‘Cause She’s Still Preoccupied With 1985*

As our society changes, those changes are reflected in crime fiction. That’s a blatantly obvious statement but behind it is a fascinating purpose that crime fiction serves. In reading crime fiction from or about a given era, we get a perspective on that era. For example, if you think about it, several major changes socially and politically happened during the 1980’s and it’s interesting to see how they’re reflected in crime fiction.

One of those major changes was the beginning of the end of the Cold War between the Soviet Union and its allies and the United States and its allies. While the Soviet Union didn’t officially break up until 1993, the process started during the 1980’s. This change had, of course, many effects in the real political, economic, social and military worlds and we see that in crime fiction. For instance, in Margaret Truman’s Murder in the House, US Congressman Paul Latham is shot one night just before his confirmation hearings to become the next US Secretary of State. The first explanation for the death is that Latham committed suicide. But that explanation doesn’t hold much water, especially when it comes out that Latham’s assistant Marge Edwards was about to accuse him of sexual misconduct. Then, Edwards disappears and the mystery around Paul Latham’s life deepens. Georgetown Law School professor Mackensie “Mac” Smith gets drawn into the case when a former student contacts him to tell him that there was a lot more going on in Latham’s life than it seems on the surface. Smith and Latham were friends too and Smith is fairly certain that Latham wasn’t guilty of sexual misconduct, nor was he suicidal. So Smith begins to investigate. He discovers that Latham was involved with Warren Brazier, a successful American business entrepreneur who wants to make inroads into the new economic climate in the Soviet Union. As Smith explores that angle to this case, we see how the end of the Cold War meant a complete renegotiation of the relationship between the US and the Soviet Union.

Even before the Soviet Union officially broke up, there was an easing of restrictions against travel between the USSR and the United States, and this is reflected in crime fiction too. In Robin Cook’s Vector, we meet Yuri Davydov, an émigré to New York City who was lured (or so he feels) by promises of great success. He’s become disenchanted though because life in the US isn’t the “easy ride” he’d thought it would be. In the Soviet Union Davydov was a technician in Biopreprat, the Soviet biological weapons program. He has therefore well-developed and highly professional scientific and technical expertise. But in the US he’s only been able to find work as a taxi driver. So he’s easy prey, as you might say, for a group of skinheads who also feel cheated by “the system.” When they find out about Davydov’s skills, his new associates decide to plan the ultimate revenge against the government: the release of the anthrax bacteria. New York medical examiners Laurie Montgomery and Jack Stapleton become aware of a possible terrorist plot when a carpet dealer dies of anthrax poisoning. Now Montgomery and Stapleton have to find and stop the conspirators before they carry out their plan.

Robin Cook has of course written a number of medical thrillers and so have Michael Palmer and other authors too. Although there’ve been medical mysteries for a long time, the discovery and identification of the HIV virus in the early 1980’s arguably brought a lot of attention to viruses, virus transmission and medical procedures. So it’s not surprising that Palmer’s and Cook’s medical thrillers became popular during the 1980’s. In fact it was during those years that the medical mystery really became what you might call a separate sub-genre. As medical advances took place during that decade, they found their way into those novels.

Another major change of the 1980’s was in the role of women. Of course the women’s movement and women’s issues had been around for a long time before the 1980’s. And there’ve been female fictional detectives for generations. But during the 1980’s more and more female protagonists were not just clever, intuitive and sometimes strong-willed but very strong and independent characters. For instance, Joan Smith’s Loretta Lawson is a visiting professor at Oxford, where she’s met and befriended Oxford don Bridget Bennett. In the course of this five-novel series, which begins with 1987’s A Masculine Ending, we see Lawson’s perspective as an ardent feminist who’s trying to map out a life for herself in a world of new “rules” for women. By today’s standards, Lawson’s militant brand of feminism may seem dated. But series like this one highlight the evolution of the women’s movement as women began to insist on having access to the same power and privilege as men.

Sara Paretsky introduced her private investigator sleuth V.I. Warshawski in 1982’s Indemnity Only. In that novel, Warshawski is hired to find a missing young woman Anita Hill. Soon after she begins her search, Warshawski discovers the body of Hill’s boyfriend Pete Thayer, who is the son of a wealthy Chicago banker. As Warshawski continues her search, she discovers that both Pete Thayer’s death and his girlfriend’s disappearance have everything to do with insurance fraud, union graft and high-level corruption.

In 1982 we also saw the release of Sue Grafton’s first Kinsey Millhone novel A is for Alibi. This novel introduces another strong female protagonist. Although Millhone has been compared to Warshawski (which makes sense since they do have some similarities) she’s quite different in her own way. As this series has continued we see how Millhone has carved out a place for herself as a private investigator in a male-dominated career. These PI’s highlight the journey many women have taken as they’ve negotiated their place in the world. They are not simply “women who act like men so they’ll be taken seriously.” They are strong female protagonists.

The 1980’s also saw the rise of the cocaine trade. Of course, drug smuggling has been around for a long time, but during the 1980’s, drugs gangs and “drug lords” made huge profits from cocaine trafficking. Because of the incredible amounts of money to be made there were gang rivalries and of course murder. In his last novel The Lonely Silver Rain, John D. MacDonald takes an uncompromising look at the ugliness of that business. Travis McGee has just located a wealthy friend’s missing yacht. When he goes on board, he makes the grisly discovery of several brutally murdered bodies. His discovery puts him right in the middle of South Florida’s “cocaine wars” and therefore makes him a target for some extremely nasty people. Of course, this novel is richer than just that plot line, but to say much more gets (in my opinion) too close to “Spoilerville.”

There were other sociopolitical changes during the 1980’s – many more than there is room for in this one post. So grab your down vest, your cassettes and your copy of Back to the Future and share your favourite 80’s themed crime fiction. You can even use your loooong-corded telephone to ‘phone in your thoughts. 😉

ps. Yes, folks, that’s a genuine 1980’s vintage Members Only jacket in the ‘photo. The red CD on the left is of Billy Joel’s Концерт (Concert) – from his late ‘80’s concerts in the Soviet Union. The CD on the right is Paul Simon’s 1986 Graceland.




*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bowling For Soup’s 1985.


Filed under Joan Smith, John D. MacDonald, Margaret Truman, Michael Palmer, Robin Cook, Sara Paretsky, Sue Grafton

26 responses to “‘Cause She’s Still Preoccupied With 1985*

  1. Strange coincidence, Margot, I’m just reading Another Time, Another Place by Leif G W Persson, which among other things examines the lead-up to the dismantling of the Berlin Wall in autumn 1989, and the associated travel restrictions that happened previously between east and west Europe. I haven’t actually read that many novels with this background, perhaps because they tend to be thrillers? But, as you write, I’ve read plenty of excellent novels written/set in the 1980s, an era I remember fondly!

    • Maxine – Oh, that is a Twilight Zone kind of coincidence! 😉 – That was a good era in a lot of ways for me too so it’s always enjoyable to read about it. You make a very interesting point too about the dismantling of the Berlin Wall. I suspect a lot of novels that have that background are thrillers, which makes sense when you consider all the political jockeying of the day. I look forward to seeing what you think of Another Time, Another Place; if it’s a good ‘un it’ll be interesting to see how Persson links the incidents in the novel and develops the story against the backdrop of what was going on at the time.

  2. I loved Barbara Wilson’s books in the 1980s, again, very much up for the feminist & left-wing views, not dissimilar from the Joan Smith ones. By chance I’m doing a blog entry later in the week about a book published in 1990, but very much with that 80s feel – Salmon in the Soup by Meg O’Brien. I’d never heard of book, author or series and picked it up 2nd-hand. A bit too routine for me, but now I can see it as a paradigm for the 80s!
    I think the rise of the women authors/protagonists was the big thing affecting my 80s reading, but yes cocaine was a big deal too…
    Very enjoyable piece!

    • Moira – Thank you! 🙂 – I do look forward to your piece on Meg O’Brien. I enjoy making those fun discoveries of books and authors in 2nd-hand shops and at library sales. You never know when you’ll find a gem and even it isn’t a gem, it can be a good experience and worth the read. Thanks too for mentioning Barbara Wilson; a very ’80’s-feminist sort of view indeed and yes, similar to the Smith series in that way.

  3. Terrific post. I well remember reading Grafton, Paretsky, Muller, Rendell et al in the eighties. Wonderful time for female writers.

    • Patti – Thank you 🙂 – I appreciate it. You know you’re right about the 80’s too. Many, many highly talented female authors got their start and become very popular during that time.

  4. I really and truly missed the eighties. Partly because I moved for a few years to a logging town on Vancouver Island – we had no radio reception, tv, nothing – took us weeks to find out John Lennon had been shot. The sixties – no problem – especially since they happened mostly in the 70’s but the eighties – well – gah! I just don’t know. I do love Grafton, Paretsky though…

    • Jan – Oh, that’s so interesting that you were basically out of touch during the 80’s. I’ll bet there really was a certain sense of peace being out of touch with the media, though. I am a firm believer that there is such a thing as stimulus overkill, especially when it comes to the media. Interesting point too that a lot of what got its start in the ’60’s really happened in the early ’70’s.

  5. kathy d.

    Oh, the 1980s! Your memorabilia is wonderful. I remember most of all reading crime fiction with women protagonists, especially as written by Sara Paretsky and Marcia Muller, who both wrote about social issues. Muller’s books focused on a lawyers’ collective, which I loved and the legal cases were interesting and full of politics and meaty issues. At the time I worked for a non-profit civil liberties legal organization and so Muller’s books resonated with me. Then later on I read Sue Grafton’s books. But I loved V.I. Warshawski’s and Sharon McCone’s adventures and independence, bravado, courage, chutzpah, everything about them.

    • Kathy – I’m so glad you like the memorabilia 🙂 – the 1980’s was quite a decade. I’m also glad you mentioned Marcia Muller. Her novels reflect not just a strong female protagonist but also the evolution of the legal-based novel. Sharon McCone is a good character too! And you’re quite right that those two strong female protagonists really did flourish for the first time during the 1980’s.

  6. kathy d.

    Oh, and I liked Barbara Wilson’s books, too, so full of the women’s movement. However, she published one book later on entitled The Case of the Orphaned Bassoonists, which takes place in Venice, Italy. The book’s setting was contemporary times, but it gives quite a bit of history about Venice in the Middle Ages, when single women gave up their infant girls to convents. They were raised in the convents and were trained to play many musical instruments and perform together.

  7. Margot: As I was reading your post I was thinking of The Lonely Silver Rain. Macdonald’s series ended in the mid-1980’s. I was sad to see it end and sorry a new female character who appeared in the book could not be a part of further books. I have often wondered if Macdonald would have actually featured her. Had he lived longer and it happened there would have been a wonderful addition to new female sleuths during the 1980’s.

    • Bill – I also would have liked to see what would have happened if that series had continued. That particular character could indeed have added much to the genre. That said though, I am very glad that no-one else tried to pick the series up and continue it. It could never have been the same.

  8. Posts like this terrify me. They make me realise just how old I am!

  9. Karin Slaughter’s latest, Criminal, alternates between 1974-75 and current time. In the 70s there were few women on the police force and the sexist treatment was disgusting. That is contrasted with current day cops where many of those women are now in charge. It was the best thing about this book.

    • Barbara – I’ll admit I’ve not read Criminal, but that contrast you bring up is really interesting. It highlights very clearly the major changes in our society in the past 30 years, and I can well imagine you enjoyed that part of the novel.

  10. kathy d.

    I think that you would really enjoy The Case of the Orphaned Bassoonists. It’s fun and I learned a thing or two about Venice that I hadn’t known.
    About getting older — and really, it’s fine considering the alternative, as relatives and friends have said — I remember a line from Pat Barker’s Union Street stories, “But I still have the same passion I had when I was 16.”

    • Kathy – Oh, I love that line! Thanks for that. I think it’s that zest for life that keeps people “alive” no matter what their ages. And I will definitely try The Case of the Orphaned Bassoonists. It does sound interesting.

      • I read the Orphaned Bassoonists recently, catching up on Wilson that I’d missed, and enjoyed it very much… A few years ago there was a film made of one of her books, Gaudi Afternoon – it was very good, I had high hopes there might be a series, but it disappeared w/o trace, despite having a great cast and director.

        • Moira – Thanks for the endorsement. That novel officially goes on my TBR list. It’s interesting isn’t it (and disappointing too) how often a well-done television series doesn’t get picked up or continued while so much really poor stuff does *sigh*.

  11. I remember, in the 1980s and early 1990s I read nearly everything about the breakup of the Soviet Union, Gorbachev’s political and economic reforms, and the end of the Cold War. I also read about these epochal events in general fiction though I think not in crime fiction. You have cited some terrific examples among which I’m intrigued by Margaret Truman’s “Murder in the House” and Robin Cook’s “Vector.” One of the pet themes of Cold War fiction was defections from the USSR to the US and the extent to which the intels of both countries went to hold on to the defectors, in what often seemed to be a pretty silly game of political oneupmanship. British intelligence veteran Kenneth Aubrey, the chief character in many of Craig Thomas’ novels, was a product of the Cold War. His novels moved at a slow pace but they were entirely believable.

    • Prashant – That series of events – the breakup of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold war – is such a fascinating time in history that I’m not surprised at all you’ve wanted to read so much about it. You’re right too that there was a strong push just before those events to prevent defection. Sometimes it seems as though some defectors were being used as pawns in the political game.
      Thanks too for mentioning Craig Thomas’ work. I am less familiar with it than I am of some other authors so I’m glad you added your knowledge to our discussion.

  12. I didn’t start reading Carl Hiaasen’s work until I moved to South Florida in 1987, but I think he started writing mysteries in the early 80s. His stories deal with local issues and his characters are offbeat, even wacky. Maybe that was a sign of the times, too.

    • Pat – Oh, that’s so true! Hiaasen did start writing in the early 1980’s and brought to light a lot of the issues such as corruption, toxic waste and more that came to light in South Florida at that time. Thanks for bringing up his work. Folks, do read some Hiaasen if you haven’t: terrific wacky characters and situations, a solid look at some important issues and some real humour too.

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