It’s the Latest, It’s the Greatest*

Not long ago, crime writer and fellow blogger Christine Poulson did a very interesting post about clothing fads and other fads, too, that make us wince now, but were all the rage. You know what I mean: bug-eyed glasses, bowl haircuts, and cable-knit vests, among others.

Of course, it’s not just a matter of clothing. Fads can come in any form, and not all them are as cringe-worthy as jumpsuits for men. But they all leave their mark, including mentions in crime fiction.

For example, during the Jazz Age, Mah Jong became all the rage.  People played it at parties, at home, and sometimes in clubs. Agatha Christie makes mention of that fad in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. In that novel, the small village of Kings Abbot is rocked by the stabbing death of retired magnate Roger Ackroyd. The most likely suspect is the victim’s stepson, Captain Ralph Paton. But Paton’s fiancée, Flora Ackroyd, doesn’t think he’s guilty, and asks Hercule Poirot to investigate. This novel is narrated by the village doctor, Dr. James Sheppard, who lives next door to the house Poirot has taken. One evening, Sheppard, his sister Caroline (who lives with him), and two guests play a game of Mah Jong. A good deal of gossip is passed around during the course of the evening, and some of it is relevant to the mystery at hand. We also get to follow the game, and learn a bit about how it’s played.

Christie also mentions other fads that came later. For instance, the ‘Teddy Boy’ look makes an appearance in The Pale Horse. And we see bits of faddish fashion in Hallowe’en Party, too. Here, for instance, is a description of Desmond Holland, a character who turns out to be helpful in solving the murder of a young girl, Joyce Reynolds:

‘The younger one was wearing a rose-coloured velvet coat, mauve trousers, and a kind of frilled shirting.

Not something that would likely be worn today, but the look was especially popular at the time (the book was published in 1969).

Another fad we see in crime fiction is the dance marathon. These marathons became extremely popular in the 1920s and 1930s; and, as the name suggests, involved couples moving to music for as long as they could. The winners of this endurance contest might win money or some other coveted prize. A dance marathon forms the background for a murder in Kerry Greenwood’s 1920s-era novel, The Green Mill Murder. In that novel, Phryne Fisher and her escort, Charles Freeman, are at an upmarket dance club called the Green Mill. The club is hosting a dance marathon that night, which is supposed to be an exciting event. But it turns tragic when one of the dancers, Bernard Stevens, slumps to the floor, dead of a stab wound. Phryne starts investigating, but she hasn’t got very far when Charles Freeman goes missing. His mother hires Phryne to find him, and she agrees. It turns out that his disappearance is related to Stevens’ death, and to the end of World War I.

On the topic of dancing, one of the crazes of the 1970s was disco dancing. There were disco outfits, disco contests, and so on (right, those who’ve seen Saturday Night Fever?). Of all fictional sleuths, you wouldn’t expect Colin Cotterill’s Dr. Siri Paiboun to get caught up in disco. But that’s exactly what happens in one plot thread of Disco For the Departed. In that novel (which takes place in 1970s Laos), Dr. Siri is sent to northern Laos in his capacity as the country’s medical examiner. Construction of a concrete walkway to the president’s palace has uncovered a body. With a major celebration coming up, the government can’t afford a public embarrassment like this, and Dr. Siri is expected to quietly do away with the ‘problem.’ But it’s clear that this victim was murdered, and Dr. Siri wants to know why and by whom. As fans of this series will know, there’s an element of the supernatural in these novels, as Dr. Siri discovers that he has a connection with the spirits of those who’ve died. And in this case, that connection becomes clear when he arrives at the village of Vieng Xai, where the body was discovered.  For several nights in a row, Dr. Siri hears disco music – music no-one else can hear.  Here’s what Dr. Siri thinks about it when he first hears it:

‘It destroyed any hope of sleep. He wondered what type of people would start dancing in the middle of the night and how anyone could enjoy such an ugly Western din. Or perhaps this was one of the Party’s torture techniques to punish the officials from Vientiane. He could think of few things more cruel.’

But, as it turns out, that music, and those spirits, play a role in the novel. The mystery itself has a very prosaic solution, but Dr. Siri gets inspiration from several different sources, including the spirits of those who’ve died.

Pinball has been played for a long time, and many people still enjoy it. During the 1960s and 1970s, though, pinball became a craze. It’s enshrined in the Who’s rock opera Tommy, and it’s in crime fiction, too.

For instance, in Wendy James The Lost Girls, we learn of the 1978 death of fourteen-year-old Angela Buchanan. She was spending the summer with her aunt, uncle and cousins; and, like most teens, didn’t want to spend all day sitting at home. So, she, her cousin, Mick, and Mick’s friends, spent their share of time at the local drugstore. There, they played plenty of pinball. One afternoon, after a pinball session, Angela disappeared. She was later found dead, with a scarf around her head. At first, Mick was ‘a person of interest.’ But no real evidence was found against him. And a few months later, another young girl, Kelly McIvor, was found dead, also with a scarf around her. The police began to see the two deaths as related; in fact, the press dubbed the killer the Sydney Strangler. The murderer was never caught. Now, nearly forty years later, filmmaker Erin Fury wants to interview Angela’s family as a part of a documentary on families who survive the murder of one of their members. As she speaks to Angela’s cousins, aunt, and uncle (her parents have since died), we learn what really happened to her. Pinball isn’t the reason for her death, but it’s an interesting example of how a fad can find its way into a story.

And that’s the thing about fads. They’re an important part of our culture, so it makes sense that we’d see them in crime fiction, too. Thanks, Christine, for the inspiration. Now, may I suggest your next blog stop be Christine’s excellent blog? Great book reviews, discussions of writing, and more await you. Oh, and you’ll want to try her crime fiction, too. You won’t be disappointed.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Barry Mann and Bernie Lowe’s Mashed Potato Time.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Christine Poulson, Colin Cotterill, Kerry Greenwood, Wendy James

27 responses to “It’s the Latest, It’s the Greatest*

  1. I am so flattered, Margot! You’re very kind. Something to add to this interesting topic: I think there was a fashion for planchette or table-turning at one point – used to good effect in Christie’s The Sittaford Mystery and elsewhere.

    • Oh, my pleasure, Christine. And I’m just telling the facts… Thanks for mentioning the whole craze for planchettes and so on. You’re right that Christie used that quite effectively. I’m glad that gap’s been filled…

  2. I was always fascinated by the idea of Mah Jong – it sounded so exotic! I admit to slight disappointment when I eventually found out how to play it – one of those things that had seemed better in my imagination than in reality. And no matter what may be wrong with the world today, at least we don’t have to wear ’70s style disco gear any longer – see? Humanity is advancing… 😉

    • 😆 It certainly is, FictionFan! Disco gear belongs in the past. Very far in the past… Interesting, too, isn’t it, how something can be more appealing in the imagination than it is in real life. Mah Jong is one of those games that can seem really fascinating when you read about it, so I can see the appeal. And, after all, how many people can say, ‘Yes, of course I can play Mah Jong.’

  3. Col

    Disco is definitely one better left in the past. I can remember the appalling high-waisted flared trousers that accompanied the music. Had a pair or two myself – cringes with embarrassment at that recall. I ought to read something from Colin Cotterill.

    • I think you’d like Cotterill, Col. And as for clothes? Don’t feel bad. You should see some of the abominations I wore! Yes, disco is definitely better off left in the past…

  4. I was going to mention spiritualism and Ouija boards, which make their appearance in several crime fiction novels, but Christine obviously knows her stuff and got there before me. I wonder if the current passion for baking programmes on TV is leading to more cozy crime centred around cake-making?

    • Now, that’s an interesting question, Marina Sofia. That certainly could be the case. I know there are several series out there with that sort of theme. Hmmm…that connection makes sense to me. And I’m glad both you and Christine mentioned spiritualism, planchettes and the like. They really were popular for a time.

  5. As Marina Sofia mentioned above, I think cozies do have lots of fads reflected in their pages! I try not to include them as much though…although it’s fun to take a trip through time, I’d rather not date my books if I can help it!

  6. Fads do give us a sense of time and place so they add to making a story more realistic. But as Elizabeth noted, they can also date a book so they’re not good if you want your book to fit into any time period. Great post, Margot.

    • Thanks, Mason. And you put it really well. A story can seem more realistic if there’s a mention of the latest fad or craze. But too much, and the book is dated. I think it’s a tricky balance.

  7. It does lend that touch of authenticity in a historical mystery to portray what recreational activity (or dress fad, political issue, news item, etc) was current for the time. But the tricky part is you don’t want to be heavy-handed with it and make your reader feel as if they have no common ground.
    Fab post!

    • Thanks, Kathy. And you’ve pointed out an important issue: it’s really important to invite the reader to connect with the story and the characters. If there’s no common ground, that’s hard to do. So, weaving in a fad or craze has to be done carefully.

  8. Reblogged this on e. michael helms and commented:
    From mystery writer/blogger, Margot Kinberg—-

  9. Another (as usual) interesting post, Margot. I don’t recall every hearing about Mah Jong. Disco? Puh-lease–I can just envision Col strutting his stuff underneath that shining glittering ball! (Not a pretty sight!)

    On the other hand, when I was growing up in the sixties, there was a favorite place for teens-early twenties called “The Hangout.” It was a big, open covered pavilion right by the beach in Panama City, FL. A big juke box kept blaring continuously until after midnight while couples danced the night away. My friends and I hung out there many, many nights during summers hoping to “meet” vacationing girls (ah, those devilish days of youth!).
    This post has given me an idea for a future mystery in my M.M. series. Thanks so much for the unintended idea! 🙂

    • Thanks for the kind words, Michael. And I agree with you; Col doing disco moves under a disco ball? Umm….No. Just no. On the other hand, ‘The Hangout’ sounds great. I’m sure you and your friends had lots of great times there. There wasn’t such a place where I grew up because of the climate. I can imagine it, though. And I wish you well with your next MM novel. 🙂

  10. tracybham

    I recently read my first book about Phryne Fisher (Cocaine Blues) so the The Green Mill Murder sounds good. And Disco for the Departed is the next book I need to read by Cotterill. Very interesting post, Margot.

  11. kathy d.

    I haven’t read the Phrynne Fisher books, but I have seen and enjoyed the TV series starring Essie Davis. That is a must-see. It’s so well-done and Davis is perfect as Phrynne. She was Kerry Greenwood’s preference as the lead for the show.
    And the costumes are worth watching, too; fantastic work.

    • You’re right, Kathy, that Kerry Greenwood chose Davis for that role. In fact, she’s had a lot of influence on that show, and it reflects her skill, I think. I do recommend the books if you get the chance.

  12. Those fortune telling/supernatural fads also included the mysterious Black Box, which turns up in Christie’s Pale Horse, other novels of the era, and in the life of Evelyn Waugh to disastrous effect…

    • Yes, indeed, Moira. I’m glad you included that. I think Christie used it effectively in her work. In Waugh’s case, of course, the result was tragic, wasn’t it…

  13. What an informative & fun mystery blog post. Thanks for giving me fun books to read & for reminding me that the Devil’s in the details. I love historical fiction for these telling styles, fads & crazes. 🤗😘

    • So glad you enjoyed the post, DLM – thanks for the kind words. 🙂 – I agree with you, too, about historical fiction. When it’s done well, one can learn so much about those crazes and fads. And that adds to our understanding of the time.

      • I happen to love history & the study of cultural norms from region to region. In a few months I will upgrade my site as an author site for upcoming Dog Leader Mysteries book one. My setting is northern California before everyone had a cell phone. I want my characters to talk & visit each other’s homes. No texting😎😉

        • Sounds interesting, DLM! There’s definitely something about the sort of story where the sleuth gets information by interviews, visits, and so on, and not just through the Internet. I wish you well with your site update!

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