The world changes, sometimes very quickly. So it’s easy to forget what life was like in the not-too-distant past. That’s one advantage of reading well-written novels from different eras: they offer a look at life at a certain time and in a certain place. And sometimes they include subtle nuances that really add to the atmosphere of a story – nuances we don’t really think about unless we compare them with our lives today.
In Agatha Christie’s Death in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air), for instance, Hercule Poirot is on a flight from Paris to London when one of the other passengers, Marie Morisot, suddenly dies of what turns out to be poison. The only possible suspects are the other people on board the flight, so Poirot and Chief Inspector Japp have a limited supply of suspects. Along with the mystery in this novel (who killed Marie Morisot, how, and why), readers also get a sense of what airline travel was like at the time (this book was first published in 1935). Planes were smaller, full meals were served, and flight was much noisier than we see today. There were many other differences, too, and Christie shares those nuances.
Pheobe Atwood Taylor’s The Cape Cod Mystery, first published in 1931, is the first in her series featuring Asa ‘Asey’ Mayo. In the novel, Prudence Whitsby and her niece Betsey are staying at their Cape Cod summer cottage to escape the heat and humidity of the city. Staying nearby is famous writer Dale Sanborn. One night, Prudence’s cat escapes and she trails it to Sanborn’s cabin, where she discovers that he’s been murdered. The police are alerted and local sheriff Slough Sullivan takes charge of the investigation. Soon enough, the evidence points to Bill Porter, a friend of the Whitsby family, as the guilty party. But Porter’s cook and ‘man of all work’ Asey May doesn’t think his employer is the killer. So he works with Prudence to find out who really murdered Sanborn and why. Besides the mystery, this novel explores the ‘summer culture’ of that era, before people had air conditioning. Anyone who could afford to do so would go to the shore or the mountains to escape the city heat, and we see that here. We also see what life was like in the sort of small seaside town where summer visitors congregated.
Technology has arguably created a revolution in the way detectives get information. But it wasn’t very long ago, when you think about it, that PIs didn’t have those resources (neither, really, did police). And we see that in Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski novels. The first Warshawski novel, Indemnity Only, was published in 1982. In it, Warshawski is hired to find a young woman, Anita Hill, who’s gone missing. She starts with a visit to Anita’s boyfriend, Pete Thayer. But when she gets there, she discovers that Pete’s been murdered. Now Warshawski’s faced with a missing person case that involves murder and fraud. As she investigates, readers get a sense of PI work in the days before the Internet, mobile telephones and GPS navigation. Warshawski uses telephone books, maps, lots of ‘legwork,’ face-to-face interviews, and so on as she solves cases.
Readers also see those nuances in Mike Ripley’s Angel series. Beginning with 1988’s Just Another Angel, the series features jazz musician, unlicensed cab driver, and occasional PI Fitzroy MacLean Angel. In the first novel, Angel meets Josephine ‘Jo’ Scamp. The two enjoy each other’s company and the evening ends in a one-night stand. Both agree that that’s all it is, so Angel doesn’t think much more about it until five months later when he sees Jo again. This time, she wants his help. It seems that a former friend, Carol Flaxman, has made off with some credit cards and a valuable emerald pendant, and Jo wants them back. Angel is very reluctant to take the case on, but in the end, he’s persuaded. He tracks Carol down and gets Jo’s property back, but that’s only the beginning of his adventures. As it turns out, this case puts Angel up against the police (who suspect Jo of criminal activity), Jo’s husband (who is not someone you want angry with you) and a very large and angry bouncer with an agenda of his own. As Angel searches for Carol, and as he tries his best to get out of the mess he’s in, we see how PIs worked in the days before easy access to information. Incidentally, readers also see the nuances of life as a London jazz musician of that time. There was no Facebook with band pages; there was no Twitter to put out the word about a gig. So musicians had to learn of gigs, and spread the news of their own events, via word of mouth – and flyer.
Sometimes a novel or a series captures the entire atmosphere of an era. That’s the case in Len Deighton’s Bernard ‘Bernie’ Sansom novels. In Berlin Game, which was published in 1983, Sansom is sent from MI5’s London Central offices to Berlin. It seems that one of MI5’s agents, code-named Brahms Four, wants to come to the West. Sansom’s task is to persuade Brahms Four to stay in place for just a little longer. In the meantime, MI5 has an even bigger problem. There’s a mole at what appears to be a very high level. So Sansom has two serious challenges: solving the Brahms Four issue, and finding the mole before it’s too late. This novel, and the others in the series, show the nuances of the Cold War in everyday life. What’s more, they show small details of what espionage was like at this point in that conflict. The atmosphere and culture of London and Berlin during the early 1980s is an important part of the novel, and readers get a look at it.
And that’s the thing about some novels and series. They give readers a real sense of the nuances and subtleties of an era. And it’s those small things, like landlines, airline food, and paper maps, that really show (or remind) readers of what life was like. Which novels have given you a real sense of an era?
ps. You’ll notice that I haven’t mentioned historical novels. To me, that’s a different way of looking at a time and place.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Stevie Wonder’s I Wish.