There are certain ‘watershed’ moments in time that change everything. They force a sort of paradigm shift that’s thrilling and exhilarating, but at the same time can be nerve-wracking. Everything people have known is now different, and it can be frightening to conceive of a new order, no matter how desperately the old order needed to be changed. I’m sure we could all think of examples of those major changes throughout history. I’ve only space here for a few of them; I hope they’ll suffice.
The old social order in the US for many generations was institutionalised racism. And even in places where there weren’t laws mandating it, there was often de facto segregation. Beginning in the 1940s, though, those walls started to fall. First it was Major League Baseball. Then it was the US military. And bit by bit more change happened. The Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s brought the issue to the forefront of the national conversation. The paradigm began to shift, and brought with it a whole new social order. Does this mean racism is over? Of course not. There’s still racism, and there’s still awkwardness about race, and those things make having a national conversation about it difficult. We don’t know what kind of a new social order will develop; it’s only been fifty years and we have quite a ways to go. But the end of de jure segregation in the US was a watershed moment in history. Speaking strictly for myself, the moment was captured when Barack Obama took the Oath of Office as the 44th US President. No matter what you think about him, his politics, etc.. (This isn’t really about politics anyway), it changed the rules.
We see that watershed captured in a lot of crime fiction. I’ll just share one instance. In Walter Mosley’s Little Green, which takes place in 1967, Los Angeles PI Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlins is persuaded by his friend Raymond ‘Mouse’ Alexander to find a missing Black man nicknamed Little Green. Little Green disappeared after joining a group of hippies, so Rawlins begins his search with those people. He hears that a young White woman nicknamed Coco may know something about them so he makes contact with her and arranges to meet her at a restaurant. While they’re there, something happens that surprises Rawlins; here’s his observation about it:
‘…because you’re a young white woman and I’m a middle-aged black man and a waitress just took our order without even a second look.’
The paradigm shift away from the old order may not be complete yet, but Rawlins’ moment of happy surprise is obvious.
In 1947, India became independent. As you’ll know, the independence movement had been building for some time, but it culminated with the raising of the flag of India in August of that year. It was a joyful, exhilarating time. It was also a time of awkwardness and change, as all watersheds are. There was a whole new paradigm and India had a whole new course to chart, as the saying goes. That’s captured just a bit in H.R.F. Keating’s Inspector Ghote’s First Case. In that novel, which takes place in the early 1960s, Ganesh Ghote has just been promoted to the rank of Inspector with the Bombay Police and is hoping to take some much-needed time off with his pregnant wife Protima. Instead, he is sent to the town of Mahableshwar to look into the apparent suicide of Iris Dawkins, whose husband is a friend of Ghote’s boss Sir Rustom Engineer. Ghote’s job is to find out what drove the victim to kill herself. When he arrives and starts asking questions though, he discovers that this isn’t as straightforward a case as he thought. It takes time, but little by little, he finds out the truth about what happened to Iris. One of the threads in this novel is the changing dynamic between Anglo-Indians and Indians without a British background. The rules have changed, and the social order is different now. This makes for some awkwardness as Ghote investigates (after all, he’s investigating a lot of White people). India’s independence is only 67 years old as I write this. It’s hard to see what sort of country will emerge as India evolves. But those choices are India’s to make.
In 1990, Nelson Mandela was released from prison on South Africa’s Robbin Island. That iconic image of him leaving the prison is etched on many people’s memories. And it marked a watershed moment in history. The social order imposed by apartheid (and by common consent even before those laws) was changed. The rules everyone had lived by for a very long time no longer structured people’s lives. Malla Nunn’s Emmanuel Cooper series captures neatly the world of South Africa during the apartheid years. When apartheid ended in the early 1990s, this opened up an entirely new set of possibilities for the country. This paradigm shift meant that the dynamic among Afrikaners, English, Blacks, Indians and others within the country would have to change, and that hasn’t been easy. Of course, it’s only been twenty years as I write this. If you read the work of Deon Meyer, Roger Smith or Jassy Mackenzie, it’s clear that the new social order, whatever it will eventually be, is still evolving. But with that uncertainty has also been the excitement and joy for millions of people of having their futures in their own hands.
As I post this, today marks the 25th anniversary of another watershed: the opening of the Berlin Wall in 1989. From just after the end of World War II, the Soviet Union and its allies had been engaged in a Cold War (which blew hot more than once) with the US, the UK and their allies. Millions of people had never known any other kind of social reality. There was a certain structure to life, and for most people, the concept of living in any other way was unimaginable. When the wall came down though, this event changed everything. It wasn’t a sudden moment of change; pressure had been building in Eastern Europe for democracy or at least for autonomy from the then-Soviet Union (as an example, just look at the Gdansk-based Solidarity movement of the 1980s). And even in the Soviet Union itself, pressure had been growing for personal freedom and for a move towards democracy. But that moment, when the wall was breached and then officially opened, marked a paradigm shift. And when the Soviet Union broke up in 1993, the countries of Eastern Europe (to say nothing of the former Soviet states) had a whole new social order to create.
That new reality hasn’t been easy. Anya Lipska addresses that very issue in her novels featuring DC Natalie Kershaw and Janusz Kiszka. Kiszka is Polish, a veteran of the Gdansk uprising and movement towards Polish independence. The new Poland isn’t always to his liking; it’s not as uniquely Polish as he’d prefer, now that it’s so easy to interact with the world. Kiszka lives in London, where he sees even more the impact on the Polish community of integration with the rest of the world. But at the same time, he wouldn’t want the old order restored.
We also see some of the uncertainty in Margaret Truman’s Murder in the House, Robin Cook’s Vector and Ian Rankin’s Exit Music. In all of those novels (and there are many others), we see for instance the rise of the Russian and Eastern European Mobs as the economies of Russia and Eastern Europe evolve. We also see how the political processes in those countries have changed as the sociopolitical paradigm has shifted. None of this has been easy.
But (and here’s the important thing), those processes and those changes are now in the hands of the people most directly affected by them. Of course the choices aren’t always pleasant, but there are choices. There are challenges and difficulties, but there are also options and opportunities that were never possible. That’s what watersheds are all about, really: challenges, but wonderful possibilities at the same time.
On this anniversary of the opening of the Berlin Wall, my thoughts are with those who gave their lives to make those opportunities possible.
ps. I wish I had been there to see the wall actually opened. I wasn’t, but Time magazine was. Thank you, Time, for this ‘photo.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from John Mellencamp and George Green’s Crumblin’ Down.