Someone Has Altered the Rules*

20150526_073904-1As I post this, today would have been Sally Ride’s 64th birthday. Along with her many accomplishments, one thing that’s always stood out for me about Ride is that she wasn’t bound by the cultural ‘rules’ of the time. In fact, she helped change the rules, if you will, about women (at least American women) in the sciences and in NASA. On a personal note, when my daughter was young, she did a school report on Ride’s accomplishments. As part of her report, she wrote a letter to Ride, who answered her personally and in a very gracious way. My daughter still has that letter. She didn’t choose NASA or physics for her career, but she was among a generation of young people for whom Ride changed the game, if you will.

I’m sure you could think of a long list of other people who have refused to be bound by the cultural ‘rules’ of their times. Those people can make a big difference, and they often have interesting stories. We see characters like that in crime fiction, too. I know you’ll be able to offer a lot more examples than I ever could, but here are a few examples to show you what I mean.

At the time of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, there were very strict cultural ‘rules’ that governed what men and women were and weren’t expected to do. Those rules don’t stop Irene Adler, whom we meet in A Scandal in Bohemia. The King of Bohemia engages Holmes to retrieve a compromising photograph of him with Adler; if it goes public, that photograph could put an end to his plans to marry. Holmes agrees and in doing so, matches wits against a most formidable opponent. In fact, Adler bests him at his own game. Holmes respects her for it, too, referring to her afterwards as the woman.

In Agatha Christie’s The Hollow, we are introduced to sculptor Henrietta Savernake. As the story begins, she’s involved with Harley Street specialist John Christow, who is married to someone else. But she’s hardly the stereotypical ‘kept woman.’ She’s independent, noted in her own right, and not one to wait around on the off chance her lover may stop by. In fact, that’s the one thing Christow finds irksome about her: she cares for him, but isn’t absorbed by the relationship. One weekend, Christow is shot while he and his wife Gerda are visiting some friends, Sir Henry and Lady Lucy Angkatell. Hercule Poirot has taken a getaway cottage nearby, and circumstances get him involved in the murder investigation. In the process, he gets to know Savernake, and we see that she doesn’t play by the cultural rules of her day.

Robert B. Parker’s Night Passage introduces Jesse Stone. He’s suffered some real personal and professional setbacks, so he’s ready for a change from life as an LAPD detective. When he gets an offer to serve as Chief of Police for Paradise, Massachusetts, he accepts the job. In fact, he’s a little surprised he’s gotten the offer, because he’s hardly a stellar candidate. Still, with nothing much to lose, he makes the change. Soon enough, Stone discovers why he was hired. The Paradise town council, led by Hastings ‘Hasty’ Hathaway, wanted to hire a police chief that they could control. The cultural ‘rule’ of that town has for a long time been that the chief of police is a sort of ‘figurehead’ job to lend legitimacy to whatever the council wants. When Stone learns this, he decides to change that game, and begins to look into some very dubious things that have been going on in the town. That decision to alter the rules puts Stone in danger, but it makes some big changes in Paradise.

Virginia Duigan’s Thea Farmer decides to change the game in The Precipice. She’s left her position as a school principal, with the idea of moving to a custom-made home in New South Wales’ Blue Mountains. She has her dream home built and prepares to move in. But then, some bad luck and poor financial planning make that impossible. With no other choice, Thea has to settle for the house next door – a smaller home she refers to as ‘the hovel.’ To make matters worse, Frank Campbell and Ellice Carrington move into the house Thea still regards as hers. Not only does she resent having anyone living nearby, but it’s a particular sore point that they’ve bought ‘her’ house. Still, Thea grits her teeth and tries to get on with life. Then, Frank’s twelve-year-old niece Kim moves in with him and Ellice. Unexpectedly, Thea develops an awkward sort of friendship with the girl. So when she comes to believe that Frank is not providing an appropriate home for Kim, Thea decides to do something about it. She thinks of pursuing her concerns with the police; but without actual evidence of a crime, they can’t do much. So Thea changes the game and decides to take matters into her own hands.

We see some altering of the rules in Seán Haldane’s historical novel The Devil’s Making. Chad Hobbes has recently finished his law degree at Oxford, and travels to British Columbia, where he gets a job as a police constable in the town of Victoria. Hobbes began his study in the Divinity program, but changed his views about religion. He’s interested in philosophy, though, especially the implications of Charles Darwin’s recently-published work. The nature of humanity is of particular interest to Hobbes, and as he begins his work, he gets plenty of opportunity to reflect on it. For one thing, he soon runs into the deeply ingrained prejudice against non-Whites. And as the novel begins, he doesn’t question it much. But when Richard McCrory is found brutally murdered, Hobbes begins to change his views. Wiladzap, a leader among the Tsimshian Indians, is arrested for the crime, but claims his innocence. As Hobbes begins the investigation into McCrory’s murder, he gets to know the Tsimshian better, and sees that traditional cultural ‘rules’ about men, women, and the social order don’t necessarily make the sense that he once thought they might. Throughout this novel, we see the impact of Darwin’s work and thought. Certainly his findings and perspective on them altered a lot of social and scientific ‘rules.’

People who do change the game – who alter the rules – may not always be proven right. But they do change our way of thinking, or at least invite us to reflect on it. And that, I think, can move us forward.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice’s Good Night and Thank You.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Robert B. Parker, Seán Haldane, Virginia Duigan

24 responses to “Someone Has Altered the Rules*

  1. Nice post, Margot. As you can probably guess, I’m a fan of characters, and indeed people, who go against the grain. You’ve reminded me, too, to put THE PRECIPICE on my TBR pile – one I’ve been meaning to read.

    • Thanks, Angela. And I agree; there really is something appealing about people who push us to re-think cultural ‘rules’ that limit us. And I do hope you get the chance to read The Precipice. It’s a well-written novel, and Thea Farmer a compelling character, in my opinion.

  2. tracybham

    Great post, Margot and I am glad you introduced it with Sally Ride. Thanks also for reminding me that I want to read Robert B. Parker’s Night Passage.

    • Thanks, Tracy. And I have a lot of respect for Sally Ride – I was glad to mention her. I do hope you get the chance to read the Parker. The Jesse Stone series is, I think, a good one.

  3. Given the hoohah around her new book, there’s been lots of discussion of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ recently. Atticus Finch may have stuck to the law when he defended Tom Robinson, but he went against the rules of his small town. And the same could be said of Jake Brigance in the similarly themed A Time to Kill from John Grisham. i think both books, in different ways, make us reflect on how attitudes can’t be changed solely by making new laws.

    • Oh, I completely agree, FictionFan. And I’m glad you brought up those examples. In both cases, you have an entrenched culture that dictates certain realities, and people who call those ‘rules’ into question. I honestly think that’s part of the power of both novels. It’ll be very interesting to see what Lee’s new novel will be like.

  4. Kathy D.

    Certainly, there are detectives, police and private, who flout the rules to solve crimes. V.I. Warshawski does it with bravado. Harry Hole does it in a huge way. Even Commissario Brunetti skirts the rules set by his superior, but he is subtle. And his assistant, Elettra Zorzi is doing who knows what on the computer to help him.
    But in science, medicine, and society, lots of people flout convention to make discoveries and changes. Emile Zola defied the French army and criminal justice system to defend Alfred Dreyfus. How many tens of thousands were in the Resistance in WWII defying the Nazis’ laws?
    In the U.S., suffragists did everything to win women the vote, legal and not. Rosa Parks defied segregation laws. Martin Luther King and others led a civil disobedience campaign which brought progress.
    People opposing war have done all sorts of things.
    P.S. I’m so glad Sally Ride wrote to your daughter.

    • Kathy – That’s exactly the kind of thing I had in mind with this post. You mention the suffragettes, for instance, who flouted the cultural ‘rules’ about what women were and weren’t ‘supposed to’ do. And of course, people such as Zola, Parks and others saw that the ‘rules’ were unfair, and changed the game about social structure. You’re right, too, that there are several fictional sleuths who don’t always exactly follow the rules…
      And I’m very glad Sally Ride wrote to my daughter, too. I know it meant a great deal to her, and it was a really fine gesture.

  5. Patti Abbott

    Was there ever a more perfect name for a woman going into space? I’d forgotten how young she was when I see how old she would be today.

  6. Col

    I do need to try one of Parker’s Jesse Stone books at some point. I enjoyed Spencer years ago and Parker’s writing, but am intrigued by reading about an alternate character from him.

  7. I loves me a renegade! If you consider the structure of the hero’s journey as a meta-fiction – all protagonists must at some level be game changers. Some unwittingly like Bilbo Baggins, who must leave his cozy shire and comfortable life to encounter all sorts of trouble. And some because of their intrinsic maverick hearts – Anne of Green Gables,who will not be a regular quiet farm girl, or Antigone, who will bury her brother. Thanks for this post, Margot. As usual – you get to the pith.

    • Thanks, Jan. And you are absolutely right about the way fictional heroes’ stories are told. In so many cases (and you’ve mentioned some excellent examples) the protagonist is unwilling to abide by the conventions of the day/place/group. And so many of those ‘rules’ and conventions are unwritten; they’re just socially enforced, and have been for so long that people no longer question them. Until the protagonist comes along, that is…

  8. Another great post Margot and what a way to start it off and it is so much more satisfying when the change is for the better…

    • Thanks, Cleo. Honestly, we were all so happy when my daughter got that letter. What a fine gesture from Sally Ride, I though. And you’re right; when people refuse to be blindly bound to the cultural ‘rules,’ all sorts of great things can happen.

  9. Kathy D.

    I meant to add that long-time police detective Harry Bosch also flouts the rules and police procedure in every book, I think.
    And also I meant to include scientists, including Albert Einstein. And the brilliant mathematician, Alan Turing, who pushed ahead with his own views on how to crack the Nazis’ codes and did it. And he flouted convention in his personal life, but, unfortunately, the British government didn’t take kindly to that.
    I say that the day after a historic vote took place in Ireland — talk about
    defying the rules and old beliefs and moving on with the new!
    And Sally Ride also did that; she forged ahead in her person life as
    well as in her career.

    • You’re quite right, Kathy. People such as Turing, who refuse to be bound by the conventions of their day, sometimes pay a very high price for thinking differently. But in the end, they can move us forward as a society.

  10. I’ve seen all the Jessie Stone movies, and loved them. I hear a new one is coming out soon. Tom Selleck, he just gets better with age, like fine wine. 🙂 Great post, as usual, Margot!

    • Right you are, Sue, that a new Jesse Stone is in the works. I’m glad you like the TV adaptations as well as you do. I think the Jesse Stone series is a good one.

  11. I love your tribute to Sally Ride – what a role model for all our girls…

    • Thanks, Moira. My daughter didn’t become a physicist or astronaut. But she has become a confident and skilled young woman. I think Dr. Ride would have been pleased. 🙂

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