a woman not use and so on. But at one point, he gets the chance to see her dressed more traditionally and without her nose rings and he admits he likes her better that way. For her part, Smith is attracted to Morse’s view of the world, even though she doesn’t really envision herself settling down, marrying and so on in the traditional way. Even Morse’s insistence on standard English doesn’t bother her…

Catherine O’Flynn’s What Was Lost is in part the story of what happens to a traditional English town when a new mall comes in. The story begins in 1984, when the Green Oaks Shopping Center opens. Ten-year-old Kate Meaney is a fledgling detective, and she’s sure that there’s lots of crime to investigate at the mall, so she spends a lot of time there. One day she goes missing and despite a thorough search, is never found. Her friend Adrian Palmer is blamed for her disappearance, although he claims innocence. He’s treated so badly though that he leaves town, vowing not to return. Twenty years later, his sister Lisa is working at a dead-end job at Green Oaks when she meets Kurt, a security guard who’s employed there. The two strike up an unlikely friendship and each in a different way, look back into the past to find out what really happened to Kate. One of the themes in this novel is what happened to traditional English ‘High Street’ shopping with the coming of the mall culture. And the mall that replaces those shops turns out to be somewhat ‘plastic’ as opposed to the more genuine shops. As we learn in the novel, the mall culture hasn’t really made life in the area better.

In one of Anthony Bidulka’s series, we get to know Russell Quant, a Saskatoon PI. One of Quant’s haunts is Colourful Mary’s, a local restaurant that serves ‘down home’ cooking. In fact, Quant describes it this way:

 

‘Marushka cooks like everyone’s mother, most notably her own. In addition to some rather standard fare for the less adventurous, Marushka always adds one or two Ukrainian delicacies to the daily menu…I like Colourful Mary’s…You feel cared for but not smothered. I’m also addicted to Marushka’s cooking.’

 

It’s not a formal restaurant, but it serves traditional, old-fashioned (i.e. not pre-packaged) food. Little wonder it’s so popular with customers.

Most people don’t think of millinery shops as exactly modern and up-to-date. But there’s nothing quite like the feeling of having a hat custom-designed for you. And that’s exactly the business that D.S. Nelson’s Blake Heatherington has been in for years. He’s very skilled at knowing exactly what kind of hat would best suit each client, and delights in making them. In Hats Off to Murder, One For the Rook, and soon Model For Murder, Heatherington puts those old-fashioned skills to use to when murder strikes first his shop and then his allotment. In some ways Heatherington is old-fashioned, but that’s precisely what makes his character appealing.

The ‘good old days’ certainly had many serious problems. I doubt most of us would want to go back. But if you’ve stayed at an old-fashioned hotel with old-fashioned customer service, you know how pleasant it can be. If you’ve been to a restaurant or shop with old-fashioned service, you know how pleasant that can be too. And old-fashioned courtesy on anyone’s part is a refreshing thing. Perhaps not all modern changes have been for the better…

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Jerome Kern and Johnny Mercer.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Anthony Bidulka, Catherine O'Flynn, Colin Dexter, D.S. Nelson, Isaac Asimov

And Everywhere Was a Song And a Celebration*

WoodstockIt’s no secret that people are all different. Sometimes our differences lead to conflict and worse. But sometimes exactly the opposite happens. When people find a common interest – something that really means something to them, this can draw even very disparate people together. We certainly see it in real life, and it’s there in crime fiction too. Here are just a few examples.

In Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders, Hercule Poirot, Captain Hastings, and the police are trying to track down the murderer of Alice Ascher, a seemingly inoffensive elderly shopkeeper. Soon afterwards, the same killer strikes again. This time, the victim is twenty-three-year-old Betty Barnard. The detective team is busy on those two cases when there’s a third murder, of wealthy retired specialist Dr. Carmichael Clarke. Now it looks as though there might be some sort of disturbed killer at work. A cryptic note has warned Poirot that the next murder will occur in Doncaster, and the police begin to make plans to catch the killer there. But one of the characters says,

 

‘‘It’s easy to see you’re not a sporting man, Inspector.’
Crome stared at him.
‘What do you mean…?’
‘Man alive, don’t you realize that on next Wednesday, the St. Leger is being run at Doncaster?’

 

This race draws all sorts of people from many different walks of life. People from many different backgrounds will be gathering in Doncaster, drawn there by their common love of racing. So the detectives will have their work cut out for them as the saying goes.

Antiques are the common interest in Jonathan Gash’s Lovejoy series. Those novels focus on Lovejoy, who is a dedicated antiques collector and dealer. In fact, antiques mean more to him than almost anything else. And interest in antiques draws together a varied group of people from all sorts of different kinds of backgrounds. In The Judas Pair for instance, George Field hires Lovejoy to find out who killed his brother Eric. Eric Field was shot with one of a pair of extremely rare dueling pistols – guns that haven’t even been proven to exist. But Field is convinced that they do, and that if the owner of them can be found, that will solve the murder. Lovejoy can’t resist the opportunity to get his hands on those pistols if they do exist, so he agrees to see what he can do. As he moves among various people in the world of antiques, we see how a very disparate group of people can be drawn together by a shared passion for the same thing. They may not have much else in common, but a mention of antiques can always get a conversation started.

People who particularly love cats and/or dogs are the same way. They come from all sorts of backgrounds and belief systems. But when it comes to their pets, it’s an entirely different matter. That’s why we see so much interest in dog and cat shows. Those events attract a wide variety of people. We see this for instance in Laurien Berenson’s Melanie Travis mysteries. Travis is a special education teacher whose aunt has gotten her involved in breeding, raising and showing Standard Poodles. In fact, that’s how Travis meets her husband. In the course of the series, Travis goes to several dog shows and other events. And because the dog loving/dog showing community is both large and varied, there’s all sorts of opportunity for conflict and (this is a mystery series!) murder. But interestingly enough, there’s also an undercurrent of love of different breeds and a deep and commonly-held contempt for irresponsible dog ownership, raising and handling.

If you get people who love good wine talking about that topic, you’ll find a similar shared passion. They may not share very much else, but that particular interest unites them. We can see that in Jean-Pierre Alaux and Nöel Balen’s Winemaker Detective series. These novels feature noted oenologist and vintner Benjamin Cooker and his assistant Virgile Lanssien. As they investigate, we see how interest in fine wine can draw people together. In Treachery in Bordeaux for instance, Cooker and Lanssien look into a case of sabotage at Château Les Moniales Haut-Brion. Someone has contaminated four barrels of the vineyard’s wine, and its owner wants to find out who is responsible. What’s interesting about this is that none of the other local wine producers is really suspected. Part of the reason for that is that they all respect good wine too much to ruin even a competitor’s product. They may try to woo the vineyard’s customers away with their own fine wine, but they wouldn’t sabotage something they love so much.

Sometimes it’s a common place that draws a variety of people together. That’s what we see in Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman series. That series is mostly set in Melbourne, in a large Roman-style building called Insula. That’s where Chapman lives and has the bakery she owns. There is a motley crew of other residents, all with different backgrounds, belief systems, interests and the like. But they all love the building and they have a common identity as people who live there.

I couldn’t really keep a blog about crime fiction and not mention the love of books in general and crime fiction in particular that we share. That’s reflected in, well, crime fiction, too. In Ian Sansom’s Mobile Library series for example, we meet Israel Armstrong, a ‘blow in’ from London who how drives and manages Ireland’s Tumdrum and District Mobile Library. Armstrong couldn’t be more different in some ways to the locals. In fact, in The Case of the Missing Books, one of the plot threads is the culture clash between Armstrong and the people he interacts with as he moves to the area and begins his new job. But as both he and the Tumdrum locals learn, they share a love of books. It may be reflected in different ways, but it draws them together.

It’s interesting how people who are so different in some aspects can put their differences aside when they have a shared passion. It’s one of many reasons I feel so fortunate to be a part of this online crime fiction community. We all come from different backgrounds, have different tastes and different world views. But we share a love of crime fiction. And that draws us all together. A very happy thought, even if the topic we like to talk about is, well, murder…

This weekend is the 45th anniversary of a unique event that brought together hundreds of thousands of people from many, many different backgrounds. Yes, I’m talking about Woodstock. From 15-18 August 1969, a large group of very disparate people braved rain (lots of it) mud (lots of that too) and very long travel distances to get together for ‘three days of peace, love and music.’ And they did it without brawls, ‘turf wars,’ or worse. There could have been real trouble, but by and large there wasn’t. They were drawn together by their passion for music and their desire to get together in peace. I’ve read that there were three babies born there during the festival. I wonder how many were conceived… Far out, man!!
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Joni Mitchell’s Woodstock

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Ian Sansom, Jean-Pierre Alaux, Jonathan Gash, Kerry Greenwood, Laurien Berenson, Nöel Balen