Friday, October 30, 2009

This Just In....

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 fiancĂ©, 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?

9 comments:

  1. I do enjoy "modern real event" crime novels, especially geographically anchored ones. I read them as a fictional background to some event I found interesting in the news.

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  2. Jfleming - Thanks for the comment : ). I agree with you about using crime fiction to give some background to real news events. When I get interested in sometihng that's going on in the news, I also like read novels about the event. They seem to add more depth to the real happenings.

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  3. Great point, Margot. It's amazing to me that I can find such mysteries so entertaining when I don't completely understand the history of what was going on at the time. I think you're right--the author has ramped up the characterization and suspense to make up for the holes of what we might not understand in the plot.

    Sometimes I've done a quick Wiki search for the topic to get some background on it.

    Great post!

    Elizabeth
    Mystery Writing is Murder

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  4. Elizabeth - You really make an interesting point - a well-written mystery can make the reader interested in an event, even if the reader didn't know much about it beforehand. If there are well-written characters, a strong plot and solid interest/suspense, the reader wants to find out more. I know that's happened to me. That's one reason that I mentioned The Himmler Ploy . After I read it, I got interested in the Russian/Soviet experience during WW II. The book captured my attention that much.

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  5. Why not learn something at the same time you're being entertained? Giant public events are wonderful backdrops for any kind of story. I enjoy all of Daniel Silva's books because of their subject matter. Have you ever read his first: "The Unlikely Spy"? It takes place in England in the early days of WWII. Wonderful.

    Placing fictional characters in the midst of real life events is a tried and true technique. Think about "Gone with the Wind" or "Trinity" or (movie, mind you) "Titanic". And you're so right, Margot, it can lead you to wanting to know more about the subject matter. Wanting to know more is never a bad thing to my way of thinking!

    Elspeth

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  6. Elspeth - You're absolutely right; Silva certainly deals with real-live major events. I haven't read The Unlikely Spy, but if it's as good as his books like The Secret Servant and The Kill Artist, I'll definitely have to try it.

    I hadn't thought about other kinds of fiction set against real events, but you're absolutely right that using real events is not a new strategy at all. And as you say, if reading a good mystery spurs a person on to discover something new, then that's all to the good :).

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  7. One of the reasons I love reading crime fiction is that you can learn so much about daily life (the minutiae including local dialects and language, as well as events/politics) in those places. It beats actually going to them all! Colin Cotterill, for example, evokes 1970s Laos, which was one of the most brutal and repressive regimes (of the intellect as well as the person), yet without being precious about it, he conveys somehow what it was like to live then, and how people coped with it through humour, companionship and unstated solidarity.

    I have learnt so much about the ways of life and speech in other places through reading crime fiction set in the US, Canada, Australia (Peter Temple's Melbourne), all over Europe and Asia (not so much South America) - it is great. And if I don't understand every word, I certainly get the general drift. As you say, the fact of the novel makes it all so much easier to digest than a textbook or travel guide.

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  8. Maxine - You're absolutely right. When a story is written well, as Cotterill does, you can really get a sense of time and place without having to actually be in a particular place. I agree with you that one can learn so much about what real life is (or was) like for a group of people. I like that about Margaret Coel's and Tony Hillerman's work; the Native communities they write about are, for very good reasons, private and not easy to learn about. It opens up a whole new world to read about them.

    You're also right about learning about different places, too (I like Peter Temple as well : ) ). There are several places that I'm not likely to visit, at least not very soon. When I read a good mystery that takes place in one of those locations, I feel as though I've already visited. That's what I like about the Middle East of Daniel Silva's work and the Venice of Donna Leon. It may be dated, but that's what I like about Roderic Jeffries' Mallorca, too.

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