Changing Times, Changing Rules*

changing-rulesSocial 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.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Harper Lee, Kerry Greenwood, Ruth Rendell, Walter Mosley

22 responses to “Changing Times, Changing Rules*

  1. I’ve just gotten home from watching Hidden Figures and it is mind-boggling how bad and deeply-embedded segregation was and how far we have come since (of course we’ve seen it in more recent times as apartheid in South Africa – and of course things are not perfectly equitable even now). Still, sometimes it can feel like we are taking one step forward and two steps back…

    • I couldn’t possibly agree more, Marina Sofia. Segregation and the assumptions that go with it have been woven into the fabric of so many societies for so long that those ‘rule’ just seem tragically familiar. I think it’ll take us a long time and some very painful conversations to work out ways to get past it.

  2. Great post, Margot. Well, we should know very well about changes, since we’re living a time that is full of change, and happening so fast.
    Change doesn’t only make us awkward, it also scares us. Even when it turns out right, uncertainty is so strong while it happens, that we sometimes get scared and we don’t know why. Sometimes we don’t even realise it, but we’ll do the oldest, most unexpecteded, unreasonable things.
    Maybe that’s why we writers like change so much 😉

    And thanks so much for mentioning my post and for the nice words. I really really appreciated it.

    • It’s my pleasure to mention your blog and your fine work, Jazzfeathers. And I think you’re absolutely right about the way change makes us feel. It really can be scary. And even when it doesn’t exactly scare us, it certainly can be unsettling. As you say, that’s part of what makes it such a very effective context for a writer. 🙂

  3. What a fascinating post and one that really strikes at the heart of my interest in social history – it is interesting that key social rules changed across the world within a relatively short time period, often caused by war or as you point out an invention such as the car. Linked in with your love of music, that also changes in waves across the developed world too – I wonder why?
    I’m delighted that you’ve given us the link to The Old Shelter as I will definitely be checking it out!
    I do hope you’ve fixed your nail!!

    • 😆 I did, Cleo – thank you. And thanks for the kind words. You know, you’re absolutely right that so many important social rules changed the way they did, and so quickly. I wonder sometimes if it’s the speed of that change as much as anything else that really makes people uneasy. You make an interesting point, too, about the way changes seem to come in waves (and thanks for mentioning music. 🙂 Perhaps it’s that, as our world gets smaller, those changes become better known more quickly? As to The Old Shelter, I hope you enjoy visiting that great blog. It’s really terrific, in my opinion.

  4. What a great topic, and endlessly fascinating. I’ve always been interested in etiquette rules, and what they show about society – I even wrote an etiquette book myself in the past. I have quite a collection, and the preoccupations of the different eras are fascinating. When I was writing in the early 90s, people were very bothered about how to address unmarried couples who lived together, and those pesky phone answering machines. When I updated my book 15 years later, those issues had completely disappeared…

    • Oh, that’s really interesting, Moira! I didn’t know you’d written an etiquette book. It is fascinating to think about how changes in value systems and views impacts just about everything. And, of course, so does technology. Now, we’ve moved to texting and other kinds of ‘phone etiquette. For instance, there’s a new phenomenon called ‘phubbing,’ which refers to ignoring the person sitting right near you as you answer email, check Facebook status, and so on on your ‘phone. That sort of thing wasn’t covered in etiquette guidelines of 15 years ago…

  5. Margot: Your post mentioned Go Set a Watchman and the changing American South. Set a few years earlier, immediately after WW II, The Secret of Magic by Deborah Johnson sees Thurgood Marshall send a young Negro woman lawyer to Mississippi to investigate the death of a Negro veteran. Such an investigation by such a woman would not have happened a decade earlier.

    • Right you are, Bill. Thanks for adding in that excellent example. Many people think that the Civil Rights movement began with the bus boycotts and other activity of the late 1950s and early 1960s. But there’s an argument that the movement had its beginnings right after WW II, when black soldiers returned to a country they had just risked their lives for, but that didn’t want them as equal citizens.

  6. Ann

    Interesting post – Julian Fellows’ book Snobs gives us a glimpse into the social etiquette of the English upper class.
    “The English, of all classes as it happens, are addicted to exclusivity. Leave three Englishmen in a room and they will invent a rule that prevents a fourth joining them.”
    (I hopped over to your blog from Thoughts in Progress)

    • Thanks very much for visiting, Ann – I appreciate it! And thanks for sharing that great quote from Fellows. It’s definitely an interesting look at upper classes, isn’t it?

  7. This post is fascinating and really made me think about social norms. I’m 38 and have always felt it right that I pay half the bill, or to take it in turns to pay. Yet I’ve always felt uncomfortable at going in a pub on my own (when meeting friends there) because my mum never felt comfortable in that situation, as it wasn’t socially acceptable when she was young, and it’s rubbed off on me. I’ve bookmarked the links in your post and will definitely sit and read them later.

    • Thank you for the kind words, Hayley; I’m so glad you enjoyed the post. It is really interesting, isn’t it, how social mores change over time, and what that ends up meaning for people. Questions such as who pays, how one dresses, all of those things, are so deeply impacted by what we think and value. And your example of going alone into a pub shows that those beliefs can be enduring. Even as our beliefs slowly change over time, our inner senses of what’s comfortable don’t always.

  8. Col

    Time to get back to a Walter Mosley – Easy Rawlins book!
    I suppose in crime fiction these days, there are more female lead detectives than in the past, reflecting changes in society and more choice regarding careers, though there are still equality issues. No doubt addressing that will be a priority for your new president! 🙂

    • Oh, I’m sure it will, Col… 🙄 And you’re right about the number of female sleuths in the genre now. That’s not to mention the number of female characters who are executives, top attorneys, legislators, and so on. And that does reflect a major change in society. Oh, and about Mosley? Yes, that Rawlins series is great.

  9. kathy d

    Oh, about changing social relations. I can’t help but thin of the new movie “Loving,” about the “illegal” romance between Mildred Loving and Richard Loving. A biracial couple, they violated Virginia’s laws against such relationships. However, they scored a victory for couples like them everywhere in the U.S. when their case, Loving vs. Virginia won. Only 50 years ago, that SCOTUS ruling wiped out laws forbidding such relationships. It is also a beautiful movie.
    But there are are other changes in social mores, reflected in books.
    V.I. Warshawski, Sara Paretsky’s detective, is not married and has long-term romantic relationships.
    Not to mention lesbian and gay characters and relationships mentioned in crime fiction. Sometimes they are protagonists. Sometimes individuals or couples are involved in a story as friends of the detective or the victim or neighbors, but they are incorporated into the books increasingly.
    For instance, Donna Leon’s books have featured Flavia Petrelli and her woman partner.
    One of Harry Bosch’s colleagues is a woman cop who lives with another woman and they have a child.
    And, of course, Anne Holt’s Hanna Wilhelmson series features the protagonist and often mentions her female life-partner.
    It’s all good.

    • You give some great examples, Kathy, of characters who reflect our changing views about what’s acceptable and what’s not. Thanks for sharing them. And you’re right; it is all good. At the very least, it gives us a sense of the richness that is society, and to me, that’s a very good thing.

  10. Fascinating post, Margot, and many great comments. I am not sure that treatment of blacks or women has changed so much in the workplace, but the way that things are handled and the politically correct response to issues is very very different.

    • Thanks, Tracy. And you’re right about the comments. I always learn so much from people who are kind enough to comment. I agree, too, that there’s a big difference between what’s supposed to happen, and what actually does. Still, I think there have been some big changes. Let’s hope things keep progressing.

  11. kathy d

    Well, in reality due to certain (ahem) people in government, bad things are happening: attacks on Muslims and other immigrants, defacing of Jewish cemetaries, a ban on people coming from certain countries, increases in hate crimes and a rollback in LGBT rights, not to mention what’s coming down the pike.
    However, what’s great is the response. Thousands of people went to airports to welcome immigrants; young people are out protesting every attack, women of all ages and nationalities are marching, LGBT people are
    opposing these attacks. And Jewish people in Texas offered the keys to their synagogue so worshippers at a mosque burned down by an arsonist could worship. In turn, Muslims raised funds for and have helped repair Jewish cemeteries defiled by bigots.
    So, what’s bad is causing more unity and sisterhood and brotherhood.
    I can’t wait for this to be reflected in fiction, especially crime fiction.

    • It will, indeed, be very interesting to see how everything going on at the moment is reflected in crime fiction, Kathy. No doubt about that. As you say, there is a sense of people coming together – a heartening thing to see – and that, too, will be interesting as it plays out in fiction.

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