Well-written mysteries reflect the real lives of the people who read them. When the plot has to do with events that the reader is familiar with or has read about in the papers or (today) online, it’s much easier to become absorbed in the story, and certainly easier to identify with the characters. Mysteries that focus on current events are also interesting because they give the reader a different perspective on those events.
Some mysteries focus on major world events. For example, Yulian Semyonov’s The Himmler Ploy (AKA The Seventeen Instants of Spring) takes place during the last days of World War II. In the novel, Nazi officer Max Otto von Stirlitz is trying to uncover a Nazi plot to broker a peace deal with the United States. We soon learn that Stirlitz is really a deep-cover Soviet agent, Colonel Maksim Maksimovich Isaev, who’s trying to avoid having his “cover” detected by the very group he’s infiltrated. This spy thriller was written in 1978, at a time when several World War II espionage plots were being made public, so the story seemed “ripped from the headlines.”
Some of Agatha Christie’s novels also took events “from the world headlines.” For instance, in One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (AKA The Patriotic Murders and An Overdose of Death), one of the main characters is Alastair Blunt, a prominent banker whose conservative approach to national finance makes him the target of many in the country who would like to see radical changes in the government. When Mr. Morley, Blunt’s dentist, is shot, Hercule Poirot works with Chief Inspector Japp to find the murderer. For much of the novel, it seems that Morley’s death is related to a larger plot to assassinate Blunt. At the time this novel was published (1940), the world was embroiled in a devastating war that was fought, among other reasons, over different theories of how governments should be run and societies should be organized.
In Hickory, Dickory, Death (AKA Hickory, Dickory, Death), Poirot investigates the murder of a young girl who’s living in a hostel for students. Many of these students come from different countries, and Christie uses these minor characters to tie the narrative to (then) current events. For instance, one of the characters, Mr. Chandra Lal, is an Egyptian who’s obsessed with radical politics. During one meal, he’s commenting on what he sees as oppression of native peoples, and says:
You ask why is the Mau Mau? You ask why does Egypt resent the Suez Canal?
These are direct references to major political events of the mid-1950’s, when the novel was written. The Mau Mau rebellion was an attempt to remove British colonials from Kenya; it began in 1952. The 1956 Suez Canal crisis arose with growing Egyptian resentment over Britain’s influence in the Middle East and changes in local Egyptian politics which led to a nationalist movement in the country. These events dominated the headlines of the times, and found their way into the novel.
Modern crime novels also frequently use world headlines as the basis for their plots. For instance, Daniel Silva’s The Secret Servant is focused on several current events. It centers on a plot by the terrorist group al-Qaeda to kidnap an American ambassador’s daughter. Gabriel Allon, Silva’s protagonist, is recruited by American intelligence authorities to try to find the girl before it’s too late. As the novel unfolds, Silva also treats the topic of extraordinary rendition – the practice of capturing known or suspected terrorists and transporting them to secret places outside the United States for interrogation. This practice is an important topic of current discussion, and Silva’s treatment of it ties the novel to what many readers are thinking and talking about in real life.
Sometimes, authors use national or local events to tie their novels to readers’ real-life experiences. For example, Ruth Rendell’s Adam and Eve and Pinch Me is the story of three women, all of whom are robbed of their savings by the same con man. Their lives cross paths after the 1999 train wreck near London’s Paddington Station. Two of the women, Minty Knox and Zillah Leach, are informed that their partners have been killed in the crash. The third, Fiona Harrington, meets her fiancé, Jeff, because of the crash. The crash, taken directly “from the headlines” provides a compelling backdrop to this thriller, and helps the reader connect with the story.
The plots of some of Tony Hillerman’s novels are also connected with real-life events. For instance, in Hunting Badger, Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn, Hillerman’s sleuths, investigate a murder based on real events. In 1999, a policeman was murdered by right-wing militamen who later disappeared. Although the FBI investigated, they never caught the men who were responsible (although two of their bodies have since been found), and many think that FBI bungling is the reason the murderers weren’t found. This real-life murder is the inspiration for Chee and Leaphorn’s investigation of a murder that’s related to a huge theft from an Indian casino. Hillerman’s treatment of this real event gives the novel an added layer of interest. So does his discussion of the realities of casino gambling on Native American reservations, a topic of current interest and not a little controversy.
Of course, there are drawbacks to tying crime fiction to real-life events. Once those events have passed, they are sometimes forgotten, and it can be difficult for readers who aren’t familiar with them to relate to those events. For example, Emma Lathen’s Going for the Gold (my review of the book for Friday's Forgotten Books is here) takes place at the 1980 Winter Olympics, which were held at Lake Placid, New York. Some readers will remember those games, especially those who remember the U.S. hockey team’s winning the Gold Medal. Most, though, won’t have a clear memory of those games, and the references may be less interesting. Other novels tied to real events aren’t related to very well-known events. Readers who aren’t aware of those events can have real difficulty relating to what happens in the novel, because the events don’t mean anything to them. For example, Dorothy Johnston’s The Trojan Dog is set during the lead-up to the Australian Federal Election of 1996. I haven’t read the novel, but Bernadette’s thorough review of it in Reactions to Reading mentions that one of the problems with this novel is that there are too many obscure references and acronyms that readers wouldn’t understand.
So what’s the secret? How do authors use current events to keep readers turning pages without turning away those readers who aren’t familiar with the events? The key seems to be the author’s focus. When the focus is on an intriguing plot and “real” characters, the novel draws in those readers who may not know much about the events that are the basis of the novel. This may encourage those readers to learn about the events. Readers who are familiar with the events of the novel will enjoy an added layer of interest and be able to relate to the novel more closely.
What’s your opinion? Do you enjoy crime fiction that uses current events as the basis for at least part of the plot? Do you find those events distracting?