Say I’m Old-Fashioned*

As times change, people often change with them. We learn to use new technology, we may change our thinking about things, and so on. But there are people whom time seems to leave behind. They stay with more traditional ways of thinking, and they see value in sticking to the old ways.

Characters like that can add a layer to a crime novel. They can be interesting in and of themselves. They can also provide perspective on other characters, and on the context of the novel.

For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs (AKA Murder in Retrospect), we are introduced to Miss Cecilia Wiliams. She’s one of five people who were ‘on the scene’ on the day famous painter Amyas Crale was poisoned. Crale and his wife, Caroline, had hired Miss Williams to teach Carline’s half-sister, Angela Warren. So, she was present on the afternoon of his death. At the time, Caroline was widely assumed to be guilty, and she had good reason. That, plus the evidence against her, was enough to convict her of the crime, and she died in prison. Now, sixteen years later, the Crales’ daughter, Carla, wants her mother’s name cleared. So, she hires Hercule Poirot to re-investigate the murder. To do so, he interviews Miss Williams and the other people who were at the Crale home when the killing took place. He also gets written accounts from each. Those interviews and accounts give Poirot the information he needs to find the killer. Throughout the book, we get to know Miss Williams’ character. She is Victorian in her outlook, and traditional in what she believes.

‘She had that enormous mental and moral advantage of a strict Victorian upbringing, denied to us in these days – she had done her duty in that station in life to which it had pleased God to call her, and that assurance encased her in an armour impregnable to the slings and darts of envy, discontent and regret.’

Miss Williams’ evidence doesn’t solve the murder, but it does help clear Caroline Crale’s name.

In Ellery Queen’s The Fourth Side of the Triangle, Dane McKell learns that his wealthy father, Ashton, is hiding a secret. It seems that he is having an affair with famous fashion designer Sheila Grey. When Dane discovers who his father’s paramour is, he decides to confront her. Unexpectedly, he finds himself attracted to her, and the two begin a relationship. Then, one night, Sheila Grey is murdered. New York Police Inspector Richard Queen investigates, and, naturally, his son, Ellery, gets involved in the case. Both Ashton and Dane McKell come in for their share of suspicion. So does Ashton’s wife, Lutetia. As the Queens get to know her, we learn that she is very much a ‘throwback’ to Victorian times. She’s very traditional in her views, and that adds to the tension and even dysfunction in the family. As the investigation continues, the Queens find that the McKells aren’t the only suspects. The victim had a complicated personal life, and there are several possibilities when it comes to her murderer.

One of the recurring characters in Ian Rankin’s Inspector John Rebus series is Morris Gerald ‘Big Ger’ Cafferty. He’s a notorious Edinburgh crime boss, and, as such, frequently goes up against Rebus. Every once in a while, the two find themselves ‘necessary allies’ when it’s in both of their interests. And, over time, they develop a grudging respect for each other, even though neither really likes or trusts the other. As the series begins, Cafferty is very much in charge of his share of Edinburgh’s crime trade. But, as the series goes on, times change, and crimes change with them. Little by little, crime bosses such as Cafferty are being supplanted by other sorts of crime and new sorts of criminals. For Cafferty, this raises a question. Where does an old-style crime boss like him fit in in Edinburgh’s new crime scene? It’s not an easy situation for him.

Peter Lovesey’s The Last Detective: Introducing Detective Superintendent Peter Diamond is the first of his series featuring Diamond. There’s a reason for that title, too. Diamond is, in many ways, an old-fashioned sort of detective. He believes in ‘legwork,’ in looking for clues, interviewing witnesses and suspects, and so on. And, although he’s had some trouble, he’s good at what he does, and he has a solid instinct. He sees himself as the last of the true detectives, who rely on their own skills, rather than getting all of their answers from computers. And he’s well able to show that nothing can completely replace a good police detective with solid instincts and the ability to put the pieces of a puzzle together.

Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman is a former accountant-turned baker, who lives and has her bakery in a large Melbourne building called Insula. Fans of this series know that the building is also home to several other ‘regular’ characters. One of them is retired professor Dionysus Monk. He’s a bibliophile who regularly quotes Greek and Roman classics. While he is fully aware that it’s a modern world, he has a sort of ‘old world’ charm and courtliness that appeals. And he often has quite a lot of wisdom.

So does Alexander McCall Smith’s Precious Ramotswe. She is the owner of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, Botswana’s only female-run private investigation company. Mma Ramotswe understands that the world keeps changing, and so do tastes and attitudes. She even agrees with some of those changes, as they improve life. But she is old-fashioned in many respects. She clings to traditional Botswana values, and is very proud of her people’s ways. She isn’t completely ‘stuck in the past,’ but she believes that many traditions are worth preserving.

There are other characters, too, who are, as you might say, reminders of an earlier time. They know the world is changing, but they prefer some (or even all) of the older ways. Depending on how the author creates those characters, this can make for a sympathetic character or…the opposite. Which have stayed with you?


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bob Seger’s Old Time Rock and Roll.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Ellery Queen, Ian Rankin, Kerry Greenwood, Peter Lovesey

19 responses to “Say I’m Old-Fashioned*

  1. You have reminded me that I need to read more in the Inspector Rebus series. Cafferty does sound like an interesting character, especially if he is a recurring character.

    I have heard so much about how Five Little Pigs is a very good book, but it is about 10 books down the road if I continue reading the Poirot books in order. Is it worth jumping ahead to? Would reading it spoil anything in the earlier books?

    • As I recall, Tracy, there aren’t spoilers to other novels in Five Little Pigs. I know I haven’t read Christie’s work in order, and I didn’t feel that reading Five Little Pigs before some of the others put me at any kind of a disadvantage. That’s just my opinion, of course.

      And about Cafferty? He really is an interesting character. Like Rebus, he’s multi-faceted; so, although he’s an antagonist, he’s not a purely evil character. He has some layers, if I can put it like that.

  2. Ah, yes, even the poor old-fashioned copper will be becoming old-fashioned soon. Current police officers probably barely remember a time pre-computers and DNA, even if they’re reaching the end of their careers. I’m feeling pretty old-fashioned myself these days, and to think I was once cutting-edge or possibly even avant-garde… 😉

    • 😆 Me, too, FictionFan! And these days, if you ask my daughter current events and lifestyle expert, you’d think I ought to be on display in an antiques curio shop… You make an interesting point about today’s police detectives, even those who’ve been on the force for a while. Technology, attitudes, and the like move so fast that one’s old-fashioned before one even has a chance to be ‘mainstream.’

  3. Yes, distinctly old-fashioned myself these days . . . Thanks for an interesting topic, Margot. I am thinking of Tony Hillman’s Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn and the setting of the Navajo reservation. Very often the old customs and beliefs and wisdom help him to get to the heart of the mystery.

    • They do, indeed, Christine. And that’s something I like about Leaphorn as a character. Even though he himself is not particularly traditional, he respects those who are. And he knows how helpful those customs and traditions can be in solving a mystery. Oh, and trust me…you’re by now means the only old-fashioned one…

  4. I’m not only old fashioned. I’m also old! And I prefer the golden oldies in crime fiction rather than contemporary writers’ obsessions with gore and perversions. Even Ancient Greek dramatists kept the violence off stage. BTW, Agatha Christie is THE golden oldie!

    • I agree with you, Tim, about older mysteries keeping the violence ‘off stage.’ Today’s traditional-style mysteries do that, too. But you’re right; there are plenty of contemporary novels that don’t…

  5. As much as I enjoy modern crime fiction I feel a little old-fashioned myself for preferring my detectives to employ legwork rather than forensic tests, it may be to do with the level of doubt sometimes encountered in those days…

    • I know what you mean, Cleo. I like it when fictional detectives do legwork, too. As you say, there is some doubt about some of those tests. And there’s something about the detective looking for clues, talking to witnesses, and so on, that draws the reader (at least this one) into a story.

  6. My large cadre of nieces and nephews, all 17 of them, affectionately call me the Dinosaur! Though it is true, it’s probably because I’m always saying back in my day, when the dinosaurs roamed the earth … There’s a part of me still stuck somewhere in the 50s. While another part of me is out there, off planet, somewhere lost in the future with robots, FTL jump drives, and so much tech to make the nerdy part of me feel likes she’s in heaven!

    But all that aside, I do like my detectives to do good old fashioned legwork, and have my police procedurals a little less tech-driven. As for me, it’s all about the characters.

    • I know what you mean, Alex. I like solid characters in novels, too. And there is definitely something about a novel where the sleuth finds out the truth through legwork, putting the clues together, and so on. That said, I do think it’s realistic (assuming the sleuth has access to them) for the sleuth to use forensics results. It’s part of the puzzle, if that makes sense.

      And it’s funny you’d mention that about dinosaurs roaming the earth. I’ve said the same sort of thing myself. And then I get the, ‘Well, at least you admit it,’ look… 😉

  7. Spade & Dagger

    I suspect the number & success of recent novels set in a post-apocalypse era, including detective & thriller novels, is in part due to that they have characters who are used to modern technology but have to manage without it.

    • I suspect you’re probably right, Spade & Dagger. Certainly that sort of scenario makes for an explanation of why the protagonist doesn’t have access to modern technology.

  8. Col

    No examples to add I’m afraid. I must read me some Rankin sometime.

  9. The thing is, a report of a long conversation with a witness, a going-back over the facts, will always be more fascinating to me than a description of forensic and scientific investigations. But I would be interested in a modern author using someone’s emails and texts to look at the life of a victim..

    • I like that approach to storytelling, too, Moira. And there is something about those conversations and reviewing the facts. To me, those sorts of scenes make the characters seem more real than a forensics report or an autopsy report, etc.. And that’s what engages me.

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