What do you think of when you think of the 1920’s? Do you think of ‘flappers?’ Of Babe Ruth? Prohibition? The growth of Hollywood? It was an action-packed decade, and so many things happened at that time that it’s no wonder it’s got such an appeal. There’s a certain mystique about art-deco and 1920’s style extravagance among other things. So it’s no wonder that the 1920’s is also a big part of crime fiction.
For one thing, many people argue that the Golden Age of crime fiction began to hit its stride in the 1920’s. And I’m sure that those of you who are Golden Age fans could list a large number of authors and books from that time – many more than I could. Let me just mention a few. Dorothy Sayers’ series featuring Lord Peter Wimsey debuted in 1923 with Whose Body?, in which Wimsey investigates the murder of an unknown man whose body is found in a bathtub. This plot thread ties in with embezzlement and another man who seems to have disappeared. In this novel, we see one of the hallmarks of the 1920’s – the class differences that still remained quite strong. Wimsey and his family are wealthy and privileged. They have access to all sorts of means that ‘ordinary’ people do not. And the theme of class differences is woven into more than one of Sayers’ novels.
We also see those stark class differences in historical series. For instance, Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher series features Fisher, who was born to the working class but inherited a title and fortune. So she mixes and mingles in the highest social circles. And yet, we also see that not everyone has that sort of prosperity. In Cocaine Blues for instance, Fisher gets involved in cracking an illegal (and dangerous) abortion clinic for working-class girls and young women whose families don’t have the means to make it all quietly ‘go away’ safely.
The 1920’s were also a time of great waves of immigration, and not just to the United States. Travel was becoming easier and the Great War had uprooted millions of people. The resulting diversity was one of the major social changes of the era. But that immigration also resulted in quite a lot of ethnic and racial prejudice. We see that reflected in crime fiction of the era too. In Margery Allingham’s The Crime at Black Dudley for instance, a group of friends is gathered at Black Dudley, the home of academician Wyatt Petrie. During the course of this house party, Petrie’s uncle Gordon Crombie dies, and it looks very much as though his death is suspicious. One of the guests Albert Campion takes a hand in finding out the truth about the death and about a mysterious ritual that’s supposedly associated with the family living there. In the course of the novel, there are several ‘isms’ and offensive references to members of different groups. You’ll find those in lots of other crime fiction of that decade too.
For several reasons, the roles of women changed fundamentally during the 1920’s. Just as one example, between 1920 and 1929, voting rights were extended to include women in the Czech Republic, Sweden, the U.K., the U.S. and Belgium among other countries (Australia granted federal voting rights to women in 1902, but some states granted it earlier for state elections. Canadian women had full federal voting rights in 1918. Women had had full suffrage in New Zealand since 1893). We see the changing status of women in a lot of crime fiction from and about that era. Certainly we see it in Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher series. Fisher is single and in no hurry to marry. She’s independent, liberated and although she certainly depends on her circle of friends, I’d say the word ‘demure’ hardly describes her.
We see that also in the work of Agatha Christie. Several of her female characters are independent, strong women. There’s Anne Beddingfeld from The Man in the Brown Suit; there’s Katherine Grey from The Mystery of the Blue Train; and there’s ‘Cinderella’ (giving away her real name would be giving away too much of the plot) from The Murder on the Links, just to name three. All of these women think for themselves. They’re not averse to falling in love, and they’re not ‘man haters.’ But all of them reflect the reality of that time that women were coming into their own, so to speak.
A lot of people associate the 1920’s with extravagant parties and hedonism and it was certainly there. We see a hint of that in Agatha Christie’s Dumb Witness (AKA Poirot Loses a Client). Hercule Poiriot and Captain Hastings investigate the death of Miss Emily Arundell, who supposedly died of liver failure, but has a group of relations desperate for her fortune. One of them is Theresa Arundell, a young ‘jet-setter’ who goes with a ‘party crowd,’ drinks heavily and so on. She’s not painted unsympathetically, but she is reckless.
And reckless is I think a good way to describe some aspects of that era. I’m not a psychologist, so I don’t know for sure why the 1920’s was such a time of reckless abandon for a lot of people but here’s my guess. World War I changed everything for everyone. The real threat of mortality (especially with the influenza pandemic that followed that war) made a lot of people decide to enjoy life while they could You see that in writing from the era (e.g. F. Scott Fitzgerald) and you see that theme of deep wounds from the Great War in some terrific historical mystery series too. May I suggest Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs series, ‘Charles Todd’s’ Inspector Ian Rutledge series, and Carola Dunn’s Daisy Dalrymple series. You can also see it in Christie’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles. In all of those novels and series, we get a sense of the privations of the war and the ‘flu pandemic. People wanted to forget it, to plunge into life and have fun while they could.
Of course there was plenty of violence during the 1920’s too. There was a lot of union unrest and the backlash from that. There was plenty of ugly, ugly racism, anti-Semitism, anti-immigration and political corruption and that too led to a lot of violence. And there was organized crime. There’s a trace of that rise in organized crime in Patricia Wentworth’s Grey Mask, in which Charles Moray returns to England after some time away only to find that his home has been taken over by a criminal gang and that the woman who broke his heart may be mixed up with it. And then there’s Jeffrey Stone’s Play Him Again. In that historical mystery, Matt ‘Hud’ Hudson is a ‘rum-runner’ – a smuggler of then-illegal alcohol who supplies Hollywood’s luminaries with ‘liquid fuel’ for their parties. When a friend of his is murdered, Hud goes after those responsible, including a very nasty crime gang that’s moved into the area. That novel also explores what Prohibition was like in the U.S. (and makes it clear why the law enforcing Prohibition was never going to be really successful).
I could go on and on about the 1920’s (Jazz, anyone? The Harlem Renaissance? The fashions!) Moira at Clothes in Books has done some great posts on the clothes and fashions of the era. Here’s just one example. But this one post doesn’t give me nearly enough space to talk about it all. The 1920’s was too influential a decade for that. So now it’s your turn. Does that era appeal to you? Which books and series from and about that era do you like? Help me please to fill the gaps I left.
ps. The pearls on the left in the top ‘photo are part of a long double strand of pearls that belonged to my grandmother. On the right is a double-strand necklace that belonged to my grandmother-in-law. Both are genuine vintage… The other ‘photo is of the terrific Essie Davis, who portrayed Phryne Fisher in the very well-done (in my opinion, anyway) Australian series Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries. These episodes are adaptations of Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher novels and if you get the chance, I can recommend them. They aren’t of course 100% true to the novels, but very nicely done I think.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Cole Porter’s Let’s Misbehave.