Category Archives: Walter Mosley

Where All the Locals Go to Keep Each Other Company*

DinersA lot of people take road trips, and if you’re going to take any kind of a long drive, that means stopping now and again for fuel, food, and so on. Those roadside places can seem like oases, especially if it’s late or the weather is bad. And they’re really effective contexts for murder stories if you think about it. There’s a disparate group of people, any of whom could be at that particular place for any number of reasons. And then there are the people who own and work at such places. They too have their stories. And it’s only natural that sleuths would go to those places too. Here are just a few examples to show you what I mean.

In G.K. Chesterton’s The Blue Cross, a French police detective named Valentin is pursuing a thief named Flambeau who’s managed to elude police. Valentin has traced his quarry to England, but he doesn’t know where Flambeau might be holed up. Valentin stops at a restaurant almost at random and places his order. When he notices that the salt-cellar is full of sugar and the sugar-basin full of salt, he asks the waiter about it. The waiter’s answer gives Valentin an interesting clue as to what’s happened to Flambeau. He doesn’t understand the significance of the clue at the time, but later, we find out that it has important meaning. So does the soup that was thrown at the wall at the same restaurant…

Donald Honig’s short story Come Ride With Me, for instance, takes place at the Quick Stop Diner. A man named Gannon goes there with a specific purpose in mind. He’s just committed a robbery that ended in murder, and now he needs a car to make his getaway. He waits at the diner until just the right kind of patron comes in. His target is Lee Carstairs, who’s doing well enough financially to have a fast, late-model car. While Carstairs uses the diner’s telephone, Gannon hides in the back seat of Carstairs’ car. But Gannon soon learns that he’s picked the wrong car. Carstairs has other plans for his car that change everything for Gannon…

In Åsa Larsson’s The Blood Spilt, Stockholm attorney Rebecka Martinsson is taking some time away from her job to deal with the traumatic incidents of The Savage Altar (AKA Sun Storm). While she’s there, she and a colleague happen to stop at the Last Chance Diner, very nondescript sort of roadside place made from a converted car workshop. For a time, Martinsson actually works there as she begins to put the pieces of her life together again. She gets involved in a murder case when a priest Mildred Nilsson is murdered. Martinsson has the thankless task of working with the Church of Sweden to arrange for the house Nilsson had been living in with her husband to be transferred back to church hands.  Police detectives Ana-Maria Mella and Sven-Erik Stålnacke investigate the murder, and they begin with Nilsson’s family and then her congregants. That’s where the Last Stop Diner comes in very handy. It turns out that several of the locals eat there, and their interactions play an important role in the novel.

Much of Karin Fossum’s Calling Out For You (AKA The Indian Bride) takes place in the Norwegian village of Elvestad, where Gunder Jormann has lived most of his life. He’s no longer a young man, but he’s still presentable and hard-working – the steady type. So he is hoping to find a wife, and makes the surprising announcement to his sister Marie that he’s going to look for a bride in India. Despite her misgivings, Jormann goes to Mumbai where he meets Poona Bai, who works at a café there. He’s taken with her and it’s not long before she agrees to marry him. Jormann returns to Elvestad to prepare for his bride’s arrival, while Poona stays behind to tie up the proverbial loose ends of her life in India. On the day of her arrival, Jormann’s sister is in a terrible car accident, so he can’t go to the airport to meet Poona. He delegates that duty to a friend, but the two miss each other. Poona never arrives at Jormann’s home, and when her body is later found in a field near Elvestad, Oslo Inspector Konrad Sejer and his assistant Jacob Skarre investigate. Elvestad has a small café/restaurant that serves as a roadside stop as well. The locals tend to congregate there, and without spoiling the novel, I can say that it plays an important role in the novel. So does the gossip that readers pick up there…

There’s also Walter Mosley’s Little Green, which takes place in 1967. In that novel, Los Angeles PI Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlins is recovering from a personal loss and a terrible car accident. He’s getting back on his feet again when his friend (if you can all him that) Raymond ‘Mouse’ Alexander asks him to find a young Black man nicknamed Little Green. Little Green disappeared after joining a hippie group, so Rawlins starts with some of the area’s hippie places. He finds out that a young White woman named Coco might know something about the young man’s disappearance, so he tracks her down. In one scene in the novel, he and Coco go to Pete and Petra’s Diner where they place their order. Rawlins asks her to tell him a little about herself. When she asks why, Rawlins says,

 

‘…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.’

 

To Rawlins, who’s seen more than his share of bigotry, this is a major change in society. But as he soon learns, not everyone has moved on with the times. A white man named Lucas goes up to their table and makes several racist comments. Rawlins is not one to meekly submit to abuse, so he’s more than willing to fight, especially when the man is disrespectful to Coco. The trip to the diner doesn’t solve the mystery. But it’s a fascinating look at the changing times of the late 1960’s.

And then there’s Chris Grabenstein’s Hell Hole. In that novel, the body of Corporal Shareef Smith is discovered at a roadside stop on New Jersey’s Garden State Parkway. At first it looks like suicide, but his car was ransacked, and there’s other evidence too that suggests that this was murder. The evidence shows that he was on his way to Sea Haven, New Jersey, and Sea Haven police detectives John Ceepak and Danny Boyle investigate the case. In this instance, they only have one day to find out who killed the victim, because Shareef’s boss Sergeant Dale Dixon is determined to carry out justice in his own way if the police don’t solve the case quickly.

And that’s the thing about those roadside stops and diners. They attract all kinds of people. Seedy or clean, remote or just outside of town, they are fascinating places on a lot of levels. And they do make excellent contexts for crime stories. Oh, wait, there’s a sign up ahead. Want to stop for a bit?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s House of Blue Light.

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Filed under Åsa Larsson, Chris Grabenstein, Donald Honig, G.K. Chesterton, Karin Fossum, Walter Mosley

Picking Up the Pieces of My Sweet Shattered Dream*

Post-WarWorld War II ended in 1945. But the world was not magically made right again after the war. There were many scattered pieces, if I may put it that way, to be picked up, and millions of shattered lives to be put back together. And that’s to say nothing of the myriad unanswered questions and difficult challenges the war left behind. Let’s take a quick look today at the way that uncertain time is addressed in crime fiction. As you can imagine, I’ve only space to mention a few examples here. I’m sure you’ll be able to fill in the gaps far better than I could anyway.

Agatha Christie’s Taken at the Flood (AKA There is a Tide) was published in 1948. In it, Lynn Marchmont has recently been demobbed from wartime service in the Wrens. She comes home to the village of Warmsley Vale to pick up her life and instead, gets mixed up in a case of murder. Her family has always depended on patriarch Gordon Cloade for financial support but that all changes when Cloade marries Rosaleen Underhay, a widow he’s met on a ship. Tragically, Cloade is killed in a bomb blast before he can change his will so at his death, Rosaleen is set to inherit everything. Then a stranger comes to Warmsley Vale with possible information that Rosaleen’s first husband is actually still alive. If so, she can’t inherit Cloade’s fortune. When two different members of the Cloade family visit Hercule Poirot, asking for his help in the case, he takes an interest. Then, the stranger is suddenly killed; now Poirot gets involved in the murder investigation. Throughout the novel, we see the financial havoc the war has wrought. People are scraping by at best and some are not even doing that well. We also see how difficult the war has been on those who were a part of it. Lynn Marchmont for instance has had to make a sudden and very abrupt change from the danger and excitement of war to the quiet and impoverished life Warmsley Vale offers. It’s a very difficult transition, even for those who didn’t participate in combat. For those who did, it’s even more challenging.

Just ask Charlie Berlin, the Melbourne cop we meet in Geoffrey McGeachin’s The Diggers Rest Hotel, which takes place in 1947. Berlin’s recently back from service in Europe, where he also spent some time in a POW camp. Although he’s not the stereotypical demon-haunted, alcoholic detective, he does have what would later be called PTSD. He deals with nightmares and terrible memories. Berlin is seconded to Wodonga to help the local police track down a motorcycle gang that’s been responsible for a series of robberies. Since the latest incident has resulted in severe injuries, the police and the public are eager to see the gang stopped. Berlin’s just starting to find some answers when the body of sixteen-year-old Jenny Lee is found in an alley. At first it’s thought that her death is related to the robberies. It’s not though, and soon Berlin has two cases on his hands. Along with the actual investigation, we get a look in this novel at the lingering resentment against people who’ve been The Enemy for years. That enmity didn’t just vanish when the war ended and McGeachin addresses that.

McGeachin also touches on life for Jews who left Germany either just before the war or as a result of being displaced by the war. Jews were not warmly welcomed everywhere, even by people who abhorred the Holocaust. We also see that theme in Sara Paretsky’s Total Recall. In that novel, Dr. Charlotte ‘Lotty’ Herschel asks her friend Chicago PI V.I. Warshawski to do a personal sort of investigation. Herschel has recently heard from Paul Rabudka, who claims to be a Holocaust survivor looking for as many members of his family as he can find. Herschel’s own family escaped Austria just ahead of the Nazis and ended up in the United States, but it was a harrowing journey and Herschel wants to forget as much of it as she can. Still, she doesn’t want to ignore Rabudka’s contact. Warshawski agrees to investigate and finds some very dark secrets buried in the past.

Åsa Larsson’s Until Thy Wrath Be Past highlights the enmity that lingered between Swedes who collaborated with the Nazis and those who resisted them. In that novel, two young people, Wilma Persson  and Simon Kyrö, go on a diving exploration of a World-War II-era plane that went down in Lake Vittangijärvi. Someone traps the young people under the ice, killing both of them. Several months later Wilma’s body surfaces and police inspectors Anna-Maria Mella and Sven-Erik Stålnacke investigate the murders. One of the important threads running through this case is the reality that the end of World War II did not erase the hatreds that had developed because of it. We also see this theme in Jo Nesbø’s The Redbreast.

One of the many other challenges that arose after World War II was the status of people whose roles had changed because of the war. For instance, millions of women worked in factories to support the war effort. When the war ended, many were not so eager to return to the proverbial kitchen. Women began to see other roles for themselves. We see that in the character of Rebecca Green, whom we meet in The Digger’s Rest Hotel (See above). She’s a journalist/photographer for the Argus, and wants very much to make her way in what is still a man’s world. She isn’t interested at the moment in the ‘hearth and home’ role assigned to women. In her determination to be taken seriously as a professional, we see the challenge that women faced in a post-war world that wasn’t sure how to see them.

The end of the war meant that a lot of people faced job challenges. Factories that had geared up for the war effort had to either close or change their focus. Soldiers came home and needed jobs. All of this had profound effects on work life. We see this in Walter Mosley’s Devil in a Blue Dress, the first of his Ezekial ‘Easy’ Rawlins novels. Rawlins has recently lost his job working in a warplane factory. Since he is African-American there are few job opportunities open to him, but he has the same financial obligations as anyone else. This motivates him to accept the offer when DeWitt Albright hires him as an unofficial private investigator. Albright is looking for Daphne Monet, who’s been known to frequent bars in the Black community. The idea is that since Rawlins knows Watts (Los Angeles) very well, he’ll know where to look for her. This turns out to be much more complicated and dangerous a case than a simple search for a missing woman, and it shows how an entire community was affected by the financial upheavals of the war.

There was also the serious question of war criminals. In Stuart Neville’s Ratlines, Gordon Ferris’ Glasgow novels featuring Douglas Brodie, and Philip Kerr’s more recent novels featuring Bernie Gunther, we get a look at the way Nazi criminals escaped (or tried to escape) after the war. We also learn the stories of those who risked their lives to find them. There are other novels too, some that fall into the category of crime fiction and some that are more espionage thrillers, in which the protagonist goes after Nazi criminals and those who support them.

And Ferdinand von Schirach’s The Collini Case explores the legal ramifications of German law that related to war criminals. Fabrizio Collini, who emigrated to Germany decades ago, is arrested for murder in the shooting death of Jean-Baptiste Meyer. Caspar Leinen is ‘on duty’ as a legal aid and is assigned to represent Collini. It seems like a very solid case, as Collini offers no alibi and says nothing to defend himself. In fact, he says nearly nothing at all. But Leinen wants to do his best by his client, so he delves more deeply into the incident and the lives of both men.  What he finds is an obscure but vital point of German law that’s had a profound impact. As Leinen investigates, we also see how deep wartime wounds have really gone.

There are other novels too that address the post-war world and the way people tried to pick up their lives again; this is just a smattering. Your turn.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Gordon Lightfoot’s Carefree Highway.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Åsa Larsson, Ferdinand von Schirach, Geoffrey McGeachin, Gordon Ferris, Jo Nesbø, Philip Kerr, Sara Paretsky, Stuart Neville, Walter Mosley

It Starts When You’re Always Afraid*

Witch Hunts and Mass HysteriaThere’ve been all sorts of fictional and historical accounts of the ‘witch trials’ in Salem, Massachusetts during 1692 and 1693. Those events have captured a lot of people’s imaginations and the term ‘witch hunt’ has become synonymous with group hysteria that can lead to injustice and much worse. And if you read history you’ll know that Salem was by no means the first instance of mass hysteria about witchcraft. There’s a line between concern for public safety and the public good on the one hand, and mass hysteria on the other. It’s sometimes hard to say precisely where that line is, but there are many cases where it’s been crossed. A quick look at crime fiction shows some interesting examples.

Hysteria about witches plays a role in Robin Cook’s Acceptable Risk. In that novel, neuroscientist Edward Armstrong is doing research on anti-depressants. He’s introduced to a nurse, Kimberly Stewart, and the two are soon involved romantically. Kimberly is a descendant of Elizabeth Stewart, who was hanged for witchcraft during the 17th Century wave of anti-witch hysteria. As Armstrong learns about the family history, he also sees another possible avenue for research. It turns out that bread baked in the Stewart home was contaminated with ergot, which has certain psychotropic effects. The house is still in the Stewart family, and Armstrong wants to experiment with the ergot that grows there to see if it has promise as an anti-depressant. The first results are truly exciting and Armstrong and his research team think they’ve made a major medical breakthrough. Then, some disturbing things begin to happen. Before long it’s clear that Armstrong, Stewart and the rest of the team are in far greater danger than anyone imagined.

During the ‘Cold War’ between the US and the UK and their allies, and the then-Soviet Union and its allies, there was a great deal of fear about communism. There was reason to be concerned about Soviet spying, and that concern led to fear and even hysteria. For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Hickory Dickory Dock (AKA Hickory DIckory Death), Hercule Poirot investigates some unusual events at a hostel for students. Odd things have been disappearing there and, as the manager Mrs. Hubbard is the sister of Poirot’s secretary Felicity Lemon, Poirot agrees to visit the hostel. On the night of his visit, one of the residents Celia Austin admits having taken some of the things. When she does, it’s believed that the matter is settled. When Celia dies two nights later, her death is put down to suicide, but it’s soon proven she was murdered. Now Poirot and Inspector Sharpe look into the backgrounds and personal lives of the other hostel residents to find out who would have wanted to kill Celia and why. In the process, they discover quite a bit of anit-communist sentiment. That discussion forms an interesting thread in this story.

We see that same sort of hysteria reflected in Walter Mosley’s A Red Death. Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlins is an amateur PI in post-World War II Los Angeles. One day he gets a letter from Internal Revenue Service (IRS) agent Reginald Lawrence, claiming that he owes thousands of dollars in back taxes and threatening jail if he doesn’t pay up. Rawlins doesn’t have that kind of money so he starts to resign himself to the very real possibility of a jail term. Then he gets a way out. FBI agent Darryl Craxton offers to make Rawlins’ tax problems go away if he’ll do something in return. The FBI wants to bring down suspected communist Chaim Wenzler, a Polish war refugee. Wenzler does a lot of volunteer work for the First African Baptist Church, and Craxton wants Rawlins to use that volunteer work to get close to Wenzler and inform on him. Rawlins isn’t interested but he sees no other way out of his tax trouble. So he agrees to the plan. As he gets to know Wenzler, he discovers that he likes the man and becomes less and less eager to set him up. Then there are two murders at the church. Since Rawlins was there at the time, he’s a natural suspect. Then the LAPD link him to an earlier death. It’s now clear that someone’s trying to frame him for murder. So Rawlins has to clear his name and strike a very delicate balance between keeping to his agreement with Craxton and keeping Wenzler out of trouble if he can. Throughout the novel there’s a strong thread of anti-communist hysteria and Rawlins is appealed to as a ‘patriotic American’ to do his share.

Anti-Western hysteria shows up in a lot of crime fiction too. For instance, William Ryan’s Captain Alexei Korolev series takes place mostly in pre-World War II Moscow. During those years of Stalinist rule, anyone perceived as having any kind of pro-Western or anti-Soviet sentiment was considered an enemy of the state. Such people were often executed or sent off to gulags for ‘re-education.’ Life was hard for their family members too. In this atmosphere people live in dread of being betrayed to the NKVD as traitors. In fact, Korolev himself has to be very careful. As a CID police investigator, he and his team are responsible for catching criminals. It’s in the Soviet interest to have a strong record of catching and punishing those who break the law. But at the same time, Korolev finds that the trail sometimes leads to the NKVD or to other highly respected and powerful Soviet citizens. To suggest that they may be involved in crime is to run the risk of being declared an enemy of the state.

We also see that kind of anti-Western ‘witch hunt’ in Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis’ Death of a Nightingale, the third of their Nina Borg series. In one plot thread of this novel, two sisters, Olga and Oxana, are growing up in the Ukraine during the terrible famine years of 1934-1936. Everyone is exhorted to make sacrifices for the greater good of the State, but that doesn’t fill people’s stomachs. Yet people who complain or worse, who seem to be too well-fed or have too much food, are in real danger. They’re perceived as traitorous and are denounced. At that time, even the slightest denunciation was enough to consign a person or family to Siberia or worse, as this was the time of Stalin’s Great Purge of people he saw as enemies. That climate of fear and the ever-increasing circle of denunciations play an important role in this plot thread of the novel. Years later, this story casts a shadow when Natasha Doroshenko and her daughter Katerina flee the Ukraine after the murder of Natasha’s journalist husband Pavel. They make their way to Denmark where at first Natasha thinks she’s found a haven. That turns out to be tragically false when she’s imprisoned for the attempted murder of her fiancé Michael Vestergaard.  Then, she overhears a conversation that convinces her that her past in the Ukraine has caught up with her. So she escapes police custody and heads for Coal House Camp, a Red Cross facility where Katerina has been staying. That’s when the real danger starts for her, for Katerina and for Nina Borg.

There are other series too, such as Colin Cotterill’s  Siri Paiboun series, which takes place in 1970’s Laos, that address themes of what you could call ‘witch hunts.’ In series like that, people are encouraged to denounce others, even friends and family members, as traitors. That climate of fear adds a layer of tension to a novel or series. It’s even more disturbing when we think how close those novels come to real life.

ps. The ‘photo is part of an illustration of Pedro Berruguete’s Auto-da-fé, which hangs in Madrid’s Prado Museum. It’s a haunting reminder that widespread fear and the fear of being denounced have a long history.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Stephen Stills’ For What it’s Worth.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Agnete Friis, Colin Cotterill, Lene Kaaberbøl, Robin Cook, Walter Mosley, William Ryan

Eisenhower, Vaccine, England’s Got a New Queen*

1950sIf 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.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Ed McBain, Geoffrey McGeachin, Jim Thompson, Megan Abbott, Patricia Highsmith, Walter Mosley

Good People, There’s Hard Choices Going Down Now*

Difficult ChoicesSometimes, detectives have to make some very difficult and morally ambiguous kinds of choices. They’re the kinds of decisions that may haunt the sleuth, and when it happens in fiction we may not agree with what the sleuth chooses to do. But those choices do happen in real life, and they can add a fascinating layer of tension to a story. What’s more, they can add depth to a character. Those difficult decisions can also make a book memorable as the reader thinks about what happened (e.g. ‘Would I have done the same thing?’). There are a lot of examples of this kind of decision in crime fiction and this post only gives me room for a few. So I’ll rely on you folks to fill in the gaps I leave.

As Agatha Christie fans know, Hercule Poirot does not approve of murder. And yet in more than one story he’s faced with morally ambiguous choices about the killer. And in one novel in particular, he helps cover up a murder. But rather than identify that novel, I’ll use One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (AKA The Patriotic Murders and An Overdose of Death). Poirot’s dentist Henry Morley is shot one day during his surgery hours. Scotland Yard gets involved because one of Morley’s patients is wealthy and powerful banker Alistair Blunt, and it’s very likely that Morley’s killer was actually trying to get at Blunt. So Chief Inspector Japp is assigned to investigate and one of his first visits is to Poirot. The two men are just starting to ask questions when one of Morley’s patients dies of complications from an overdose of anaesthetic. Then another patient disappears. Poirot solves the murders and figures out what’s behind the events in the story, but then he’s faced with a difficult choice. On the one hand, he has sympathy for the killer. On the other, his view is that every life matters and that the murderer must answer for having taken lives. It’s not a really easy choice for Poirot, who even mentions that there are times when he doesn’t like what he has to do.

Walter Mosley’s Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlins faces several difficult situations and morally ambiguous choices in A Red Death. Rawlins gets a letter from Internal Revenue Service (IRS) agent Reginald Lawrence. The letter claims that Rawlins owes thousands of dollars in back taxes – money he can’t possibly come up with – and threatens him with prison if he doesn’t pay. Rawlins is mentally preparing himself to go to prison when he gets a chance to solve his problem. FBI agent Darryl Craxton contacts Mosley and offers him a deal. If Mosley will help the FBI bring down suspected communist Chaim Wenzler, Craxton will make Rawlins’ tax troubles go away. The idea is that Rawlins will volunteer at the First African Baptist Church, where Wenzler is also a volunteer, and get close to Wenzler. Then he’ll get the information the FBI wants. At first the choice doesn’t seem difficult; Rawlins doesn’t even know Wenzler and he does want to avoid prison. But then he gets to know his quarry and the two become friends. Then, there are two murders on the church property, and Rawlins becomes a suspect. Now he’ll have to figure out what to do about Wenzler at the same time as he’s trying to find out who the real murderer is and clear his name. The decisions Rawlins makes about the case might not be what someone else might do, but they make for layers of interest and of suspense. And they make him human.

In Craig Johnson’s The Cold Dish, Sheriff Walt Longmire has to deal with a few difficult decisions. A dead man is found on public land not far from Durant, Wyoming. The victim turns out to be Cody Pritchard, who was recently released from prison after serving a short sentence for taking part in the gang-rape of Melissa Little Bird. A lot of people were incensed that Pritchard and three other young men who were with him got such light sentences and when one of those other young men is also killed, Longmire suspects that this is a set of vengeance murders. On the one hand, Longmire has a lot of sympathy for the killer. On the other, the killings are adding to the tensions in the area and Longmire knows that could get out of hand. Besides, he’s sworn to uphold the law, which does not include vigilante murders. So he has to go after the killer. When he finds out who it is, he’s faced with an even more difficult situation…

So is Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourn in A Killing Spring. In that novel, one of Kilbourn’s university colleagues Reed Gallagher is murdered and his body found in a very seedy rooming house. Kilbourn gets involved in the investigation in part because she knows Gallagher’s widow; in fact it’s Kilbourn who goes along with the police to break the news. As the search for answers goes on, it becomes clear that more than one person might have wanted to kill Gallagher. What’s very difficult for Kilbourn is that one of those suspects is her friend and colleague Ed Mariani. In fact, she witnessed what looks like a serious argument between them not long before Gallagher was killed. On the one hand, Kilbourn wants to see Gallagher’s murderer caught. And at this point in the series, she’s dating Regina police inspector Alex Kequahtooway, who’s been assigned to the case. On the other, Mariani is a trusted colleague and a friend, and Kilbourn doesn’t want to believe he is a killer. Besides, there’s the question of personal loyalty. She’s faced with a difficult and morally ambiguous choice here that adds to the story.

In Wendy James’ The Mistake, we meet Jodie Evans Garrow who lives with her attorney husband Angus and her two children Hannah and Tom in the small New South Wales town of Arding. All is going well for the family until Hannah is injured in an accident and is rushed to a Sydney hospital. It’s the same hospital where years before, Jodie gave birth to another child Elsa Mary – a child she never even mentioned to her husband. A nurse at the hospital remembers Jodie from that first visit and asks her what happened to the baby. Jodie says she gave the baby up for adoption, but when the nurse gets curious and does a little research, she can’t find any adoption records. Before long, questions start to be asked about what happened to the baby. If she’s alive, where is she? If she’s not alive, why not? Did Jodie somehow have something to do with the baby’s disappearance? As the story spins out of control, Jodie becomes a social pariah. And in the end, what happened years ago has profound effects on Jodie’s family now. We find out what happened to the baby and as we learn, there are a series of difficult choices Jodie has made. Some of them readers would agree with, and some not. That moral ambiguity makes Jodie a fascinating character and adds to the depth of the story.

There’s also Geoffrey McGeachin’s The Diggers Rest Hotel. Just after World War II has ended, Melbourne cop Charlie Berlin is sent to Wodonga to help investigate a series of robberies committed by a motorcycle gang. Berlin has just started the real work on this case when the body of sixteen-year-old Jenny Lee is found in an alley. Within a short time, Berlin learns that the motorcycle gang is not responsible for the murder, so there are two separate cases to pursue. Neither is a straightforward case of ‘a bad person doing an evil thing.’ They’re both more complex than that. And in the end, when Berlin finds out the truth about the robberies, he is faced with a very difficult and morally ambiguous choice. Not everyone will agree with what he does, but it does add depth to the story and the characters and it makes the reader (well, this one anyway) think.

And that’s the thing about those difficult choices. They are hard to sort out, but they reflect real life and they can add to a story. Now it’s your turn…

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Dan Fogelberg’s Higher Ground.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Craig Johnson, Gail Bowen, Geoffrey McGeachin, Walter Mosley, Wendy James