Category Archives: Walter Mosley

The Times, They Are a-Changin’*

1960sTo say that the 1960s was a decade of major change is an understatement. It was a time of so many social, political, economic and other changes that some people have called those years ‘revolutionary.’ And perhaps they have a point.

Crime fiction, like other genres, tells the story of those changes and we see them reflected in many different novels, both from and about the era. Space is only going to allow for a few examples, but I’m sure you already understand what I mean.

One of the major changes that took place during the 1960s was the role of students, especially university students. Certainly students had spoken out on campuses before, but in many countries, this decade saw the rise of student protests that really resounded in ways they hadn’t before. In John Alexander Graham’s The Involvement of Arnold Weschler, for instance, Hewes College Classics Professor Arnold Weschler is faced with a difficult dilemma. He’s not himself particulalry political, but his brother David is. One day, Weschler is called to the office of College President Winthrop Dohrn, who wants to discuss the recent activities of a radical student group that’s come to campus. Dohrn believes that David Weschler is one of the leaders of the group. He wants Arnold to contact his brother and stop the group from causing any more trouble. The Weschler brothers have been estranged for a long time, but Arnold knows that his job may depend on his response. So he reluctantly agrees. That’s how he gets drawn into the group and gets to know the members. He even develops some sympathy for some of their views. That is, until there’s a kidnapping and then a bombing that kills Dohrn. Now Weschler has to find the killer and clear his brother’s name before he’s arrested.

During the 1960s, there was also a deep and serious questioning of ‘Establishment’ politics and economics. Many people, even those who didn’t identify themselves as Communists per se questioned the socioeconomic status quo. And there were plenty who did identify themselves as Marxists. Perhaps the best look at the leftist point of view and goals of that era can be seen in Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s series featuring Stockholm homicide detective Martin Beck and his team. This is only my opinion, so feel free to differ with it if you do. But for me, this series encapsulates a lot of what this set of politics embraced. Each of the ten novels in this series is about a self-contained murder mystery. But throughout the series, there’s a great deal of social critique too. There are critiques of police power, social class divisions, ‘Establishment’ corruption and other important issues with Swedish society.

Another major change in society was a change in the roles of women. Bit by bit, women had been seeking full citizenship for a long time, and had made solid strides (e.g. suffrage, working outside the home and so on). But in the US at least, women were still regarded as best-suited for ‘home and hearth.’ During the 1960s this began to be questioned more and more. And it wasn’t just a matter of wanting to work outside the home at financial parity with men (although that was certainly an issue). I’m also talking here of what you might call women’s sexual liberation. There was still very much a double standard when it came to what was expected of ‘ladies’ and what was expected of men. And women began to insist on being as much in charge of their own destinies as men were. You see that in the non-crime-fiction work of writers such as Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan. But you also see it in crime fiction. In Ellery Queen’s The Fourth Side of the Triangle, for instance, we meet noted fashion designer Sheila Grey. She’s a well-off and successful single woman who has no desire to get married and ‘settle down.’ She puts it this way:
 

‘In fact – I’m speaking only for myself – I reject the whole concept of marriage. I’m no more capable of being happy as a housewife, or a country club gal, or a young suburban matron than I am of renouncing the world and taking the veil.’
 

Certainly she doesn’t identify herself by her ability to cook, clean, sew or look after children. She’s independent both economically and sexually. One night, she’s murdered. Inspector Richard Queen is assigned to the case and his son Ellery of course takes part in the investigation. In the end, they find that the victim’s modern way of thinking about herself and the role love should play in her life had a part in her murder.

One of the other major changes of the 1960s was the move of drug use from certain bohemian, artistic and musical circles to the mainstream. Any crime fiction fan can tell you that drugs have been associated with crime fiction for a very long time. But during these years, ‘average’ everyday people had easier access to them and their use spread. There’s a mention of that in Agatha Christie’s The Third Girl (published in 1966), in which Norma Restarick and Hercule Poirot don’t exactly get off on the proverbial right footing. She wants to hire him until she actually meets him and concludes that he’s too old to help her. For his part, Poirot isn’t at all impressed with Norma’s appearance or manner. When she disappears, though, Poirot works with detective novelist Ariadne Oliver to find out what happened to her. The trail leads to fraud and murder and real danger for Mrs. Oliver. Drugs have their role to play in this novel, and it’s interesting to note that their use has gone beyond just the ‘artsy’ set by this time.

Questions of relations between the races had been simmering for a long time. But matters came to a head during the 1960s. We see this in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Admittedly it’s about an earlier time, but it raises issues that became a major point of conflict during the ’60s. In that novel, Tom Robinson is accused of (and quickly arrested for) the rape of Mayella Ewell. Robinson claims he’s innocent, but because he’s Black and Mayella Ewell is White, he’s assumed to be guilty. Prominent local attorney Atticus Finch takes this case and goes to what you could argue are heroic lengths to prove that his client is not a rapist. Although we could hardly say that race is no longer an issue, there were some major strides forward taken during these years. In fact, Walter Mosley discusses this in Little Green, which takes place in 1967. PI Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlins is persuaded by his friend Raymond ‘Mouse’ Alexander to find a Black man named Little Green. Little Green disappeared after joining a hippie group, so Rawlins starts there. He discovers that a young White woman nicknamed Coco may know something about the group, so he contacts her. At one point, they meet in a local restaurant, where something happens that certainly makes Rawlins think:
 

‘…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.’
 

Admittedly this story takes place in Los Angeles. In a smaller town things might have been different. But the move forward in race relations was an important part of the 1960s.

Geoffrey McGeachin’s St. Kilda Blues (which takes place in 1967) also discusses many of the changes that took place during the 1960s. I’m just diving into that one, to be honest, so I’m not yet thoroughly enough versed to discuss it on this blog. But I can say this. Melbourne cop Charlie Berlin has to deal with the drug culture, the hippie movement, and other major social changes as he searches for what could be a serial killer.

There were of course many other dramatic changes in the 1960s – changes in technology, music, popular culture, cinematography and lots more. A decade that started out as looking very much like the 1950s ended up as something completely different. The times they definitely were ‘a-changin’. Which novels evoke this time for you?

ps. Just look at the two ‘photos of the Beatles and you’ll see the changes that took place during the 1960s. From ‘mop-tops’ in suits to hippies….
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a Bob Dylan song.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen, Geoffrey McGeachin, Harper Lee, John Alexander Graham, Maj Sjöwall, Per Wahlöö, 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