It’s almost impossible for a writer not to be affected by larger events that are going on. After all, we’re all impacted by what happens in the larger world. Some authors choose not to weave those larger social climates and events into their work. When they do, it seems to work most effectively if those larger things are, if I can put it this way, in the background. In that way, both the author and the reader can focus on the characters and the plot at hand. If that happens, those larger events and social contexts can add a sense of time and place to a novel.
For example, World War II is the backdrop for Christianna Brand’s Green For Danger. Heron Park Hospital has been converted for wartime use, and as the story begins, seven different people are going to the hospital to work in different capacities. One day, a postman named Joseph Higgins is brought the hospital with a broken femur. It’s not a life-threatening injury, but he does need surgery. When he dies during the operation, it’s put down to a tragic accident at first. In fact, Inspector Cockrill of the Kent Police goes to the hospital to ‘rubber stamp’ that explanation. Then, a nurse who was present at Higgins’ death has too much to drink at a party, and blurts out that she knows Higgins was murdered, and she knows how it was done. Later that night, she is murdered. Now, Cockrill investigates both deaths as murders, and finds out who the killer is. In this case, the war provides the atmosphere, and there’s plenty of talk about it. But the action doesn’t take place on the battlefield. Rather, the focus is on the hospital and the characters involved.
Agatha Christie’s Taken at the Flood takes place mostly in the small village of Warmsley Vale. World War II has recently ended, and Lynn Marchmont has returned home to her mother, Adela, after military service. Times are not easy, but the Marchmonts had always counted on Adela’s wealthy brother, Gordon Cloade, for financial support. In fact, he’d told all of his family members not to worry about money, as he would see to their well-being. So, it was a shock to the family to learn that Cloade had married. It was an even worse shock when he died intestate. Now, everything will likely go to his widow, Rosaleen. Then, a stranger, who calls himself Enoch Arden comes to town. He hints that Rosaleen may not be eligible to inherit, since she may have been married to someone else at the time of her marriage to Cloade. Arden is killed before anyone can determine whether he was telling the truth, and the Cloades (and Marchmonts) find themselves drawn into the murder investigation. Hercule Poirot is consulted by two members of the Cloade family, and he works to find out the truth. Postwar privation, and the postwar atmosphere aren’t the main focus of the novel, nor the reason Arden is killed. But Christie certainly taps into the atmosphere of the times (this book was published in 1948).
Twenty years later, Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s The Laughing Policeman, was published. In it, Stockholm police detective Martin Beck and his team are assigned to help secure the US Embassy. There’s a large protest against the Vietnam war, and things could, of course, get disastrous. Then, a gunman boards a bus and shoots eight people, including a police officer. At first, it looks like an act of terrorism. But soon enough, Beck and his team discover that this might have been a very deliberate attack on the dead policeman, whose current investigation was proving dangerous to some dangerous people. While the student activism and anti-war sentiment of the late 1960s isn’t the reason for the murders on the bus, that atmosphere and political context are certainly woven into the story and provide interesting background.
During the mid-1980s, there was a major strike among UK miners. Feelings ran high on all sides, and the strike left lasting resentments. That’s the background against which Reginald Hill’s Under World is set. In that novel, Colin Farr returns to the small mining town of Burrthorpe, where his father, Billy, died a few years ago in a tragic fall (or was it an accident?). It’s not long before he alienates everyone – especially those who think his father was responsible for the disappearance and murder of a young girl, Tracey Pedley. So, he’s an attractive target for suspicion when there’s another murder. Superintendent Andy Dalziel leads the investigating team, and it’s not going to be an easy case. Woven into all of this is the climate engendered by the strike. There’s a lot of hostility towards the police, which makes it hard to get information. And, there’s a look at the life of the miners, both underground and above it. It’s a very difficult, dangerous occupation, and it’s got its own culture.
And then there’s Ian Rankin’s Set in Darkness, which takes place just before the Scottish Parliament is to be reconvened after hundreds of years. A long-dead body is discovered behind a blocked-up fireplace in a building that’s being renovated to house the Parliament. The body isn’t nearly as old as the building is, so Inspector John Rebus and his team look into the building’s more recent history to find out the truth about the body. As if that’s not enough, a homeless man throws himself off a bridge – and leaves behind quite a lot of money. And a promising prospective MP is murdered. The upcoming reconvening of the Scottish Parliament is woven through the novel and adds to its atmosphere and background.
There are plenty of other examples, too, of authors who use contemporary events, movements, and so on as backgrounds to their stories. Doing that adds the risk of dating a novel. But if the focus stays on the characters and the actual plot, such events and movements can add real atmosphere to a story.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Brett Dennen’s Surprise Surprise.