Category Archives: John Alexander Graham

Taken Away and Held For Ransom*

1932-lindbergh-baby-poster-630x1103As this is posted, it’s 85 years since Charles Lindbergh, Jr., aged 20 months, was kidnapped. He was, as you’ll know, found dead. During the investigation, the case made world headlines. Bruno Richard Hauptmann was convicted and executed for the murders, but he protested his innocence all along. And many people agreed with him. There’ve been several books and articles pointing to other leads the police didn’t follow, other possible explanations, and so on.

Whatever the real truth about the Lindbergh kidnapping, it had a profound impact on the news, on society, and on crime fiction. There are many books that feature a plot where a child is captured for ransom; here are just a few.

One that was directly inspired by the Lindbergh case is Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express. In that novel, American businessman Samuel Edward Ratchett is on board the famous Orient Express train, en route across Europe. On the second night of the journey, he is stabbed to death. Hercule Poirot is on the same train, and he’s prevailed upon to find the killer as soon as possible, so that the culprit can be handed over to the police at the next border. Poirot interviews all of the possible suspects, and uses that information, plus other clues he finds, to discover who killed Ratchett. As it turns out, this murder is related to a tragic case from several years earlier. Three-year-old Daisy Armstrong was kidnapped from her home, and later found dead. Saying more would get too close to spoiling the story for my taste, but that incident does play an important role in the novel.

Ross Macdonald’s The Far Side of the Dollar begins at an exclusive Southern California boarding school called Laguna Perdida. Its purpose is to serve ‘troubled’ students. Dr. Sponti, head of the school, has called in PI Lew Archer because one of the pupils, seventeen-year-old Tom Hillman, has gone missing. The boy’s parents are wealthy and well-connected, and Sponti doesn’t relish the thought of having to tell them that their son has disappeared. Archer agrees to see what he can do to find the boy. He and Sponti are still discussing the matter when Tom’s father, Ralph, rushes into to Sponti’s office. He says that Tom has been abducted, and that there’s been a ransom demand. Archer goes back to the Hillman home with Ralph, and tries to help. But soon enough, Archer gets the sense that there’s more going on here than a simple demand for ransom from a wealthy family. For one thing, why are the Hillmans so reluctant to give Archer a lot of information about Tom? And why does it seem that Tom may actually be with his captors (if that’s the right word) of his own will? It’s a much more complex case than Archer thinks at first.

John Alexander Graham’s The Involvement of Arnold Wechsler takes place mostly on the campus of Hewes College, in Massachusetts. The novel was published in 1971, so there’s lots of student activism and unrest on campus. Wechsler is a professor in the Classics Department, and is much more concerned about doing the best job that he can than he is about wading into the growing divide between students and faculty on campus. He’s drawn into the controversy, though, when the university’s president, Winthrop Dohrn, summons him to a meeting. It seems that Wechsler’s brother, David, may be involved in some of the radical activities on campus. Dohrn wants Wechsler to contact his brother and find out whether he’s involved in any of the subversive activity. Wechsler wants to keep his job, so he can’t very well refuse the president. And it’s not long before he thinks the president may be right. That becomes even clearer when Dohrn’s granddaughter, Nancy, is kidnapped, and a note bearing David’s signature is sent to Dohrn. Then, Dohrn himself is killed. David, though, claims he’s not responsible for the abduction or the other events. Now, the Wechsler brothers have to work together to find out who’s behind everything.

The first in Bill Pronzini’s ‘Nameless’ PI series is The Snatch. In it, wealthy Louis Martinetti hires Nameless for a very specific task. He tells Nameless that his son, Gary, has been abducted, and that the kidnappers are demanding three hundred thousand dollars in ransom. They have also insisted that one, and only one, person go to the drop site to leave the money. The next day, Nameless goes to the appointed place to do just that, when everything goes wrong. Martinetti wants him to take one course of action; other family members want him to do something else. In the meantime, Nameless is trying to make sense of everything, and develop his own plans. In the end, we learn what happened to Gary, and what it all means for the different characters.

And then there’s Edney Silvestre’s Happiness is Easy. Wealthy São Paolo businessman Olavo Bettancourt has what seems like the perfect life. He has money, ‘clout,’ a beautiful ‘trophy wife,’ Mara, and a healthy young son, Olavinho. But things are not nearly as perfect as they seem. He’s involved in several questionable deals. They’ve made him very wealthy and seemingly powerful, but he’s no less trapped for that. Then, a gang of criminals decides to kidnap Olavinho. Their thinking is that the boy’s father will pay any amount he’s told to get his son back. Plans are made and everything is set. But, by mistake, the culprits get the wrong boy. Instead of Olavinhio, they abduct the mute son of the Bettancourts’ cook/housekeeper. Now, the abductors have to decide what to do with the boy they have, and with their grand scheme. And Bettancourt has to decide what to tell the police and the media. The stakes are high, and both sides work frantically to deal with the matter.

There are, as I say, a lot of other crime novels in which young people are taken for ransom. That plot point can add real suspense to a story. And, when it’s done well, readers get a sense of the desperation families can feel when such a thing happens.

 

The ‘photo is of the ‘wanted’ poster circulated when the Lindberghs’ son was abducted. Thanks, Crime Museum!

 

 

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Tom Petty’s Refugee.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Bill Pronzini, Edney Silvestre, John Alexander Graham, Ross Macdonald

I Was Running For the Door*

Creepy PlacesI was reading an excellent review by Bernadette at Reactions to Reading, when I was struck by a comment she made about the setting of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. As you’ll see if you read her review (which you should!), the post itself wasn’t about that novel. It wasn’t even, really, about setting. But in the course of it, Bernadette mentioned that,
 

‘Insular settings can provide a powerful sense of place in their own right (I’m still having nightmares about the house in Dame Christie’s And Then There Were None) …’
 

She’s right. Settings such as that house can add a great deal to the tension in a story. In this particular novel, knowing that the people on the island can’t escape makes the story that much eerier. So I can see how that house would stay with a reader.

There are plenty of other crime-fictional novels, too, where we see the impact of the insular setting. Here are just a few that have stayed with me. I know you’ll have your own selection.

In Christianna Brand’s Green For Danger, Inspector Cockrill travels to Heron Park Hospital, which has been converted for wartime (WWII) military use. Local postman Joseph Higgins has died, apparently a tragic, but accidental, death on the operating table. But Higgins’ widow insists that he was murdered. Cockrill starts asking questions, particularly of the seven people most closely associated with Higgins during his hospital stay. He soon learns that this case isn’t at all as it seemed on the surface. As he starts to home in on the killer, he insists that all of his suspects stay together as much as possible. That, plus the fact that two people end up dead in the same operating theatre, makes the hospital a really insular setting that gets creepier and creepier as the story goes on – at least for me. There’s something about that sort of setting, isn’t there, fans of Ngaio Marsh’s The Nursing Home Murder?

In John Alexander Graham’s Something in the Air, Columbia University Professor of Law Jake Landau is on a flight from Boston to New York when a bomb goes off (this novel was written before today’s careful screening of passengers). Landau’s friend and attorney Martin Ross is killed in the tragedy, and of course, Landau wants answers. But the airline people aren’t very forthcoming. And, since he’s not a police officer, neither is anyone else, including the police who are investigating the incident. So Landau starts asking questions on his own. His questions get too close for comfort for the powerful international drugs ring that’s connected to this bombing, so they target Landau. Without giving away spoilers, I can say that there’s a really memorable scene at New York’s Grand Central Station that’s stayed in my mind. As it is, the station has a long history (it was built about 1871). It’s large, with lots of different passageways and so on. It can feel very creepy, and Graham takes advantage of that.

P.D. James’ Death of an Expert Witness has as its focus Hoggatt’s Laboratory in East Anglia. It’s a private forensic laboratory that performs different sorts of tests in cases of unnatural death. As such, it’s used by both sides when a murder case is tried in court. One night, Dr. Edwin Lorrimer, one of the senior staff at the laboratory, is working late on a recently-opened case when he is bludgeoned. Commander Adam Dalgliesh is assigned to the investigation. One thing he and DI John Massingham quickly learn is that Lorrimer had very strict security procedures, especially after normal working hours. So it’s unlikely that anyone ‘on the outside’ could be the killer. That leaves Lorrimer’s colleagues and subordinates, and that’s a wide field. Lorrimer was much disliked, and for good reason. As Dalgliesh and Massingham look into the matter, the lab itself comes under plenty of scrutiny (how many entrances, where are the windows, etc.). It takes on a sort of eerie personality of its own, especially at night.

There’s also Dennis Lehane’s Shutter Island. In that novel, U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels travels to Ashecliffe Hospital for the Criminally Insane, which is located on Shutter Island, in Massachusetts’ Outer Harbor. With him is his assistant, Chuck Aule. They’re there because one of the patients, Rachel Solando, has escaped, and is loose somewhere on the island. She’s a dangerous person, and that alone is reason enough to want to find her. But as Daniels and Aule soon discover, there’s much more at stake here than just one escaped prisoner, and all sorts of things are going on in the ward from whence she escaped. Then a storm comes up, which makes the investigation even more difficult. Throughout the story (and the film, if you saw it), the hospital compound is depicted in a very eerie way. It’s a former wartime hospital, converted for postwar use. It’s old and, since it’s on an island, it’s isolated. And there’s the fact that it’s psychiatric facility for the most dangerous of criminals. It’s the sort of place that stays with many readers. And so does the island.

Of course, I couldn’t do a post on eerie, insular places without mentioning the Bates Motel, vividly depicted in Alfred Hitchock’s Psycho. The medium Hitchcock used to tell the story is especially effective at evoking that isolated, creepy place. It’s definitely not a welcoming stop for the night. I know, I know, fans of Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn

Bernadette’s right about some places in crime novels. They really can be insular, eerie, and frightening. And that can make them stay with the reader long after the novel’s finished.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Eagles’ Hotel California.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alfred Hitchcock, Christianna Brand, Daphne du Maurier, Dennis Lehane, John Alexander Graham, Ngaio Marsh, P.D. James

Friday Night Arrives Without a Suitcase*

LuggageAny sort of travel involves luggage. Whether it’s a small ‘weekend’ size bag, or the largest suitcase an airline allows, luggage reflects a lot about the person who owns it. For instance, some people pack very neatly…and some don’t. And people tend to pack things in a certain way, even given today’s tight restrictions on what passengers may bring aboard a flight.

And then there’s the matter of how much you pack. Some people pack very heavily, and bring everything that they might need. It means they have to check luggage and get it wherever they’re going, but it also means they’re prepared for a lot of eventualities. Others pack very light. That’s the way I am. I only bring exactly what I need, and I don’t check my luggage through – ever. That’s got its advantages and disadvantages, and it does raise some eyebrows. If you’ll indulge me, here’s one example. I recently returned from a (roughly) week-long trip to New Zealand. When I returned, I went through Customs and Immigration at Los Angeles.  After having my passport stamped, etc., I started to leave the secured area, since all I had brought was one small pilot-sized suitcase and my handbag. One of the security people came over to me and we had this conversation:
 

Security Officer: ‘Can I help you?’
Me: ‘Oh, no, thanks. I’m all done the process – just leaving.’
Security Officer: ‘But you have to get your checked luggage from the carousel, and that has to go through security, too.’
Me: ‘Thanks – I don’t have any checked luggage.’
Security Officer Looking at my suitcase and handbag: ‘Are you sure? Because if you do, you’re going to have to get it and send it through security.’
Me: ‘No, this is all I have.’

 

The security officer was doing her job, and doing it courteously, but she must have wondered at a person who spends a week in another country and has so little luggage.

There are good reasons to be very careful about luggage. Don’t believe me? All you have to do is read some crime fiction. There are a lot of examples of luggage that turns out to contain all sorts of things.

For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, Hercule Poirot is on board the famous Orient Express on a three-day trip through Europe. On the second night, Samuel Ratchett, one of the other passengers, is stabbed. At the request of Poirot’s friend M. Bouc, who is a director of the company that owns the train, he agrees to investigate. The idea is for him to find out who the killer is before the train reaches the next border, so that he can hand the murderer over to the police. At one point, it’s deemed appropriate to do a search of the passenger’s luggage, and it’s quite surprising what turns up in two particular suitcases…

In John Alexander Graham’s Something in the Air, Professor Jake Landau is on a plane from Boston to New York with his friend and attorney Martin Ross. They’ve been working through the details of Landau’s divorce from his wife, and both are tired just from that process. All of that’s forgotten when a bomb goes off in the plane. Six passengers are killed, including Ross. Landau survives, and decides to try to find out who killed his friend. The only problem is, he’s stymied right from the beginning by airline policy and FBI security regulations. But Landau persists, and finds out that the bombing is related to a powerful and far-reaching drugs ring. And how did the bomb get on the airplane? In a suitcase that’s later stolen by the bomber just before he is killed, too. As an aside, this novel was published in 1970, long before today’s luggage screening protocols. Crime writers who write contemporary crime novels would find it difficult to re-create that sort of scenario.

Megan Abbott’s historical novel Bury Me Deep is the story of Marion Seeley, whose doctor husband Everett has to leave the country when his cocaine habit costs him his medical license. He sees that his wife is set up in an apartment in Phoenix, with a clerical job at the prestigious Werden Clinic. At first, all goes well enough. Marion settles in and forms friendships with a Werden nurse, Louise Mercer, and Louise’s roommate Ginny Hoyt. Before she knows it, Marion is drawn into their world of parties, drugs, and dubious ‘friends.’ As she slips closer and closer to the edge, Marion gets more deeply involved in that world. It all leads to tragedy for those involved. Interestingly enough, this novel is loosely based on the 1933 case of Winnie Ruth Judd, who was accused of killing two of her friends. The bodies were later discovered in trunks that Judd took with her to Los Angeles after the murders…

In Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis’ The Boy in the Suitcase, we are introduced to Copenhagen Red Cross nurse Nina Borg. One day she gets a call from her friend Karin Kongsted. She wants Nina to go to the train station and pick up a suitcase that’s waiting in one of the lockers. She seems upset about the suitcase, but won’t tell Nina what’s wrong, nor why she needs the suitcase. Nina agrees to get the luggage and goes to the train station. To her shock, she finds that the suitcase contains a three-year-old boy. He’s drugged and dazed, but he is alive. Immediately she tries to reach Karin, but she can’t make contact. In the meantime, Sigita Ramoškienė, a young Lithuanian mother, faces every parent’s worst nightmare when her three-year-old son Mikas goes missing. The police aren’t very helpful; in fact, they suspect her of having something to do with Mikas’ disappearance. So she determines to find out on her own what happened to him. The trail leads her to Copenhagen, and it’s not long before we learn that the three-year-old boy that Nina Borg found is, in fact, Mikas. Now, each in her own way, Sigita and Nina work to find out who abducted Mikas and why. In the end, and after a brutal murder, they discover the truth.

And then there’s Elly Griffiths’ The Zig Zag Girl. It’s 1950, and magician Max Mephisto is on the circuit with other magicians, fortune-tellers, and other carnival people. He’s called in to help when the body of a young woman is found at Brighton’s Left Luggage Department. The body has been cut up in what DI Edgar Stephens thinks is a macabre re-enactment of one of Mehpisto’s illusions. So he’s hoping Mephisto will have some insight into who might be responsible for the murder.

Of course, luggage doesn’t always contain such horrible things as bodies and bombs. For instance, in Anthony Bidulka’s Aloha Candy Hearts, Saskatoon PI Russell Quant is visiting his partner Alex Canyon in Hawai’i. He’s at the airport, preparing for the return to Canada, when he meets an enigmatic stranger who turns out to be archivist Walter Angel. Angel slips a cryptic message, a lot like a treasure map, into Quant’s hand luggage before Quant boards his flight. Shortly afterwards, Angel is murdered. Quant follows up on the clue he was given, and connects the killing to some dark secrets right in his own Saskatchewan.

You see what I mean about luggage? You’ll want to be very careful about yours, and don’t leave it unattended…

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Beatles’ Lady Madonna.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Agnete Friis, Anthony Bidulka, Elly Griffiths, John Alexander Graham, Lene Kaaberbøl, Megan Abbott

She’s Got a Ticket to Ride*

TravelDisastersLots of people travel during the holidays. It can be lovely to get the chance to see friends and loved ones you haven’t seen for a long time, so a lot of people look forward to it. But as we all know, travel can be unpleasant too. Long lines, airline hassles, delays and so on can all ruin a trip, or at least make it both exhausting and frustrating.

It’s no different in crime fiction. As any crime fiction fan can tell you, just because you have a ticket or a working car doesn’t mean the trip will go well. Just think about these examples…

In John Alexander Graham’s Something in the Air, Columbia University Professor of Law Jake Landau is on a flight from Boston to New York. With him is his friend and personal attorney Martin Ross. The two were in Boston negotiating with the lawyer of Landau’s ex-wife, and are now ready to return home. Tragically a bomb goes off during the flight, and Ross is killed. Landau wants to know how it happened and who’s responsible, but no-one in authority is willing to give hiim any information. So he begins to ask his own questions. Landau finds that the bombing is connected to a powerful and far-reaching drugs ring, and that they now have him in their sights.

Well, you may be thinking, with today’s security procedures, bombs are a lot less likely on planes than they were. Well, that’s true enough, but it doesn’t mean a flight can’t be disastrous. Just ask Joanna Lindsay, whom we meet in Helen Fitzgerald’s The Cry. She and her partner Alistair Robertson are on their way from Scotland, where Joanna’s lived all her life, to Alistair’s home near Melbourne. With them is their nine-week-old son Noah. As anyone who’s ever taken a flight with an infant can imagine, the flight is awful. Noah is what people sometimes call ‘a difficult baby’ to begin with, and the flight brings out the worst in him. He cries more or less non-stop. Joanna is worn out and frustrated and from her perspective, Alistair’s not doing much to help. Of course, the other passengers are none too happy about the screaming baby, and to them, it doesn’t seem that either parent is doing much to remedy the situation. Some offer ‘helpful’ advice; some are just rude. All in all, it’s a horrible flight for everyone and Joanna and Alistair are just relieved when it’s over. What they don’t know is that they’ll soon be plunged into a greater nightmare once they land and Noah goes missing…

So, perhaps planes are not the best idea. Well, there’s always going by train, right? Wrong. Consider Agatha Christie’s work. Fans will know that in Murder on the Orient Express, wealthy American businessman Samuel Ratchett is stabbed on the second night of a three-day journey on the world-fanous Orient Express. Hercule Poirot is on the same trip, and agrees to investigate. The only possible suspects are those who were in the same carriage, so at least the pool of possible killers is limited. But that doesn’t mean the case is easy. And as if that weren’t enough, a severe snowstorm strands the train, making it impossible for anyone to leave it. Not a happy trip. And that’s only one of Christie’s ‘murder en route‘ mysteries! There are several others (I know, I know, fans of The Mystery of the Blue Train).

Speaking of trains, Anne Holt’s 1222 features a group of people who are on a train from Oslo to Bergen. The train crashes, killing the conductor and stranding the passengers. They are eventually rescued and taken to a hotel until arrangements can be made for them. But that’s only the beginning of their problems. One of the passengers is murdered. Another, police detective Hanne Wilhelmsen, wants nothing more than to be left alone. But she is reluctantly drawn into the case. Then there’s another murder. And another. It’s clear that Wilhelmsen is up against someone very dangerous. She’s going to have to find the killer before any of the other passengers dies.

Right, then. Trains are not as safe as you might think. Well, one can always drive, right? Not so fast. Consider what happens in A.S.A. Harrison’s The Silent Wife. Todd Gilbert is a successful Chicago developer who’s had a twenty-year relationship with psychologist Jodi Brett. They’ve had their rough times, but they’ve stayed together and built a strong partnership, or so it seems. Then Todd falls in love with college student Natasha Kovacs. It doesn’t help matters that she’s the daughter of his business partner Dean Kovacs. And the stress only gets greater when Natasha tells Todd she is pregnant with his baby. She wants marriage and a family and at first, that’s what Todd tells her he wants too. But their new relationship doesn’t work out the way either had planned. Then one terrible day, Todd is killed in a drive-by shooting. At first it looks like a carjacking gone horribly wrong. But soon it comes out that the shooters were paid. Now the police have to find out which of several suspects hired them.

Of course, a drive doesn’t have to be fatal to be miserable. Just ask Adrian Hyland’s Emily Tempest. In Gunshot Road, she begins her new job as an Aboriginal Community Police Officer (ACPO). Her first assignment is to travel with two colleagues and her temporary boss Bruce Cockburn from Bluebush to Green Swamp Well. There’s been a murder there, and the police need to investigate. It’s a long, hot ride that’s made no better when Emily spots a car that seems to be in trouble. At her insistence, the team stops to investigate. Needless to say, that doesn’t exactly endear her to her teammates. By the time they’re ready to get back on the road, it’s already begun to get very hot, with the temperature expected to rise even more throughout the day. Five minutes after they start the car, the air conditioning breaks down. And there’s still a long way to go to Green Swamp Well. The trip doesn’t end well either. At first, it looks as though the victim, a prospector/geologist named Albert ‘Doc’ Ozolins, was killed as the result of a drunken quarrel. But Emily isn’t so sure. Her investigation leads her into all sorts of trouble…

You see? All sorts of travel can be very risky. So do be careful as you plan your trip…
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Beatles’ Ticket to Ride.

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Filed under A.S.A. Harrison, Adrian Hyland, Agatha Christie, Anne Holt, Helen Fitzgerald, John Alexander Graham

The Times, They Are a-Changin’*

1960sTo say that the 1960s was a decade of major change is an understatement. It was a time of so many social, political, economic and other changes that some people have called those years ‘revolutionary.’ And perhaps they have a point.

Crime fiction, like other genres, tells the story of those changes and we see them reflected in many different novels, both from and about the era. Space is only going to allow for a few examples, but I’m sure you already understand what I mean.

One of the major changes that took place during the 1960s was the role of students, especially university students. Certainly students had spoken out on campuses before, but in many countries, this decade saw the rise of student protests that really resounded in ways they hadn’t before. In John Alexander Graham’s The Involvement of Arnold Weschler, for instance, Hewes College Classics Professor Arnold Weschler is faced with a difficult dilemma. He’s not himself particulalry political, but his brother David is. One day, Weschler is called to the office of College President Winthrop Dohrn, who wants to discuss the recent activities of a radical student group that’s come to campus. Dohrn believes that David Weschler is one of the leaders of the group. He wants Arnold to contact his brother and stop the group from causing any more trouble. The Weschler brothers have been estranged for a long time, but Arnold knows that his job may depend on his response. So he reluctantly agrees. That’s how he gets drawn into the group and gets to know the members. He even develops some sympathy for some of their views. That is, until there’s a kidnapping and then a bombing that kills Dohrn. Now Weschler has to find the killer and clear his brother’s name before he’s arrested.

During the 1960s, there was also a deep and serious questioning of ‘Establishment’ politics and economics. Many people, even those who didn’t identify themselves as Communists per se questioned the socioeconomic status quo. And there were plenty who did identify themselves as Marxists. Perhaps the best look at the leftist point of view and goals of that era can be seen in Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s series featuring Stockholm homicide detective Martin Beck and his team. This is only my opinion, so feel free to differ with it if you do. But for me, this series encapsulates a lot of what this set of politics embraced. Each of the ten novels in this series is about a self-contained murder mystery. But throughout the series, there’s a great deal of social critique too. There are critiques of police power, social class divisions, ‘Establishment’ corruption and other important issues with Swedish society.

Another major change in society was a change in the roles of women. Bit by bit, women had been seeking full citizenship for a long time, and had made solid strides (e.g. suffrage, working outside the home and so on). But in the US at least, women were still regarded as best-suited for ‘home and hearth.’ During the 1960s this began to be questioned more and more. And it wasn’t just a matter of wanting to work outside the home at financial parity with men (although that was certainly an issue). I’m also talking here of what you might call women’s sexual liberation. There was still very much a double standard when it came to what was expected of ‘ladies’ and what was expected of men. And women began to insist on being as much in charge of their own destinies as men were. You see that in the non-crime-fiction work of writers such as Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan. But you also see it in crime fiction. In Ellery Queen’s The Fourth Side of the Triangle, for instance, we meet noted fashion designer Sheila Grey. She’s a well-off and successful single woman who has no desire to get married and ‘settle down.’ She puts it this way:
 

‘In fact – I’m speaking only for myself – I reject the whole concept of marriage. I’m no more capable of being happy as a housewife, or a country club gal, or a young suburban matron than I am of renouncing the world and taking the veil.’
 

Certainly she doesn’t identify herself by her ability to cook, clean, sew or look after children. She’s independent both economically and sexually. One night, she’s murdered. Inspector Richard Queen is assigned to the case and his son Ellery of course takes part in the investigation. In the end, they find that the victim’s modern way of thinking about herself and the role love should play in her life had a part in her murder.

One of the other major changes of the 1960s was the move of drug use from certain bohemian, artistic and musical circles to the mainstream. Any crime fiction fan can tell you that drugs have been associated with crime fiction for a very long time. But during these years, ‘average’ everyday people had easier access to them and their use spread. There’s a mention of that in Agatha Christie’s The Third Girl (published in 1966), in which Norma Restarick and Hercule Poirot don’t exactly get off on the proverbial right footing. She wants to hire him until she actually meets him and concludes that he’s too old to help her. For his part, Poirot isn’t at all impressed with Norma’s appearance or manner. When she disappears, though, Poirot works with detective novelist Ariadne Oliver to find out what happened to her. The trail leads to fraud and murder and real danger for Mrs. Oliver. Drugs have their role to play in this novel, and it’s interesting to note that their use has gone beyond just the ‘artsy’ set by this time.

Questions of relations between the races had been simmering for a long time. But matters came to a head during the 1960s. We see this in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Admittedly it’s about an earlier time, but it raises issues that became a major point of conflict during the ’60s. In that novel, Tom Robinson is accused of (and quickly arrested for) the rape of Mayella Ewell. Robinson claims he’s innocent, but because he’s Black and Mayella Ewell is White, he’s assumed to be guilty. Prominent local attorney Atticus Finch takes this case and goes to what you could argue are heroic lengths to prove that his client is not a rapist. Although we could hardly say that race is no longer an issue, there were some major strides forward taken during these years. In fact, Walter Mosley discusses this in Little Green, which takes place in 1967. PI Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlins is persuaded by his friend Raymond ‘Mouse’ Alexander to find a Black man named Little Green. Little Green disappeared after joining a hippie group, so Rawlins starts there. He discovers that a young White woman nicknamed Coco may know something about the group, so he contacts her. At one point, they meet in a local restaurant, where something happens that certainly makes Rawlins think:
 

‘…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.’
 

Admittedly this story takes place in Los Angeles. In a smaller town things might have been different. But the move forward in race relations was an important part of the 1960s.

Geoffrey McGeachin’s St. Kilda Blues (which takes place in 1967) also discusses many of the changes that took place during the 1960s. I’m just diving into that one, to be honest, so I’m not yet thoroughly enough versed to discuss it on this blog. But I can say this. Melbourne cop Charlie Berlin has to deal with the drug culture, the hippie movement, and other major social changes as he searches for what could be a serial killer.

There were of course many other dramatic changes in the 1960s – changes in technology, music, popular culture, cinematography and lots more. A decade that started out as looking very much like the 1950s ended up as something completely different. The times they definitely were ‘a-changin’. Which novels evoke this time for you?

ps. Just look at the two ‘photos of the Beatles and you’ll see the changes that took place during the 1960s. From ‘mop-tops’ in suits to hippies….
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a Bob Dylan song.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen, Geoffrey McGeachin, Harper Lee, John Alexander Graham, Maj Sjöwall, Per Wahlöö, Walter Mosley