I Think You Were Lost in the ’70’s*

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.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Colin Dexter, John Alexander Graham, Maj Sjöwall, Marcia Muller, Per Wahlöö, Reginald Hill, Robert Ludlum, Ruth Rendell

26 responses to “I Think You Were Lost in the ’70’s*

  1. Lawrence Sanders wrote his Commandments, and Deadly Sins series in the 70s. Both continue to be in my Top 5 all-time favorites, and I reread at least one of his novels every year. If you’re a hardboiled detective fan, I’d recommend starting with The Second Deadly Sin. You may recall that The First Deadly Sin was made into a film starring Frank Sinatra and Faye Dunaway. I don’t recommend it as a starting point because the main subplot is very depressing and not representative of the rest of the series.

    • RJ – Thank you so much for those suggestions. I haven’t read any Lawrence Sanders in a long time and you’ve reminded me I should go back and do some re-reading. And thanks too for the recommendation to start with the second sin, so to speak. Good advice.

  2. Thanks, Margot, for this *excellent* post. My favourite decade is the 70s, so I’m particularly appreciative. But why no disco?!

    • Mrs. P – That’s awfully kind of you 🙂 – Thank you. So much was happening in the ’70’s – I don’t wonder it’s your favourite decade. About the disco? Ummm… let’s say I danced to a different beat.

  3. Having come of age myself in the early 70’s I can relate to this post. I didn’t read too much mystery during those years being more attached to sci fi at the time (when I was reading genre that is) but I enjoy anyone’s take on that era pretty much – as long as they get it right. I love the sparring that Dalziel and Pascoe do in An Advancement of Learning – the easy way Dalziel can get Pascoe’s self-righteous goat! I think the details are big – the music, the gathering of people to fight injustice or at least protest it, and the feelings – people sometimes focus too much on the unimportant parts of it – the drugs, the burgeoning feeling of sexual freedom brought about by the emancipation of women from their biological destiny – in the form of the pill – the passion with which youth thought they could change the world. I miss that. I hope it is still there under the angry veneer of youth today, as it was under our angry, stoned, or supposedly not-caring (dropping out) veneer.

    • Jan – I agree with you completely about liking people’s take on that era – if they get it right… And yes, there are so many big things that happened during that era. There was the feeling that people could make change, there was indeed some incredible music, and there was this sense of caring, if I can put it that way. I loved that about the era. And I too hope that young people still feel that way. I’ve read some really powerful things that young people are accomplishing, so I have hope…
      About Dalziel and Pascoe? I do love their relationship. They feed off each other and yes, Dalziel sure does have a way of getting to Pascoe. It’s a nice little dig, I think, and it does show how brilliant Dalziel is..

  4. kathy d.

    I loved the l970s. I was a product of the movements of that decade — peace, Civil Rights, students, women’s, and it was great in many ways. Sjowall and Wahloo certainly reflect the anti-war movement as well as changes in other ways, which you describe. I think they also show the student movement, too. It seems to me that many European writers, Scandinavians, and others, reflect the continuations of the great 1968 student uprisings in Paris and elsewhere, which went into the 1970s, and which certainly impacted the U.S.
    Women’s liberation surely influenced the creations of Sharon McCone, Kinsey Millhone and V.I. Warshawski.
    I wasn’t a disco person, but I loved to dance to old r&b and rock and popular music, whatever it was. I’ve got to dig out a lot of that music and play it.
    Yes, there was a feeling that youth could change the world. I think that’s a universal quality held by young people, today, too. Many think that now.
    Many young people are going all over New York and New Jersey with concrete assistance for people suffering from the hurricane. They’re doing it. They care. They want to help.

    • Kathy – It’s so good to hear that young people are among those who are volunteering and helping with storm relief. I love it when I see that enthusiasm. And I have doubt at all that the women’s movement of the early 1970’s was a big part of what inspired sleuths such as Sharon McCone, VI Warshawski and Kinsey Milhone. And in Warshawski’s case, the sense of commitment to cause too. You make a well-taken point too about the link between the student uprisings of 1968 and the early ’70’s student movement. They are indeed reflected in the writing of that era’s crime fiction and I hadn’t thought of that. Thanks.

  5. Margot: Surely the 1970’s have not become a historical era. What would that make us?

    In terms of crime fiction I think a pair of tough guys came of age in that decade that have been reflected in many subsequent mystery series. Both Spenser (Robert B. Parker) and Travis McGee (John D. Macdonald) were in their prime in the 1970’s. They were tough but thoughful, even philosophical, sleuths.

    • Bill – Who said anything about historical? Weren’t the ’70’s just last week? 😉 And thank you very much for bringing up both Spenser and McGee. They were definitely a major part of the ’70’s crime fiction scene and one could even argue that they reflected the movement away from ‘tough guy’ hardboiled crime fiction and towards more thoughtful characters.

  6. Ms. Kinberg, one of the few authors of popular fiction whose writing reflects the changing times is British author Frederick Forsyth. I don’t think Sir Forsyth has skipped even a single major event (or period) in his books. He has covered most of them in his gripping novels, be it World War or Cold War, drugs, assassinations, dictators, post-Soviet Union or terrorism.

    His 1971 thriller THE DAY OF THE JACKAL about a plot to kill French President Charles de Gaulle came less than a decade after the asassination of JFK. Another novel that stands out, especially in light of America’s war against Saddam Hussein and the so-called weapons of mass destruction, is Forsyth’s THE FIST OF GOD (1994) in which coalition forces hunt for Saddam’s secret weapon called The Fist of God. Although the story is set in the backdrop of the Persian Gulf War, I wonder if Sir Forsyth had a premonition of Bush’s war against Iraq in 2003.

    • Prashant – Oh, I am so glad you mentioned Forsyth’s writing. He has indeed addressed so many major events and movements. And his work captures the international climate, so that it’s a very authentic depiction of what really could be. I like his writing style, too. I’m very glad you brought up his work.

  7. Another interesting post, Margot! I was born early in the 70s, so my perception of the decade is a little skewed (mostly centering around trikes and playing with dollies!) but I love mysteries from the 70s. Inspector Morse is my favorite.

    • Elizabeth – Oh, I love Inspector Morse, too! And it’s so interesting that you mention how our perceptions are affected by our age. I think when we’re young, we don’t really see the larger movements and forces and the bigger cycle of history. And it’s hard to do that even when we look back. I know it is for me.

  8. I saw a belief that things could be changed for the better. That we were going to be better society. Now cynicism, including my own, hovers over most novels. .

  9. kathy d.

    I haven’t become cynical. There is no answer to cynicism, I still have hope, as I see young people around the city delivering aid, when larger aid groups are not doing all they should, and as I see the people of Greece, Spain, Portugal and other countries protesting austerity cutbacks.
    There’s a lot going on that’s not seen even in this country; more will unfold as we go along.

    • Kathy – I have hope too. I see a lot of young people getting very much involved in storm relief, other community work and a lot more. I’m not saying there are not desperately difficult problems to solve. There are. But I do have hope.

  10. kathy d.

    My friends here are going to collect blankets, coats and more and add them to what “Occupy Sandy” is gathering and help them and other community organizations to get aid to people.
    When cars weren’t allowed into the city with few people in them, they bicycled aid in to various neighborhoods. That gives me hope!

    • Kathy It sounds as though you and your friends are adding to the reasons we have to hope. That’s wonderful! I hope that Nor’easter doesn’t cause you folks too much trouble. You have enough to cope with at the moment…

  11. kathy d.

    Well, there are lots of young folks bringing blankets and coats to people who need them. I’d say, in the words of Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Pat Barker, from a short story about an older woman, who sees her aging face, and I paraphrase, I don’t understand it. I have the same passion I had when I was 16.
    We have the same passion, hopes, will to help. It’s just that we can’t stay up all night, bicycle around gathering supplies and take them to Brooklyn, stand up all day and distribute everything. Then do it again on little or no sleep the next day. We can applaud them, cheer them up, donate supplies, give donations — and do what we can.

    • Kathy – There is definitely something to be said for having the energy that young people do, that’s for sure. You’re right too that when we do what we can do… that’s helping and it matters.

  12. The 70s definitely feel like a historical period to me. That’s when I mourned what I saw as the end of the Cold War novel era…but then we got a whole new crop of spy novels like The Charm School by Nelson DeMille and I was all excited about reading again. The way genre mysteries have evolved hasn’t bothered me much. I still go back and read the golden oldies from time to time, but I love the modern mystery.

    • Pat – Now that’s a good point. One really could argue that the spy novel changed during the ’70s as the Cold War changed its tenor. As you say, changing times brought new kinds of crime fiction and to me, that’s been a good thing. I think change is good for the genre. But there’s an important place, too, for those golden oldies (I like it that you used that term) and I go back and read them too sometimes.

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