When the Walls Come Tumblin’ Down*

(FILES) West Berliners crowd in front ofThere are certain ‘watershed’ moments in time that change everything. They force a sort of paradigm shift that’s thrilling and exhilarating, but at the same time can be nerve-wracking. Everything people have known is now different, and it can be frightening to conceive of a new order, no matter how desperately the old order needed to be changed. I’m sure we could all think of examples of those major changes throughout history. I’ve only space here for a few of them; I hope they’ll suffice.

The old social order in the US for many generations was institutionalised racism. And even in places where there weren’t laws mandating it, there was often de facto segregation. Beginning in the 1940s, though, those walls started to fall. First it was Major League Baseball. Then it was the US military. And bit by bit more change happened. The Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s brought the issue to the forefront of the national conversation. The paradigm began to shift, and brought with it a whole new social order. Does this mean racism is over? Of course not. There’s still racism, and there’s still awkwardness about race, and those things make having a national conversation about it difficult. We don’t know what kind of a new social order will develop; it’s only been fifty years and we have quite a ways to go. But the end of de jure segregation in the US was a watershed moment in history. Speaking strictly for myself, the moment was captured when Barack Obama took the Oath of Office as the 44th US President. No matter what you think about him, his politics, etc.. (This isn’t really about politics anyway), it changed the rules.

We see that watershed captured in a lot of crime fiction. I’ll just share one instance. In Walter Mosley’s Little Green, which takes place in 1967, Los Angeles PI Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlins is persuaded by his friend Raymond ‘Mouse’ Alexander to find a missing Black man nicknamed Little Green. Little Green disappeared after joining a group of hippies, so Rawlins begins his search with those people. He hears that a young White woman nicknamed Coco may know something about them so he makes contact with her and arranges to meet her at a restaurant. While they’re there, something happens that surprises Rawlins; here’s his observation about it:


‘…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.’


The paradigm shift away from the old order may not be complete yet, but Rawlins’ moment of happy surprise is obvious.

In 1947, India became independent. As you’ll know, the independence movement had been building for some time, but it culminated with the raising of the flag of India in August of that year. It was a joyful, exhilarating time. It was also a time of awkwardness and change, as all watersheds are. There was a whole new paradigm and India had a whole new course to chart, as the saying goes. That’s captured just a bit in H.R.F. Keating’s Inspector Ghote’s First Case. In that novel, which takes place in the early 1960s, Ganesh Ghote has just been promoted to the rank of Inspector with the Bombay Police and is hoping to take some much-needed time off with his pregnant wife Protima. Instead, he is sent to the town of Mahableshwar to look into the apparent suicide of Iris Dawkins, whose husband is a friend of Ghote’s boss Sir Rustom Engineer. Ghote’s job is to find out what drove the victim to kill herself. When he arrives and starts asking questions though, he discovers that this isn’t as straightforward a case as he thought. It takes time, but little by little, he finds out the truth about what happened to Iris. One of the threads in this novel is the changing dynamic between Anglo-Indians and Indians without a British background. The rules have changed, and the social order is different now. This makes for some awkwardness as Ghote investigates (after all, he’s investigating a lot of White people). India’s independence is only 67 years old as I write this. It’s hard to see what sort of country will emerge as India evolves. But those choices are India’s to make.

In 1990, Nelson Mandela was released from prison on South Africa’s Robben Island. That iconic image of him leaving the prison is etched on many people’s memories. And it marked a watershed moment in history. The social order imposed by apartheid (and by common consent even before those laws) was changed. The rules everyone had lived by for a very long time no longer structured people’s lives. Malla Nunn’s Emmanuel Cooper series captures neatly the world of South Africa during the apartheid years. When apartheid ended in the early 1990s, this opened up an entirely new set of possibilities for the country. This paradigm shift meant that the dynamic among Afrikaners, English, Blacks, Indians and others within the country would have to change, and that hasn’t been easy. Of course, it’s only been twenty years as I write this. If you read the work of Deon Meyer, Roger Smith or Jassy Mackenzie, it’s clear that the new social order, whatever it will eventually be, is still evolving. But with that uncertainty has also been the excitement and joy for millions of people of having their futures in their own hands.

As I post this, today marks the 25th anniversary of another watershed: the opening of the Berlin Wall in 1989. From just after the end of World War II, the Soviet Union and its allies had been engaged in a Cold War (which blew hot more than once) with the US, the UK and their allies. Millions of people had never known any other kind of social reality. There was a certain structure to life, and for most people, the concept of living in any other way was unimaginable. When the wall came down though, this event changed everything. It wasn’t a sudden moment of change; pressure had been building in Eastern Europe for democracy or at least for autonomy from the then-Soviet Union (as an example, just look at the Gdansk-based Solidarity movement of the 1980s). And even in the Soviet Union itself, pressure had been growing for personal freedom and for a move towards democracy. But that moment, when the wall was breached and then officially opened, marked a paradigm shift. And when the Soviet Union broke up in 1993, the countries of Eastern Europe (to say nothing of the former Soviet states) had a whole new social order to create.

That new reality hasn’t been easy. Anya Lipska addresses that very issue in her novels featuring DC Natalie Kershaw and Janusz Kiszka. Kiszka is Polish, a veteran of the Gdansk uprising and movement towards Polish independence. The new Poland isn’t always to his liking; it’s not as uniquely Polish as he’d prefer, now that it’s so easy to interact with the world. Kiszka lives in London, where he sees even more the impact on the Polish community of integration with the rest of the world. But at the same time, he wouldn’t want the old order restored.

We also see some of the uncertainty in Margaret Truman’s Murder in the House, Robin Cook’s Vector and Ian Rankin’s Exit Music. In all of those novels (and there are many others), we see for instance the rise of the Russian and Eastern European Mobs as the economies of Russia and Eastern Europe evolve. We also see how the political processes in those countries have changed as the sociopolitical paradigm has shifted. None of this has been easy.

But (and here’s the important thing), those processes and those changes are now in the hands of the people most directly affected by them. Of course the choices aren’t always pleasant, but there are choices. There are challenges and difficulties, but there are also options and opportunities that were never possible. That’s what watersheds are all about, really: challenges, but wonderful possibilities at the same time.

On this anniversary of the opening of the Berlin Wall, my thoughts are with those who gave their lives to make those opportunities possible.

ps. I wish I had been there to see the wall actually opened. I wasn’t, but Time magazine was. Thank you, Time, for this ‘photo.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from John Mellencamp and George Green’s Crumblin’ Down.


Filed under Anya Lipska, Deon Meyer, H.R.F. Keating, Ian Rankin, Jassy Mackenzie, Malla Nunn, Margaret Truman, Robin Cook, Roger Smith, Walter Mosley

33 responses to “When the Walls Come Tumblin’ Down*

  1. Cop Town – Karin Slaughter speaks to may of these issues Margot – of discrimination – in many forms – but alludes to small changes…

  2. Great post, Margot. We have lived through some amazing changes. Things that once seemed unlikely ever to change. The Berlin Wall is a great example – watching it being brought down – on TV – was something I’ll never forget.

    • Thank you, Dawn. I agree with you that there have been so many important watershed moments that have changed our lives. And the Berlin Wall coming down – something people thought would never happen – is definitely one of them.

  3. Clarissa Draper

    I haven’t been alive for a lot of of those moments but I was alive for the Berlin Wall coming down and also the Twin Towers. I like when I read moment in books from the past and see what life was like when people lived a certain way. That’s why writing, and reading, is so important. When I read your post I thought of a book A Passage To India by EM Forster. There wasn’t really a “watershed” moment but it described a different time, a time I have never experienced but one quite different from today. Well, so I think…

    • Clarissa – I couldn’t agree more. Reading and writing help us connect with those past watershed moments that we weren’t alive to see. And thanks too for mentioning A Passage to India. It certainly depicts life in the last years of the British raj, and the movement that was to end in Indian independence. I need to re-read that…

  4. Great post. Thanks for flagging up Anya Lipska who I haven’t heard of before but am now interested to read.

    • Vicky – Thanks for the kind words. Lipska’s got real talent, I think. In my opinion, you’ll get more out of the novels (thus far there are two) by reading them in order: Where the Devil Can’t Go first, and then Death Can’t Take a Joke.

  5. tracybham

    A few years ago we watched a German film set around the fall of the Berlin Wall: Good Bye, Lenin!

    I hope you continue to remind me of Anya Lipska’s books because I have good intentions of reading the first one but I keep forgetting. It is on the Kindle and I forget what I have there.

  6. I agree with Carol that Cop Town is a brilliant book. Very strong. I love Karin Slaughter anyway and she doesn’t let us down with that standalone.

    Have you seen the photos on Twitter with the balloons representing the wall? Stunning. They plan to let them go at the time the wall came down.

    • Rebecca – Thanks for the vote of confidence for Cop Town. It really does sound good. And yes, I have seen those ‘photos with the balloons. Just gorgeous! I’m sure the release will be beautiful.

  7. Great post, Margot! I always love books that reflect the political changes in society – it’s one of the reasons I’m such a fan of Ian Rankin. Although he grinds no political axe, and although he’s not talking about watershed moments, he shows all the fairly massive political changes that have taken place in Scotland over the last few decades and how they’ve influenced every part of public and private life.

    The Obama moment resonated around most of the Western world, not just the US, I think. We may not have had the same legal racism, but informal racism was equally strong and just as divisive, and as in America, it’s not over yet. But the election of Obama (as you say, regardless of politics) made us all feel that the future doesn’t have to be like the past – it’s up to us.

    • PS Now we’re all waiting breathlessly to see if America will be even more daring…and elect a woman! 😉

    • FictionFan – Thank you 🙂 – And I agree completely with you about Rankin. I claim very little real knowledge of Scottish politics, but I’ve learned a lot just from reading the Rebus stories. As you say, Rankin doesn’t make his books political treatises, but he certainly shares insights about what’s been happening there.
      I think the possibility that our past doesn’t have to define the future is exactly what made Obama’s election such a watershed moment. Speaking at least for myself, it was a message that all of that work, all of that sacrifice and that loss of life might actually have served an important purpose. I hope we continue to make the kind of progress that we need to make – around the world.

      • As someone who can’t help doing a bit of textual analysis on news reports, I really notice the changes over the years of his Presidency, At first, he was almost never mentioned without a rider – ‘America’s first black President, Barack Obama’… etc. That stopped after the first couple of years, and now he’s just ‘American President’. A subtle change, but an important one…

        • FictionFan – Oh, I couldn’t agree more. I really hope the time will come when we’re done with all of those ‘firsts’ and can just say PM X or President Y or whatever. I’ve noticed that change in news reports as well, and it’s a positive thing I think.

  8. It’s hard to believe it’s 25 years since the Wall came down: what a spectacular moment that was. I was lucky enough to visit Berlin soon afterwards – then earlier this year I visited again. I love the way Len Deighton writes about Berlin, in several of his books – he captures the feel of it, the beauty, and the way it is different from other German cities….

    • Moira – What a moment that was, wasn’t it? And you’re lucky you got to visit the city soon afterwards. I felt much the same way you must have felt when I visited South Africa a few years after Mandela had been elected. What a time!
      And thank you for mentioning Deighton’s books. Yes indeed, he captures Berlin. And you’ve reminded me that I keep meaning to put him on my list for a spotlight. About time, too, methinks.

  9. I was just talking with my husband about this last night. Can’t believe it was 25 years ago! It was a fantastic time…I was just out of high school and the news was full of hope moving forward.

  10. Col

    Great post. Looks like I ought to bump Cop Town up the pile.

  11. What a great post, Margot. Unfortunately, I did not live through most of those watershed moments, but the bringing down of the Berlin Wall is one that is etched in memory. I turned 18 that year, which is why I will never forget it.
    There are two other similar watershed moments too- neither as happy as the Berlin Wall. The terror attacks on the Twin Towers, and the events culminating in the bringind down of the Babari Masjid by the right wing fundamentalists.

    Strangely, I never thought of the Inspector Ghodse novels as describing a watershed moment in Indian history. Maybe because I have read a lot of fiction set in that period, and maybe also because the most amazing part of the Ghodse novels is the fact that the author was so accurate despite not having lived in the city,

    • Natasha – I’ll never forget the wall coming down either. It really was a stupendous event. And you’re right that the Twin Towers/Pentagon attacks as well as the defeat of the Babari Masjid are good examples of the way watershed moments can also have awful consequences. And those events change everything too…
      I think the Keating novels keep the focus on people’s daily lives and interactions, so sometimes those larger things might ‘sneak up on’ the reader. Well, they do on me. And the Bombay they describe has always felt real to me, so it’s very good to hear that it’s accurate.

  12. This is a great post, indeed, Ms. Kinberg. I read extensively about the fall of the Berlin Wall which eventually led to the collapse of the communist bloc in Eastern Europe. I think Soviet leader Gorbachev saw the signs long before he introduced “Glasnost” and “Perestroika” that resulted in the breakup of the Soviet Union. The next watershed that I hope will take place in our lifetime is the unification of the two Koreas. On another note, Inspector Ghote’s world was a lot different than it is now. His would have been more charming.,

    • Prashant – Thank you for the kind words. Thank you too for the insight about Inspector Ghote’s world. I think there are authors who create a fictional world that doesn’t reflect the sometimes stark facts of the real world. And of course, times have changed since the series was published. I agree with you that Gorbachev understood the movement of history while he was still in power. I believe that showed foresight on his part. As to the next watershed, it may be the re-unification of the two Koreas. I know that many people want that; we’ll have to see whether people insist that it happen, or decide they don’t want it, or allow inertia (or power grabbing) to prevent it.

  13. Kathy D.

    Interesting post. Now I see I must read Keating’s, Mosley’s and Rankin’s books. I love Malla Nunn’s books set in early 1950s South Africa. She captures the mood of horrific life under apartheid for millions of people. I highly recommend her series.
    A friend recently visited Capetown, and said it looks like New York City, multinational, multicultural, people of all nationalities out in the streets. Even though there are great economic inequities and poverty, I’m glad to see that Capetown has changed so much.
    And, yes, the Civil Rights Movement made change happen. The Voting Rights and Civil Rights Acts were milestones. Now, however, a lot of this is going backwards, with voter suppression and other developments that not only challenge, but are pushing back the changes that were made. So much has to be done here.
    And I’ll add this title of Little Green to my Walter Mosley to be read list.

    • Kathy – I’m glad you enjoyed the post. And it is indeed good to know that Capetown (and South Africa) are evolving making progress. As you say, there are inequities – well, there are inequities everywhere – but it’s good to hear that there is also positive change. There is work to be done, as you say; I hope these issues continue to be addressed. Oh, and I hope you’ll enjoy Little Green.

  14. Margot – Wonderful post on all those moments, most of which I’m, ahem, old enough to remember. However, the post inspired me to think of a classic mystery, of a sort, which takes as its subject matter themes – and actual scenes – when the Berlin Wall was very much still with us. This is, arguably, the best spy novel of them all, and a pretty good movie too: John Le Carre’s The Spy Who Came in From the Cold.
    Aside: I was lucky enough to visit Berlin last year, and everything was so bright, vibrant and hip, a long way from those very cold years not so long ago.

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