Everything is Changing But the Song Remains the Same*

BritMuseumChange is inevitable in any culture. Sometimes those changes are for the better, and sometimes they bring trouble. But always they affect the way we think. The tension between new developments and cultural change on the one hand, and the comfort of tradition on the other, can make for a really interesting subtext in a novel. And since cultural change is a fact of life, that sort of tension is also realistic.

Agatha Christie held up a mirror to a lot of the cultural changes that came to her society, especially after World War II. To take just one example, in After the Funeral (AKA Funerals are Fatal), the family of wealthy Richard Abernethie gathers for his funeral and the reading of the will. During that gathering, Abernethie’s younger sister Cora says that he was murdered. At first, everyone hushes her up and Cora herself urges the rest not to pay any attention to what she’s said. But privately, the family members do begin to wonder. When Cora is murdered the next day, it seems even more likely that she was right. Family attorney Mr. Entwhistle visits Hercule Poirot and asks him to look into the matter. Poirot agrees and arranges for the family members to gather at the family home Enderby to choose mementos from among Abernethie’s things. Among other things that come up for discussion is the set of cultural changes that have led to the breakup of the old Victorian estates, and the new generation that has quite different cultural values. Oh, and that weekend yields an important clue to the murderer.

There have been many fundamental changes to Chinese culture over the last hundred years. And within the last twenty-five years there’ve been even more, as China has integrated some elements of capitalism into her economy. The tensions among traditional Chinese culture, Mao-style communism and modern Chinese-style capitalism form an interesting undercurrent in Qiu Xiaolong’s series featuring Shanghai police inspector Chen Cao. Besides his police work, Chen is a poet who reads and enjoys classic Chinese poetry. He also does translations of some English-language work into Chinese, so he has a sense of modern Western thought. The Shanghai in which he works still has elements of the Mao years, and many of the characters we meet in the novels remember the years of the Cultural Revolution and all of its effects. And yet, Shanghai is also in some ways a very modern city in which elements of capitalism are now becoming woven into the social fabric. In the characters’ actions, viewpoints and so on, we see how the many changes China has gone through have resulted in some fascinating larger questions. For instance, can China embrace elements of capitalism without also embracing all of Western culture? Where do traditional Chinese family structure, values and philosophy fit in, if they do? The Inspector Chen series is certainly a crime fiction series, but it also addresses these larger questions.

We also see some of tension that change has brought to the Chinese culture in Shamini Flint’s A Calamitous Chinese Killing. Susan Tan is First Secretary at the Singapore Embassy in China. She has requested that Inspector Singh of the Singapore Police be sent to Beijing to find out what has happened to her son. Justin Tan was killed one night in what the police have called a robbery gone very wrong. And there is evidence to support that theory. That’s also the theory that both governments find most expedient, if tragic. But Tan suspects there’s more to the story, and Inspector Singh has developed a reputation for finding answers. So very reluctantly, he travels to Beijing where he begins to look into the case. As he investigates, readers see some of the cultural changes that have come to that part of China, and the tensions they’ve caused. There is still a strong element among some of the characters of family loyalty, filial duty and traditional Chinese values and beliefs. We also see the effect of Maoist cultural and political values; in fact, there is an interest in reviving some of those values. We also see the element of modern capitalism. Here is what one character says about the effect of some of these changes:


‘‘The government pays lip service to his [Mao’s] memory, but the hero worship of past eras is over.’
‘And what about the ordinary people?’ [Singh]
‘The so-called proletariat?’
‘They’ve found another god to follow.’
‘Xi Jinping?’ referring to the current leader’


Throughout this novel it’s interesting to see how Singh, who is an outsider, perceives all of the changes and their effects on modern China.

Alexander McCall Smith’s Mma Precious Ramotswe sees the changes that have come to Botswana and the effect that they’ve had. She’s certainly no prude, but she doesn’t always like what she sees, especially among those who seem to have forgotten traditional Botswana values. The topic comes up for instance in Morality For Beautiful Girls, in which Mr. Pulani hires the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. He runs a famous beauty pageant and wants the agency’s help in choosing the winner for this year. Mma. Ramotswe is otherwise occupied, so her assistant Mma. Grace Makutsi takes the case. She interviews the four finalists and in her discussions with them, there’s a larger discussion about modern values, traditional values and how they have affected Botswana.

The Thai culture has changed a great deal over the years as it’s come into contact with Westerners. And we see some of that change in Angela Savage’s series featuring Bangkok-based PI Jayne Keeney. One the one hand, there is a strong thread of traditional Thai culture, family structure, values and spirituality. It’s woven into the lives of several of the characters who appear in Savage’s novels. Keeney herself is not Thai, but she has learned about these traditional ways and respects them. At the same time, the culture is changing. There’s an influence of Western music, food, and of course, Western values. In some ways this change has helped Thailand to be a part of the global community. But in others, we can see that the changes have not all been positive. That tension adds a solid thread of both context and conflict to these novels.

Culture change and the tension that it can bring are a reality of life. So it’s not surprising that they also form a solid undercurrent to crime fiction.


ps. The ‘photo? I think it shows cultural change in action. That’s the very traditional and lovely British Museum. The people there are the face of modern London, with all of the cultural change that’s happened in that city.




*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from UB40’s Hand That Rocks the Cradle.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Angela Savage, Qiu Xiaolong, Shamini Flint

34 responses to “Everything is Changing But the Song Remains the Same*

  1. Hi Margot, fab post! In the Ladies’ No 1 series, Mma Makutsi is particularly preoccupied with the “old Botswana ways.” It’s very much in keeping with her judgmental temperament. Our central protag, Mma Ramotswe, has a more measured approach, although there are times when she, too, longs for some of the old ways…but not all of them. I love this series.

    • Kathy – Thanks for the kind words. I’m really fond of this series too, and I agree that it’s awfully interesting to see how Mma. Ramotswe and Mma. Makutsi deal with the cultural and other changes that come to Botswana. As you say, some of the old ways are really appealing, and sometimes more modern ways of looking at things work better. I like the way McCall Smith explores that.

  2. I think one of the reasons there are so many modern detective stories set in the UK in the 1920s is because authors find it interesting to look at the huge changes here that resulted from the First World War – Charles Todd, Catriona McPherson, Rennie Airth and many others. The role of women, the loss of so many single men, the move away from domestic service, and then the economic recession after the Great Crash – all areas of massive change. In fact, I think 1920s detectives would make a good blog topic for you!

    • Moira – You’re absolutely right that the 1920s were a pivotal time. There were so many changes because of The Great War, and there were other social changes that were ‘percolating’ before then and came to the fore during that time. It really is little wonder that there are so many well-written series and novels from and about that time. And you’re right; 1920s detectives would make a great blog topic. I’ve explored that decade, as you know, but not really placed an emphasis on the detectives. I’ll have to give that some thought…

  3. This is one of the reasons I’m such a fan of the Rebus books. Although they’re not political in any way, they always reflect exactly what’s going on in Scottish society at the time – if read back to back, I think they’d provide a pretty comprehensive social history of the last few decades.

    And moving abroad, Shiuichi Yoshida’s ‘Villain’ really gave an idea of the cultural divide between old and young in modern Japan, with the older generations baffled by the online life their children seem to have embraced.

    • FictionFan – I agree with you about the Rebus series. It really does depict the Scottish culture over time. And I like the way Rankin has depicted Rebus as a bit old-fashioned in some ways. He looks at some changes with enough of a jaundiced view that we can see that change isn’t always for the better. But at the same time, Rebus is aware enough to know that you can’t escape change. He learns to go with the social changes that are for the better. He has an interesting perspective.
      And it’s interesting that you’d mention the generation gap as it’s seen in Villain. You see that in a lot of crime novels where the younger generation has ‘gone global’ and is embracing a more international perspective. The older generation often finds ‘the global life’ difficult to understand. And what’s best from the point of view of story development is that neither side is entirely right or wrong.

  4. kathy d.

    I love Precious Ramotswe’s character and optimism, also whatever she says about Botswana’s culture. Also, I adore Jayne Keeney and her investigations.
    But I must read Qui Xaioling’s and Shamini Flint’s books mentioned here. That’s what I must do this year: read more crime fiction set in China. I will probably learn something.

    • Kathy – I like both Precious Ramotswe and Jayne Keeney too. They’re quite different, but each is interesting and each is a welel-developed character.
      I do recommend both the Inspector Singh series (lots of wonderful information in that series about life in Asia) and the Chen Cao series. Both offer fascinating perspectives.

  5. I am with Kathy, I have to try Qiu Xaioling’s and Shamini Flint’s books. I have several of Qiu Xaioling’s books but none of Shamini Flint’s books so far.

    Like Agatha Christie’s book, Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe series must showcase cultural changes, since they started in 1934 and continued for more than 40 years. However, I cannot think of specific examples.

    • Tracy – I hope you’ll have the chance to try both of those series. I think they’re both well worth reading. As to the Nero Wolfe series, I think there is a sense in some of them of the changes in culture over time. For one thing, Wolfe eases his opinion of women just a little as time goes on and we see stronger roles for them. Some of the other ‘isms’ that we see in the earlier novels are also eased I think as time goes on.

  6. An interesting topic Margot. Many of the golden age mysteries set in the UK, do show a lot of changes taking place in the socio-cultural aspect of the society either Post-WWI, or Post WWII/ End of Empire but I have read only a handful that are set in the US. One read recently though is The Blank Wall which is interesting in so far as it discusses the role of the women left behind as the men went to war and additional responsibilities fell on them thereon.

    • Neeru – Thank you. There really were some fundamental sociocultural changes that took place both after empire and after WWII. And there are some beautifully written novels that explore that cultural change and tension. One of those changes was absolutely the role of women. As you say, they went into the workforce in great numbers, and that ended up changing society in enduring ways. It sounds as though The Blank Wall is a solid treatment of that change.

  7. Yes, Angela Savage shows well in her novels the way Thai society is changing. They are set in the past, too (1990s), and as I was living in Thailand then, it’s really interesting to compare that time with the way it is today. Another crime writer who discusses traditional Thai culture versus modern is John Burdett in Bangkok 8, Bangkok Tattoo and Bangkok Haunts. For a Thai account of changing society, see Shadowed Country by Pira Canning Sudham (not a crime novel, but an interesting semi-autobiographical novel from small village to big city to Thai student in London and back).

    • Caron – I didn’t know you’d lived in Thailand – it must’ve been fascinating. I’ve always gotten the sense that Savage’s work was an authentic depiction; it’s good to know you think so, too.
      Thanks also for mentioning Burdett’s work. I really ought to spotlight one of his novels. And Sudham’s work sounds interesting. Thanks for the suggestion.

      • Yes, I lived there 1990-1993 and 1997-99. I worked there as a teacher and journalist respectively. I went from 1994-97 every six weeks, too. My historic novel (The Occidentals, by Caron Eastgate James) is set in 19th-century Siam, and my nonfiction book, Imagining Siam: A Travellers’ Literary Guide to Thailand, is based on my PhD thesis. So, as you can see, I’ve kind of made a career out of my affiliation with Thailand. Angela Savage writes very authentically of Thailand, which is why I’ve been a fan of her books since they first came out.

        • Thanks for the background, Caron. Now I must read your work *embarrassed blush that I haven’t yet.*

        • Ah, so much to read—we could be reading all day every day and never get through 1% of what we want to read. On another matter, I’m nearly finished Paddy Richardson’s Traces of Red. What a great read! I can hardly bare to put it down. Have also got Cross Fingers so I can go straight on. Fantastic writer, great pace and tension in her books. Psychological thrillers, I’d call them. Also having worked as a journalist writing about TV for a long time, I can identify with much of her material (and she’s also spot on about academia!). So, thanks—I found her as a result of reading your blog.

        • Caron – Oh, I am so pleased you’ve been enjoying Paddy Richardson’s work. I think she’s so very talented. And it’s good to hear you’ll be able to move straight on to Cross Fingers. That one is a beautifully done. I haven’t been in journalism (although that aspect of her work feels very authentic to me), but I have been in academia and you’re right. She is spot on about it. I’m very much looking forward to her next book.

  8. Margot: Lisa See in her book Flower Net also deals with the dramatic changes taking place in mainland China during the 1990’s.

    In Saskatchewan there are a pair of mysteries that delve into the fundamental changes in our province with the shift from a land in which Indian peoples lived a traditional lifestyle to a province filled with farms.

    The Third Riel Conspiracy by Stephen Legault takes place during and after the 1885 Rebellion which occurred because of the process of settlement.

    The Legend of the Moonlight Murder – An Adventure of the Young John Diefenbaker by Roderick Benns is a young adult mystery featuring a Canadian Prime Minister as a boy caught up in the murder of a neighbour and the adjustments of Indian people to the new society filled with homesteaders.

    • Bill – Thanks for the mention of Flower Net. And also glad you mentioned the Leaders and Legacies series and The Moonlight Murder. I really like this idea for getting young people interested in Canada’s past and in the histories of her leaders. And …Moonlight Murder is as you say a solid look at the changes in prairie life when homesteaders came. And that tension between the cultures that always had been and the new culture of settlement led to conflict in more than one place. I remember that you mentioned in your review of The Third Riel Conspiracy that it has a solid sense of that time and place.

  9. kathy d.

    Drat! Drat! Why do we only have 24 hours in a day, and why must we sleep, cook, wash dishes, do laundry, pay bills, etc., etc. Can’t we just read 24/7? I think this every time I read a blog post in which people bring up more books, which must be read.
    I did read one Shamini Flint, set in Singapore and Malaysia and I liked it, so will venture on.
    And, yes, cheers to Angela Savage for her Thailand series, can’t wait for the next one. Those are unputdownable !
    Good to see raves about Paddy Richardson. I just finished the well-done and politically excellent Cross Fingers, which focuses on the anti-Springbok mobilizations across New Zealand in 1981 to oppose apartheid in South Africa. The author stays true to her opinions and writes an also unputdownable book. Need more of this author’s books soon, too!
    And the position of women changing during the war. I love that topic. I’m reading Antidote to Murder by Felicity Young, about a woman doctor in 1911 London. Talk about how roles have changed in 100 years! (Getting sewage and sanitation systems alone was revolutionary.)
    And on my TBR stacks is Mari Strachan’s second book, this one about post WWI Wales and PTSD, I think. A sad topic if ever there was one.
    And, yes, I’d say Nero Wolfe’s books have changed somewhat over their 40 year span. Some “isms” are out, i.e., I saw racist language in earlier books, not in later books. The attitude toward women is a bit improved, although Wolfe never wants a woman staying in his brownstone, and he’s still stereotyping.

    • Kathy – I couldn’t agree more about the time thing. I really do wish there were time to read everything we want to read. And I’m glad you reminded me about Felicity Young’s work. I’ve been meaning to spotlight one of her novels and I really must do that. I also very much want to read the second Mari Strachan too. And about Paddy Richardson? Her next book can’t come out soon enough for me!

  10. Many of the Irish novelists are skilled at showing the results “troubles” there. I am thinking of Alan Glynn, Stuart Neville, Declan Hughes and Gene Kerrigan.

    • Patti – You have a well-taken point about that. ‘The Troubles’ meant quite a lot of change in the Irish culture, and yes, those authors certainly address that. They also address other cultural changes, such as in attitudes about religion, economic change and so on. Thanks for filling in that gap.

  11. Margot- I wonder if the social changes between 1920 and 1960 were quite as great as those we have seen in the last half century? I doubt it, despite changes brought about by the two World Wars English society remained basically the same until about 1963, when the lower classes discovered what their superiors were enjoying and wanted some for themselves.
    When Marine Sergeant Nicholas Brodie, Detective Jimmy McNulty, the British Prime Minister and the Mayor of London all went to the same school we can’t really say our culture has changed. 😉

    • Norman – Now, that’s a good point. And I didn’t know those men had all gone to the same school – interesting! Certainly the pace of life has greatly accelerated in the past fifty years, so I see your point about the number of social changes and their powerful effects. And most definitely, class issues have come out more than they ever had previously, and not just in the UK.

  12. Hi Margot. Susan Spann’s Shinobi mystery series might fit in this category. “Claws of the Cat” is about a ninja bodyguard assigned to guard a Portuguese Jesuit who wants to prove a young geisha’s innocence in a murder case. The culture differences and changes over the course of the novel are interesting. Susan did a great job with the research.

    • Pat – Oh, that does sound really interesting! And I’m sure that there’s a lot of ‘culture texture’ as we see the members of different cultures interacting. Thanks for sharing as this is a story I haven’t (yet) read.

  13. kathy d.

    Fascinating to me is the period during which “servants” in Britain went to work in factories and jobs for the government or went into the army during WWII. It seems as if that period ended the “in service” jobs and most working people joined in the larger private or public sector economy.
    I would like to read about this period and the changing job situation, especially for women.

    • Kathy – I think that period of time – when former domestics went into factories (so did wives, etc) is fascinating. Jacqueline Winspear touches on that in Maisie Dobbs, and she’s not the only one. Of course, life was still different depending on one’s social class, but the need to gear up for war production made a big difference I think.

  14. kathy d.

    Yes, exactly. And what happened after WWII here and in England was interesting for women. Here, a lot of women, my mother included, stopped working in factories and elsewhere, and were back in the home.
    And, from watching the excellent Blechley Circle, we learn that highly skilled, brilliant women went from working at jobs that used their talents and intelligence back to the home, restaurants, offices, wasting their skills.
    That was a sad fact that came to light in this series, which, by the way, will run four more episodes in the spring.

    • Kathy – That’s a very well-taken point. After WWII, a lot of women left their jobs, and that’s an interesting phenomenon too. Thanks, by the way, for letting us know about the next four episodes of Bletchley Circle.

  15. Agatha Christie is interesting when it comes to change. In the Poirot books, even when they were written in the 1950s and 60s, there’s a strong sense of the interwar period about them. However I find with the Miss Marple books that, although set in a village, they do tend to keep pace with change, for example the new council estate.

    • Sarah – Now, that’s a very interesting point about the Poirot novels vs the Miss Marple novels. There are certain Poirot novels (e.g. Third Girl) that do refer to some of the post-war cultural changes that occurred. But you do see more of that in the Miss Marple novels. That’s something I hadn’t thought of before – thanks.

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