If you watch television shows (especially US television shows) from the 1950s, you might get the impression that it was a peaceful decade with an emphasis on a happy suburban life and economic prosperity. Certainly there was an increase in consumerism. But the reality was of course quite different from that serene surface. The 1950s brought a lot of major changes and they were hardly peaceful years. And since crime fiction reflects the times in which it was written (or about which it’s written), we see a lot of the major developments of the 1950s in the crime fiction from and about that era.
Agatha Christie wrote several novels during that time period, and her work shows some of the major changes going on at the time. Life for many was transformed after World War II and that included the loss of many of the great old homes and estates. We see commentary about this in After the Funeral (AKA Funerals are Fatal) and in Dead Man’s Folly. In the former, Enderby House, the home of the Abernethie family, is being sold after the death of the last real family patriarch Richard Abernethie. In the latter, Nasse House, which had been in the Folliat family for generations, is now the property of Sir George Stubbs and his wife Hattie, and is one of the few homes that hasn’t been turned into a guest house or hostel. In fact, the next home over has been turned into a hostel, and that plays a role in the novel.
So does a new generation of young people, and we see this in Christie’s Hickory Dickory Dock (AKA Hickory Dickory Death). The residents of a student hostel become the focus of an investigation when one of them seems to commit suicide after admitting to a series of petty thefts. Of course, things aren’t as they seem… Several of the main characters of this novel are young people who have a different outlook on life to the outlook their parents had. Christie also uses this novel to comment on some of the other major issues of the 1950s, one of which is the Cold War between the UK, the US and their allies and the Soviet Union and its allies. There’s more than one remark about communists and communist sympathy in this novel.
That theme also plays an important role in Walter Mosley’s A Red Death, which takes place during the same time. Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlins has been separated from the airplane manufacturing company where he worked, and now earns his living ‘doing favours for friends.’ And that’s just what gets him into trouble. He gets a letter from an IRS agent threatening him with jail time for not paying taxes on income that he earned solving a case. The only way out seems to be to help the FBI take down suspected communist Chaim Wenzler. Rawlins has been told his tax problems will go away if he helps the FBI so, not seeing much choice, he agrees. In the process, he becomes a target for someone who tries to frame him for two murders. There’s a lot of talk in this novel about patriotism, communism and one’s civic duty. But what’s interesting is that this novel is told from the perspective of a Black American and more than once Rawlins reflects on why he should be such a patriot when his country hasn’t done much for him. It’s a compelling commentary on the segregation and racism of the era. It’s also an interesting peek at the nascent civil rights movement that began in earnest later in the decade (Christie by the way comments on race issues too in Hickory Dickory Dock).
There’s also a fascinating look at Cold War thinking and politics in Geoffrey McGeachin’s Blackwattle Creek, which takes place in 1957. Melbourne cop Charlie Berlin is a World War II veteran who is still trying to deal with the scars from the war. But he’s more or less managed to put his life together. He’s got a stable marriage and two healthy children and life is going on for him. Then, his wife Rebecca asks him to help a friend of hers look into an oddity about the death of her husband. Berlin agrees and before he knows it, he’s drawn into a case involving high-level cover-ups and some odd events at local funeral homes. The Cold War theme is woven through this novel quite effectively, as is the reality of life for many of those returning from World War II. The armed hostilities had ended, but for many of those service people the 1950s was a time of real difficulty as they had to adjust to a peacetime life and do their best to deal with their emotional and physical scars.
There was a deepening interest in and emphasis on psychology, especially what used to be called ‘abnormal psychology’ as the 1950s got underway, and we see that in the psychological kinds of thrillers/crime novels of that era. For instance, Patricial Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train is the story of a chance encounter between Guy Haines and Charles Anthony Bruno, who are fellow passengers on a cross-country train journey. What starts out as a friendly conversation evolves into a discussion about each man’s problems: Haines is unhappy in his marriage, and Bruno has a bad relationship with his father. When Bruno suggests that each man kill the other man’s ‘choice victim,’ Haines brushes it off as almost a joke. It becomes all too real though when Bruno actually fulfills what he sees as his side of the bargain and insists that Haines do the same. Highsmith’s exploration of psychology reflects the growing interest in the topic of that decade, as does the work of other writers such as Jim Thompson.
We also see a fascinating look at psychology in Megan Abbott’s Die a Little, which takes place in 1950’s California. Lora King is a Pasadena schoolteacher who gets drawn into a completely alien, seamy world when her brother Bill marries Alice Steele, a former Hollywood dressmaker’s assistant. Lora tries for her brother’s sake to be friendly with her new sister-in-law, but Alice has a hidden past and a lot of secrets, and a big part of Lora doesn’t trust her. And yet at the same time as she is repulsed by Allice’s world, she also finds it alluring. And when Alice seems to be implicated in a murder that occurs, Lora finds herself more and more pulled into Alice’s life. Besides the psychology we see in this novel, we also see some of the sociological phenomena of the era. There’s the surface-level conformity that was expected at the time which hides some ugly truths. There’s also an interesting look at the way women were viewed. The women’s movement that’s been called ‘Women’s Lib’ among other things was still some time off, but already women were beginning to be dissatisfied with society’s limited expectations of them. At the same time as many conformed in terms of dress, household roles and so on, they also wondered if this was all there was, so to speak. And some did more than wonder. Die a Little also reflects something else about the era: the beginnings of more open discussions about sexuality (anyone read Peyton Place???).
We also see that in novels of the day such as Ed McBain’s Cop Hater, in which some of the characters are prostitutes and in which there is more obvious innuendo than we see in earlier novels. Cop Hater also shows the blurred lines between ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’ that is characteristic of a lot of more modern crime fiction.
On the surface of it, the 1950s was a time of social conformity and neat categorisation, where ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys,’ the two sexes, different racial groups and different social classes still occupied different worlds. That meant there was some ugly racism, blatant sexism and other social issues that weren’t addressed. But at the same time the proverbial lid was being lifted off that box, and a lot of what went on beneath the surface is explored in the crime fiction of and about the era. And that’s to say nothing of the music of the era… And with new tools such as psychology, we see how writers were exploring the ‘why’ and ‘what started it all’ of crime as well as its actual investigation.
What do you think of ‘50s crime fiction and historical crime fiction? What do you think it reflects about the era? If you’re a writer who explores that era, what draws you to it?
ps. The ‘photo is of holiday shopping in Allentown, Pennsylvania in 1951. Among other things I think it shows the rising consumerism of the era.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s We Didn’t Start the Fire.