They’re Tearing it Down Now, But it’s Just as Well*

changesChange is often difficult, even if the change is a good one. It upsets the status quo and it means that we have to get used to something new. And that can be very hard. Yet, as we all know, change is inevitable. It’s how we grow as a society and individually. So it’s really not a question of whether there’ll be change, but how we respond to it.

That feeling of tension as things change can add a great deal to a crime novel (or any novel, really). For one thing, showing the way people respond to change can add a layer of character development. And change in general can add an interesting layer of tension and even conflict to a story.

For example, one of the plot threads in Agatha Christie’s The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side (AKA The Mirror Crack’d) has to do with the coming of council housing to the village of St. Mary Mead. It’s something quite new for the people who live there, and not everyone is happy about it. Many people liked the village just as it was. But Miss Marple knows that change is inevitable, so fighting it probably won’t do much good. In fact, she’s curious about what the new housing is like. So one day, she takes a walk in the new part of town. Unfortunately, she twists her ankle and ends up with a mild, but painful, injury. She’s rescued by Heather Badcock, who lives in one of the new houses. As they talk, she learns that Heather is a major fan of famous actress Marina Gregg, and is excited that her idol has bought a house in the area. On the day the re-done house is opened to the public, Heather finally gets the chance to meet Marina Gregg. Shortly afterwards, she dies of what turns out to be a poisoned cocktail. Since the cocktail was originally meant for the actress, the first theory is that she was the intended victim. But soon, Miss Marple sees that Heather was meant to be the victim all along. It’s not spoiling the story to say that Heather isn’t killed because she lives in a council house. But it does make for an interesting thread of tension in the story.

So does the coming of the mall and the mall culture in Catherine O’Flynn’s What Was Lost. Before the advent of the mall, people did their shopping in downtown areas. When malls arrived, this made major changes in people’s shopping habits, their social lives, and the structure of many, many towns. This major change is the backdrop for this novel, in which we meet ten-year-old Kate Meaney. The story begins in 1984, when the Green Oaks Shopping Center opens in Kate’s small Midlands town. Kate’s a budding detective with her own business, Falcon Investigations. She thinks that there’s sure to be crime to investigate at the mall, so she spends a great deal of time there. Then one day she goes missing. Despite a massive search, she’s never found. Twenty years later, a mall security guard named Kurt starts to see a strange image on his security camera – a girl who looks a lot like Kate. By chance, he meets Lisa Palmer, Assistant Manager at the mall’s music store, and the two form an awkward sort of friendship. Each in their own way, they go back to the past, and we learn what happened to Kate. Throughout the novel, we see the impact of the change from the ‘High Street’ concept of shopping to the ‘mall’ concept. A lot of people like it; many people hate and fear it. But everyone’s impacted by it.

Peter Lovesey’s The Last Detective: Introducing Detective Superintendent Peter Diamond introduces to Superintendent Peter Diamond of the Avon and Somerset Police. He’s old-fashioned in a lot of ways, and one of them is his view of what detection really is. When the body of former television star Geraldine ‘Gerry’ Jackman is discovered in Chew Valley Lake, Diamond and his assistant, John Wigfull, investigate. Diamond is firmly convinced that cases are best solved through ‘legwork,’ talking to witnesses, and getting evidence. He has little patience for computer reports and other technology, as he feels that nothing beats old-fashioned sleuthing. One of the sub-plots in this novel is the tension between Diamond and those who feel that computers are a critical part of modern police work. Among other things, this novel shows the inexorable advance of computer technology and modern forensics techniques. It makes Diamond uneasy, but that change has transformed the way the police find answers.

A great deal of Steph Avery’s Our Trespasses take place in 1966 South East London. It’s a time of great social upheaval, including changes in the roles of women, experimentation with drugs and sex, and of course, all sorts of new forms of music. Caught up in this time of change are teenage sisters Bridget ‘Bridie’ and Madeline ‘Midge’ Dolan. They’ve been raised as ‘good girls’ from the working class; Bridie in particular is devoted to her Roman Catholic beliefs, and has an old-fashioned approach to life. But the two girls are fascinated by the music and the fashions of the times. So they wangle their mother’s permission to go dancing one Friday night at the Palais Royale. That evening ends in tragedy, and has a permanent impact on everyone involved. Throughout the novel, we see how unsettling some of the social changes are. While some people are excited about the new fashions, lifestyles, and social roles, there are others who want to keep the status quo.

There’s an interesting look at major social change in Brian Stoddart’s Superintendent Christian ‘Chris’ Le Fanu series. He’s a police detective in Madras (today’s Chennai) in the early 1920’s, the last years of the British Raj. There are many people who are pushing for Indian Home Rule, with all of the political and social changes that would bring. But there are plenty of people who like the status quo. Sometimes, it’s because they benefit from it. Other times it’s because they’re comfortable with it. Either way, that tension adds a great deal to the series. Le Fanu himself accepts that Home Rule will come at some point soon, and he’s ready to adjust to it. On the other hand, Arthur Jepson, Madras Commissioner of Police, is against Home Rule, and sees nothing but anarchy coming from it. It makes for an interesting difference (among many) between the men.

And then there’s Gail Bowen’s 12 Rose Street. Political scientist and former academic Joanne Kilbourn Shreve gets involved in a major controversy over the Racette-Hunter Centre. Located in Regina’s impoverished North-Central district, Racette-Hunter is intended to benefit the community, but there are plenty of people who don’t want that change. Joanne’s husband, Zack Shreve, is running for mayor of Regina, and he’s the one who spearheaded Racette-Hunter. So both Joanne and Zack are affected when it seems that someone is trying to sabotage both his campaign and the project.

And that’s the thing about change. It makes a lot of people uneasy. But change is inevitable, and a lot of changes can be good. That tension can make for a very interesting thread in a mystery plot.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s This is the Time.   


Filed under Agatha Christie, Brian Stoddart, Catherine O'Flynn, Gail Bowen, Peter Lovesey, Steph Avery

25 responses to “They’re Tearing it Down Now, But it’s Just as Well*

  1. This is another of the themes that can work really well in helping to “show” characters through their reactions to change, rather than simply telling the reader what they’re like. Joanne Harris’ recent book, Different Class, looks at how older teachers might be struggling with some of the changes in the education system over the over the last few decades. And pokes a good deal of fun at the excesses of ‘political correctness’ along the way…

    • Oh, that’s a great example of what I had in mind with this post, FictionFan – thanks. And I think you’re absolutely right that this is the sort of plot point that can reveal a lot about a character without doing too much ‘telling. I think the whole change motif can resonate with readers, too.

  2. I read Peter Lovesey’s The Last Detective a couple of years ago so my memory of it isn’t all that clear. Still, I thought that Peter Diamond proved his point, solving the crime with his old-fashioned methods. I came away from the book rooting for the status quo even though, 25 years on, I know what the change (computers) can accomplish. Was I still fuzzy-headed from the post-surgery pain meds?

    • The pain meds may have had something to do with it, Debbie. But you do make a well-taken point about the value of the old-fashioned approach to detecting. Computers have made some amazing things possible – they really have. After all, we’re both using them to communicate. But as the saying goes, technology is a fine servant, but not a good master. There’s nothing like the intuition that comes from experience and human wisdom.

  3. Thanks so much for the mention Margot, much appreciated

    Sent from my iPhone


  4. Col

    I like the way Stoddart depicts India and the tensions and agitation for change as the background in his Le Fanu books. Avery’s Our Trespasses is on the list.

  5. I loved Derek B Miller’s Norwegian By Night where the old man, Sheldon Horowitz is subjected to massive change by his granddaughter and moved from New York to Oslo, Norway. He’s really not happy there. He’s in his 80s and feels he’s lost all control of his life. Miller does a great job of conveying this sense of loss and then the joy when Sheldon has to run to protect a young boy. Because he feels he has some purpose again.

  6. Change can be view as good and bad so it does work well in a story. It adds a bit of realism for me. Interesting books you’ve shared, Margot. Several more to add to my TBR list.

    Thoughts in Progress
    and MC Book Tours

  7. An interesting subject, Margot. Change is a good source of potential conflict even on the smallest scale–anything that makes people uncomfortable can generate anger (and excellent motivation for murder!) I know how upset small town residents can be when newcomers with lots of ideas for changing things come into town. 🙂

    • Exactly, Elizabeth 🙂 – And you make a well-taken point. Change sometimes does make people uncomfortable, whatever the change happens to be. And it can be an excellent source of conflict, tension, and worse…

  8. What a fantastic way to cause conflict…change. It’s funny because so many novels use old school detectives who don’t want to bow down to technology, and I love that. But change also adds a realism to the story, as well, don’t you think?

    • Oh, I definitely think it does, Sue. Life and the world are like that; they change. There’s really not any way to avoid it. So it’s realistic to introduce change into a story. And, as you say, it’s an effective tool for weaving conflict and tension into a story.

  9. Pingback: They’re Tearing it Down Now, But it’s Just as Well* – Bum's Landing & Restart – Andrè Michael Pietroschek

  10. Margot: Joanne Kilbourn has her own issues with change. She dislikes change that adds malls and commercial developments that sprawl on the edge of cities. I think her view of change is more in the nature of renewal. She does not want to just change the neighbourhood. She passionately believes it will be a better neighbourhood. I think we will be hearing more about the issue of progressive change in discussion of urban development in the future.

    • You’re right about Joanne Kilbourn, Bill. And you make an interesting distinction between the sort of change that will bring real renewal, and the sort of change that brings more malls and office buildings. There really is a difference, and I suspect you’re right that we’ll be hearing more about that in the future.

  11. As you say Christie – for all some people consider her to be steeped in the past – actually reflected change very well. She also covered the immediate post-War era, in books like Taken at the Flood and Murder is Announced, and made it very clear the ways the world had changed. She looked at the movement of people, at the difficulties of being sure of people’s identities, and the restlessness of those who found peacetime dull after the excitements of war. She used all those features to brilliant effect in her plots.

    • I think she did, too, Moira. And I’m glad you mentioned both Taken at the Flood and A Murder is Announced. Both are excellent examples of the way Christie could hold up a glass to her society and show what was happening to it. In my opinion, she did that brilliantly.

  12. tracybham

    Change is very hard, Margot. Even when it affects you in small ways. I know we still miss not having any major book stores here. I prefer small, independent book stores but it is strange when a city the size of Santa Barbara (combined with Goleta and Montecito) cannot support a major book store.

    I need to get back to the Joanne Kilbourn series.

    • I wonder about that, too, Tracy. You’d think there’d be at least one major bookstore there. I think you’re right, too, about change. It’s very hard at times, even if it’s a small change. It requires re-adjustment, which is never easy.

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