One of the major changes in society within the last hundred or so years has been the number of what we call modern conveniences. They were meant to save time and effort, and there are several that I’ll bet you couldn’t imagine living without at this point. Dishwashers, laundry machines, and so on have become integrated into modern homes. But of course, it wasn’t always that way. And it’s interesting to see how they’ve changed the way we do things. There are plenty of examples of these changes in crime fiction, too, and they give us a ‘window’ on a different way of life.
For example, many people today, especially in developed nations, have indoor bathrooms. Some people don’t think of them as ‘conveniences,’ but as essentials. But there are still plenty of places where outdoor toilets are common. And they were in regular use, even in cosmopolitan places, for a long time. One timeline of Babs Horton’s A Jarful of Angels, for instance, begins in late 1962, in a small Welsh village. In this plot thread, we meet four children: Lawrence ‘Fatty’ Bevan, Elizabeth ‘Iffy’ Meredith, Elizabeth ‘Bessie’ Tranter, and William ‘Billy’ Edwards. One of the other residents of the village, a man named Dai Full Pelt, is a malicious bully. When he does something especially terrible, the children decide to get their revenge. They watch him closely, noting the places he goes and the times. They decide that he’ll be most vulnerable while he’s in his outdoor toilet, so that’s where they strike. Their plan works, and it is quite the case of ‘just deserts.’ But it’s not the sort of thing that one could pull off in a modern indoor bathroom.
Refrigerators are also modern conveniences that plenty of people take for granted now, but are relatively recent developments. For example, Phoebe Atwood Taylor’s The Cape Cod Mystery was published in 1931. In it, Prudence Whitsby and her niece, Betsey, are spending the summer in at their cottage on Cape Cod. The cabin next door has been taken by a famous writer, Dale Sanborn. One night, he’s murdered. It turns out that there are several suspects, but one of the most likely is Bill Porter, who’s a friend of the Whitsby family. Local sheriff Slough Sullivan soon settles on Porter as the guilty man and arrests him. But Porter’s cook and ‘man of all work,’ Asey Mayo, doesn’t think his employer is guilty. So, he starts to ask questions. Between them, he and Prudence Whitsby find out who the real killer is. The story is told from Whitsby’s point of view, and here’s what she has to say about the summer cottage:
‘That refrigerator had been another added attraction to the cottage. Until this summer, we had carried our ice like the rest of the summer people from freight cars at the station whenever a load of ice happened to come in. Now we stood by and watched with an evil gleam of joy in our eyes as people raced cars home with their hunks of ice dismally dripping from a running board.’
It certainly makes one appreciate the modern refrigerator.
Sarah Waters touches on this, too, in The Paying Guests. In that novel, which takes place in 1922, Emily Wray and her daughter, Frances, have been left in a precarious financial situation. They decide that their only choice is to open their home to lodgers – ‘paying guests’ is the euphemism they use. After a short time, Leonard and Lilian Barber respond to their discreet advertisement. Terms are arranged, and the Barbers move in. It’s awkward, as you might expect. But everything goes reasonably well at first. Then, things slowly spiral out of control until there’s a tragedy. This novel takes place in the days before modern refrigeration. So, the Wrays use a meat-safe to store their perishables. You can read about what a meat-safe is, and how it works, right here. Meat-safes couldn’t keep things fresh for long, but they worked in a society where people bought meat, vegetables and the like every day.
There’s an interesting look at modern conveniences in Agatha Christie’s The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side (AKA The Mirror Crack’d). In it, Miss Marple and her friend, Dolly Bantry, solve the murder of Heather Badcock, who lived with her husband, Arthur, in the then-new council housing in the village. It’s not a major part of the plot, but there’s a discussion at the beginning of the novel about the way the village of St. Mary Mead has changed. And one of those changes is in the form of modern conveniences:
‘There were new people in most of the other old houses…the people who had bought them had done so because they liked what the house agent called “old world charm.” They just added another bathroom, and spent a good deal of money on plumbing, electric cookers, and dishwashers.’
In this case, ‘old world charm’ is only attractive to a point. Now that electric kitchen appliances and updated bathrooms are available, people want them.
Lots of homes now have air conditioning, whether it’s central air conditioning, or takes the form of room units. Before that, people who could afford to do so would go to a summer place in the mountains, by the sea, or somewhere else that was cooler. Those who couldn’t afford to travel opened their homes as much as they could so that breezes could cool things off, at least a little. But that wasn’t always enough when there was a heat wave. And that’s what we see in Ed McBain’s Cop Hater, the first of his 87th Precinct series. In it, a serious heat wave has struck Isola (a thinly-disguised New York City). Everyone’s miserable, including Steve Carella and the other people who work at the precinct. The main plot line concerns the murders of two police officers. But, in a small ‘aside’ plot line, we see how far the heat can drive people when there’s no relief. Among other things, the police are expected to attend lineups for major crimes, so that they can become familiar with local criminals. One of these cases concerns Virginia Pritchett, who’s charged with murdering her husband with a hatchet. She doesn’t deny the allegation. Instead, she tries to explain what she’s done:
‘‘The heat. It’s…it was very hot in the apartment. Right from the morning. You…you lose your temper very quickly in the heat.”
And that, she says, is what led to the murder.
We may take modern conveniences for granted. But they haven’t always been around, and it’s interesting to see what a difference they make in people’s lives. These are just a few examples. Your turn.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II’s Kansas City.