As I post this, today would have been Sally Ride’s 64th birthday. Along with her many accomplishments, one thing that’s always stood out for me about Ride is that she wasn’t bound by the cultural ‘rules’ of the time. In fact, she helped change the rules, if you will, about women (at least American women) in the sciences and in NASA. On a personal note, when my daughter was young, she did a school report on Ride’s accomplishments. As part of her report, she wrote a letter to Ride, who answered her personally and in a very gracious way. My daughter still has that letter. She didn’t choose NASA or physics for her career, but she was among a generation of young people for whom Ride changed the game, if you will.
I’m sure you could think of a long list of other people who have refused to be bound by the cultural ‘rules’ of their times. Those people can make a big difference, and they often have interesting stories. We see characters like that in crime fiction, too. I know you’ll be able to offer a lot more examples than I ever could, but here are a few examples to show you what I mean.
At the time of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, there were very strict cultural ‘rules’ that governed what men and women were and weren’t expected to do. Those rules don’t stop Irene Adler, whom we meet in A Scandal in Bohemia. The King of Bohemia engages Holmes to retrieve a compromising photograph of him with Adler; if it goes public, that photograph could put an end to his plans to marry. Holmes agrees and in doing so, matches wits against a most formidable opponent. In fact, Adler bests him at his own game. Holmes respects her for it, too, referring to her afterwards as the woman.
In Agatha Christie’s The Hollow, we are introduced to sculptor Henrietta Savernake. As the story begins, she’s involved with Harley Street specialist John Christow, who is married to someone else. But she’s hardly the stereotypical ‘kept woman.’ She’s independent, noted in her own right, and not one to wait around on the off chance her lover may stop by. In fact, that’s the one thing Christow finds irksome about her: she cares for him, but isn’t absorbed by the relationship. One weekend, Christow is shot while he and his wife Gerda are visiting some friends, Sir Henry and Lady Lucy Angkatell. Hercule Poirot has taken a getaway cottage nearby, and circumstances get him involved in the murder investigation. In the process, he gets to know Savernake, and we see that she doesn’t play by the cultural rules of her day.
Robert B. Parker’s Night Passage introduces Jesse Stone. He’s suffered some real personal and professional setbacks, so he’s ready for a change from life as an LAPD detective. When he gets an offer to serve as Chief of Police for Paradise, Massachusetts, he accepts the job. In fact, he’s a little surprised he’s gotten the offer, because he’s hardly a stellar candidate. Still, with nothing much to lose, he makes the change. Soon enough, Stone discovers why he was hired. The Paradise town council, led by Hastings ‘Hasty’ Hathaway, wanted to hire a police chief that they could control. The cultural ‘rule’ of that town has for a long time been that the chief of police is a sort of ‘figurehead’ job to lend legitimacy to whatever the council wants. When Stone learns this, he decides to change that game, and begins to look into some very dubious things that have been going on in the town. That decision to alter the rules puts Stone in danger, but it makes some big changes in Paradise.
Virginia Duigan’s Thea Farmer decides to change the game in The Precipice. She’s left her position as a school principal, with the idea of moving to a custom-made home in New South Wales’ Blue Mountains. She has her dream home built and prepares to move in. But then, some bad luck and poor financial planning make that impossible. With no other choice, Thea has to settle for the house next door – a smaller home she refers to as ‘the hovel.’ To make matters worse, Frank Campbell and Ellice Carrington move into the house Thea still regards as hers. Not only does she resent having anyone living nearby, but it’s a particular sore point that they’ve bought ‘her’ house. Still, Thea grits her teeth and tries to get on with life. Then, Frank’s twelve-year-old niece Kim moves in with him and Ellice. Unexpectedly, Thea develops an awkward sort of friendship with the girl. So when she comes to believe that Frank is not providing an appropriate home for Kim, Thea decides to do something about it. She thinks of pursuing her concerns with the police; but without actual evidence of a crime, they can’t do much. So Thea changes the game and decides to take matters into her own hands.
We see some altering of the rules in Seán Haldane’s historical novel The Devil’s Making. Chad Hobbes has recently finished his law degree at Oxford, and travels to British Columbia, where he gets a job as a police constable in the town of Victoria. Hobbes began his study in the Divinity program, but changed his views about religion. He’s interested in philosophy, though, especially the implications of Charles Darwin’s recently-published work. The nature of humanity is of particular interest to Hobbes, and as he begins his work, he gets plenty of opportunity to reflect on it. For one thing, he soon runs into the deeply ingrained prejudice against non-Whites. And as the novel begins, he doesn’t question it much. But when Richard McCrory is found brutally murdered, Hobbes begins to change his views. Wiladzap, a leader among the Tsimshian Indians, is arrested for the crime, but claims his innocence. As Hobbes begins the investigation into McCrory’s murder, he gets to know the Tsimshian better, and sees that traditional cultural ‘rules’ about men, women, and the social order don’t necessarily make the sense that he once thought they might. Throughout this novel, we see the impact of Darwin’s work and thought. Certainly his findings and perspective on them altered a lot of social and scientific ‘rules.’
People who do change the game – who alter the rules – may not always be proven right. But they do change our way of thinking, or at least invite us to reflect on it. And that, I think, can move us forward.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice’s Good Night and Thank You.