Each generation sees the world in a slightly different way. That’s in part because each generation grows up in a different time, with different kinds of advantages and pressures. Sometimes it seems as though the younger (or older) generation inhabits a different planet. And in a lot ways that’s not far from reality. If you think about your own family, you probably could give lots of examples of times where it seems you don’t even speak the same language, let alone have the same outlook on life. We certainly see a lot of that in crime fiction too. I’ll just give a few examples; I’ll bet you’ll be able to share lots more than I could think of anyway.
In Agatha Christie’s Hickory Dickory Dock (AKA Hickory DIckory Death), Hercule Poirot investigates some odd thefts and other occurrences at a student hostel. When one of the residents Celia Austin confesses that she’s responsible for some of the thefts, it seems the matter is over. Two nights later, though, Celia suddenly dies in what seems like a case of suicide. Once that death is proven to be a murder, Poirot and Inspector Sharpe know that this is much more than a few petty thefts. As Poirot looks into the case, he learns that Celia had an unusual reason for taking the things that she took. It’s a modern approach to meeting a very old challenge, if I may put it that way. And it serves to highlight the different ways that different generations look at the world. Christie takes on that difference in outlook in several other stories too (e.g. After the Funeral (AKA Funerals Are Fatal) and Three Act Tragedy (AKA Murder in Three Acts)).
There’s a very distinct (and very sad) generation gap that’s referred to in Tony Hillerman’s stories featuring Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee. Older generations of Native Americans (Leaphorn is a member of the Navajo Nation) were well-versed in the ways of their people. They kept the traditional ways and maintained their culture. But for younger generations it’s been much more difficult. For a long time, young Native American children were (sometimes forcibly) sent to mission schools and other boarding schools, where the emphasis was on assimilation. Children were required to wear Western clothes and hair styles, speak only English and follow Christianity. Those schools have closed, but Leaphorn was affected by that emphasis on Western ways. He attended,
‘A Bureau of Indian Affairs high school that had a sign in the hall. It said, ‘Tradition is the Enemy of Progress.’ The word was, give up the old ways or die.’
The pressure of dominant-culture media, economic forces and global communication has meant that in many ways the younger generations have lost touch with their people’s way of life, although in some areas that’s been changing. Hillerman addresses that issue in several of his novels.
There are distinct generation gaps in Qui Xiaolong’s Death of a Red Heroine. Chief Inspector Chen Cao of the Shanghai Police takes charge of the investigation of the murder of national model worker Guan Hongying. The case is delicate because the victim is a celebrity of sorts, and had several highly-placed friends in the Party. As the story evolves, there’s an interesting sub-text of the gap in world view and values among the generations. There’s the older generation, who have traditional values, beliefs and world views. There’s the Maoist generation, who have been profoundly impacted by Maoist theory and politics, and who experienced the Cultural Revolution. And there’s the younger generation, who are impacted by the growing capitalism in China and by global media. Each generation sees the world, and China, differently.
In Roger Smith’s Dust Devils, we meet Cape Town journalist Robert Dell. He, his wife Rosie and their two children are taking a drive when they are ambushed and the car goes over an embankment. Rosie and the children are killed, but Dell survives. The next thing he knows, though, he is being accused of murdering his family. Soon, he’s charged and jailed, and it looks as though whatever trial there may be has a predetermined outcome. Dell is rescued, though, by his father Bobby Goodbread, from whom he’s been estranged. The reason for the estrangement shows the difference in thinking between two generations. Goodbread is of the ‘Old Guard.’ He was pro-Apartheid and a supporter of ‘the way things have always been.’ To him, the new society is far too chaotic and dangerous. Dell on the other hand repudiates his father’s positions. He sees Aparheid as a moral wrong that has left deep scars, and he sees the changes in South Africa as necessary. His wife was non-white and their children were multiracial. But despite their differences, Goodbread and Dell have one goal in common: they want to travel to Zululand to find Inja Mazibuko, the man who murdered Dell’s family. Mazibuko is about to get married, and his intended bride Sonto, who is usually called Sunday, also reflects a generation gap. She works at an ‘authentic Zulu village’ – a tourist attraction mostly visited by Whites. Sunday wears traditional dress at work, but secretly listens to an MP3 player. She has her own personal reasons for not wanting to marry Mazibuko, one of which is that this marriage was arranged. One thing that guides her thinking is the modern belief that people should decide for themselves whom they’ll marry.
Anya Lipska’s Death Can’t Take a Joke highlights another interesting generational difference in thinking. Janusz Kiszka is a Polish immigrant to London. He’s got a reputation as a ‘fixer,’ as someone who can find things, solve people’s problems and so on. When his friend Jim Fulford is stabbed, he is determined to find out who is responsible. In the meantime, DC Natalie Kershaw is investigating the death of a man who seems to have jumped from the top of the Canary Wharf Tower. The two cases do have a connection, and Kershaw and Kiszka form an uneasy alliance to find out the truth. At one point, the two travel to Poland, and Kiszka makes an interesting observation. He is from the generation that was determined to throw off Soviet-dominated control of the country. That generation, from his perspective, had a strong sense of national pride and solid Polish values and traditions. He notices that the young people, who’ve grown up after the end of the Soviet era, have much less of a sense of national pride. On the one hand, they are more global in outlook. On the other, they have less of a sense of what it is to be Polish. It’s a fascinating look at the effect of global media on a generation of people.
And then there’s Paddy Richardson’s Swimming in the Dark. Ilsa Klein and her parents left Leipzig during the Cold War years when leaving what was then East Germany meant risking one’s life. They ended up in Alexandra, on New Zealand’s South Island, and made lives for themselves. Ilsa loved her former home, friends and extended family and found it difficult to adjust to a new country and a different language. But over the years she has settled in and become a secondary school teacher. She begins to be concerned when one of her most promising students Serena Freeman starts slipping away. Serena skips school and even when she is there, shows little interest. It’s a disturbing change and Ilsa wants to help if she can. She and her mother Gerda find that getting involved in Serena’s life has consequences that they couldn’t have imagined. Throughout the novel, we see a marked generational difference between Gerda’s and Ilsa’s feelings about Germany. Ilsa is nostalgic for Leipzig and her life there. She acknowledges that New Zealand has been a good place, with basically good people, but it’s never really been her home. Gerda on the other hand sees things differently. She is older and knows exactly what the Stasi, the East German secret police, were like. She remembers the betrayals and denunciations, and for her, Germany has no appeal. It’s a very interesting difference in perspective, and generation plays a big role in it.
Even for people who haven’t been through experiences such as war and repression, just belonging to a different generation means a different outlook from the previous and younger generations. It’s part of what defines a person. Where have you seen this difference in outlook in the crime fiction you’ve read?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Who’s My Generation.