Why Did Those Days Ever Have to Go?*

Historical NuancesThe world changes, sometimes very quickly. So it’s easy to forget what life was like in the not-too-distant past. That’s one advantage of reading well-written novels from different eras: they offer a look at life at a certain time and in a certain place. And sometimes they include subtle nuances that really add to the atmosphere of a story – nuances we don’t really think about unless we compare them with our lives today.

In Agatha Christie’s Death in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air), for instance, Hercule Poirot is on a flight from Paris to London when one of the other passengers, Marie Morisot, suddenly dies of what turns out to be poison. The only possible suspects are the other people on board the flight, so Poirot and Chief Inspector Japp have a limited supply of suspects. Along with the mystery in this novel (who killed Marie Morisot, how, and why), readers also get a sense of what airline travel was like at the time (this book was first published in 1935). Planes were smaller, full meals were served, and flight was much noisier than we see today. There were many other differences, too, and Christie shares those nuances.

Pheobe Atwood Taylor’s The Cape Cod Mystery, first published in 1931, is the first in her series featuring Asa ‘Asey’ Mayo. In the novel, Prudence Whitsby and her niece Betsey are staying at their Cape Cod summer cottage to escape the heat and humidity of the city. Staying nearby is famous writer Dale Sanborn. One night, Prudence’s cat escapes and she trails it to Sanborn’s cabin, where she discovers that he’s been murdered. The police are alerted and local sheriff Slough Sullivan takes charge of the investigation. Soon enough, the evidence points to Bill Porter, a friend of the Whitsby family, as the guilty party. But Porter’s cook and ‘man of all work’ Asey May doesn’t think his employer is the killer. So he works with Prudence to find out who really murdered Sanborn and why. Besides the mystery, this novel explores the ‘summer culture’ of that era, before people had air conditioning. Anyone who could afford to do so would go to the shore or the mountains to escape the city heat, and we see that here. We also see what life was like in the sort of small seaside town where summer visitors congregated.

Technology has arguably created a revolution in the way detectives get information. But it wasn’t very long ago, when you think about it, that PIs didn’t have those resources (neither, really, did police). And we see that in Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski novels. The first Warshawski novel, Indemnity Only, was published in 1982. In it, Warshawski is hired to find a young woman, Anita Hill, who’s gone missing. She starts with a visit to Anita’s boyfriend, Pete Thayer. But when she gets there, she discovers that Pete’s been murdered. Now Warshawski’s faced with a missing person case that involves murder and fraud. As she investigates, readers get a sense of PI work in the days before the Internet, mobile telephones and GPS navigation. Warshawski uses telephone books, maps, lots of ‘legwork,’ face-to-face interviews, and so on as she solves cases.

Readers also see those nuances in Mike Ripley’s Angel series. Beginning with 1988’s Just Another Angel, the series features jazz musician, unlicensed cab driver, and occasional PI Fitzroy MacLean Angel. In the first novel, Angel meets Josephine ‘Jo’ Scamp. The two enjoy each other’s company and the evening ends in a one-night stand. Both agree that that’s all it is, so Angel doesn’t think much more about it until five months later when he sees Jo again. This time, she wants his help. It seems that a former friend, Carol Flaxman, has made off with some credit cards and a valuable emerald pendant, and Jo wants them back. Angel is very reluctant to take the case on, but in the end, he’s persuaded. He tracks Carol down and gets Jo’s property back, but that’s only the beginning of his adventures. As it turns out, this case puts Angel up against the police (who suspect Jo of criminal activity), Jo’s husband (who is not someone you want angry with you) and a very large and angry bouncer with an agenda of his own. As Angel searches for Carol, and as he tries his best to get out of the mess he’s in, we see how PIs worked in the days before easy access to information. Incidentally, readers also see the nuances of life as a London jazz musician of that time. There was no Facebook with band pages; there was no Twitter to put out the word about a gig. So musicians had to learn of gigs, and spread the news of their own events, via word of mouth – and flyer.

Sometimes a novel or a series captures the entire atmosphere of an era. That’s the case in Len Deighton’s Bernard ‘Bernie’ Samson novels. In Berlin Game, which was published in 1983, Samson is sent from MI5’s London Central offices to Berlin. It seems that one of MI5’s agents, code-named Brahms Four, wants to come to the West. Samson’s task is to persuade Brahms Four to stay in place for just a little longer. In the meantime, MI5 has an even bigger problem. There’s a mole at what appears to be a very high level. So Samson has two serious challenges: solving the Brahms Four issue, and finding the mole before it’s too late. This novel, and the others in the series, show the nuances of the Cold War in everyday life. What’s more, they show small details of what espionage was like at this point in that conflict. The atmosphere and culture of London and Berlin during the early 1980s is an important part of the novel, and readers get a look at it.

And that’s the thing about some novels and series. They give readers a real sense of the nuances and subtleties of an era. And it’s those small things, like landlines, airline food, and paper maps, that really show (or remind) readers of what life was like. Which novels have given you a real sense of an era?

ps. You’ll notice that I haven’t mentioned historical novels. To me, that’s a different way of looking at a time and place.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Stevie Wonder’s I Wish.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Len Deighton, Mike Ripley, Phoebe Atwood Taylor, Sara Paretsky

32 responses to “Why Did Those Days Ever Have to Go?*

  1. Oh the differences in time periods, especially the sort you’ve chosen to highlight, are the things that really interest me so things like the changes in air travel or even simple things like smoking in a cinema really do set the tone of the period and remind us quite how fast things change.

  2. It’s been quite a while since I last re-read Murder Must Advertise, by Dorothy L. Sayers, but one of the things I remember enjoying most about that 1933 adventure is its use of the world of advertising, as it existed in those long-pre-television days, and also its portrayal of the “bright young people” and their society, and the sometimes ugly truth of the drug usage among that group. Fine writing by Sayers!

    • Thanks for mentioning Murder Must Advertise, Les. It’s a great depiction of the life of those ‘bright young people’ of that time. You’re right, too, about the drug use. I think Sayers does indeed do that well.

  3. Pingback: Why Did Those Days Ever Have to Go?* | e. michael helms

  4. Reblogged this on e. michael helms and commented:
    Wonderful post, Margot! Right down my alley as I’m now dealing with two private eyes in two different eras: Mac McClellan in modern times; and Dinger, PI, during post-WWII. Fortunately (?), I’m old enough to remember and realize how many things worked “back in the olden times” that Dinger operates in. And, I’ve retained enough “gray matter” to at least keep up with most of the new technology available to today’s crime solvers (although Mac is a reluctant student himself with all this technology).

    One of my favorite authors is Ross Macdonald, who’s “Lew Archer” novels never fail to entrance me. I revel in the “old style” PI work Lew must contend with to get to the bottom of the cases he’s been hired to solve.

    Thanks again for a great post! 🙂


    • Thanks, Michael, for the kind words. I’m glad you enjoyed the post. Your Dinger, PI stories certainly have that post-war atmosphere; it’s quite authentic. And I couldn’t agree more with you about the Lew Archer novels. Mcdonald really did capture the life of the PI at that time, before the advent of the Internet and of easy access to all sorts of information. I think Mcdonald also captured the culture of the times, and that’s part of what gives those novels their flair.

  5. tracybham

    The Bernard Samson series by Deighton is one of my favorite series. I have been wanting to read Mike Ripley’s Angel series, too.

    • I think Bernie Sansom is a great character, too, Tracy, and that is a fine series. I hope you’ll get the chance to try Mike Ripley’s novels, too. And if you do, I hope you’ll enjoy them.

  6. kathy d

    Well, having read and enjoyed many books that were written before the advent of the Internet or about a period before computers, there are many examples.
    In Peter May’s excellent Lewis Trilogy, Finley MacLoad just simplly goes everywhere to investigate scenes and question people face-to-face. He doesn’t use a computer. The books are big on character development and characters’ back stories. So MacLeod visits a lot of people and places.
    And Nero Wolfe — yikes! I can’t even imagine him with a computer. It’s a nightmare. Better that he can send Archie, Saul, Fred out to investigate for him and he can bark orders into the phone or in his office.
    The thought of Wolfe using a computer is frightening. He’d be yelling at it or yelling at Archie to find out information for him every minute.
    Now, I think Sherlock and Dr. Watson would have had fun with the Internet. Holmes would look up information, but he would think he knows everything already so he’d be competing with the Internet. It would be funny.

    • I could imagine Sherlock Holmes would enjoy having access to the Internet too, Kathy. And you make a well-taken point about both the May series and Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe series. In both, we see the detectives find out information by talking to people, going places, and so on. And in both cases, I think that lends a sense of place to the series. And it allows for the sort of face-to-face interactions that add to a story.

  7. Margot: A pair of recent reads took me deep into the time of the internments by the American government of Japanese people during WW II. Both were legal mysteries and very evocative of life in America after Pearl Harbour. Only now as the Western World wrestles with terrorist threats from ISIS and al Qaeda can I really appreciate the fears and paranoia of WW II. And the books are Allegiance by Kermit Roosevelt and Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson.

    • There are eerie parallels between the feeling many people have now and the fears at the time of WWII, aren’t there, Bill? It’s quite sobering. And novels that capture that atmosphere can really place a reader at the time of internment. We look back now and are appalled at what happened, but the atmosphere of the times helped to fuel it all. I feel that way about books written during the McCarthy Era, too.

  8. A couple of Australian entries come to mind for me: the Phryne Fisher mysteries by Kerry Greenwood and the Rowland Sinclair series by Sulari Gentill. Both provide insights of life across the 1920s and 1930s in Sydney and Melbourne in particular, and the little details provide such a contrast to modern living. And the Charlie Berlin mysteries by Geoffrey McGeachin cross a number of post-WWII decades with lots of insights into what life was like at this time. Thank you for an interesting post.

    • You’ve mentioned three series that I like very much, JML297. All three series evoke the era very well, don’t they? And the authors use all sorts of subtle touches to place the reader in those times. It’s one of the things that I like very much about them.

  9. Any mysteries (and there are tons of them) featuring domestic help. Not something we see a lot of nowadays!

    Death in the Air reminded me, when I last read it, of my mother saying how dressed up she and her family got when they flew. Now everyone dresses more for comfort.

    • That’s quite true, Elizabeth. There’s something about having domestic help that can really give a sense of an earlier time. And it’s funny you’d mention the way people dress for an airline trip. Flight used to be a special occasion, and you wore nice clothes. Not any more! The last time I flew, I saw people wearing slippers, the whole thing. It was more like they were getting ready for bed than for a flight.

  10. Great post, Margot. Books that take us back, even 10-20 years, do show how we’ve changed. I think about Earle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason stories (and the old shows) compared to lawyers of today like Michael Connelly’s Mick Haller and how they deal with their clients. It’s good that we have those books from the past to remind of what life was like. It’s also good that authors today include modern items so readers of tomorrow will know how life was for us during this time.

    Thoughts in Progress
    and MC Book Tours

    • Thanks, Mason. And I’m glad you mentioned the Perry Mason novels (and the TV show, of course). Gardner did capture the era in his writing, and it’s interesting to compare the way Paul Drake goes about finding information with the way today’s PIs do. The same is true, of course, for Mason’s courtroom preparations, and Della Street’s work. Both show all sorts of subtle and not-so-subtle things about the era.

  11. Totally agreed! I find that historical novels often fetishise the period, or it becomes a character in and of itself – which can be great, but for day to day details of what life was like in a particular period, contemporary novels are fascinating!

    • I think so, too, Claire. There’s just something about the perspective, isn’t there? And it’s interesting to try to get a sense of the author’s view of that time, too.

  12. Margot, I agree, technology is by far the biggest game-changer in the world of fiction. I think, authors like John le Carre have taken to it like duck to water. I have also noticed significant differences in courtroom battles in legal thrillers of the mid-20th and the present century. Modern novels read more like crime fiction and less like legal thrillers.

    • Now, that’s an interesting point, Prashant! It could very well be that the tone of novels have changed as technology and other ‘game changers’ have come along. And yes, some authors (and le Carré is definitely one of them!) have adapted their writing to go with the times. It’s fascinating to see how fiction (crime and otherwise) has reflected times.

  13. That might be one of the reasons I go back to the classic mysteries from time to time and lose myself in the setting. The Miss Marple stories and Perry Mason novels are my favorites.

    • Aren’t they great, Pat? When a novel is really well-written, you really can immerse yourself in the life of the era when the novel was written. That’s how I know I’m reading a winner.

  14. This is a great post! 🙂 I remember how in Lord Edgware Dies, Hastings talks about the fashions of hats at the time, also stating that he is offering this explanation because he does not know when his words will be read. It’s fun reading novels that open up a window to life in the past…

    • I think so, too, Regulus98! And good memory about Hastings’ comment, too. It is interesting how Christie really had an eye for her era, and could show it, keeping in mind that someone in the future might be reading her work.

  15. I think this is one reason I tend to prefer slightly older books to the ones being written now – I find new technology has made investigation much duller, though I’m sure it’s incredibly useful in real life. I liked when police detectives got their information through interacting with characters directly, rather than checking people out on Facebook etc. I’ve been enjoying my slow re-read of the Dalziel & Pascoe series – a long-running series like that one, set in real-time, can give a great picture of how things change over time, especially social attitudes. That particular series really shows how attitudes to women changed between the 70s and the end of the century, as well as attitudes towards race and homosexuality. I do like historical novels if they’re done well, but books written contemporaneously are often much more revealing without having to make “points”.

    • Well said, FictionFan. That’s one of the things about reading contemporaneous novels about given eras. And Hill’s series is such a good example of the way society, detection methods, and just about everything else, has changed in the last forty years or so. Hill had an eye for society, as I think Ian Rankin does, and it shows in his books. You make a good point, too, about the interest that can build in a story when you see the detective actually interviewing people and getting information ‘the old fashioned way.’ As you say, it’s not as efficient in real life; technology has made real-life detection lots easier. But for a novel, there’s a lot of appeal, isn’t there, in watching some of the ‘leg work’ of detection.

  16. Col

    Great post, I haven’t yet enjoyed any Angel or Sansom books, but they are waiting!

  17. I’m intrigued by one aspect of the Sue Grafton Kinsey Milhone books – the first ones were completely contemporary, written in the time they were set. But as we have moved on, Kinsey has stayed where she is, and very little time has passed and little has changed in the outside world. I think that is a very unusual setup – but we can see that 80s world in the clothes, and the lack of technology…

    • You’re absolutely right, Moira. In fact, I almost mentioned that series, but didn’t at the last minute. So I’m glad that you did. There’s something about that 80s atmosphere that Grafton has preserved very nicely, and yet the series doesn’t ‘drag,’ if that makes sense.

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