Part of crime fiction’s appeal is that it shows us who we are as a people (and who we have been and might yet be). Crime fiction holds up a mirror that can be both interesting and sometimes instructive. We see that quite a bit when crime fiction explores major social issues and events. And one of the great social upheavals in recent history was the set of social and political changes that took place during the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. From dress to views of social roles to speech and a lot more, societies all over the world were profoundly affected when the “Baby Boomers” reached the teen and young adult years. So I thought it might be interesting to take a quick look at what crime fiction has had to say about those years. Mind, this is by no means an exhaustive look; there’s simply no room in one blog post to do that. But here are just a few examples of crime fiction that take a look at that era.
Agatha Christie’s novels span the years from the 1920’s to the 1970’s, and some of them explore this era of change. For instance, in Third Girl, Hercule Poirot gets a visit from Norma Restarick, a young woman who thinks she “may have” committed a murder. When he gently presses her for more information the young woman leaves without giving her name, saying that he’s “too old.” Needless to say, Poirot is put out by this and has a conversation with his friend detective novelist Ariadne Oliver about it. As it happens, Oliver has met Norma Restarick and she and Poirot work together to find out whether the young woman could have committed a murder. Then, Norma Restarick disappears. Now the two sleuths have the added task of finding her before harm comes to her, which seems more and more likely as the novel goes on. In the end, they discover what the truth is behind Norma Restarick’s claims and her disappearance. Throughout this novel, Christie explores the “mod” culture including its fashions, its fascination with drugs and the art that was created at the time. Through the eyes of Poirot and Oliver, who are from a different era, we see how the young people, the new views and so on are perceived by others and it’s a very interesting portrait of a society that has changed dramatically.
Student unrest and radicalism was a major part of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, and several stories explore that theme, too. For instance, in John Alexander Graham’s The Involvement of Arnold Wechsler, we meet Classics Professor Arnold Wechsler, who teaches at Hewes College, a small New England school. As with many schools at that time, students have been agitating for change, and the atmosphere has gotten tense. Wechsler has been avoiding the issues of student demands and politics. Instead, he’s trying to negotiate the perilous politics of getting tenure when his life is complicated by a summons to the office of College President Winthrop Dohrm. Dohrm has discovered that Wechsler’s brother David has come to Hewes College, supposedly to connect with a radical student group on campus. Dohrm wants Wechsler to contact his brother and find out if David is involved in any subversive activities or has plans to do so. That’s the last thing Wechsler wants, as he and his brother are estranged. But he also wants tenure. So he agrees to Dohrm’s request. Then, a series of frightening events occurs. A supply of drugs is stolen from a local hospital. Then, Dohrm’s grand-daughter Nancy is abducted and a ransom note is sent with David Wechsler’s initials. Then, Dohrm himself is killed when a bomb destroys the family home. As Wechsler tries to find out what’s behind all of these events and how involved David is, we get a close look at student radicalism of the era. We also get a look at the social divide between those young people and what they called “The Establishment.”
There’s a similar theme in Reginald Hill’s An Advancement of Learning, which was written at about the same time. In that novel, Superintendent Andy Dalziel and Sergeant Peter Pascoe are sent to Holm Coultram College to investigate the five-year-old death of former president Alison Girling. She was believed to have died in a freak avalanche during a holiday, but when her body is found on the school grounds, it’s clear that she was murdered. To complicate matters, there’s a radical student group on campus led in part by Franny Roote. The group has made several demands and does its best to interfere with the normal teaching and learning routine of campus. Dalziel, of course, has no patience with the group, which makes the members all the angrier, but they do respect his “presence,” and it’s interesting to see how they interact with Dalziel as the novel moves along. In the end, Dalziel and Pascoe find out who killed Alison Girling and why, and as they do, we get a very interesting look at a radicalised campus.
We also see some exploration of this era in Michael Crichton’s A Case of Need, which he wrote under the name of Jeffery Hudson. Dr. Albert Lee, a well-known obstetrician at Boston’s Memorial Hospital, has his world shattered when he is accused of murder. According to the accusation, he performed an illegal abortion (the book was written in 1968) on Karen Randall, who later died of complications from the surgery. Lee claims that he did not perform the abortion. Yet, he’s arrested and charged. He asks his friend pathologist Dr. John Berry to look into the matter and help clear his name. Berry agrees, but his investigation is soon complicated in several ways. First, he’s not entirely sure that Lee did not perform the abortion. Second, Karen Randall was the daughter of J.D. Randall, one of the most powerful surgeons at the hospital, and Randall has absolutely no desire for any scandal on his family. Third, as Berry begins to dig a little deeper, he finds that Karen Randall had a very different private life from her public persona. This was the era of sexual exploration and drug use, and Karen was involved in both of those. She’s made some friends and acquaintances who are not interested in the truth about their world coming out. Nonetheless, Berry persists and in the end, finds out what really happened to Karen Randall. One of the themes in this novel is the “generation gap” of the times, and the difficulty that Karen’s “blueblood” family has accepting the new order of things. The novel also explores other controversial questions of the day, such as drug use and whether abortion should be legal. It’s an interesting look at that era.
Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahllöö’s The Laughing Policeman includes a look at one of the most controversial issues of this era; the Vietnam War. The war ignited a firestorm of controversy all over the world, and a protest against the war provides the backdrop to this novel. The American Embassy in Stockholm has been the target of anti-war demonstrations, a letter campaign and more, so many of the police are diverted from their usual duties to help protect the embassy. Then, the demonstration begins to get ugly, and even more police are needed. On the same night as the police are busy trying to keep back the demonstrators, Officers Kant and Kristiansson get word of a tragedy on a Stockholm bus. They learn that a gunman has murdered eight people, including Åke Stenström, one of their own. The gunman has picked the perfect time to commit murder, a time when the police are busy battling demonstrators. Martin Beck and his team begin to investigate and soon find deduce that the gunman has “hidden” Stenström’s murder amongst the other deaths to call attention away from it. As they slowly piece together Stenström’s last days, the team learns that he was investigating a “cold case” – the murder of Teresa Camarão, a “well born” Portuguese woman who’d become a prostitute. When the police put that piece together with the fact that not all of the victims of the bus shooting have been identified, they are able to find the key to the mystery. The mystery really isn’t about the Vietnam War, but the protests against it and the “feel” of 1960’s Stockholm provide a vivid background to the story.
Of course there are a lot of other crime novels that take place during this era and highlight the attitudes, upheavals, clothes, drugs and culture of the times. Want to dig out your bell-bottoms, light up your lava lamps, get out those love beads and think of some other examples??? ;-).
Oh, and for you young readers, that large thing in the middle of the ‘photo is called an album. We listened to those before there were cassettes, CD’s and MP3′s… ;-).