Friday, October 16, 2009

"Signs of the Times" and How Authors Deal With the Big Issues

Mystery novels take place against social, political and historical backdrops, and the events in them happen in those contexts. Some mysteries take place in the “here and now;” others are historical mysteries. In either case, important social and political issues affect the way people (and therefore, characters in a good novel) think and behave. So it can add depth, richness and authenticity to a mystery when the author also addresses (or at least acknowledges) some of those larger social issues.

Different authors have different ways of weaving those larger issues into their stories. Some authors address the issues head-on by building the mystery around the issue. In many ways, this can be extremely effective, because it allows the reader to stay focused on the mystery – the main point of the novel. For example, Rita Mae Brown addresses the issue of racial prejudice in Virginia in Murder at Monticello, part of her Mrs. Murphy series. In that novel, an archeological investigation at Thomas Jefferson’s home in Monticello, Virginia, reveals a long-hidden skeleton. When Kimball Haynes, the archeologist in charge of the project, investigates too deeply into the identity of the skeleton, his investigation threatens to uncover several long-kept secrets in tiny Crozet, Virgnia. When he is shot to death soon after he starts looking into the past, Brown’s sleuth, Mary Minor “Harry” Haristeen, and her friends realize the lengths to which at least one person will go to keep family secrets hidden.

Donna Leon also addresses the issue of prejudice head-on in The Girl of His Dreams. That novel centers in part on Commissario Guido Brunetti’s investigation of the death of a young gypsy girl who’s found drowned in a Venice canal after she apparently fell from a roof while robbing a house. Brunetti interviews the girl’s parents, and finds them hostile and as suspicious of him as many Venetians are of Roms. Brunetti’s experiences with the Rom highlight the experiences of Eastern European Roms in Italy, and weave this important issue into the mystery. Leon’s novels also deal with other sociopolitical issues such as corruption (in fact, religious corruption is another important theme in The Girl of His Dreams) and the environment.

Lilian Jackson Braun also addresses corruption and environmental issues in her Cat Who… novels, especially in the later ones. In The Cat Who Came to Breakfast, for instance, Jim Qwilleran, Braun’s sleuth, is visiting an inn on Breakfast Island, a local resort island. He’s there to investigate some shoddy and corrupt business practices that have resulted in damage to the island’s ecosystem and, quite possibly, the death of a guest at the inn where he’s staying. What’s interesting in this novel, besides the issues of pollution and commercialism, is that there is also mutual prejudice between the local islanders and the developers and tourists. That prejudice plays an important role in the way Qwilleran finds clues to the murder and solves the mystery.

Some mystery authors address these larger issues in a more subtle way. The issues deeply affect the characters, even if they aren’t at the center of the mystery. For example, Joan Smith’s Loretta Lawson series often addresses women’s issues, although the mysteries themselves don’t always center around the fact that Lawson is an ardent feminist. Nonetheless, the question of what roles women should play permeates Smith’s novels. Some have argued that, in fact, Lawson’s militant brand of feminism dates Smith’s novels too much. Still, they’re a strong example of the way an author addresses issues of the times through the characters.

Agatha Christie’s novels also deal with some of the pressing issues of her day. What’s particularly interesting about her work is that those issues changed through the years as the times in which she wrote changed. Here are just a few examples. In Taken at the Flood (AKA There is a Tide), one of the central characters, Lynn Marchmont, has recently returned home to tiny Warmsley Vale after serving a stint in the Women’s Royal Naval Service during World War II. Another character, David Hunter, has also seen action in the war. Through these characters, Christie explores the very real issue of post-war stress, fitting back into a peacetime society, and the rootlessness that many veterans have felt on returning from war.

In The Clocks, Christie directly addresses Cold War hysteria (actually, that topic is addressed in other novels, too, such as Hickory, Dickory, Death (AKA Hickory, Dickory Dock). In The Clocks, Colin Lamb, who works in British Intelligence, is on the trail of a Communist spy. He stumbles (almost literally) on a young woman who’s just found a dead man in a home she was visiting. Lamb brings the mysterious man’s death to the attention of his father’s friend, Hercule Poirot, and later gathers much of the evidence that helps Poirot solve the murder.

In a later work, Third Girl, Christie addresses the drug culture of the 1960s. In that novel, Norma Restarick, a young woman who believes she may have committed a murder, asks Poirot for help figuring out what happened. As Poirot and his friend, fictional novelist Ariadne Oliver, look into Norma’s background and meet her friends, they find that several of them are drug users and that, in fact, drugs may have played a role in the murder Norma might or might not have committed.

In my own Joel Williams series, I’ve chosen a subtle approach to addressing issues of the times. The mysteries don’t center on these issues, but they are relevant. For instance, in B-Very Flat, the issue of homosexuality and society’s reaction to it plays a role in the story of Serena Brinkman, a violin virtuosa who dies suddenly on the night of an important competition. The fact that Serena is gay isn’t the reason she’s killed; however, it plays a role in the way that some of the other characters relate to her.

Some mysteries, of course, are historical novels. They’re not focused on the times in which they’re written, so they also don’t focus on issues of those times. Rather, they address issues of the times during which the action takes place. For instance, many of Ellis Peter’s Cadfael novels address the ongoing civil war between Empress Maud and King Stephen for the throne of England. They also address the question of the authority of the Church versus the authority of secular law.

Deanna Raybourn's Lady Julia series addresses many of the pressing issues of the Victorian Era. For instance, Lady Julia herself fights an ongoing battle with herself and with other characters about what her roles as a woman should be. She and her sister, Lady Portia Bettiscome, are not willing to be bound by traditional Victorian conceptions of what a woman should be and do. At the same time, Lady Julia is unsure of how else she ought to act. She’s sometimes uncomfortable with her sister’s easy rejection of strict Victorianism, but at the same time, she’s not happy living within the rigid confines of her social roles.

It’s important to remember that a good mystery/crime fiction novel focuses on the mystery. So as these larger issues are woven into the novel, it’s best if they add to the plot and make the mystery more real, rather than distracting the reader. That’s a tricky balance to strike, but the result can be a rich, intriguing and memorable story.

What do you think about authors who address those larger issues of the times? Does that add to your enjoyment of the story? Does it distract you?


  1. I enjoyed Peter Ellis' Cafael novels and Derek Jakobi's brilliant portrayal of the character in the TV series, and part of my enjoyment was the absolute acknowledgement of the outside world, but that world's issues not being front and centre.

    As a reader I don't like getting continuously hit over the head with a message of "Nuclear War is Bad" or "Gay is the Way" or "Henry VIII Had Commitment Issues" (okay, maybe not the last one). I want be involved in the plot, not the author's political agenda.

    My WIP takes place in the late spring of 1935. There are certain unavoidable attitudes that were present; and they're incorporated into some of my characters. But no one (for instance) rails against Nazi Germany, because no one DID in England in 1935. Churchill was starting to roar, but in 1935 no one paid any attention.

    In some ways, it makes no difference that my story takes place when it does. In other ways, it makes all the difference in the world.


  2. Ellis Peters not Peter Ellis. *banging head against a hard surface*

  3. Interesting post Margot and the issue of the author as social commentator is one I find very interesting.
    I don't think people realised how valuable Agatha Christie would be as an eye on her times.
    I heard Ruth Rendell talk about how many of her novels have out of research from some issue that was being discussed in parliament. I think there's a lot of social issue stuff such as illegal immigration, unemployment, cultural fabric in Ian Rankin's Rebus novels, while Indridason considered Iceland's genetic records in TAINTED BLOOD/JAR CITY, and Henning Mankell is always on about what has happened to Swedish social values.
    One of the things that interests me is how the same issue is dealt with differently by various novelists in a short time frame - e.g. like refugees in Donna Leon, Jo Nesbo, Henning Mankell and Ian Rankin all in the same year of publication - which basically means they are writing in a parallel time frame.

  4. Elspeth - You put that quite well: Mystery readers don't want to be preached to (I know - nonstandard grammar!). They want a good mystery story with all of the elements that make for a memorable tale. When authors use their books as a "bully pulpit," this can be very off-putting.

    If the writer creates an engrossing story that could take place in a number of different contexts, and happens to take place in, as it does in your case, 1935 UK, then it won't detract from the story if the author addresses some of the big issues of that time. However, the plot - a strong mystery and good characters - needs to be the focus.

    Incidentally, I agree: No-one could touch Derek Jacobi as Cadfael :).

    Kerrie - You're absolutely right that Agatha Christie was much more of an eye to her times than even many of today's readers realize. One can see nuances throughout her novels of what mattered to people, and what people thought. That's an interesting point.

    I agree with you about Ian Rankin; he isn't afraid to take on social issues, and quite directly, too. For instance, I really like the way he deals with gang warfare in The Hanging Garden. Rankin, Indridason and Mankell all have a way, though, of bringing up those issues, acknowleding them, and making the reader face them without detracting from the storyline. That's what makes their work good.

    I think you're right, too, about getting a look at how a variety of authors who write at the same time treat the same issue. The really interesting thing about it is when you get stories from different countries, as you've mentioned. That gives such a nice, broad perspective on the issue. For example, both the Gears and Adrian Hyland deal with issues of Native peoples. One can learn a lot from reading what different authors say about the same issue.

    Thanks for that info on Ruth Rendell; I didn't know she took so much of her ideas from issues before Parliament, but it's not surprising.

    I always learn from your comments : ) Thanks

  5. I really like my books to have that added element of exploring some social or political issue but I definitely don't want to be preached at. This year I read James Lee Burke's THE TIN ROOF BLOWDOWN which was set in New Orleans immediately after hurricane Katrina and Burke's obvious anger at the way the poorest people of the city were treated, both before and after the storm, took over the story to the point that I didn't find the novel enjoyable. I didn't necessarily disagree with his views but I didn't enjoy having my fiction all cluttered up with political rants. One of the reasons I've stopped reading Kathy Reichs' novels is that I think she tries too hard to wedge some kind of social message into the books these days and I'm not interested in that.

    An author I've found who does get the mix just right is Matt Rees with his Omar Yussef series set in the Palestinian territories. There the mysteries and characters are paramount while the underlying social and political issues of life in the Middle East are depicted but only as part of the story.

  6. Bernadette - I agree that some authors and some novels seem to push social messages; The Tin Roof Blowdown is a good example of that. As you say, Burke's message isn't the problem; it's that it overtakes the plot. The thing about mystery novels is that they are centered on a mystery plot. Anything that takes away from that (and that includes "preaching") lessens the book. It's a delicate balance, though, since underlying sociopolitical issues can really add to a story.

    Thanks for mentioning Matt Rees. I've heard that his Omar Yussef series is good, but hadn't tried it yet. Time for me to do so!

  7. Interesting and thought-provoking post as always, Margot.

    And an interesting comment from Kerrie about Ruth Rendell & parliament. It did not surprise me, though, as she is the first author who springs to my mind when I see your question. I have read and enjoyed "Road Rage" very much, especially because she writes about environment, obviously engaged in the subject, but still she keeps a sound distance to the fanatic ´tree people´. Her Simisola is also an excellent crime novel about a very relevant issue.

  8. I tend to look at political and social messages as a subplot and overlook them as much as possible to get to the puzzle part. :) But then, I could write a book called "The Hurried Reader: a Guide to Easy-to-Read Books."

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  9. Dorte - Thanks for mentioning those Rendell novels! I agree that she has a gift for bringing real issues into her novels (Road Rage is a really good example, by the way!) without preaching or focusing attention away from the mystery. She treats the issues as they're relevant to her plots. In my opinion, a great balance.

    Elizabeth - I had to laugh at your description of yourself as "A Hurried Reader." I think you probably have a lot of company, too. People's lives get extremely busy, and it's nice to have a book that carries you along without being burdensome.

  10. I agree with Elspeth, I don't like the author to be too heavy-handed with their political or moral views, a little opinionating goes a long way, and that goes for any genre.

  11. Elizabeth - Thanks for "weighing in." I like your term, too - "heavy-handed." When an author spends too much time expressing views about an issue, even an important one, the reader loses interest in the story, whether or not it's a mystery.

  12. A book that is multi-layered is very appealing, but if the background or message get in the way of the story, it can be a turn-off. In the Christies you mention, the mystery is always central to the reading experience, and I rather like that.

  13. Martin - Thanks for your input. You put your finger on the most important point: the mystery has to be central to the reading experience. If that's the case, then discussing an issue can add depth and authenticity to a novel - extra texture, too. Otherwise, the mystery gets too cumbersome and cluttered.