Social and other changes often mean different roles for just about everyone. In some ways, that can be very liberating. But it also means that the rules people had always lived by no longer apply in the same way as before. As much as that frees people up, it can also cause awkwardness and uncertainty. When two people go out on a date, who asks for the date? And who pays? What clothes are appropriate for a given event? And what about rules for written communication in this world of texting and email? These are just a few examples of the sorts of questions that used to have very easy answers. Not in today’s world.
All of this can cause anxiety, even as it means that we are evolving as a society. And that anxiety can add some interesting tension to a novel. For a crime novel, the uncertainty as rules change can add interesting background. It can sometimes add a layer of character development, too.
There’s an interesting discussion about social ‘rules’ in Agatha Christie’s Three Act Tragedy (AKA Murder in Three Acts). Famous actor Sir Charles Cartwright hosts a cocktail party, to which he’s invited several guests, including some ‘locals.’ One of those guests is the village vicar, Reverend Stephen Babbington. When Babbington suddenly collapses and dies, it’s soon established that he was poisoned with pure nicotine. Hercule Poirot is one of the party guests, and he works to find out who the killer is. Then there’s another death, also from nicotine poisoning. This time, the victim is noted specialist Sir Bartholomew Strange. As you can imagine, all of the people who were at both events are suspects, or at least ‘people of interest.’ That group includes Hermione ‘Egg’ Lytton Gore. In one plot thread of the novel, we learn that Egg is romantically interested in Sir Charles. Partly for that reason, she wants a hand in investigating the murder. For her Victorian-Era mother, Lady Mary, it’s bad enough that Egg’s chosen to get mixed up in a murder. But the fact that Egg’s finding ways to flirt with Sir Charles is of even more concern. In Lady Mary’s day, ‘proper’ young ladies simply did not do such things. Egg’s interest in Sir Charles isn’t the reason for the murders. But it adds a layer of interest, and a look at the changing landscape of the world of dating.
The social rules that govern dating have changed a great deal over the years, especially in the last fifty years or so. Before that, there were major changes during the 1920s, as automobiles became popular (so that couples could go somewhere, rather than ‘court’ in someone’s drawing room). And, as women’s social roles changed, so did the rules that they were ‘supposed to’ follow. For instance, it became more common for women to smoke during the 1920s, to go out without a chaperone, and so on. We see this reflected in Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher series, which takes place during those years. For more on the social changes of that decade, let me also suggest you visit The Old Shelter, the terrific blog of author Sarah Zama, who’s an expert on that era. There’s a really interesting post there on dating during the ‘20s, that explains it all better than I could.
It’s not just rules about romantic relationships that change, though. In the last fifty years, there’ve been major social changes with respect to race. Ruth Rendell takes a look at that issue in Simisola. In one plot thread of that novel, Inspector Reg Wexford and his team are searching for a missing young woman, Melanie Akande. At one point, they think they’ve found her when the body of a young black woman is found in a nearby woods. But it turns out that this is another woman. Now, along with two cases to solve, Wexford has to confront his own assumptions about race. And at one point, he has an interesting conversation with his second-in-command, Mike Burden, about how to refer to black people. On the one hand, the pejoratives people used in the past are no longer acceptable. On the other, to say absolutely nothing about race, not to notice that race exists, does nothing to overcome racism. It’s really not an easy issue, and Wexford doesn’t resolve it in the novel. It really is a question of, ‘what do you do when the thing you’ve always done isn’t done anymore?’
We see that also in Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman. Strictly speaking, this isn’t a crime novel, although there is a crime in it. Twenty-six-year-old Jean Louise Finch returns to her home town, Maycomb, Alabama, for a visit. During her stay, one of Maycomb’s residents, old Mr. Healy, is struck and killed by a car. This death strikes close to the Finch family; the driver is a young man named Frank, grandson of the Finches’ long-time maid/cook, Calpurnia. Since the victim was white, and the driver black, the case is racially charged. Jean Louise’s father, Atticus, takes Frank’s case, and plans to defend him in court. The case is set against backdrop of a South that’s changing in many ways. And there are plenty of people who find those changes very difficult to accept. It’s not always because they are actively, consciously racist. Rather, it’s because the rules they’ve always lived by don’t apply any more. The place they’ve always known isn’t what it was, and among other things, this causes a lot of anxiety.
We see just a bit of that in Walter Mosley’s Little Green, too. In that novel, Los Angeles-based PI Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlins is persuaded to go in search of a black man nicknamed Little Green. This is 1967 Lost Angeles, and the rules about interactions between men and women, and between blacks and whites, have changed dramatically. In fact, one of the people Rawlins hopes may help him is a young white woman named Coco. He makes arrangements to meet her at a restaurant, and the two eat together. That, in itself, represents a major shift in the rules that governed the relations between blacks and whites, at least in the US. When those rules no longer apply, this causes a little awkwardness, at least on Rawlins’ part.
There are many, many other examples of rules that simply don’t apply. Rules for what women and men ‘are supposed to’ do, rules for interactions among people, and even rules for dress, communication, and activities, have all changed as society has evolved. And that means people have more options than ever. That’s very liberating, but it can also cause awkwardness and tension. And that can add an interesting layer to a novel.
ps. Oh, the ‘photo? Notice that the car’s left-turn indicator light is on? I was testing it after I’d removed the light housing panel on the back of the car, opened up the light bulb panel, and changed a burned-out bulb. The rules about what women and men are ‘supposed to’ do have certainly changed, even within my adulthood. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I broke a nail bolting that panel back into place, and I want to fix it before I start cooking dinner… 😉
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Chris Rae’s Changing Rules.