It’s only been twenty years or so, so perhaps we don’t have a real perspective on the era yet. But the 1990s saw some major changes on several levels. And the crime fiction of and about that era reflects them. There won’t be space in this one post for me to mention all of them, so I’ll just mention a few. I’m sure you’ll be able to think of lots more.
One of the most iconic moments of the decade was the 1990 release of Nelson Mandela from prison on Robben Island. The ‘photos and videos of that day are unforgettable. Four years later, Mandela was elected President of South Africa. That time of the end of apartheid and the beginning of whatever might come next was both heady and uneasy. In a lot of ways, it still is. And Deon Meyer has captured the pain and promise of that time in several of his novels, such as Dead Before Dying, which was first published in Afrikaans in 1996. His characters come from a wide variety of different backgrounds, and all are trying to find places in the new South Africa. One thing that comes through in Meyer’s work is that such a major societal change has meant a lot of discomfort and uncertainty. That’s led to quite a lot of violence and other problems. Yet, Meyer’s South Africa is also a beautiful country with rich natural and human resources and much potential.
Another major event of the 1990s was the negotiation and long political process that led to the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. That agreement, which involved the UK, Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, established the conventions under which Northern Ireland is governed today. It also established several cross-border authorities and commissions created to oversee the end of armed hostilities and to deal with logistics such as the exchange of prisoners and the return of remains to families for burial. This treaty hasn’t completely and magically ended tension in the area. However, novels such as Colin Bateman’s 1995 Divorcing Jack show what places like Belfast were like before the treaty was signed. And there are many other novels too that depict the long history of conflict in the Republic of Ireland and in Northern Ireland. In the last decade (Brian McGilloway’s work shows this), life on the border between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland has achieved a sort of balance; people go on with their lives, and most would probably tell you they’re just as well pleased not to have to bury any more combatants.
In 1993, the Soviet Union broke up, leading to major shifts in geopolitics and business. And if you read crime novels such as Margaret Truman’s Murder in the House, Robin Cook’s Vector, or Ian Rankin’s Exit Music, you see a major shift in theme that reflects the breakup. Older crime fiction, or crime fiction about the Cold War, very often features espionage, CIA v KGB agents, and so on. But more recent crime fiction has new themes; the new Russian business oligarchs, Eastern European crime leaders, and human trafficking are just a few of the topics featured in novels of the last two decades.
There’s another important development that arguably fell out from the breakup of the Soviet Union; related power shifts among its former allies. For instance, the former Yugoslavia faced its own political crises during the late 1980’s and finally broke apart after the end of the Soviet Union. The war in Serbia, Croatia, Montenegro and Kosovo cost many thousands of lives, and had effects in lots of places. Just ask Martin Walker’s Benoît ‘Bruno’ Courrèges. He is Chief of Police in the small French town of St. Denis. He is also a veteran of that war, and still bears the psychological scars of it, although he’s certainly functional. It’s part of why he’s just as well pleased to be living in a (mostly) peaceful place.
The end of the Soviet era also led to the introduction (or, better stated, re-introduction) of capitalism in a lot of places. That’s what we see in Qiu Xiaolong’s series featuring Chief Inspector Chen Cao of the Shanghai Police Bureau. This series takes place in the late 1990s, when China is beginning to experiment with its own version of capitalism. In several of these novels, we see the interplay between traditional Chinese culture and Maoist communism, as well as the impact of more easily available consumer goods. It makes for an interesting backdrop to the stories.
One of the most important developments of this era, from several different perspectives, actually, was the advent of the Internet. There was email (although fully available, easily accessible email took a few years), but the instant information and communication we take so much for granted didn’t exist until after the mid-1990s. That single development has led to many, many other cascading developments such as social media, online shopping, ebooks and much more. And it’s all happened very quickly. For instance, Angela Savage’s series featuring PI Jayne Keeney takes place in the late 1990s. By then, you could access email at Internet cafés and in offices, and there were several web sites available; Keeney and her partner Rajiv Patel use computers in that way in The Dying Beach. But Internet-ready mobile ‘phones were still in the future. So were blogs and sites such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, where users post their own content. And of course, that’s led to a whole new kind of crime novel…
The 1990s brought about several other changes, too – many more than I have space to mention. And because it’s only been twenty years or a bit longer, it’s very hard to say what all of the long-term outcomes of those changes (and sometimes upheavals) will be. As time goes by, we’ll see; I don’t think this story’s end has been written yet. What do you think? What are your strong memories of the 1990s? What do you see coming from it all?
ps. Oh, the ‘photo? Who needs 1990s memorabilia when your own child is the best possible result of that decade? :-)
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Midnight Oil’s Renaissance Man.