This is My Generation, Baby*

GenerationsEach generation sees the world in a slightly different way. That’s in part because each generation grows up in a different time, with different kinds of advantages and pressures. Sometimes it seems as though the younger (or older) generation inhabits a different planet. And in a lot of ways that’s not far from reality. If you think about your own family, you probably could give lots of examples of times where it seems you don’t even speak the same language, let alone have the same outlook on life. We certainly see a lot of that in crime fiction too. I’ll just give a few examples; I’ll bet you’ll be able to share lots more than I could think of anyway.

In Agatha Christie’s Hickory Dickory Dock (AKA Hickory DIckory Death), Hercule Poirot investigates some odd thefts and other occurrences at a student hostel. When one of the residents Celia Austin confesses that she’s responsible for some of the thefts, it seems the matter is over. Two nights later, though, Celia suddenly dies in what seems like a case of suicide. Once that death is proven to be a murder, Poirot and Inspector Sharpe know that this is much more than a few petty thefts. As Poirot looks into the case, he learns that Celia had an unusual reason for taking the things that she took. It’s a modern approach to meeting a very old challenge, if I may put it that way. And it serves to highlight the different ways that different generations look at the world. Christie takes on that difference in outlook in several other stories too (e.g. After the Funeral (AKA Funerals Are Fatal) and Three Act Tragedy (AKA Murder in Three Acts)).

There’s a very distinct (and very sad) generation gap that’s referred to in Tony Hillerman’s stories featuring Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee. Older generations of Native Americans (Leaphorn is a member of the Navajo Nation) were well-versed in the ways of their people. They kept the traditional ways and maintained their culture. But for younger generations it’s been much more difficult. For a long time, young Native American children were (sometimes forcibly) sent to mission schools and other boarding schools, where the emphasis was on assimilation. Children were required to wear Western clothes and hair styles, speak only English and follow Christianity. Those schools have closed, but Leaphorn was affected by that emphasis on Western ways. He attended,


‘A Bureau of Indian Affairs high school that had a sign in the hall. It said, ‘Tradition is the Enemy of Progress.’ The word was, give up the old ways or die.’


The pressure of dominant-culture media, economic forces and global communication has meant that in many ways the younger generations have lost touch with their people’s way of life, although in some areas that’s been changing. Hillerman addresses that issue in several of his novels.

There are distinct generation gaps in Qui Xiaolong’s Death of a Red Heroine. Chief Inspector Chen Cao of the Shanghai Police takes charge of the investigation of the murder of national model worker Guan Hongying. The case is delicate because the victim is a celebrity of sorts, and had several highly-placed friends in the Party. As the story evolves, there’s an interesting sub-text of the gap in world view and values among the generations. There’s the older generation, who have traditional values, beliefs and world views. There’s the Maoist generation, who have been profoundly impacted by Maoist theory and politics, and who experienced the Cultural Revolution. And there’s the younger generation, who are impacted by the growing capitalism in China and by global media. Each generation sees the world, and China, differently.

In Roger Smith’s Dust Devils, we meet Cape Town journalist Robert Dell. He, his wife Rosie and their two children are taking a drive when they are ambushed and the car goes over an embankment. Rosie and the children are killed, but Dell survives. The next thing he knows, though, he is being accused of murdering his family. Soon, he’s charged and jailed, and it looks as though whatever trial there may be has a predetermined outcome. Dell is rescued, though, by his father Bobby Goodbread, from whom he’s been estranged. The reason for the estrangement shows the difference in thinking between two generations. Goodbread is of the ‘Old Guard.’ He was pro-Apartheid and a supporter of ‘the way things have always been.’ To him, the new society is far too chaotic and dangerous. Dell on the other hand repudiates his father’s positions. He sees Aparheid as a moral wrong that has left deep scars, and he sees the changes in South Africa as necessary. His wife was non-white and their children were multiracial. But despite their differences, Goodbread and Dell have one goal in common: they want to travel to Zululand to find Inja Mazibuko, the man who murdered Dell’s family. Mazibuko is about to get married, and his intended bride Sonto, who is usually called Sunday, also reflects a generation gap. She works at an ‘authentic Zulu village’ – a tourist attraction mostly visited by Whites. Sunday wears traditional dress at work, but secretly listens to an MP3 player. She has her own personal reasons for not wanting to marry Mazibuko, one of which is that this marriage was arranged. One thing that guides her thinking is the modern belief that people should decide for themselves whom they’ll marry.

Anya Lipska’s Death Can’t Take a Joke highlights another interesting generational difference in thinking. Janusz Kiszka is a Polish immigrant to London. He’s got a reputation as a ‘fixer,’ as someone who can find things, solve people’s problems and so on. When his friend Jim Fulford is stabbed, he is determined to find out who is responsible. In the meantime, DC Natalie Kershaw is investigating the death of a man who seems to have jumped from the top of the Canary Wharf Tower. The two cases do have a connection, and Kershaw and Kiszka form an uneasy alliance to find out the truth. At one point, the two travel to Poland, and Kiszka makes an interesting observation. He is from the generation that was determined to throw off Soviet-dominated control of the country. That generation, from his perspective, had a strong sense of national pride and solid Polish values and traditions. He notices that the young people, who’ve grown up after the end of the Soviet era, have much less of a sense of national pride. On the one hand, they are more global in outlook. On the other, they have less of a sense of what it is to be Polish. It’s a fascinating look at the effect of global media on a generation of people.

And then there’s Paddy Richardson’s Swimming in the Dark. Ilsa Klein and her parents left Leipzig during the Cold War years when leaving what was then East Germany meant risking one’s life. They ended up in Alexandra, on New Zealand’s South Island, and made lives for themselves. Ilsa loved her former home, friends and extended family and found it difficult to adjust to a new country and a different language. But over the years she has settled in and become a secondary school teacher. She begins to be concerned when one of her most promising students Serena Freeman starts slipping away. Serena skips school and even when she is there, shows little interest. It’s a disturbing change and Ilsa wants to help if she can. She and her mother Gerda find that getting involved in Serena’s life has consequences that they couldn’t have imagined. Throughout the novel, we see a marked generational difference between Gerda’s and Ilsa’s feelings about Germany. Ilsa is nostalgic for Leipzig and her life there. She acknowledges that New Zealand has been a good place, with basically good people, but it’s never really been her home. Gerda on the other hand sees things differently. She is older and knows exactly what the Stasi, the East German secret police, were like. She remembers the betrayals and denunciations, and for her, Germany has no appeal. It’s a very interesting difference in perspective, and generation plays a big role in it.

Even for people who haven’t been through experiences such as war and repression, just belonging to a different generation means a different outlook from the previous and younger generations. It’s part of what defines a person. Where have you seen this difference in outlook in the crime fiction you’ve read?



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Who’s My Generation.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Anya Lipska, Paddy Richardson, Qiu Xiaolong, Roger Smith, Tony Hillerman

28 responses to “This is My Generation, Baby*

  1. Absolutely fascinating subject yet again, Margot. I’ve noticed a clear generation gap in the Japanese crime fiction I’ve read recently: The Thief, Parade, Villain, The Devotion of Suspect X. The younger generation seems to be drifting, unsure of themselves, alienated, not wanting to fit in with the old traditions which their parents still respect.

    • Marina Sofia – Thanks for the kind words. I’ll be honest that I haven’t read a whole lot of Japanese crime fiction. But what I have read does show that shift between generations. Somehow the older generation seems more certain of itself and more sure of everyone’s roles. The younger generation is indeed less sure. It’s as if to say, ‘I don’t know what I want, but I know I don’t want that.’

      • aaron

        Hello Marina Sofia & Margot! I absolutely concur that this is another marvellous post, Margot…thanks! Marina Sofia, I am an avid fan of Japanese fiction ( I adored the novel Villain), and there is a fascinating non-fiction study of the Japanese “lost generation” called Shutting Out the Sun. Depending on just how interested you are in Japanese culture, I thought you might be interested in checking it out! 🙂

        • Oh, thank you, Aaron – Much appreciated. Fiction can teach us an incredible amount about a society, but a non-fiction perspective is important too. And it would be interesting to see what that study has found. And thanks for the kind words, too.

  2. I’m glad you mentioned Agatha Christie here – I think one of the many things she doesn’t get credit for is that she is very good on generational differences, and she shows them in a very non-judgmental way, seeing both sides of the question.

    • Moira – I’ve always thought so too. She did such an excellent job of holding up a mirror to her society: honest, and not always flattering, but fair about several things.

  3. This is a very interesting topic in mystery fiction. I hope I get to Death of a Red Heroine soon.

    The generation gap I notice here in real life (and fiction?) is the use and acceptance of technology. Older generations sometimes reject technology, younger generations cannot live without. Leaves a big gap.

    • Tracy – I completely agree. Technology is a major factor in the generation gap. Younger people seem to be ‘digital natives.’ They’ve always had a lot of digital technology and are thoroughly comfortable with it. That’s how they think. Older people are ‘digital immigrants.’ They’ve had to learn to use technology and adapt to it. It’s a big difference. And even if you look back in time before the digital revolution, you see younger people being as a rule a lot more open to technological development than older people.

  4. Hi Margot! The disagreements between Myrtle Cover and her son come to mind. Elizabeth Spann Craig did a great job with that relationship in Pretty Is As Pretty Dies..

  5. Margot – As your post reminds us so well, generation gaps, in fiction and real life, go across eras and cultures. However … it seems to have been especially pronounced for the Baby Boom generation who grew up in unprecedented post WW2 affluence. BTW for better or worse I count myself among the boomers. I remember all those stories my parents and grandparents told about the Depression and the War and it was hard to relate to, still is actually.
    Agree with the comments about Dame Agatha holding up a mirror to British society and revealing the warts and all reality, albeit often with affection.

    • Bryan – You’ve got a well-taken point. There was a major shift in thinking between, as Tom Brokaw has called it, ‘The Greatest Generation’ and the Baby Boomers. Part of it was technology. Part of it was differences in experiences. Part of it was, as you point out, affluence. There are other factors too, of course. It was a different world and it’s not surprising that there was such a divide. And you’re right: Christie often showed affection for her society even as she pointed out its flaws.

  6. In Agatha Christie’s autobiography, she remarks, in describing her childhood, that it sounds so detached from the post-war 20th century in which she was writing. She grew up in a big house with servants, a father who didn’t have to work because he had an “independent income”, extended trips to “the Continent” and so on. But all was not as wealthy and privileged as people hearing that later supposed, she said. It’s a fascinating account of this bygone time in England.

    • Caron – Thanks. I’ve always thought that Christie was very clear-eyed about the way she grew up and how England changed so dramatically during her lifetime. Of course, it’s her own story so she tells things her way. Still, I think it is truly interesting and certainly gives a terrific perspective on her life and the times.

  7. I second MarinaSofia’s comment – I’ve noticed it most in recent Japanese fiction too. It seems to me that there’s not just a generation gap there, but a kind of emptiness in the youth side of the equation that is looking to be filled – potentially quite scary. And the older generation seems to be completely lost in trying to understand the younger – in fiction anyway. I always kind of hope it’s just a cultural way of telling stories rather than a literal representation of an entirely divided and drifting society…

    • FictionFan – Oh, I hope not, too. This conversation’s also making me think of the ‘Lost Generation’ and people like F. Scott Fitzgerald. They, too, drifted, weren’t sure what to believe in, and certainly couldn’t relate any more to past generations. I think people want life to make sense, and when it doesn’t – when it all feels too empty – one feels lost. It is quite scary as you think about it…

  8. Very interesting. I have always held that each generation is like the one before but neither recognise the ‘sameness’. As always, Margot, you have provided food for thought.

    * While I remember… What is the name of the author that writes in Quebec 3 pines? Thanks. Planning to read her over the summer.

    • Lesley – I think you’re referring to Louise Penny, and I hope you’ll get the chance to read her novels. Such a gifted writer and I do love that series.
      You make a well-taken point too that there are things that tie the generations together. Your comment reminds me of a scene in Christie’s Hickory Dickory Dock, where Poirot and another character are talking about young people’s ways of pairing up. People have always paired up, but their ways of meeting each other and so on have changed. Underlying it all though is the same theme of finding someone special.

      • Yes, time changes by way of technology and new gadgets but basic human nature remains the same. That is a good example and even that has changed its name but never the main purpose.
        Louise Penny. I will remember that – my daughter’s middle name and we now have no pennies in our currency. Thank you!

        • Lesley – I hope you’ll enjoy Penny’s work. And I think it’s really interesting the mnemonic devices you’re using to remember the name. The way people go about remember things is really interesting to me.

  9. Col

    Another interesting topic. Nothing to add other than Roger Smith is excellent. I’ve only read a couple so far, but Dust Devils is waiting.

  10. What a fascinating post (as always) about the generation gap. Barbara Vine’s early books often had this theme running through them, especially Asta’s Book.

    • Cleo – Thank you. Glad you enjoyed the post. And thanks too for mentioning Barbara Vine/Ruth Rendell. Her work certainly does address that theme of the generation gap and Asta’s Book is a powerful example.

  11. I could write all day about the generation gap. I teach adults but while they started as my contemporaries, as I’ve got older and my new students have stayed the same age, a generation gap has developed.

    On one hand, it’s great fun and, believe me, I know every new app that comes out, but I sometimes crave the company of my contemporaries. I think life experience/a healthy dose of cynicism is sometimes needed over relentless optimism which I can find exhausting at times.

    I love AC’s Hickory Dickory Dock

    • Sarah – It’s so interesting that you’ve experienced the generation gap with your students. I hadn’t thought about it that way, but I’d imagine that teachers do indeed sometimes feel that gap very strongly. I know I do with some of my students. Thanks for adding that dimension.
      I think you’re right too that there is something to be said for having the life experience and cynicism that comes with being more mature. The drama of being young can be exciting, and I envy people of my daughter’s generation their energy. But as you say, it’s exhausting. But then, that’s my generation speaking…
      And I think Hickory Dickory Dock is definitely one of Christie’s better novels.

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