I’m Old-Fashioned*

Old FashionedIn many ways it’s good – very good – to live in modern times. There’s better technology, better medical care and lots of other societal improvements. And while there is still bigotry and that may always be, there are fewer ‘-isms’ that limit people now than there were. But some of those things we may think of as ‘old-fashioned’ can actually be pleasant. Here are just a few examples from crime fiction to show you some things that may be old-fashioned but that perhaps people actually miss…

In Agatha Christie’s The Murder on the Links, Captain Hastings is on his way back to London by train. Sitting in the same coach is a young woman who is in many ways very modern in her outlook. They strike up a conversation, and she pokes a little fun at him for his old-fashioned ways. But on a more serious note, she says,


‘You’ve been dug out of the backwoods, you have. Not that I mind that. We could do with a few more of your sort.


Hastings and the young woman, who calls herself ‘Cinderella,’ part company and at first it looks as though they won’t meet again. But when Hastings and Hercule Poirot travel to France to investigate the murder of Paul Renauld, Hastings and Cinderella have what you might call a reunion. Although she is a modern young woman, she appreciates Hastings’ somewhat traditional outlook on life.

Isaac Asimov is perhaps best known as an author of science fiction, but he also wrote detective stories, including a trilogy featuring New York City police officer Elijah ‘Lije’ Baley. In The Caves of Steel, Baley and his new partner R. Daneel Olivaw are assigned to investigate the murder of noted scientist Dr. Roj Nemennuh Sarton. This isn’t going to be an easy case though. For one thing, life is difficult in the futuristic New York that Asimov depicts. Earth has become overcrowded and most humans have little better than a subsistence lifestyle. For another, there is an ongoing feud, which sometimes flares, between Earthmen (descendants of those who never left the planet) and Spacers (descendants of those who have explored outside the planet). Baley is an Earthman and the victim was a Spacer. What’s worse, R. Daneel Olivaw is a positronic robot. If there’s anything that Earthman dislike more than Spacers, it’s robots. That’s because they are perceived as a threat to humans. Despite these challenges though, Baley and Olivaw work together to solve the murder. In one plot thread in this story, there is a real mistrust among humans of old-fashioned, traditional things such as spectacles (instead of contact lenses). In fact, the interest in such things is known as Medievalism and is regarded as holding people back. And yet, there is a secret group of people who think fondly of what even Baley admits were simpler times. The question of preserving these things forms an interesting layer in the story.

In some ways, Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse is old-fashioned. There are several examples of this in the series featuring him; we see one in The Daughters of Cain. In that novel, Morse and Sergeant Lewis are on the trail of the person who killed a former don Felix McClure. At first it seems that the murderer was McClure’s former scout Ted Brooks. But when he disappears and is later found dead, things aren’t quite that simple. In the course of the investigation, Morse meets Eleanor ‘Ellie’ Smith, a prostitute who may be connected with the case. The two develop an interest in each other despite the fact that she’s a suspect in a murder investigation. Smith is a very modern young woman. She wears nose rings, uses language that Morse would prefer a woman not use and so on. But at one point, he gets the chance to see her dressed more traditionally and without her nose rings and he admits he likes her better that way. For her part, Smith is attracted to Morse’s view of the world, even though she doesn’t really envision herself settling down, marrying and so on in the traditional way. Even Morse’s insistence on standard English doesn’t bother her…

Catherine O’Flynn’s What Was Lost is in part the story of what happens to a traditional English town when a new mall comes in. The story begins in 1984, when the Green Oaks Shopping Center opens. Ten-year-old Kate Meaney is a fledgling detective, and she’s sure that there’s lots of crime to investigate at the mall, so she spends a lot of time there. One day she goes missing and despite a thorough search, is never found. Her friend Adrian Palmer is blamed for her disappearance, although he claims innocence. He’s treated so badly though that he leaves town, vowing not to return. Twenty years later, his sister Lisa is working at a dead-end job at Green Oaks when she meets Kurt, a security guard who’s employed there. The two strike up an unlikely friendship and each in a different way, look back into the past to find out what really happened to Kate. One of the themes in this novel is what happened to traditional English ‘High Street’ shopping with the coming of the mall culture. And the mall that replaces those shops turns out to be somewhat ‘plastic’ as opposed to the more genuine shops. As we learn in the novel, the mall culture hasn’t really made life in the area better.

In one of Anthony Bidulka’s series, we get to know Russell Quant, a Saskatoon PI. One of Quant’s haunts is Colourful Mary’s, a local restaurant that serves ‘down home’ cooking. In fact, Quant describes it this way:


‘Marushka cooks like everyone’s mother, most notably her own. In addition to some rather standard fare for the less adventurous, Marushka always adds one or two Ukrainian delicacies to the daily menu…I like Colourful Mary’s…You feel cared for but not smothered. I’m also addicted to Marushka’s cooking.’


It’s not a formal restaurant, but it serves traditional, old-fashioned (i.e. not pre-packaged) food. Little wonder it’s so popular with customers.

Most people don’t think of millinery shops as exactly modern and up-to-date. But there’s nothing quite like the feeling of having a hat custom-designed for you. And that’s exactly the business that D.S. Nelson’s Blake Heatherington has been in for years. He’s very skilled at knowing exactly what kind of hat would best suit each client, and delights in making them. In Hats Off to Murder, One For the Rook, and soon Model For Murder, Heatherington puts those old-fashioned skills to use to when murder strikes first his shop and then his allotment. In some ways Heatherington is old-fashioned, but that’s precisely what makes his character appealing.

The ‘good old days’ certainly had many serious problems. I doubt most of us would want to go back. But if you’ve stayed at an old-fashioned hotel with old-fashioned customer service, you know how pleasant it can be. If you’ve been to a restaurant or shop with old-fashioned service, you know how pleasant that can be too. And old-fashioned courtesy on anyone’s part is a refreshing thing. Perhaps not all modern changes have been for the better…


*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Jerome Kern and Johnny Mercer.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Anthony Bidulka, Catherine O'Flynn, Colin Dexter, D.S. Nelson, Isaac Asimov

38 responses to “I’m Old-Fashioned*

  1. Margot, an intriguing post indeed. As we advance with all the modern technology we do lose some of our past that we would be better off keeping – old-fashion service, personal interaction when doing business, etc. I wonder would you consider Craig Johnson’s Longmire a story that combines the old-fashion with the modern? In someways Longmire is old-fashion, but deals with modern problems.

    • Mason – I agree with you that there are some old-fashioned things that are worth keeping, even as we embrace modern technology, medicine and so on. Interesting question about Walt Longmire too. In his way I think he is old-fashioned. He has traditional ideas about loyalty. And although he’s no prude, you can tell that he sometimes doesn’t know how to react to his deputy’s very modern and outspoken ways, especially when she talks about relationships.

  2. I guess I miss the “old-fashioned courtesy” you mention, but don’t feel too nostalgic about a lot of other things….except maybe my grandmother’s cooking. And I agree with Mason about Walt Longmire. He seems to have one foot in the modern world and one in the past, and he’s not entirely comfortable with either.

    • Pat – You put that very well about Longmire I think. But part of his appeal is just that; he’s his own person, so he doesn’t fit neatly anywhere. And I couldn’t agree more about courtesy.

  3. I am old-fashioned as well. Mostly. 🙂

  4. You’ve given me much to think about here. Morse, as I recall, was always a bit uncomfortable with his present circumstances; understanding him as “old fashioned” is, I think, a key to a better understand of what Colin Dexter was up to in his Morse novels. Now, I have no choice. I have to reread the Morse novels. Thanks for the provocation.

    • Sivadmit – I always think the Morse novels are worth re-reading 🙂 . And I like the way you put that: Morse is a little uncomfortable with his present circumstances. That sums him up quite well.

      • I really must correct/revise/update my old WordPress log-in; otherwise, how would you know that sivadmit really does not exist except as R. T. at Beyond Eastrod – http://beyondeastrod.blogspot.com/, and today’s posting offers up a question about Shakespeare. In any case, I have belatedly returned to your site after a few years of absence, and I look forward to dropping by every now and then. Now, if I can only figure out how to “kill” sivadmit and use the proper identify via WordPress. Ah, the mysteries of WordPress!

  5. This subject made me think of ‘At Bertram’s Hotel’, one of Agatha Christie’s looks at nostalgia. I dedicated far too much time to trying to duplicate the perfect poached eggs Miss Marple had for breakfast, and was always a bit disappointed that the old-fashioned atmosphere of Bertram’s turned out to be fake – I’d have liked to take a little holiday there myself…

    • FictionFan – Don’t tell anyone will you, but a re-read of At Bertram’s… was my inspiration for this post. I would love it if that hotel had been real… I have today though, that there are still are some places like that. Few and far between, but they’re out there. I stayed in one during my trip to the UK earlier this year.

  6. kathy d.

    I thank my lucky stars every day that I live in a time of central heating, indoor plumbing, electricity (a/c is crucial), TVs, telephones, modern transportation, mail deliveries, and now, computers and the Internet.
    I also am grateful that I live in a big city with take-out and delivery of food and other essentials. I would not have survived this past winter with a broken arm during the snowstorms and ice-ridden streets if I hadn’t had deliveries of everything.
    Yet, some things are wanting sometimes: courtesy, assisting others, basic kindness to all, but especially to the elderly, people with disabilities, women with strollers, people carrying packages, i.e., the basics. And pleases and thank yous, which go a long way and help to improve human relations — and brighten one’s days.
    Also, a major miss about the old days is conversation: meeting people for coffee or tea and talking, phone calls, etc. Now so much is done by email or even worse, texting — a few words or abbreviations, not real conversations.
    That’s my two cents.

    • Kathy – I couldn’t agree with you more about the value of some modern conveniences. Developments such as central heating, aircon, the Internet, deliveries and so on have become, as you say, pretty much essentials, especially if one’s homebound. And yet, there is something isn’t there about what some people think of as old-fashioned courtesy. You do find it some places, but it’s certainly not taken for granted any more is it? Interesting too that you mention simply sitting with someone for a cup of coffee. Even that doesn’t always happen any more.

  7. Margot, thanks for reminding me of why I like The Murder on the Links so much. The story is not one of my favorites, but Hastings and Cinderella are such fun.

    I have Catherine O’Flynn’s What Was Lost based on your recommendation, but have not read it yet. Looking forward to it.

    • Tracy – I really like that relationship between Hastings and ‘Cinderella’ too. I think it’s done quite well. And I really do hope you’ll enjoy What Was Lost. It’s a powerful story on many levels, in my opinion.

  8. Margot: Your mention of Anthony Bidulka’s character, Russell Quant, reminded me that Saskatchewan residents of Ukrainian descent have a passion for food related to their ethnic heritage. Russell has a guilty pleasure over his mother’s red sauce (ketchup and rich heavy cream).

    Nelson Brunanski’s character, Bart Bartkowski, laments that at his daughter’s wedding supper his wife and daughter have chosen a contemporary menu rather than the traditional trinity of sausage, perogies and cabbage rolls.

    • Bill – I’ve noticed that love of traditional food in several of the Russell Quant novels. That’s part of what Quant loves so much about Colourful Mary’s: it’s traditional Ukrainian food.
      And I’m glad you’ve mentioned the Bartowskis too. You’re quite right that Bart has a real love of Ukrainian food. There are a few ‘home’ scenes where that comes out, and in fact, now I think of it, Bart’s old-fashioned in some other ways too. He’s a well-drawn character.

  9. Very thought provoking post! One downside to the modern age I find as a writer is that it’s harder to have a character stranded without having to have their cell phone conveniently die or have no service. Plus, investigations that would have previously required more dramatic legwork now involve a quick google – most annoying!

    • Claire – Thank you. And I know exactly what you mean about writing in the modern age. It’s harder to think of a credible scenario where a character would be stranded without telephone service; too many people have mobile ‘phones now. Still, there are plenty of places where service just isn’t available – where there is no reception. And it’s funny you would mention doing Google searches. The Internet has changed a lot about how sleuths go about following up leads. Today’s authors have to come up with credible reasons why their sleuths can’t find information with just a few keystrokes.

  10. When Robert Barnard died last year, I re-read his hilarious book Death of an Old Goat, an academic mystery set in contemporary Australia. The ‘Old Goat’ was an ancient old professor of English, who by now was quite losing it, and seemed to remember meeting Jane Austen when he was a young man. That line makes me laugh every time I think of it.

  11. Good point Margot. For me it is certainly part of the appeal of GAD fiction (genuine or ersatz) to explore those viewpoints that can seem so at odds with contemporary living. Great to have that Christie example from so early on. By the 1960s in At Bertram’s Hotel she uses it to show that an appeal to nostalgia could be part of a criminal conspiracy!

    • Sergio – She does indeed! I actually almost used that one as an example of what I mean by ‘old fashioned,’ but in the end I didn’t. So I’m glad you did. And it is interesting about GAD fiction. On the one hand, we might find some of the attitudes – the ‘isms’ – offensive. But some GAD ways of looking at life aren’t, and as you say, exploring them is part of the appeal of the sub-genre.

  12. Col

    I wouldn’t choose to live in any other time period, though in my fiction I kind of prefer 70-90’s, followed by contemporary, with Golden Age a least favourite time period. There’s an attraction for me to pre-techno times, though I’m not a Luddite!

    • Col – I wouldn’t want to live in any other time period either (although visiting one or another, knowing I would get back safely, might be fun). Interesting you’d mention those years before the latest technology. There’s something about crime fiction set in the 70s and 80s isn’t there? In some ways it’s quite modern, and we can relate on that score. In others, it’s still got more traditional detective methods.

  13. I love reading about times gone by and an old-fashioned world. That way I can enjoy it without leaving behind my 21st century comforts and worldview! I do think a lot of Morse’s appeal is his old-fashioned nature.

    • Elizabeth – Oh, that’s definitely part of the beauty of reading, isn’t it? You can enjoy a different time and place, but at the same time, you still have today’s comforts and attitudes. Best of both worlds! And you’ve got a point about Morse. He does have old-fashioned viewpoints on a lot of things, and there’s something appealing about that.

  14. Very restful indeed. And a good change of pace every once in a while.

  15. Ms. Kinberg, this was a fascinating post. Poirot is set in his personal ways which sort of makes him old-fashioned. I like that about him. Of course, you can’t be rigid and refuse to accept change or flow with the tide. Change is the order of nature, as they say. I’m old fashioned about a lot of things like reading physical books (though I also read ebooks), old books and used bookstores, single-screen theatres with plenty of legroom (as opposed to multiplexes), circulating libraries that are all but extinct, and exchanging books among friends and taking turns reading them. Those were some of the simple pleasures of life.

    • Prashant – I think you express that balance quite effectively. Change is an inevitable part of life, so in some ways, accepting change is normal and healthy and important. But there are some old-fashioned things (like physical books and single-film cinemas) that are worth preserving. They are, as you say, simple and valuable pleasures.

  16. A brilliant subject for a post and I think we’re all in agreement in that progress has made our lives easier but there are aspects that we hanker over probably because they aren’t extinct but certainly rare: courtesy, having time to chat (everyone’s lives are so busy now due to the timesaving devices), good genuine service not simply saying stock phrases and hoping that passes for customer service and please one person who you raise an issue with that can solve it, or at least try to without ‘escalating’ it to someone else! Right, back to books – Morse is old-fashioned but he knows he is slightly out of step which makes him an even more likeable character.

    • Cleo – Thank you! And I couldn’t possibly agree more about those aspects that I think we all miss. I can’t tell you how often I wish that I could call or stop into a company, ask my question, and get a truthful answer/resolution, complete with courtesy. It almost never happens. Funny how we’re all too busy to take the time to really look at each other, speak kindly and so on. I love it when I find myself on a rare island of courtesy. And about Morse? Yes, I think he does know he’s not ‘in step.’ What I like about it is that he has integrity of character (i.e. he doesn’t try to change what he is just to please others). And yes, that all makes him even more appealing.

  17. kathy d.

    Well, I could wish to go backwards in time to when community libraries were regarded (and funded) as the important centers of learning that they are — with full staffs, programs, tons of real books, information, etc. No budget cuts, no layoffs, programs for children and adults, every type of book available.
    Now if I try to get so many books that are older — like even 10 years old — they are no longer circulating. Books by Rex Stout, for instance.

  18. I am glad you mentioned Caves of Steel. That is a set of novels I really enjoyed, because they are at the confluence of science fiction and detective fiction, and remain true to both genres. And Bailey is a great character.

    • Natasha – Oh, I like him, too! And I like the way you’ve described The Caves of Steel. Asimov manages to merge science fiction and detective fiction in those books without losing the soul of either genre. Not an easy thing to do!

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