Category Archives: Walter Mosley

I Had No Choice But to Lie to You, You See*

As this is posted, it’s 384 years since Galileo was forced to recant his assertion that the Earth orbits the Sun. It’s said that he never actually changed his beliefs; and, of course, time has proven him and Copernicus right about the way our solar system works. And yet, Galileo said the exact opposite when he recanted.

Galileo, of course, had good reason to recant; he was in fear for his life. But he’s by no means the only one who’s lied, even under oath, to avoid terrible consequence, or to gain something important. We see it all the time in crime fiction. Whether it’s on the witness stand, in an interview with the police, or something else, fictional characters will, at times, swear to things they know aren’t true. Or, they’ll deny things that they know are true.

For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Taken at the Flood (AKA There is a Tide…), the Cloade family of the village of Warmsley Vale is faced with a crisis. Wealthy patriarch Gordon Cloade had always promised his siblings and their families that he’d see to their needs, so that they wouldn’t have to worry about money. Then, he unexpectedly married, and died in a wartime bomb blast before he could change his will. Now, his widow, Rosaleen, is set to inherit everything, leaving his family with nothing. Then, a stranger calling himself Enoch Arden comes to town. He hints strongly that Rosaleen’s first husband, Robert Underhay, is still alive. If so, then Rosaleen can’t inherit. When Arden is killed, the possibility arises that he may, in fact, be Underhay. So, Major George Porter, who knew Underhay, is asked to state in court whether the body is Underhay’s. Rosaleen Cloade is also asked the same question. Each swears to tell the truth, but their answers directly contradict each other. And both of them had important reasons to swear to something that wasn’t true.

Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird introduces readers to Atticus Finch. He’s a highly-regarded attorney who lives and works in the small town of Maycomb, Alabama. He gets a wrenching case when Mayella Ewell accuses Tom Robinson of raping her. The rape charge is serious enough, but Robinson is black, and Ewell is white. In small-town Alabama, that makes everything all the more highly-charged. Robinson claims that he’s innocent, but no-one believes him. In fact, he very nearly becomes the victim of a lynch mob. Finch takes the case and begins looking into the matter. And, part of the suspense in the novel comes from the discovery of who’s been swearing to something that wasn’t true, and why.

During the McCarthy Era of the early 1950s, many people were pressured to denounce colleagues, friends, and even loved ones as communists. Sometimes so much pressure was brought to bear that people would give names even if they knew the people they accused weren’t communists at all. Walter Mosley’s A Red Death is set against that backdrop. In it, Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlins receives a letter from IRS agent Reginald Lawrence. According to the letter, Rawlins owes thousands of dollars of back taxes, which he’ll have to pay immediately or be imprisoned. Rawlins is preparing himself for a prison term when he gets help in the form of FBI Agent Daryll Craxton, who offers Rawlins a deal. If Rawlins helps bring down suspected communist Chaim Wenzler, then Craxton will make Rawlins’ tax problems go away. Rawlins has no desire to denounce anyone, but he feels he has no choice. So, he agrees to Craxton’s plan, and starts to get to know Wenzler. And that’s when the trouble begins. First, Rawlins comes to like Wenzler, which makes denouncing him all the more difficult. Then, he is framed for two murders that occur at the church where both he and Wenzler volunteer. Now, he’ll have to clear his name, as well as find a way to deal with Craxton without denouncing Wenzler, if he can.

Sometimes, people aren’t forced to swear to something that isn’t true, but they do so for reasons of their own. For instance, in Martin Clark’s The Legal Limit, we are introduced to brothers Mason and Gates Hunt. They’ve been raised in an abusive home, but they’ve responded in very different ways. Mason takes advantage of every opportunity that comes his way, and ends up going to law school. Gates, on the other hand, squanders his natural athletic ability, and ends up living on his girlfriend’s Welfare benefits, and on money he gets from his and Mason’s mother. One day, Gates has a quarrel with his romantic rival, Wayne Thompson. Thompson eventually leaves, but the Hunt brothers encounter him later that night. The quarrel starts up again, and before anyone really knows what’s happened, Gates has shot Thompson. Mason helps his brother cover up the crime, and life goes on for both. Years later, Mason is the commonwealth prosecutor for Patrick County, Virginia. Gates, meanwhile, has been arrested for cocaine trafficking. He’s given a long sentence, and begs his brother to get him out of prison. This time, Mason refuses. Gates says that if Mason won’t help him, he’ll implicate his brother in the still-unsolved Thompson murder. Mason still refuses, and Gates makes good on his threat. He tells police that his brother committed the Thompson murder, and Mason soon finds himself the subject of a criminal investigation. In this case, Gates swears to what’s not true so that he can get out of prison.

And then there’s Daniel Pembrey’s The Harbour Master. In that novella, Amsterdam police detective Henrik van der Pol is present at Amsterdam Harbour one morning when the body of a young woman is found floating on the surface of the water. Van der Pol and his police partner, Liesbeth, investigate, and follow the trail to Little Hungary in the Red Light District (RLD). A sex worker who lives there, a woman named Irena, is one of van der Pol’s contacts, and he’s hoping she’ll be able to give him some information. What he finds, though, at least at first, is that she doesn’t want to say anything. She claims not to know anything about anything. Then, she lets van der Pol and Liesbeth know that she’s afraid of being seen with them, let alone saying anything. Eventually, she tells them the truth, but it’s at a very high price.

People have all sorts of reasons for recanting, or for otherwise denying what they know is true. It may be coercion, fear, or something else. But it’s always interesting to see how characters react under those circumstances.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Ray LaMontagne’s Please.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Daniel Pembrey, Harper Lee, Martin Clark, Walter Mosley

I Heard it Through the Grapevine*

How do you decide which mechanic to use? Where to bank? Where to go to eat? You can’t rely completely on advertisements, of course. Even if you could, it wouldn’t be possible to absorb every ad from every company. So, many people depend on what they hear from friends, colleagues and acquaintances.

Today’s word of mouth is often online, through sites such as Yelp and other rating services. But even in the days before such options, people used word of mouth to find out about other people and about businesses. Businesses depend on it, too (how often have you been asked to rate a business’ service, or ‘like’ it on Facebook?).

Word of mouth plays important roles in crime fiction, too. That’s how many fictional PIs develop a reputation. For instance, Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot had a distinguished career with the Belgian police. And he’s solved any number of difficult cases since then. But it’s still word of mouth that opens doors for him. In stories such as Death on the Nile, Evil Under the Sun, and Five Little Pigs (AKA Murder in Retrospect), he is deemed ‘one of us’ because his reputation precedes him. People in high places talk to their friends, who are also in high places. Those people talk to others, and so it goes. He’s even ‘forgiven’ for being a foreigner because of that word of mouth.

Walter Mosley’s Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlins isn’t, at least at first, a licensed PI. But he knows a lot of people in the Los Angeles area where he lives. And he fits in there; he’s part of the fabric of the area, so to speak. And people have learned that he’s the man to go to if you want to find someone who doesn’t want to be found. He doesn’t put ads in newspapers, or put up flyers. Rather, people hear about him from friends who know friends who know…

The same is true, really, for other ‘unofficial’ PIs. For instance, Timothy Hallinan’s Philip ‘Poke’ Rafferty is an ex-pat American who lives and works in Bangkok. By profession he’s a ‘rough travel’ writer. But he also has a knack for finding people who don’t want to be found. And he speaks both Thai and English. Word about him has gotten about, so that sometimes, complete strangers start asking around for him. And I’m sure you can think of other ‘unofficial’ PIs, too, where this happens.

Word of mouth works especially well when what you do can’t be easily described. For example, Anya Lipska’s Janusz Kiszka is a Polish émigré to London. He does have a ‘day job,’ but more than that, he’s known in the Polish community as a ‘fixer’ – a man who can get things done. That might include helping with complicated paperwork, getting someone a job, finding someone who’s gone missing, ‘making arrangements’ with people who owe money, and so on. He’s earned respect in his community, and he knows most of the members of it. But there really isn’t a job description or official title that accurately describes what he does. People know about him because he’s helped a cousin. Or a friend. Or…

Anthony Bidulka’s Russell Quant is actually a licensed PI. So, in that sense, it’s not that hard for him to advertise his business. He also happens to be gay, and is an active part of Saskatoon’s gay community. And, in Tapas on the Ramblas, that’s exactly why he is hired. Wealthy business tycoon Charity Wiser is convinced that someone in her family is trying to kill her. So, she hires Quant to find out who that person is. She invites Quant to accompany the family on a cruise, so that he can ‘vet’ the various family members; he soon discovers that this is a gay cruise, and that his client hired him because he’s gay. Quant goes along with her plan, only to find that there’s much more to this than he thought. What’s supposed to be a sort of work/vacation cruise turns out to be fraught with danger – and ends up in murder. Quant doesn’t specifically advertise his orientation. Instead, word gets around that he’s gay.

People also use word of mouth when what they want to get or do isn’t exactly legal. For example, in William McIlvanney’s Laidlaw, Glasgow DI Jack Laidlaw is faced with a horrible case. Eighteen-year-old Jennifer Lawson has been raped and murdered, and her body found in Kelvingrove Park. There’s very little evidence to go on, and there aren’t any obvious suspects. But Laidlaw knows that, in most murder cases, someone has seen something. It’s a matter of finding out who saw what. The problem is that there are plenty of people who do not want to talk to the police. Laidlaw finds a way around that, though. He and his assistant, DC Brian Harkness, track down a man named John Rhodes. He’s unofficially in charge of the part of Glasgow where the murder occurred, and he wields quite a lot of power there. If he wants something to happen, it happens. And he’s not afraid to get violent if that’s what it takes. He’s not any happier about Jennifer Lawson’s murder than the police are, and he certainly didn’t sanction it. To Rhodes, women and children are strictly off-limits when it comes to ‘conducting business.’ So, he puts the word out, and his assistance proves to be very helpful. Fans of Malcolm Mackay’s Glasgow trilogy will know that word of mouth plays a big role in those novels, too. After all, you can’t really easily advertise your services as a professional killer…

Whatever one’s selling, word of mouth is often an effective way to get the word out. It certainly is in real life. And it is in crime fiction, too. Now, if you enjoyed this post, please feel free to ‘like’ it on Facebook, mention it on Yelp…

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Anthony Bidulka, Anya Lipska, Hilary Mantel, Malcolm Mackay, Timothy Hallinan, Walter Mosley, William McIlvanney

All the Cats Who Are So In, I Don’t Fit In*

assimilating-or-notVery often, when two cultures come into contact, one of them ends up becoming dominant. There are many reasons for this, and many consequences of it. One of them is that members of the minority culture frequently have to make a painful choice – one of several. Do they keep their own language, cultural ways, and so on, or do they assimilate? If they assimilate, there’s more of a chance of surviving well within the dominant culture. But it means rejecting their own culture and language, with all of the loss that entails. Keeping that culture and language, though, means likely being cut off from a lot of opportunity.

This isn’t an easy choice to make, and matters aren’t helped by the pressure to assimilate and the equal (and opposite) pressure not to ‘sell out.’ And that pressure can come in several ways. And, in some cultures, being a member of a minority culture carries a stigma that greatly impacts a person. That, too, plays a role in the decisions a person might make. There are plenty of crime-fictional characters who face these dilemmas, and it adds to their characters.

In Tony Hillerman’s Jim Chee/Joe Leaphorn series, we are introduced to Janet Pete. She’s a half-Navajo/half-white attorney whom we first meet in Skinwalkers. At first, she lives and works in Washington, D.C., where she has a position with the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). Later, she works for the Navajo Nation. For a time, she and Jim Chee are also romantically involved. Pete has learned how important it is to assimilate if one wants to ‘get ahead.’ She lives a white lifestyle, and at one point, encourages Chee to accept a position off the Reservation, so that they can live in a more dominant-culture way. But at the same time, she is well aware of her Navajo background, understands its traditions, and has a deep respect for her people. She has to make some very painful decisions as the story arc concerning her plays out. And part of the reason for that is the pressure she feels both to assimilate and to be a part of the Navajo world.

Jason Matthews faces much the same challenge in Nicole Watson’s The Boundary. He’s a Brisbane police detective who is also a member of the Corrowa people. He’s been able to manage his life by (mostly) assimilating, as have some other Aborigine characters in this novel. And so far, he’s done all right. Then, the Corrowa people get into a land dispute with a development company over Meston Park. Both groups lay claim to the place, and the situation gets very ugly. Judge Bruce Brosnan rules against the Corrowa, and a few hours later, he’s found dead. Then there are other murders, each of someone involved in the case against the land claim. Matthews is on the team that investigates the killings, and the experience tests his views about assimilating, about identity, and about culture.

Then there’s the question of what’s sometimes been called ‘passing’ – being a member of one race, but identifying oneself (at least publicly) as a member of another. In the US, at least, there’ve been blacks who chose to ‘pass’ as white, rather than identify as black, and it’s been a difficult choice. On the one hand, ‘passing’ has meant opportunities that wouldn’t be available otherwise. On the other, many blacks have seen ‘passing’ as turning one’s back on one’s own. There’s a Walter Mosley book featuring PI Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlins that addresses this very issue, but naming it would be too close to spoiling for my taste.

It’s been an issue in other places, too. Malla Nunn’s Emmanuel Cooper series, for instance, takes place in 1950s South Africa, a time when Apartheid was the law of the land. The rules about race were strict, and brutally enforced. They determined where one lived, what sort of education and job one got, whom one could marry, and much more. Being identified as white (whether Afrikaans or English) meant privilege, power, and opportunity. Being identified as non-white relegated one to a lower class of citizenship, with little opportunity and less voice. In that world, it’s so important to be considered white that many people hide any evidence that they might not be. And that fact figures into more than one character’s choices in the series.

One of Anya Lipska’s sleuths is Janusz Kiszka, a Polish immigrant to London. He’s a well-known member of the Polish community there, and has become sort of a ‘fixer’ – a person who can get things done. He doesn’t always use the ‘usual channels,’ but he always knows someone who knows someone, if I can put it that way. Although he has no burning desire to return to Poland, Kiszka has kept many of his cultural ways, as well as his own language. And he dislikes the tendency for some Polish immigrants to immediately adopt English ways, drop their language, and so on. It’s an interesting perspective on the meeting of cultures.

And then there’s Brian Stoddart’s Roisin McPhedren. When we first meet her in A Madras Miasma, she serves as cook and housekeeper for Superintendent Christian ‘Chris’ Le Fanu. They are also lovers, but they keep that secret. The series takes place in 1920s Madras (today’s Chennai) during the last decades of the British Raj. Roison is Anglo-Indian, and well aware of the social advantages of being as ‘English’ as possible, particularly since she is not of the upper class.  And that includes English social mores. It’s a painful situation for both her and Le Fanu. By contrast, Le Fanu’s assistant, Sergeant Muhammad ‘Habi’ Habibullah makes no attempt to ‘be English.’ He is unashamedly Indian, and Muslim. He may not assimilate, but Habi has earned the respect of others, most particularly his boss, because he is very, very good at what he does.

It can be painful and difficult to decide whether and how much to assimilate, if one’s not a member of a dominant culture. And there isn’t really a ‘right’ answer. Perhaps that’s part of what makes such characters so interesting.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Beat’s I Don’t Fit In.

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Filed under Anya Lipska, Brian Stoddart, Malla Nunn, Nicole Watson, Tony Hillerman, Walter Mosley

Take the Good From the Bad*

minus-to-a-plusWe all have traits that can be seen as disadvantages. Take me, for instance. At just over 1.5m (5ft) tall, there are plenty of things that I can’t easily reach. And it’s not always easy to find clothes that fit me properly. Other people have other things that can put them at a disadvantage.

The trick is, really, to use those disadvantages as advantages. For instance, as small as I am, air travel isn’t quite as difficult for me as it is for taller people. I can fit my things into a much smaller suitcase, and I don’t need as much room to sit. I don’t need as much leg room, either, so my things often don’t have to go into an overhead compartment.

It’s the same way with other traits. And when people turn disadvantages into advantages, they can often be more successful. Just a quick look at crime fiction, for instance, should show you what I mean.

Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot has the disadvantage, as many people see it, of being a foreigner. At the time and place in which he lives, not being English is often considered a strike against him, and people usually end up respecting him not because he’s foreign, but in spite of it. And Poirot uses that very much to his advantage. In After the Funeral (AKA Funerals are Fatal), for instance, he investigates two deaths. One is of wealthy patriarch Richard Abernethie, whose death was sudden, but not really unexpected. When Abernethie’s younger sister, Cora Lansquenet, says that he was murdered, people don’t believe her at first. But privately, Abernethie’s other relatives begin to wonder. When Cora herself is murdered the next day, it seems clear that she was right. At one point in the story, Poirot attends a weekend gathering of Abernethie family members. The purpose is to choose mementos they want, before the property is sold. Poirot’s there under the guise of a potential buyer, and has accentuated his ‘foreign-ness.’ Because of that, everyone condescends to him, and soon, he’s able to sit and watch, almost forgotten. And that proves to be very useful indeed.

For several fictional female detectives, the fact of being a woman puts them at a disadvantage. But the smart ones have learned to use popular stereotypes and sexist notions to their advantage. For instance, Anna Katherine Green’s Violet Strange is a private investigator in the early years of the 20th Century. She comes from one of the ‘better’ New York families, so she has access to the higher social circles. But she’s still female at a time when ‘proper ladies’ simply do not engage in something like detection. She uses that, though; in more than one story, she takes the ‘I’m just a woman’ approach to lower people’s guards. She hears more than she might otherwise hear, and gets into places from which she might otherwise be barred.

The same is true of K.B. Owen’s Penelope Hamilton. She’s a Pinkerton’s agent who lives and works at the very end of the 19th Century. And she’s learned to be quite good at using her role as ‘just a woman’ to do what she needs to do. So does Concordia Wells, for whom Hamilton is a mentor. Wells is a teacher at Hartford (Connecticut) Women’s College, where she’s supposed to concentrate on her role as a faculty member and supervisor of her pupils. But she often finds herself getting mixed up in mysteries. And she’s learned how to occasionally use her status as a woman to find out what she needs to know.

One of Walter Mosley’s series features Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlins. A black man, he lives and works in post-WW II Los Angeles, beginning at a time when institutional segregation was a fact of life. And the deep-seated prejudices and bigotry behind that segregation are alive and quite well in Rawlins’ world. On the one hand, that means he is at a real disadvantage. There are places he can’t go, people he’s not ‘supposed to’ speak to, and jobs he can’t hope to get. But he uses his race to advantage in the cases he investigates. He fits in in certain places in a way that a white sleuth wouldn’t. And other blacks trust him in ways that they would never trust a white sleuth. So, Rawlins can solve cases that his white counterparts, and the white police, can’t.

There’s an interesting use of disadvantage in Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce series. Flavia is eleven years old at the start of the series, which takes place in 1950s England. She may be ‘just a child,’ but Flavia is very skilled at chemistry, and has a knack for detection, too. She knows that no-one really pays very much attention to ‘just a kid.’ Flavia riding her bicycle is just Flavia riding her bicycle, and she’s not considered much of a threat. So, she often finds herself able to go places, observe things, overhear conversations, and so on, that she wouldn’t be able to do if she were an adult. On the one hand, being a child puts Flavia at a disadvantage. She’s smaller, more vulnerable, not as mature, and less well able to get around than adults are. But at the same time, she can go places they can’t, and she has access to private conversations and other clues that they don’t.

Of course, criminals can use disadvantages, too. For instance, in Phil Hogan’s A Pleasure and a Calling, we meet real estate agent William Heming. He’s not particularly attractive, or rich, or…. In fact, he has the disadvantage of being very, very ordinary – the sort of person nobody notices. And if you want to sell real estate, being noticed and remembered can be real advantages. But Heming uses his very, very average appearance and personality quite effectively. He’s observant of all of the people to whom he’s sold homes. And he’s kept copies of each house key. He has, shall we say, interests besides selling houses. And, when a body is discovered in the yard of one those houses, he’s as concerned as anyone. If people really remember him, too much might come out that Heming would prefer didn’t. In this case, that disadvantage of, well, ordinariness turns out to be very helpful to Heming.

And that’s the thing about disadvantages. They do restrict us, but they can also be used to good effect. And people who know how to do that can end up quite successful.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Sara Bareilles’ Red.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alan Bradley, Anna Katherine Green, K.B. Owen, Phil Hogan, Walter Mosley

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