The Times, They Are a-Changin’*

1960sTo say that the 1960s was a decade of major change is an understatement. It was a time of so many social, political, economic and other changes that some people have called those years ‘revolutionary.’ And perhaps they have a point.

Crime fiction, like other genres, tells the story of those changes and we see them reflected in many different novels, both from and about the era. Space is only going to allow for a few examples, but I’m sure you already understand what I mean.

One of the major changes that took place during the 1960s was the role of students, especially university students. Certainly students had spoken out on campuses before, but in many countries, this decade saw the rise of student protests that really resounded in ways they hadn’t before. In John Alexander Graham’s The Involvement of Arnold Weschler, for instance, Hewes College Classics Professor Arnold Weschler is faced with a difficult dilemma. He’s not himself particulalry political, but his brother David is. One day, Weschler is called to the office of College President Winthrop Dohrn, who wants to discuss the recent activities of a radical student group that’s come to campus. Dohrn believes that David Weschler is one of the leaders of the group. He wants Arnold to contact his brother and stop the group from causing any more trouble. The Weschler brothers have been estranged for a long time, but Arnold knows that his job may depend on his response. So he reluctantly agrees. That’s how he gets drawn into the group and gets to know the members. He even develops some sympathy for some of their views. That is, until there’s a kidnapping and then a bombing that kills Dohrn. Now Weschler has to find the killer and clear his brother’s name before he’s arrested.

During the 1960s, there was also a deep and serious questioning of ‘Establishment’ politics and economics. Many people, even those who didn’t identify themselves as Communists per se questioned the socioeconomic status quo. And there were plenty who did identify themselves as Marxists. Perhaps the best look at the leftist point of view and goals of that era can be seen in Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s series featuring Stockholm homicide detective Martin Beck and his team. This is only my opinion, so feel free to differ with it if you do. But for me, this series encapsulates a lot of what this set of politics embraced. Each of the ten novels in this series is about a self-contained murder mystery. But throughout the series, there’s a great deal of social critique too. There are critiques of police power, social class divisions, ‘Establishment’ corruption and other important issues with Swedish society.

Another major change in society was a change in the roles of women. Bit by bit, women had been seeking full citizenship for a long time, and had made solid strides (e.g. suffrage, working outside the home and so on). But in the US at least, women were still regarded as best-suited for ‘home and hearth.’ During the 1960s this began to be questioned more and more. And it wasn’t just a matter of wanting to work outside the home at financial parity with men (although that was certainly an issue). I’m also talking here of what you might call women’s sexual liberation. There was still very much a double standard when it came to what was expected of ‘ladies’ and what was expected of men. And women began to insist on being as much in charge of their own destinies as men were. You see that in the non-crime-fiction work of writers such as Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan. But you also see it in crime fiction. In Ellery Queen’s The Fourth Side of the Triangle, for instance, we meet noted fashion designer Sheila Grey. She’s a well-off and successful single woman who has no desire to get married and ‘settle down.’ She puts it this way:

‘In fact – I’m speaking only for myself – I reject the whole concept of marriage. I’m no more capable of being happy as a housewife, or a country club gal, or a young suburban matron than I am of renouncing the world and taking the veil.’

Certainly she doesn’t identify herself by her ability to cook, clean, sew or look after children. She’s independent both economically and sexually. One night, she’s murdered. Inspector Richard Queen is assigned to the case and his son Ellery of course takes part in the investigation. In the end, they find that the victim’s modern way of thinking about herself and the role love should play in her life had a part in her murder.

One of the other major changes of the 1960s was the move of drug use from certain bohemian, artistic and musical circles to the mainstream. Any crime fiction fan can tell you that drugs have been associated with crime fiction for a very long time. But during these years, ‘average’ everyday people had easier access to them and their use spread. There’s a mention of that in Agatha Christie’s The Third Girl (published in 1966), in which Norma Restarick and Hercule Poirot don’t exactly get off on the proverbial right footing. She wants to hire him until she actually meets him and concludes that he’s too old to help her. For his part, Poirot isn’t at all impressed with Norma’s appearance or manner. When she disappears, though, Poirot works with detective novelist Ariadne Oliver to find out what happened to her. The trail leads to fraud and murder and real danger for Mrs. Oliver. Drugs have their role to play in this novel, and it’s interesting to note that their use has gone beyond just the ‘artsy’ set by this time.

Questions of relations between the races had been simmering for a long time. But matters came to a head during the 1960s. We see this in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Admittedly it’s about an earlier time, but it raises issues that became a major point of conflict during the ’60s. In that novel, Tom Robinson is accused of (and quickly arrested for) the rape of Mayella Ewell. Robinson claims he’s innocent, but because he’s Black and Mayella Ewell is White, he’s assumed to be guilty. Prominent local attorney Atticus Finch takes this case and goes to what you could argue are heroic lengths to prove that his client is not a rapist. Although we could hardly say that race is no longer an issue, there were some major strides forward taken during these years. In fact, Walter Mosley discusses this in Little Green, which takes place in 1967. PI Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlins is persuaded by his friend Raymond ‘Mouse’ Alexander to find a Black man named Little Green. Little Green disappeared after joining a hippie group, so Rawlins starts there. He discovers that a young White woman nicknamed Coco may know something about the group, so he contacts her. At one point, they meet in a local restaurant, where something happens that certainly makes Rawlins think:

‘…because you’re a young white woman and I’m a middle-aged black man and a waitress just took our order without even a second look.’

Admittedly this story takes place in Los Angeles. In a smaller town things might have been different. But the move forward in race relations was an important part of the 1960s.

Geoffrey McGeachin’s St. Kilda Blues (which takes place in 1967) also discusses many of the changes that took place during the 1960s. I’m just diving into that one, to be honest, so I’m not yet thoroughly enough versed to discuss it on this blog. But I can say this. Melbourne cop Charlie Berlin has to deal with the drug culture, the hippie movement, and other major social changes as he searches for what could be a serial killer.

There were of course many other dramatic changes in the 1960s – changes in technology, music, popular culture, cinematography and lots more. A decade that started out as looking very much like the 1950s ended up as something completely different. The times they definitely were ‘a-changin’. Which novels evoke this time for you?

ps. Just look at the two ‘photos of the Beatles and you’ll see the changes that took place during the 1960s. From ‘mop-tops’ in suits to hippies….

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a Bob Dylan song.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen, Geoffrey McGeachin, Harper Lee, John Alexander Graham, Maj Sjöwall, Per Wahlöö, Walter Mosley

26 responses to “The Times, They Are a-Changin’*

  1. Some great choices there Margot (really like the sound of Arnold Weschler)- and certainly in that decade there were some groundbreaking novels like George Baxt’s A QUEER KIND OF DEATH that really went to places that crime fiction had not gone before!

    • Sergio – Thank you! And right you are indeed about the sort of novels that were released during those years. It was a time of pushing the proverbial envelope. And that includes the sort of novels and topics that were written and discussed.

  2. I’ve been watching the CNN series “The Sixties” and remembering what I was doing during that decade–getting married, having a couple of kids, working. I’ve realized how much was going in the rest of the world that I ignored until way into the 70s when my kids were older. Now I need to go back into those 60s novels and read, read, read.

    • Pat – I know what you mean. Once I became a mother, the same thing happened to me. I got so very busy with parenting and everything that goes with it that I simply didn’t pay attention as much attention as I had to the trends and events. I think parenthood is like that…

  3. Oddly, I really don’t enjoy most of the ‘culture’ of the ’60s…or ’70s for that matter (even the ’80s at a push!). Grossly generalising here, but it always seems to me as if the writers, artists and even musicians thought that they had uniquely discovered things that, in fact, other people had been writing, creating, composing about for centuries. There’s a kind of breathless naivety about it all – a feeling of superiority almost. I guess it’s easy with hindsight to see that the psychedelic generation didn’t achieve utopia in the end. Like the cliche says, you probably had to be there! Certainly I enjoyed the actual ’70s more than I now enjoy looking back at the books or films of the time…

    • FictionFan – There certainly was this idealistic notion that what was being created was completely novel. And in some ways it was. But you’re right; people had been discussing, writing, painting and so on about similar things for a very long time. I think there were some major societal advances that came out of that era. But to call the ideas unique? Perhaps they weren’t as completely unique as had been hoped. But it may be a matter of perception. Possibly when one’s young, one thinks all of one’s ideas are brand-new. Later we learn what’s gone before, and we (hopefully!) adapt it to do better. Hmmm…great ‘food for thought,’ for which thanks.

  4. Lots of amazing things were done in the 1960s, as you note, and I applaud writers who keep the knowledge of that alive through their writing. Unfortunately in real life, many students seem to be going back to 1950s ideologies. Classes I give on gender and the media are always the poorest attended. In a recent discussion, a young woman talking about why only a minority of CEOs were female said, ‘Because it’s a really tough job and women haven’t got the heart for it. They’re not built that way. They’d rather be home with their families’. At least she had an opinion: no one else in the class had any comment at all!

    • Caron – There really were some important changes made during the 1960s, weren’t there? And yes, there are/were some writers who do keep it alive. I’m not, I must say, shocked at your student’s reaction. I’ve seen a similar sort of thing myself. And it makes me wonder about how much they really know about what strides we’ve made. It makes me really think about how important it is for us to remember history.

      • Yes, and there is great resistance from students to knowing anything about the past. It’s disappointing, I must say. I guess it’s human nature to be complacent about things one has—until they’re gone.

        • Caron – I think you’re quite right. People do have a way of taking for granted what they have. Then, as you say, when it’s gone, they suddenly know how important it is. It is disappointing too how many students don’t see the need to understand history. They don’t often see how it’s relevant at first. Well, it’s good there are folks like you to remind them of exactly how relevant it is.

  5. Laugh at me if you will, but the real reason I love the Martin Beck novels so much (and thank you for introducing me to the series) is because you learn so much about the society of that time. People of my generation in India looked up to Sweden as the country that combined the best of socialism and capitalism. To find out from Sjowall and Wahloo that our perception was quite different from reality as they saw it, makes for fascinating reading.

    There are some really great examples you have there, but you missed one that I would immediately put on the list. The name of the novel escapes me now, but it was one where Miss Marple visited The Development, and after spending a few hours there, came to the conclusion that despite the superficial changes, people hadn’t changed very much. The way she reacts to her new maid (Cherry, is it?) was nice- she misses the old fashioned maids she was used to, but comes to appreciate the new one because she has very different talents.

    • Natasha – I won’t laugh at you at all. I’ve always thought the Martin Beck series was as much an exploration of Swedish society and values and so on as it was anything else. Yes of course the plots are well-constructed, the characters developed and so on. But at the same time, the authors make important statements about social issues.
      And I agree completely with you that The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side is a terrific example of some of the changes that came to the English village. There’s interesting discussion about the new council housing, and there’s even a discussion of what you call what a lot of people now call a living room. Thanks for the reminder of that terrific book.

  6. I like the sound of the John Alexander Graham book – a quick glance suggests it’s OOP and hard to get hold of. When was it published? My 1960s choice would not be a crime novel, but The Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann – it’s an outrageous, highly melodramatic book about a tiny section of society, but I think it shows how the world was changing: especially in the fact that everyone wanted to read this. It was shocking, but not hidden from view….

    • Moira – The Graham is, I think, OOP. I have a print copy, though, so if you’d like to read it, just send me an email (margotkinberg(at)gmail(dot)com) and I’ll be glad to post it to you. And as far as 1960s books go, I agree The Valley of the Dolls was quite the book to read. I think you put that quite well too: shocking but not hidden…

  7. Interestingly enough, I used to read all these books set in the 1960s for their ‘quaint historical value’ when I was a teenager or in my early 20s. It’s only when I got a bit older and wiser, joined the corporate world, married and had children myself, saw some of the social injustices that are still being perpetrated in so many places, that I started to appreciate these books as still very relevant. The French are so right: ‘the more it changes, the more it stays the same’. I was hoping for a paradigm shift after the recent global economic crises, but in the end it feels like the 1960s achieved more lasting change than we ever will.

    • Marina Sofia – I’ve always loved that French expression too. I suppose when we’re young, we don’t see how anything that happened in the past could really have any relevance now. Then we see larger patterns as we get older. And that’s I think when we see the importance of understanding history. And as for paradigm shifts, I’d have liked to see some too. I think we’ve made some progress on a societal level, but there is so much still to be done…

  8. Col

    I’ll see if I can read McGeachin on my holiday! Seeya in a week or more’s time, Margot!

  9. How right you are Margot about the huge difference between the 50s and 60s. I remember the late 50s as being stuffy and rather boring, probably more so in the UK than the USA due to us getting back on our feet after world war two. But I loved the 60s, so much going on. Pity it had to be spoilt by the drugs culture, but nothing is ever perfect, is it!

    • Dawn – No, indeed. And I think you have a well-taken point about the difference between the ’50s and the end of the ’60s. Certainly a lot what people thought were conventions were tossed aside. Just a quick look at fashions from both eras is enough to show that. And if you listen to the music from the two decades, you see lots of differences too. There really was a lot going on!

  10. Apart from my birth in the sixties, which was no dramatic event, I remember the decade for two other great books, “Catch-22” by Joseph Heller and “Slaughter-House Five” by Kurt Vonnegut, and JFK.

    • Prashant – I’m so glad you mentioned those novels. They were very influential stories, and still resonate after all this time. And I’m very glad you were born, sixties or no. I’ll bet it was quite an event for your family.

  11. kathy d.

    Such a good topic. I gave my homage to the 1960s in an earlier post, but it was a great decade for social movements — and my life, as I was an activist in anti-war, Civil Rights and a bit later, women’s movements. Still am at heart although I can’t do what I used to.
    Yes, a lot of strides were made in many areas. Some still need much attention, as in Civil Rights. And some need a resurgence as rights are being pushed back, as in voting, women’s rights, civil rights, etc.
    I’ so glad so many commenters here look at the 1960s in a positive way.
    Women in the U.S. are at the workplace and educational institutions are involved like never before. So many households have two people working, and then a great number are headed by single mothers.
    However, this is to lead in to three crime fiction series that came about in the aftermath of the women’s movement and were influenced by it:
    Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Malone; Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski; and Marcia Muller’s Sharon McCone are all independent, feisty, smart and courageous women. V.I., my favorite of the three, doesn’t take guff or direction from anyone; she just forges ahead and does anything, including putting herself in danger to solve a case. And her creator, is also a great advocate for the First Amendment and other issues.

    • Kathy – No doubt about it; there were a lot of important social movements that got people involved during the ’60s, and because of that, some important social changes. And you’re right that family dynamics changed a great deal as families became two-income families and both sexes began to take on new roles. There are still of course social inequities; perhaps there always will be. But social justice was a major theme of the era, and there were some important developments on that front. And that’s to say nothing technology, communications and more.
      I’m glad you mentioned Muller, Paretsky and Grafton too. All three of their sleuths reflect the changes in women’s roles and perceptions of women that we saw during the ’60s.

  12. That was a decade of change. When I was in college (at least the first year there), I could not wear slacks on campus (outdoors) or go to class in slacks. A few years later that changed. I probably got my first job in California because I was female and it gave them a boost in affirmative action. (That was the early 70’s.) Anyway, reading about that time from my perspective would be very interesting.

    • Tracy – Oh, it certainly was! And the whole question of what women were(n’t) ‘supposed to’ wear and do really came into question at the time. And I think it’s always really interesting to read about a decade one remembers. It gives one a perspective on one’s memories and on the author’s ability to evoke a time period.

What's your view? I'd love to hear it.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s