Oh and There We Were All in One Place, A Generation Lost in Space*

Part of crime fiction’s appeal is that it shows us who we are as a people (and who we have been and might yet be). Crime fiction holds up a mirror that can be both interesting and sometimes instructive. We see that quite a bit when crime fiction explores major social issues and events. And one of the great social upheavals in recent history was the set of social and political changes that took place during the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. From dress to views of social roles to speech and a lot more, societies all over the world were profoundly affected when the “Baby Boomers” reached the teen and young adult years. So I thought it might be interesting to take a quick look at what crime fiction has had to say about those years. Mind, this is by no means an exhaustive look; there’s simply no room in one blog post to do that. But here are just a few examples of crime fiction that take a look at that era.

Agatha Christie’s novels span the years from the 1920’s to the 1970’s, and some of them explore this era of change. For instance, in Third Girl, Hercule Poirot gets a visit from Norma Restarick, a young woman who thinks she “may have” committed a murder. When he gently presses her for more information the young woman leaves without giving her name, saying that he’s “too old.” Needless to say, Poirot is put out by this and has a conversation with his friend detective novelist Ariadne Oliver about it. As it happens, Oliver has met Norma Restarick and she and Poirot work together to find out whether the young woman could have committed a murder. Then, Norma Restarick disappears. Now the two sleuths have the added task of finding her before harm comes to her, which seems more and more likely as the novel goes on. In the end, they discover what the truth is behind Norma Restarick’s claims and her disappearance. Throughout this novel, Christie explores the “mod” culture including its fashions, its fascination with drugs and the art that was created at the time. Through the eyes of Poirot and Oliver, who are from a different era, we see how the young people, the new views and so on are perceived by others and it’s a very interesting portrait of a society that has changed dramatically.

Student unrest and radicalism was a major part of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, and several stories explore that theme, too. For instance, in John Alexander Graham’s The Involvement of Arnold Wechsler, we meet Classics Professor Arnold Wechsler, who teaches at Hewes College, a small New England school. As with many schools at that time, students have been agitating for change, and the atmosphere has gotten tense. Wechsler has been avoiding the issues of student demands and politics. Instead, he’s trying to negotiate the perilous politics of getting tenure when his life is complicated by a summons to the office of College President Winthrop Dohrm. Dohrm has discovered that Wechsler’s brother David has come to Hewes College, supposedly to connect with a radical student group on campus. Dohrm wants Wechsler to contact his brother and find out if David is involved in any subversive activities or has plans to do so. That’s the last thing Wechsler wants, as he and his brother are estranged. But he also wants tenure. So he agrees to Dohrm’s request. Then, a series of frightening events occurs. A supply of drugs is stolen from a local hospital. Then, Dohrm’s grand-daughter Nancy is abducted and a ransom note is sent with David Wechsler’s initials. Then, Dohrm himself is killed when a bomb destroys the family home. As Wechsler tries to find out what’s behind all of these events and how involved David is, we get a close look at student radicalism of the era. We also get a look at the social divide between those young people and what they called “The Establishment.”

There’s a similar theme in Reginald Hill’s An Advancement of Learning, which was written at about the same time. In that novel, Superintendent Andy Dalziel and Sergeant Peter Pascoe are sent to Holm Coultram College to investigate the five-year-old death of former president Alison Girling. She was believed to have died in a freak avalanche during a holiday, but when her body is found on the school grounds, it’s clear that she was murdered. To complicate matters, there’s a radical student group on campus led in part by Franny Roote. The group has made several demands and does its best to interfere with the normal teaching and learning routine of campus. Dalziel, of course, has no patience with the group, which makes the members all the angrier, but they do respect his “presence,” and it’s interesting to see how they interact with Dalziel as the novel moves along. In the end, Dalziel and Pascoe find out who killed Alison Girling and why, and as they do, we get a very interesting look at a radicalised campus.

We also see some exploration of this era in Michael Crichton’s A Case of Need, which he wrote under the name of Jeffery Hudson. Dr. Albert Lee, a well-known obstetrician at Boston’s Memorial Hospital, has his world shattered when he is accused of murder. According to the accusation, he performed an illegal abortion (the book was written in 1968) on Karen Randall, who later died of complications from the surgery. Lee claims that he did not perform the abortion. Yet, he’s arrested and charged. He asks his friend pathologist Dr. John Berry to look into the matter and help clear his name. Berry agrees, but his investigation is soon complicated in several ways. First, he’s not entirely sure that Lee did not perform the abortion. Second, Karen Randall was the daughter of J.D. Randall, one of the most powerful surgeons at the hospital, and Randall has absolutely no desire for any scandal on his family. Third, as Berry begins to dig a little deeper, he finds that Karen Randall had a very different private life from her public persona. This was the era of sexual exploration and drug use, and Karen was involved in both of those. She’s made some friends and acquaintances who are not interested in the truth about their world coming out. Nonetheless, Berry persists and in the end, finds out what really happened to Karen Randall. One of the themes in this novel is the “generation gap” of the times, and the difficulty that Karen’s “blueblood” family has accepting the new order of things. The novel also explores other controversial questions of the day, such as drug use and whether abortion should be legal. It’s an interesting look at that era.

Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahllöö’s The Laughing Policeman includes a look at one of the most controversial issues of this era; the Vietnam War. The war ignited a firestorm of controversy all over the world, and a protest against the war provides the backdrop to this novel. The American Embassy in Stockholm has been the target of anti-war demonstrations, a letter campaign and more, so many of the police are diverted from their usual duties to help protect the embassy. Then, the demonstration begins to get ugly, and even more police are needed. On the same night as the police are busy trying to keep back the demonstrators, Officers Kant and Kristiansson get word of a tragedy on a Stockholm bus. They learn that a gunman has murdered eight people, including Åke Stenström, one of their own. The gunman has picked the perfect time to commit murder, a time when the police are busy battling demonstrators. Martin Beck and his team begin to investigate and soon find deduce that the gunman has “hidden” Stenström’s murder amongst the other deaths to call attention away from it. As they slowly piece together Stenström’s last days, the team learns that he was investigating a “cold case” – the murder of Teresa Camarão, a “well born” Portuguese woman who’d become a prostitute. When the police put that piece together with the fact that not all of the victims of the bus shooting have been identified, they are able to find the key to the mystery. The mystery really isn’t about the Vietnam War, but the protests against it and the “feel” of 1960’s Stockholm provide a vivid background to the story.

Of course there are a lot of other crime novels that take place during this era and highlight the attitudes, upheavals, clothes, drugs and culture of the times. Want to dig out your bell-bottoms, light up your lava lamps, get out those love beads and think of some other examples??? ;-).



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Don McLean’s American Pie. Thanks to Bernadette at Reactions to Reading (a superb blog you should follow – really!) for the post title that inspired this

Oh, and for you young readers, that large thing in the middle of the ‘photo is called an album. We listened to those before there were cassettes, CD’s and MP3’s… ;-).


Filed under Agatha Christie, Jeffery Hudson, John Alexander Graham, Maj Sjöwall, Michael Crichton, Per Wahlöö, Reginald Hill

28 responses to “Oh and There We Were All in One Place, A Generation Lost in Space*

  1. Some authors really speak to their times but sometimes this can badly date a book. I think of Bobbie Ann Mason who was so well known for having Kmart become almost a character in her novels, but now it says 1975 too loudly. Really difficult to get the right amount of this stuff in.

    • Patti – You have a very well-taken point there. How does a writer evoke a time period (which is a good thing) without limiting the books and making them dated (not a good thing)? It is difficult to find that balance isn’t it?

  2. Margot: This is my time! However, I was startled to find I have read almost no mysteries set in that time in the last 12 years.

    I have read Travis McGee mysteries of John Macdonald. While taking place in that time Travis is older, late 30’s to early 40’s.

    I read some Ross Macdonald but Lew Archer is even older.

    In Sue Grafton’s “U” is for Undertow half of the book is set in 1967 with the characters experiencing the “new” California and indulging themselves.

    Do you have a lava lamp?

    • Bill – It is interesting isn’t it that both Archer and McGee are older in the novels set in that time that feature them. I’ve read that McGee was supposed to have served in Korea; perhaps that’s right… And thanks for mentioning U is for Undertow. A good “period piece” set at that time :-).
      And no, sadly, I no longer have a lava lamp…

  3. Margot that’s precisely one of the reasons, among others, why I love crime fiction. Crime fiction does provide an excellent account of the era in which the action takes place.

    • José Ignacio- That’s just exactly it. When we read well-written crime fiction from a certain era, or that portrays a certain era, we get a really good sense of what that era was like. It makes me wonder what readers forty years on will think of the crime fiction being written now…

  4. I am not that keen on the 70s, but I always enjoy reading about the 50s and 60s.
    I read one of the old Ruth Rendell´s yesterday (from 1966, I think), and the main character was so grateful that she, a very plain woman, had been able to find a handsome husband. The book could not have been written five years later.

    • Dorte – I think it’s interesting that there are eras we like to read about more than others. I don’t know if it’s because of when we were born, or because of some family connection, or because of something else, but it is interesting. I like reading about the 50’s and 60’s too if it’s done well.
      And I had to chuckle at that reference to the Ruth Rendell novel. You’re quite right that even five years later that would have been an anachronistic thing to say.

  5. I don’t think I’ve read any mysteries set in that time period. My reading during those years was gothic mystery and suspense, but they tended to be historical.

    • Pat – I know what you mean about that kind of Gothic historical suspense novel. I’ve read that kind of thing, too. Your comment also made me think of something. If we read historical novels set in an era we know well, do we read them with a different eye, so to speak, from the way we read novels set in a very different historical period – one through which we didn’t live….

  6. Another great topic (and great title – I do love that song). I like books that explore this time period too but I don’t seem to have read too many that were actually written then (though have read the Hill one you mention and liked it a lot). One of my favourite authors, Sue Grafton, set part of U is for Underground in the 1960’s and one of the characters returns to his childhood home greatly changed by the drug/counter culture.

    • Bernadette – Thank you 🙂 (and thanks for the inspiration). That song is wonderful isn’t it? Thanks for mentioning U is for Undertow. I really feel remiss in not mentioning that novel as some of it is set at this time. And it’s amazing how the late 1960’s and early 1970’s changed so much in California (well, all over the world, but the focus of that part of the novel is California). In the space of a few years, things had become completely up-ended. In a way it’s a little unsettling how quickly that happened.

  7. I like that you had to explain what a record was. Imagine explaining to a teenager what an 8-track is… or a walkman.

    I haven’t read many mysteries set in the sixties or seventies. I don’t know why. Perhaps because most mysteries I read are set in England where the change wasn’t so acute. Or, maybe people just didn’t write too much from that time. Or, maybe I’m just young and not well read. Most likely the later.

    • Clarissa – I had to explain to a teenager (my daughter was one at the time) what a record, an 8-track and a Walkman were. Also a boom-box. That was a strange experience. Times change really quickly, especially when it comes to technology…
      I think it’s interesting to sit back as it were and reflect on the things we do and don’t read. I know in my case, I’m always surprised by how little I’ve actually read. There’s just too much out there to have all those gaps filled.

  8. Margot, another wonderful and thought provoking post. While I enjoyed the era, I haven’t read very much set during that time. Your post made me think of another issue that I’ve come across in several books I’ve read recently. The recession or difficult economical times people are facing seem to be showing up in more storylines and it’s not the 20s they’re writing about but modern times. Highlighting a major event may date a book, but it also gives a good indicator of what people are facing and how it impacted our society.

    Always liked bell-bottoms, they hide my large feet. 🙂 American Pie is a classic.

    Thoughts in Progress

    • Mason – Thanks so much for the kind words :-). No doubt about it; bell-bottoms have their uses! They looked good with sandals and (later) Earth shoes, too ;-). And yes, American Pie is a truly excellent song.
      Interesting that you would bring up hard economic times. Right you are that there’ve been a lot of recent novels that feature people who are fighting layoffs, foreclosure, homelessness and more. Those are real issues people face and they do impact our society; they really do. So it’s no wonder that the economic troubles of the last several years have found their way into books. They have at other times, too. Hmmmm…a post-worthy pondering – thanks!

  9. kathy d.

    Other than Sue Grafton’s “U” book, I don’t think I’ve read mysteries set in the 1960s, a favorite era of mine — youth, few responsibilities, going everywhere, doing everything. And with my Fred Braun brown leather shoes and purse, turtlenecks and long hair. Listening to the top hits on my litttle radio, (Motown, especially) and reading up a storm. That era in my early teenage years set me off reading lots of fiction, including mysteries.
    I liked the Sjowall and Wahloo Laughing Policeman, and will note down the Reginald Hill and the Ruth Rendell. I wonder how different life was for young folks in England rather than the U.S. during that time.

    • Kathy – Ah, yes! Turtlenecks! You’ve given me a great mental picture! It’s an interesting question, too, how different life must have been for young people of the 60’s in England vs in other countries. I’m sure things were different in some ways, but my guess is that the basic social changes of the era happened in lots of different places.

  10. kathy d.

    Turtlenecks and matching tights! Olive green, burgundy, black, brown, navy, all those drab colors, never bright. We had to wear skirts to high school then so dark solids for those. So glad young women were liberated after that so they could wear pants, especially on cold days.
    And all the activism, too, including on campuses, and hearing Dr. King in 1963. Those were good days.

  11. sue rosly

    What do you think about Amanda Cross? She really caught the radicalism of the 60 s – the sitting in demonstrations, occupation of the campus etc I always had a soft spot for Kate Fansler.

    As usual, great post.

  12. Margot, I missed the 1960s. 😦
    I spent five and a half years at university, where we were not allowed to wear beards, or to demonstrate with the other students. We treated patients and had to maintain certain professional standards. 😦
    When I returned home to live in Chelsea just off the King’s Road, the trendy heart of London, I was too old and far too inhibited to enjoy it.

    • Norman – I suppose it did all have to do with where one was at the time. I guess wearing jeans, long hair and beards, etc. in the surgery might not have inspired confidence in some patients.. And I didn’t realise you lived in that part of Chelsea at that time. That was definitely one of “the places” for the movements of the time.

  13. You have an uncanny eye for detail and perspective, Ms. Kinberg. I don’t remember reading many novels set in the 60s and 70s though over the years I have read fiction based on the activities of the IRA during this period. A historical novel I read many years ago was SAIGON by noted British journalist Anthony Grey. It was based on the Vietnam War. Highly recommended.

    • Prashant – Why, thank you :-). And thank you for mentioning Saigon. I’d heard of that novel but not yet read it. I’ve now put it on my TBR. And I’m glad you mentioned the IRA activities of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. They had tremendous impact and were an important part of that era.

  14. I suppose I must have read a lot of crime fiction written at that time, or at least the 1970s, but I can’t remember much of it. Dorte has already mentioned Ruth Rendell whom I read then. Celia Fremlin and Hillary Waugh were authors I enjoyed reading then, but I am not sure if their books were set then. Then there is Patricia Highsmith, & maybe The Flaxborough Chronicles? Philip at To Be Read is reading books first published in a particular year in the 1970s.

    • Maxine – Oh, I read Hillary Waugh, too (‘though I haven’t for years!). And yes, Patricia Highsmith’s works are worth mentioning, too, so thanks. And I really find Philip’s idea of choosing a year and focusing on just that year in crime fiction. I may try that at some point as I’m sure that it would give one an interesting perspective. Folks, if you’re not following Philip’s blog To Be Read, I recommend it.

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