As anyone who lived through them could tell you, the 1970’s were a time of real social, political and geopolitical change. And because good crime fiction reflects society, we see those changes reflected in the crime fiction of the era. There won’t be space in this one post for me to discuss all of those changes; I’ll just mention a few of them and you’ll see, I hope, what I mean.
Let’s start, though, with some major changes that were going on in crime fiction itself. You may disagree with me on this, but I see the 1970’s as a bridge between the end of the Golden Age/traditional kind of detective fiction and more modern crime fiction. Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh and some other Golden-Age authors were still writing as the 1970’s began, and we see their influence. At the same time, though, other authors were taking that tradition and innovating with it.
For instance, Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö began writing their series featuring Stockholm detective Martin Beck in the mid-1960’s and carried it through into the mid-1970’s. In that series, we see elements of traditional crime novels. But we also see innovations such as exploration of psychology and social critique. We could say a similar thing about Ruth Rendell’s series featuring Inspector Reg Wexford. That series began in the 1960’s and has continued since then. As the series moved into the 1970’s, we see the traditions of the Golden-Age detective story, but made more modern and addressing more complex themes. I would argue (but feel free to differ with me if you don’t see it this way) that these two series reflect a growing interest in 1970’s crime fiction in the development of deeper and more complex characters.
We also see that development in Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse series, which also began (with Last Bus to Woodstock) in the 1970’s. That series has some elements that you could argue come from Golden Age traditions (e.g. the brilliant detective, the cast of suspects and so on). But at the same time there’s exploration of psychology, there’s the development of the flawed and complex sleuth, and other elements that one could argue are more typical of modern crime fiction.
The world outside was changing too and crime fiction of the day reflects that. One major change was the development of what I’ll call the youth culture. Many people think of ‘hippies’ as a ’60’s phenomenon,’ and certainly there was plenty of youth activism then. But student demonstrations and student political activism was vey much a part of, especially, the early 1970’s. We see that for instance in Reginald Hill’s An Advancement of Learning, in which Superintendent Andy Dalziel and (then) Sergeant Peter Pascoe investigate a murder on the campus of Holm Coultram College. There’s a strong student movement also in John Alexander Graham’s The Involvement of Arnold Wechsler. In that novel, a Classics professor is asked to investigate his brother’s connection to a radical student movement on the campus of quiet Hewes College. There are lots of other examples too of crime fiction that involves student activism and the ‘youth culture.’
Another major change of the 1970’s was the beginning of the move in international politics from the Cold War to what we think of as modern-day terrorism. Oh, the Cold War was still going on, and I’m sure you could list lots more Cold War-themed novels of the day than I could. And terrorism did not begin in the 1970’s. But especially after the tragic attacks at the 1972 Munich Olympics, terrorism began to be a reality more than it ever had. We see that reflected, for instance in Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s The Terrorists. In that novel, Martin Beck and his team are assigned to protect a U.S. senator who’s visiting Stockholm because he is at risk from terrorists. In the meantime, they’re also investigating the murder of pornographic film-maker Walter Petrus (Valter Pettersson) and the case of Rebecka Lind, who’s on trial for a bank robbery she says she didn’t commit. It’s an interesting look at, among other things, the rise of the threat of terrorism and its effects on policing.
The politics of the 1970’s (I’m thinking in particular about the Watergate scandal that brought down U.S. President Richard Nixon’s administration) changed the way many people viewed political leadership. There’ve been political thrillers around for quite a while of course, but consipiracy thrillers (such as those of Robert Ludlum) were made even more popular by real-life events such as Watergate.
The 1970’s was also a time of a great deal of social upheaval too. As women began to insist on being treated as equals (the movement was called Women’s Lib(eration) in the U.S.) there was a real re-thinking of the roles men and women should play. Basically, the rules had changed and a lot of people were no longer sure exactly what they were any more. We see that reflected in a lot of crime fiction. For instance, there’s Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse, who is old-fashioned in some ways. As the 1970’s goes along, he has to increasingly interact with women who simply don’t see the world, or male/female relationships, the way he does. And then there’s the beginnings of the truly independent female crime fiction protagonist. Of course there’ve been female protagonists for quite a long time in the genre. But protagonists such as Marcia Muller’s PI sleuth Sharon McCone were a newer development. McCone does have relationships, but she doesn’t depend on a man to ‘do the rough stuff.’ Nor does she try to ‘act like a man.’ By the end of the decade, women were beginning to take on the world, if I can put it that way, on their own terms, and we start to see that in crime fiction.
I could mention a lot of the other major changes the 1970’s brought (e.g. the rewriting of the ‘rules’ for race relations, the beginning of the gay rights movement, and so on). And the crime fiction of the era reflects what an unsettled time it was. But what’s your view? What 1970’s phenomena do you see reflected in that decade’s crime fiction? C’mon, comb those sideburns or that ‘Farrah Flip,’ dig out that forest-green suit or peasant blouse and let me know what you think.
ps. You will notice that this post contains no mention of disco or disco fashion, other than this sentence. There is a reason for that.
*Note: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s All You Want to Do is Dance.