As our society changes, those changes are reflected in crime fiction. That’s a blatantly obvious statement but behind it is a fascinating purpose that crime fiction serves. In reading crime fiction from or about a given era, we get a perspective on that era. For example, if you think about it, several major changes socially and politically happened during the 1980’s and it’s interesting to see how they’re reflected in crime fiction.
One of those major changes was the beginning of the end of the Cold War between the Soviet Union and its allies and the United States and its allies. While the Soviet Union didn’t officially break up until 1993, the process started during the 1980’s. This change had, of course, many effects in the real political, economic, social and military worlds and we see that in crime fiction. For instance, in Margaret Truman’s Murder in the House, US Congressman Paul Latham is shot one night just before his confirmation hearings to become the next US Secretary of State. The first explanation for the death is that Latham committed suicide. But that explanation doesn’t hold much water, especially when it comes out that Latham’s assistant Marge Edwards was about to accuse him of sexual misconduct. Then, Edwards disappears and the mystery around Paul Latham’s life deepens. Georgetown Law School professor Mackensie “Mac” Smith gets drawn into the case when a former student contacts him to tell him that there was a lot more going on in Latham’s life than it seems on the surface. Smith and Latham were friends too and Smith is fairly certain that Latham wasn’t guilty of sexual misconduct, nor was he suicidal. So Smith begins to investigate. He discovers that Latham was involved with Warren Brazier, a successful American business entrepreneur who wants to make inroads into the new economic climate in the Soviet Union. As Smith explores that angle to this case, we see how the end of the Cold War meant a complete renegotiation of the relationship between the US and the Soviet Union.
Even before the Soviet Union officially broke up, there was an easing of restrictions against travel between the USSR and the United States, and this is reflected in crime fiction too. In Robin Cook’s Vector, we meet Yuri Davydov, an émigré to New York City who was lured (or so he feels) by promises of great success. He’s become disenchanted though because life in the US isn’t the “easy ride” he’d thought it would be. In the Soviet Union Davydov was a technician in Biopreprat, the Soviet biological weapons program. He has therefore well-developed and highly professional scientific and technical expertise. But in the US he’s only been able to find work as a taxi driver. So he’s easy prey, as you might say, for a group of skinheads who also feel cheated by “the system.” When they find out about Davydov’s skills, his new associates decide to plan the ultimate revenge against the government: the release of the anthrax bacteria. New York medical examiners Laurie Montgomery and Jack Stapleton become aware of a possible terrorist plot when a carpet dealer dies of anthrax poisoning. Now Montgomery and Stapleton have to find and stop the conspirators before they carry out their plan.
Robin Cook has of course written a number of medical thrillers and so have Michael Palmer and other authors too. Although there’ve been medical mysteries for a long time, the discovery and identification of the HIV virus in the early 1980’s arguably brought a lot of attention to viruses, virus transmission and medical procedures. So it’s not surprising that Palmer’s and Cook’s medical thrillers became popular during the 1980’s. In fact it was during those years that the medical mystery really became what you might call a separate sub-genre. As medical advances took place during that decade, they found their way into those novels.
Another major change of the 1980’s was in the role of women. Of course the women’s movement and women’s issues had been around for a long time before the 1980’s. And there’ve been female fictional detectives for generations. But during the 1980’s more and more female protagonists were not just clever, intuitive and sometimes strong-willed but very strong and independent characters. For instance, Joan Smith’s Loretta Lawson is a visiting professor at Oxford, where she’s met and befriended Oxford don Bridget Bennett. In the course of this five-novel series, which begins with 1987’s A Masculine Ending, we see Lawson’s perspective as an ardent feminist who’s trying to map out a life for herself in a world of new “rules” for women. By today’s standards, Lawson’s militant brand of feminism may seem dated. But series like this one highlight the evolution of the women’s movement as women began to insist on having access to the same power and privilege as men.
Sara Paretsky introduced her private investigator sleuth V.I. Warshawski in 1982’s Indemnity Only. In that novel, Warshawski is hired to find a missing young woman Anita Hill. Soon after she begins her search, Warshawski discovers the body of Hill’s boyfriend Pete Thayer, who is the son of a wealthy Chicago banker. As Warshawski continues her search, she discovers that both Pete Thayer’s death and his girlfriend’s disappearance have everything to do with insurance fraud, union graft and high-level corruption.
In 1982 we also saw the release of Sue Grafton’s first Kinsey Millhone novel A is for Alibi. This novel introduces another strong female protagonist. Although Millhone has been compared to Warshawski (which makes sense since they do have some similarities) she’s quite different in her own way. As this series has continued we see how Millhone has carved out a place for herself as a private investigator in a male-dominated career. These PI’s highlight the journey many women have taken as they’ve negotiated their place in the world. They are not simply “women who act like men so they’ll be taken seriously.” They are strong female protagonists.
The 1980’s also saw the rise of the cocaine trade. Of course, drug smuggling has been around for a long time, but during the 1980’s, drugs gangs and “drug lords” made huge profits from cocaine trafficking. Because of the incredible amounts of money to be made there were gang rivalries and of course murder. In his last novel The Lonely Silver Rain, John D. MacDonald takes an uncompromising look at the ugliness of that business. Travis McGee has just located a wealthy friend’s missing yacht. When he goes on board, he makes the grisly discovery of several brutally murdered bodies. His discovery puts him right in the middle of South Florida’s “cocaine wars” and therefore makes him a target for some extremely nasty people. Of course, this novel is richer than just that plot line, but to say much more gets (in my opinion) too close to “Spoilerville.”
There were other sociopolitical changes during the 1980’s – many more than there is room for in this one post. So grab your down vest, your cassettes and your copy of Back to the Future and share your favourite 80’s themed crime fiction. You can even use your loooong-corded telephone to ‘phone in your thoughts.
ps. Yes, folks, that’s a genuine 1980’s vintage Members Only jacket in the ‘photo. The red CD on the left is of Billy Joel’s Концерт (Concert) – from his late ‘80’s concerts in the Soviet Union. The CD on the right is Paul Simon’s 1986 Graceland.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bowling For Soup’s 1985.