Category Archives: Kerry Greenwood

As a Restaurant Inspector It’s a Long Lonesome Road*

There’s an interesting (if small) plot thread in Martin Walker’s Bruno, Chief of Police. The small French town of St. Denis prides itself on its good food; it is, after all, in the food-famous Périgord. And, for as long as anyone can remember, there’s been a weekly market where the local residents get their fresh bread, cheese, and other items. These people know how to prepare, cook, sell, and store food. So, no-one is exactly pleased that EU inspectors have taken an interest in the market, and plan to apply EU rules to the food that’s bought and sold there. Local Chief of Police Benoît ‘Bruno’ Courrèges is sworn to uphold the law; and in most cases, he believes in being law-abiding. At the same time, he’s a gastronome himself, and understands exactly how the citizens he serves feel about the EU health inspectors. So, he looks the other way when a few of the citizens find their own approach to preventing what they see as EU ‘meddling.’

In the main, though, most people agree that public health is a serious and important matter, and that there needs to be a way to ensure that any threats to public health are eliminated. Such inspections are thankless jobs, though. No company wants its operations interrupted, and making sure that everything is up to code can be expensive. And companies, hospitals, and the like don’t want to fail inspections. So, there’s a lot of pressure on anyone in that business.

The San Francisco Department of Health figures into Thomas N. Scortia and Frank M. Robinson’s The Nightmare Factor. In that novel, we are introduced to Dr. Calvin Doohan, a transplant from Scotland. He’s working on some research for the World Health Organization (WHO) when the city is hit with a number of cases of virulent, flu-like illness. Each case seems to end in death, and doctors are hard-pressed to isolate the cause. Doohan volunteers his services to San Francisco’s Board of Health, and soon finds himself working with Dr. Suzanne Synge, from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC). It’s soon established that the illness can be traced to people who attended a convention at the Hotel Cordoba, so several interested parties (the CDC, the Board of Health, etc..) concentrate their efforts there. Inspections of the food and its handling start, and Doohan soon begins to suspect that this outbreak was deliberate. As he gets closer to the truth behind it, he finds more and more danger for himself.

The CDC also features in Robin Cook’s Outbreak. Dr. Marissa Blumenthal of the CDC is sent to Los Angeles when several patients of the Richter Clinic die. The clinic’s owner, Dr. Rudolph Richter, also succumbs. Blumenthal and the team she works with manage to contain the outbreak, and it seems that the public health isn’t at risk. Then, there’s an outbreak in St. Louis. And another in Phoenix. It now seems clear to Blumenthal that this virus is being spread deliberately. But she doesn’t have much evidence to support herself. Still, she perseveres, and soon finds she’s up against some very dangerous and powerful people who are not afraid to kill.

Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman has to be concerned about her local Health Department’s expectations, because she owns a bakery. By and large, she doesn’t have a bad relationship with the inspection team, although they don’t see eye to eye on Chapman’s approach to vermin control. Along with her ‘house cat’ Horatio, Chapman is owned by Heckle and Jekyll, the feline Rodent Control Officers who roam the bakery at night, making sure that Chapman’s baking supplies are vermin-free. It isn’t exactly what the Health Department pamphlets advise, but it works well, and Chapman’s bakery is successful. Then, in Trick or Treat, there’s an ergot infestation at another, nearby, bakery. The Health Department has to close that bakery until the ergot is removed, and all the other local bakeries, including Chapman’s, also become suspect. It’s hard for Chapman not to be able to go about her baking business. But she understands why the bakery has to close temporarily, and she certainly doesn’t want anyone sickened on her account. It’s among other things an interesting look at how health inspectors work when something goes wrong in a restaurant or other food-selling establishment.

Sometimes, health, food, and other inspectors are fictional targets. For instance, in Donna Leon’s Beastly Things, the body of an unknown man is found in one of Venice’s canals. There’s no identification, and no truly distinctive marks on the body, so at first, it’s hard to determine who the victim was. But Commissario Guido Brunetti and his team eventually identify the man as Andrea Nava. He was a veterinarian who worked part-time at a local slaughterhouse. His job there was to inspect the animals brought in by local farmers, to verify the health of their animals. As Brunetti and his team look into the murder, readers learn about the way slaughterhouse inspections are supposed to work, and how they work in this case.

A few of Carl Hiaasen’s novels include characters who are health inspectors, or have related roles. One of them is Razor Girl, which features Andrew Yancey, whom fans will remember from Bad Monkey. In this novel, he’s no longer a police detective. He’s been demoted to Inspector for the Health Department. He gets involved in a complex (this is Hiaasen….) case when he discovers hair from a beard in the food at Clippy’s Restaurant. The hair turns out to belong to Buck Nance, a reality show star who presumably went into hiding after a disastrous live show. One of Yancey’s leads is con artist Merry Mansfield, who ended up trying to scam Lane Coolman, who was supposed to meet Nance in Key West (Florida). Coolman’s now worried about Nance’s whereabouts, and Yancey sees a way to get his badge back if he finds out the truth. He and Mansfield work together, but Yancey’s got to go up against serious odds, including a restaurant infestation of Gambian pouched rats (yes, those are real, and they can grow to be about .9 m (about 3 ft.) long).

Public health is a very real and important concern. So, it’s little wonder that health inspectors of different sorts can shut down restaurants and all sorts of other businesses. Their job might not always make them a lot of fans, but we do need them.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Three Penny Piece’s Saddam Henderson’s Old Time Country Kitchen.

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Filed under Carl Hiaasen, Donna Leon, Frank Robinson, Kerry Greenwood, Martin Walker, Robin Cook, Thomas N. Scortia

It’s the Latest, It’s the Greatest*

Not long ago, crime writer and fellow blogger Christine Poulson did a very interesting post about clothing fads and other fads, too, that make us wince now, but were all the rage. You know what I mean: bug-eyed glasses, bowl haircuts, and cable-knit vests, among others.

Of course, it’s not just a matter of clothing. Fads can come in any form, and not all them are as cringe-worthy as jumpsuits for men. But they all leave their mark, including mentions in crime fiction.

For example, during the Jazz Age, Mah Jong became all the rage.  People played it at parties, at home, and sometimes in clubs. Agatha Christie makes mention of that fad in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. In that novel, the small village of Kings Abbot is rocked by the stabbing death of retired magnate Roger Ackroyd. The most likely suspect is the victim’s stepson, Captain Ralph Paton. But Paton’s fiancée, Flora Ackroyd, doesn’t think he’s guilty, and asks Hercule Poirot to investigate. This novel is narrated by the village doctor, Dr. James Sheppard, who lives next door to the house Poirot has taken. One evening, Sheppard, his sister Caroline (who lives with him), and two guests play a game of Mah Jong. A good deal of gossip is passed around during the course of the evening, and some of it is relevant to the mystery at hand. We also get to follow the game, and learn a bit about how it’s played.

Christie also mentions other fads that came later. For instance, the ‘Teddy Boy’ look makes an appearance in The Pale Horse. And we see bits of faddish fashion in Hallowe’en Party, too. Here, for instance, is a description of Desmond Holland, a character who turns out to be helpful in solving the murder of a young girl, Joyce Reynolds:
 

‘The younger one was wearing a rose-coloured velvet coat, mauve trousers, and a kind of frilled shirting.
 

Not something that would likely be worn today, but the look was especially popular at the time (the book was published in 1969).

Another fad we see in crime fiction is the dance marathon. These marathons became extremely popular in the 1920s and 1930s; and, as the name suggests, involved couples moving to music for as long as they could. The winners of this endurance contest might win money or some other coveted prize. A dance marathon forms the background for a murder in Kerry Greenwood’s 1920s-era novel, The Green Mill Murder. In that novel, Phryne Fisher and her escort, Charles Freeman, are at an upmarket dance club called the Green Mill. The club is hosting a dance marathon that night, which is supposed to be an exciting event. But it turns tragic when one of the dancers, Bernard Stevens, slumps to the floor, dead of a stab wound. Phryne starts investigating, but she hasn’t got very far when Charles Freeman goes missing. His mother hires Phryne to find him, and she agrees. It turns out that his disappearance is related to Stevens’ death, and to the end of World War I.

On the topic of dancing, one of the crazes of the 1970s was disco dancing. There were disco outfits, disco contests, and so on (right, those who’ve seen Saturday Night Fever?). Of all fictional sleuths, you wouldn’t expect Colin Cotterill’s Dr. Siri Paiboun to get caught up in disco. But that’s exactly what happens in one plot thread of Disco For the Departed. In that novel (which takes place in 1970s Laos), Dr. Siri is sent to northern Laos in his capacity as the country’s medical examiner. Construction of a concrete walkway to the president’s palace has uncovered a body. With a major celebration coming up, the government can’t afford a public embarrassment like this, and Dr. Siri is expected to quietly do away with the ‘problem.’ But it’s clear that this victim was murdered, and Dr. Siri wants to know why and by whom. As fans of this series will know, there’s an element of the supernatural in these novels, as Dr. Siri discovers that he has a connection with the spirits of those who’ve died. And in this case, that connection becomes clear when he arrives at the village of Vieng Xai, where the body was discovered.  For several nights in a row, Dr. Siri hears disco music – music no-one else can hear.  Here’s what Dr. Siri thinks about it when he first hears it:
 

‘It destroyed any hope of sleep. He wondered what type of people would start dancing in the middle of the night and how anyone could enjoy such an ugly Western din. Or perhaps this was one of the Party’s torture techniques to punish the officials from Vientiane. He could think of few things more cruel.’
 

But, as it turns out, that music, and those spirits, play a role in the novel. The mystery itself has a very prosaic solution, but Dr. Siri gets inspiration from several different sources, including the spirits of those who’ve died.

Pinball has been played for a long time, and many people still enjoy it. During the 1960s and 1970s, though, pinball became a craze. It’s enshrined in the Who’s rock opera Tommy, and it’s in crime fiction, too.

For instance, in Wendy James The Lost Girls, we learn of the 1978 death of fourteen-year-old Angela Buchanan. She was spending the summer with her aunt, uncle and cousins; and, like most teens, didn’t want to spend all day sitting at home. So, she, her cousin, Mick, and Mick’s friends, spent their share of time at the local drugstore. There, they played plenty of pinball. One afternoon, after a pinball session, Angela disappeared. She was later found dead, with a scarf around her head. At first, Mick was ‘a person of interest.’ But no real evidence was found against him. And a few months later, another young girl, Kelly McIvor, was found dead, also with a scarf around her. The police began to see the two deaths as related; in fact, the press dubbed the killer the Sydney Strangler. The murderer was never caught. Now, nearly forty years later, filmmaker Erin Fury wants to interview Angela’s family as a part of a documentary on families who survive the murder of one of their members. As she speaks to Angela’s cousins, aunt, and uncle (her parents have since died), we learn what really happened to her. Pinball isn’t the reason for her death, but it’s an interesting example of how a fad can find its way into a story.

And that’s the thing about fads. They’re an important part of our culture, so it makes sense that we’d see them in crime fiction, too. Thanks, Christine, for the inspiration. Now, may I suggest your next blog stop be Christine’s excellent blog? Great book reviews, discussions of writing, and more await you. Oh, and you’ll want to try her crime fiction, too. You won’t be disappointed.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Barry Mann and Bernie Lowe’s Mashed Potato Time.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Christine Poulson, Colin Cotterill, Kerry Greenwood, Wendy James

Oh, Those Small Communities*

In a recent post, Bill Selnes, at Mysteries and More From Saskatchewan, describes a small town coming together and supporting a family who’s suffered real tragedy. He makes an interesting point about small communities where members support one another. And, if you’ve ever lived in that sort of small town, you know that people do come together when there’s a need.

We see that sort of support in crime fiction, too. And that plot point can shed light on a local culture and on people’s perceived characters. For example, in John Grisham’s A Time to Kill, the local community of Clanton, Mississippi comes together, at least at first, when ten-year-old Tonya Hailey is brutally raped and beaten, and left for dead. Her family’s church community immediately begins to provide meals and other support, and even local people who don’t attend that church do what they can to help. There’s a lot of sympathy for her and for the Hailey family. As you can imagine, Tonya’s father, Carl Lee, is devastated by what’s happened. In his fury, he takes a drastic step. He waits in ambush for Tonya’s attackers, Billy Ray Cobb and James Louis ‘Pete’ Willard, and shoots, killing them and wounding a sheriff’s deputy. That changes everything. For one thing, the Hailey family is black and the two rapists were white. So, the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) is interested. And there’s the fact that, whatever his race or his motivation, Hailey killed two people in an episode of vigilantism. Still, he has plenty of supporters (fathers: how would you feel?) Soon the town is torn by the competing interests. Local lawyer Jake Brigance takes Hailey’s case, and it’s interesting to see how outside interests try to pursue their own agendas.

Fans of Louise Penny’s Armand Gamache series will know that those novels take place in the small, rural Québec community of Three Pines. The members of the community all know each other, and they are supportive of each other. Something that happens to one impacts everyone. We see that in Still Life, when the community comes together to mourn the loss of beloved former teacher Jane Neal, when she is murdered. We see it in A Fatal Grace (AKA Dead Cold) when a group of the Three Pines residents go into Montréal to support resident poet Ruth Zardo when she has book released. There are plenty of other examples, too, throughout the series. Yes, there are misunderstandings, and sometimes worse. But in Three Pines, people know they can depend on each other, and that permeates the novels.

So can the small Périgord community of St. Denis, which we get to know in Martin Walker’s Benoît ‘Bruno’ Courrèges series. Bruno is the local police chief, and knows just about everyone in town. Through his eyes, too, we see how the community itself comes together. When there’s a funeral, everyone attends. When there’s trouble, everyone does something to try to help. Bruno himself makes the most of his membership in the community. Rather than see him as an adversary, most of the people in town understand that he’s just doing his job, and they respect him for it. He’s welcome just about everywhere. In return, he acts with a real understanding of the town; he considers the consequences for this family, that business, and so on, before he takes action whenever he can.

Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman lives and has her bakery in a large Melbourne building called Insula. Of course, Melbourne is a large, cosmopolitan city. But in it, there are smaller communities within which people help and support each other, and can count on one another for help. That’s certainly true of Insula. As fans of this series know, the various apartments in Insula are occupied by a diverse group of people. They all know one another, and help one another when it’s needed. They get together for impromptu snacks-and-drinks parties, they support each other during emergencies, and they know they can count on each other. That network is one of the important threads that runs through this series.

There’s also the small Scottish community of Lochdubh, in which many of M.C.Beaton‘s Hamish Macbeth novels take place. Macbeth is the local bobby, and has gotten to know just about everyone in Lochdubh. There are certainly some eccentric people in the village, and there are disputes among them at times. But they support each other. Townspeople show up for funerals, help each other in times of need, and so on. Macbeth’s woven into that fabric, too, and it’s interesting to see how his relationships with the other people in town play roles in the novels.

We also see that in one plot line of Peter May’s Entry Island. When James Cowell is murdered on Entry Island, Sergeant Enquêteur Sime Mackenzie of the Sûreté du Québec is assigned to help investigate. He’s never been to the place before, but almost as soon as he arrives, he begins to have a sense of déjà vu, that only grows stronger as he continues. At the same time, he begins to have vivid dreams about stories his grandmother told – stories about his Scottish ancestor, also named Sime, who immigrated to Canada in the mid-19th Century. Through those dreams, and through that Sime’s diary, we see what life was like in the village where Sime grew up. Everyone sticks together. The men hunt together; everyone pitches in when someone is ill, gives birth, or needs a hand with the harvest; and people look after each other’s children. That sense of community helps to give character to the community.

And then there’s Sarah R. Shaber’s Simon Shaw novels. Shaw’s a professor at the small North Carolina institution, Kenan College. The town of Kenan is small, and people know one another. So, when there’s a funeral, a wedding, or other occasion, everyone does a share. It doesn’t mean that there are no conflicts or disagreements in town. But there’s a sense that everyone’s responsible for everyone else.

I couldn’t do a post on this sort of community without mentioning Peter Weir’s 1985 film, Witness. In it, a Philadelphia police detective, John Book, spends time within the Amish community of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, when an Amish boy witnesses a murder. Throughout the film, starting from the beginning, we see how the members of this local Amish community watch out for one another, stick together, and depend on one another. For my money, the scene that shows that most clearly is a scene where everyone gets together for a barn-raising. I recommend the film highly, by the way, if you’ve not seen it.

As you can see, Bill’s right. Small communities have ways of standing together and helping one another. Even in crime novels. Which ones have stayed with you?

 

Thanks, Bill, for the inspiration. Now, may I suggest that your next blog stop be Mysteries and More From Saskatchewan? Thoughtful, well-written reviews, discussions, and more await you there.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from John Mellencamp’s Small Town.

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Filed under John Grisham, Kerry Greenwood, Louise Penny, M.C. Beaton, Martin Clark, Peter May, Sarah R. Shaber

Franchise Joints on Hamburger Row*

If you look at the ‘photo, you’ll probably be able to tell that it was taken in a hotel room (I’m at a conference as this is posted). But do you know which hotel? That’s a sort of trick question, really, because a lot of hotels aren’t really distinctive any more. They may have different logos, or other sorts of branding, but the major hotel chains are really quite similar in a lot of ways.

And it’s not just hotels. Many restaurants, shops, and other facilities, especially if they are part of a large chain, are almost generic in nature. That’s arguably a trend, since the larger chains have become more prevalent, whether it’s bookshops or places to have pancakes.

As with most social trends, you see that development in crime fiction, too. For example, much of Agatha Christie’s Evil Under the Sun takes places at the Jolly Roger Hotel, on Leathercombe Bay. This hotel has a long history, and by the time Hercule Poirot visits it, it’s got a fine reputation. It’s a unique sort of place with its own atmosphere. And in this novel, it becomes a crime scene when one of the guests, famous actress Arlena Stuart Marshall, is murdered nearby. At first, her husband, Captain Kenneth Marshall, is the most likely suspect. And it’s not surprising, considering the victim’s not-too-well-hidden affair with another guest. But Marshall is soon proven innocent, so Poirot and the police have to look elsewhere for the culprit. It might be interesting to consider the sort of story this would be if it took place in one of today’s more generic hotels.

Ellery Queen’s the French Powder Mystery takes place at French’s Department Store. The novel was published in 1930, before department stores were taken over by large chains. This particular store is owned by Cyrus French, who’s made it a real success. Then one day, the body of French’s wife, Winnifred, is discovered in one of the store’s window displays. Inspector Richard Queen investigates, and, of course, his son, Ellery, has quite a hand in the search for the truth. As the Queens, Sergeant Velie, and the rest of the team look into the case, we get a look at what department stores were like when they were owned by individuals. French’s is distinctive, and it’s interesting to see how that individuality comes through.

The change from the individual/unique to the more generic/mass-produced is one of the themes of Catherine O’Flynn’s What Was Lost. The story beings in 1984, when Kate Meaney is ten years old. She’s growing up in a rather dreary Midlands town, but she’s content. In fact, she’s a budding detective with her own private agency, Falcon Investigations. A new mall, Green Oaks Shopping Center, has opened, and Kate is sure that it will be a hotbed of criminal activity. So, she spends quite a lot of time there. Her grandmother, Ivy, thinks the girl would be better off going away to school, so she arranges for Kate to sit the entrance exams at the exclusive Redspoon School. Kate reluctantly agrees to go, and her friend Adrian Palmer goes along for moral support. Tragically, only Adrian returns. Despite a thorough search, no trace of Kate is found – not even a body. Twenty years later, a Green Oaks security guard named Kurt starts seeing strange images on his camera: a young girl who looks a lot like Kate. One night, he happens to meet Lisa Palmer (Adrian’s younger sister) who works at the mall. She knew Kate, and she and Kurt form a sort of awkward friendship. Each in a different way, they go back to the past, and we learn what really happened to Kate. As the novel goes on, we see the change from the individual ‘High Street’ shops to more modern large chains.

In Apostolos Doxiodis’ Three Little Pigs, we hear the story of Benvenuto ‘Ben’ Franco. In the early years of the 20th Century, he moves with his family from Italy to New York City. He gets work as a shoemaker, and is soon successful enough to have his own shoe repair/shoemaking business. Unfortunately, he gets in a bar fight with Luigi Lupo, and ends up killing the other man. He’s arrested and jailed, but that’s not the end of his trouble. It turns out that the victim is the son of notorious Mafia gangster Tonio Lupo. When Lupo learns who was responsible for his son’s death, he visits Franco in prison and curses his family. Lupo says that each of Franco’s three sons will die at the age of forty-two, the same age as Luigi was at his death. As the novel goes on, we learn how this curse plays out with Franch’s sons, Alessandro ‘Al,’ Niccola ‘Nick’ and Leonardo ‘Leo.’ While the major focus of the novel isn’t on Franco’s shoe business, we see that there’s a real difference between it and today’s mass-produced shoes.

And then there’s Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman. She is a former accountant-turned-baker, who lives and works in Melbourne. She takes pride in her bakery, Earthly Delights, where she bakes all of the bread herself, and her assistant, Jason, does the muffins himself. In Trick or Treat, a large chain, Best Fresh, opens a franchise very close to where Chapman has her bakery. Chpman’s concerned, even though Jason assures her that the competitor’s food isn’t as fresh or as tasty. Then, a young man jumps to his death from a nearby roof. Before long, his death is attributed to hallucinations brought on by ergot poisoning. All of the local bakeries, including Chapman’s, are suspect, and it’s very hard for her not to be able to do what she does – provide bread and rolls to her community. She wants to clear her bakery’s name, so she starts ask questions. And it’s interesting to see the difference between the way Chapman and her staff look at what they sell, and the way the local franchise does.

On the one hand, large chains and franchises are efficient, and can often provide goods and services at a lower cost. But there’s also something to be said for the uniqueness of independent companies. And it’s interesting to see how both are portrayed in the genre.

 
 
 

*NOTE:  The title of this post is a line from Brownsville Station’s The Martian Boogie.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Apostolos Doxiadis, Catherine O'Flynn, Ellery Queen, Kerry Greenwood

Changing Times, Changing Rules*

changing-rulesSocial and other changes often mean different roles for just about everyone. In some ways, that can be very liberating. But it also means that the rules people had always lived by no longer apply in the same way as before. As much as that frees people up, it can also cause awkwardness and uncertainty. When two people go out on a date, who asks for the date? And who pays? What clothes are appropriate for a given event? And what about rules for written communication in this world of texting and email? These are just a few examples of the sorts of questions that used to have very easy answers. Not in today’s world.

All of this can cause anxiety, even as it means that we are evolving as a society. And that anxiety can add some interesting tension to a novel. For a crime novel, the uncertainty as rules change can add interesting background. It can sometimes add a layer of character development, too.

There’s an interesting discussion about social ‘rules’ in Agatha Christie’s Three Act Tragedy (AKA Murder in Three Acts). Famous actor Sir Charles Cartwright hosts a cocktail party, to which he’s invited several guests, including some ‘locals.’ One of those guests is the village vicar, Reverend Stephen Babbington. When Babbington suddenly collapses and dies, it’s soon established that he was poisoned with pure nicotine. Hercule Poirot is one of the party guests, and he works to find out who the killer is. Then there’s another death, also from nicotine poisoning. This time, the victim is noted specialist Sir Bartholomew Strange. As you can imagine, all of the people who were at both events are suspects, or at least ‘people of interest.’ That group includes Hermione ‘Egg’ Lytton Gore. In one plot thread of the novel, we learn that Egg is romantically interested in Sir Charles. Partly for that reason, she wants a hand in investigating the murder. For her Victorian-Era mother, Lady Mary, it’s bad enough that Egg’s chosen to get mixed up in a murder. But the fact that Egg’s finding ways to flirt with Sir Charles is of even more concern. In Lady Mary’s day, ‘proper’ young ladies simply did not do such things. Egg’s interest in Sir Charles isn’t the reason for the murders. But it adds a layer of interest, and a look at the changing landscape of the world of dating.

The social rules that govern dating have changed a great deal over the years, especially in the last fifty years or so. Before that, there were major changes during the 1920s, as automobiles became popular (so that couples could go somewhere, rather than ‘court’ in someone’s drawing room). And, as women’s social roles changed, so did the rules that they were ‘supposed to’ follow. For instance, it became more common for women to smoke during the 1920s, to go out without a chaperone, and so on. We see this reflected in Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher series, which takes place during those years. For more on the social changes of that decade, let me also suggest you visit The Old Shelter, the terrific blog of author Sarah Zama, who’s an expert on that era. There’s a really interesting post there on dating during the ‘20s, that explains it all better than I could.

It’s not just rules about romantic relationships that change, though. In the last fifty years, there’ve been major social changes with respect to race. Ruth Rendell takes a look at that issue in Simisola. In one plot thread of that novel, Inspector Reg Wexford and his team are searching for a missing young woman, Melanie Akande. At one point, they think they’ve found her when the body of a young black woman is found in a nearby woods. But it turns out that this is another woman. Now, along with two cases to solve, Wexford has to confront his own assumptions about race. And at one point, he has an interesting conversation with his second-in-command, Mike Burden, about how to refer to black people. On the one hand, the pejoratives people used in the past are no longer acceptable. On the other, to say absolutely nothing about race, not to notice that race exists, does nothing to overcome racism. It’s really not an easy issue, and Wexford doesn’t resolve it in the novel. It really is a question of, ‘what do you do when the thing you’ve always done isn’t done anymore?’

We see that also in Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman. Strictly speaking, this isn’t a crime novel, although there is a crime in it. Twenty-six-year-old Jean Louise Finch returns to her home town, Maycomb, Alabama, for a visit. During her stay, one of Maycomb’s residents, old Mr. Healy, is struck and killed by a car. This death strikes close to the Finch family; the driver is a young man named Frank, grandson of the Finches’ long-time maid/cook, Calpurnia. Since the victim was white, and the driver black, the case is racially charged. Jean Louise’s father, Atticus, takes Frank’s case, and plans to defend him in court. The case is set against backdrop of a South that’s changing in many ways. And there are plenty of people who find those changes very difficult to accept. It’s not always because they are actively, consciously racist. Rather, it’s because the rules they’ve always lived by don’t apply any more. The place they’ve always known isn’t what it was, and among other things, this causes a lot of anxiety.

We see just a bit of that in Walter Mosley’s Little Green, too. In that novel, Los Angeles-based PI Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlins is persuaded to go in search of a black man nicknamed Little Green. This is 1967 Lost Angeles, and the rules about interactions between men and women, and between blacks and whites, have changed dramatically. In fact, one of the people Rawlins hopes may help him is a young white woman named Coco. He makes arrangements to meet her at a restaurant, and the two eat together. That, in itself, represents a major shift in the rules that governed the relations between blacks and whites, at least in the US. When those rules no longer apply, this causes a little awkwardness, at least on Rawlins’ part.

There are many, many other examples of rules that simply don’t apply. Rules for what women and men ‘are supposed to’ do, rules for interactions among people, and even rules for dress, communication, and activities, have all changed as society has evolved. And that means people have more options than ever. That’s very liberating, but it can also cause awkwardness and tension. And that can add an interesting layer to a novel.

 

ps. Oh, the ‘photo? Notice that the car’s left-turn indicator light is on? I was testing it after I’d removed the light housing panel on the back of the car, opened up the light bulb panel, and changed a burned-out bulb. The rules about what women and men are ‘supposed to’ do have certainly changed, even within my adulthood. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I broke a nail bolting that panel back into place, and I want to fix it before I start cooking dinner… 😉

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Chris Rae’s Changing Rules.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Harper Lee, Kerry Greenwood, Ruth Rendell, Walter Mosley