Tuesday, May 25, 2010

I've Seen Those Big Machines Come Rolling Through the Quiet Pines*

Like people, societies change over time. Those changes have, of course, both positive and negative consequences, and even when they're positive, they can be unsettling. It's that very unsettling nature of change that can make it such a compelling backdrop for a crime fiction novel. Besides, social changes are a fact of life, so integrating them into crime fiction can also make those stories more realistic, and draw the reader in.

Agatha Christie wrote for more than fifty years, and the England in which she lived went through many changes during her lifetime. Her novels reflect several of those changes; I'll just mention a few of them. One major change Christie comments on in more than one of her novels is the change from Victorian mores and social "rules" to what we think of as a more modern outlook. In Three Act Tragedy (AKA Murder in Three Acts), for instance, we meet Hermione "Egg" Lytton Gore, a young woman with a decidedly modern perspective on life. She and her mother, Lady Mary Lytton Gore, attend a cocktail party and dinner at the home of famous actor Sir Charles Cartwright. During the party, one of the other guests, beloved clergyman Stephen Babbington, dies from a poisoned cocktail. Hercule Poirot is also at the party, and gets involved in the investigation of what turns out to be three deaths. Throughout the novel, we see Egg's modern view of, especially, love and relationships, contrasted with that of her mother, Lady Mary, who's quite Victorian in her views. Lady Mary is distressed that Egg's even involving herself in something as sordid as murder to begin with. Mr. Satterthwaite, a Christie "regular" who's also at the fateful cocktail party, is also Victorian in his outlook, and he's taken aback by Egg's attitude towards love and romance. She's quite candid about her feelings for Sir Charles, and confides in Mr. Satterthwaite about taking the initiative in stirring up a romance with Sir Charles. Mr. Satterthwaite is much more comfortable with the old-fashioned view that men should "do the chasing." This major social change forms an interesting backdrop for this mystery.

World War II brought devastation and major social upheaval all over the world. Christie writes of these changes, too. For instance, in Taken at the Flood (AKA There is a Tide), we meet Lynn Marchmont, who's just been demobbed from active service in the Wrens. She's finding it hard to fit back into life in quiet Warmsley Vale when she returns from service, even though she's glad to see her mother. She's finding it especially hard to pick up her relationship with her fiancé, Rowley Cloade, who stayed behind during the war. Rowley also finds it difficult, as he feels that he should have seen service; his work on his farm, though, was deemed as important to the war effort, so he stayed in Warmsley Vale. Both Lynn and Rowley's lives are turned upside down when their Uncle, Gordon Cloade, is killed in a bomb blast. He'd always promised the family members that they need not worry about money, as he would take care of all of them in his will. The only problem is that, just before he died, Gordon Cloade married. Now his widow, Rosaleen Cloade, will inherit everything, leaving Gordon's other relatives to fend for themselves. Rosaleen's brother, David Hunter, served bravely, if recklessly, during the war and he, too, finds it difficult to adjust to peacetime. It's partly that restlessness that draws him to Lynn, and she to him. That undercurrent adds to the suspense when a stranger comes to Warmsley Vale with news that Rosaleen Cloade's first husband, supposedly deceased, may actually be alive. If so, that would mean Rosaleen could not inherit Gordon Cloade's wealth. Hercule Poirot is called in by two members of the Cloade family when the stranger is killed. In this novel, the effects of World War II are almost as important as is the mystery itself.

Demographic changes also bring about social change, and Christie writes of this in The Mirror Crack'd (AKA The Mirror Crack'd From Side to Side). Quiet, peaceful St. Mary Mead has been changed forever by the arrival of post-war council housing, and some of the villagers are none too pleased about it. Miss Marple is trying to take this change in village life in stride, and she and many of the other villagers and new residents attend a party at the new home of famous actress Marina Gregg Rudd, who's just bought Gossington Hall in St. Mary Mead. During the party, Heather Badcock, who lives in one of the new council houses, is thrilled to actually meet Marina, who's her idol. Marina even gives her a cocktail. Shortly thereafter, Heather sickens and then dies of what turns out to be poisoning. At first, the police believe that Marina was the intended victim. The cocktail Heather drank was Marina's and the actress certainly has her share of enemies. Soon, though, it's clear to Miss Marple and her friend, Dolly Bantry, that the cocktail was intended for Heather all along. Now, they have to figure out who had a motive to kill Heather Badcock. The undercurrent of conflict about the "new kind of resident" in St. Mary Mead lends a fascinating sub-plot to this novel.

Martin Edwards also writes of some of the major changes in small English communities. In The Serpent Pool, the fourth of his Lake District series, DCI Hannah Scarlett and her Cold Case Review team investigate the six-year-old drowning death of Bethany Friend. Scarlett soon ties in that death with two recent deaths. As she and her team work to find out who killed all three victims, Scarlett gets help from Oxford historian Daniel Kind, who's recently returned to the Lake District from a trip to the U.S. Throughout this novel, Edwards paints a picture of some of the changes in small-town life. Small, local pubs have closed in favor of more "touristy" places. The same's happened with small, local restaurants and shops. In this series, we see the sense of community that's developed in these small towns and villages changing forever. The descriptions of those changes add to this novel's realism and provide a compelling undercurrent of unease.

That same unease is clear in Tony Hillerman's Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn novels. Most of those novels take place on the Navajo Reservation, since both Chee and Leaphorn are members of the Navajo Tribal Police. Generations of contact with the Anglo community have created many changes within the Navajo community. One of them is a change in attitudes towards traditional notions of kinship and customs, especially among younger members of the Navajo nation. For instance, in Skinwalkers, Chee works with Leaphorn to investigate a series of deaths that at first, seem to be related to witchcraft. All of the deaths are connected with the Yellow Horse Clinic, though, and it's that connection that leads Chee and Leaphorn to the real murderer. Along the way, Chee visits several members of the Navajo community, and it's interesting to see the different ways in which he's received. Chee follows many of the traditional Navajo customs, and several of the older members of the community welcome that. The younger ones, though, are less enamored of it. For example, in one scene, Chee interviews some members of one of the Navajo families who may know something about the deaths. He's greeted in the traditional way by the older members of the family, but the two teenage family members seem to have no respect for the traditional ways. These social changes make for a very interesting and realistic underlying theme in Hillerman's novels.

Colin Cotterill's Dr. Siri Paiboun novels also take place against a background of social and political change: 1970's Laos. As that part of Southeast Asia struggles to come to terms with the outcome of the war in Vietnam and the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia, Dr. Siri Paiboun is "volunteered" for service as Laos' chief medical examiner. He's got almost no budget, antique tools and supplies and very little staff, but in The Coroner's Lunch, he takes up his duties. In these novels, we see the differences between old and new ways of healing. We also see changes in spirituality, as new ways of looking at the spiritual sometimes clash with traditional beliefs. We also see how Dr. Siri sometimes has to delicately negotiate the minefield that is Laos' political scene. As Laos deals with the realities of the new Southeast Asia, so does Dr. Siri.

Social changes are a part of our lives, and sometimes, they're difficult to accept, particularly if they have a really negative impact. It's not a surprise that they are also woven through crime fiction. Do you like these undercurrents, or do you think they distract from the plot too much?

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel's No Man's Land.

On Another Note…

I'm off to Long Island on the next leg of the Magical Mystery Blog Tour to visit Kathleen Ryan's excellent blog, From Cop to Mom and the Words in Between, so this evening or tomorrow morning, depending on where you live, please stop back and check out the blog tour link : ).


  1. I hadn't thought about how social change can impact a story, but I see now how it does. That's one of those things that effect the story without the reader really realizing it. Interesting post.

    Looking forward to your blog tour.

    Thoughts in Progress

  2. Mason - Thanks : ); I look forward to it, too. You're right about social change. Many times, we don't think about how sometihng as nebulous as social change impacts a story at first. Those undercurrents really can have an effect on the way the characters in a story act, though, and how they react.

  3. Honestly, I usually am only interested in it in a mystery when it provides a motive for murder. :) Sometimes I feel like the author just kind of sticks it in there and it stands out to me like a sore thumb.

  4. Elizabeth - Now, that's a really interesting point. There are certainly novels where the central point of the novel is supposed to be a murder mystery, but the author spends so much time discussing some of the social changes going on that they distract the reader. That can certainly take away from the enjoyment of a story. The key seems to be staying focused on the core of the story - the mystery.

  5. The social changes during most of Agatha Christie's writing career were far less than we have seen over the last 20 years, but she was actually a good social historian reflecting those changes in her books.
    There were not many differences in many people's physical environment in England between the 1930s and the 1950s. For instance, outside toilets, coal fires, smog, few cars, fewer TVs, no luxuries such as central heating and holidays meant hop picking in Kent for many Londoners, rather than Florida or Spain.
    Agatha Christie died in 1976 and I very much doubt whether she would recognise the country now especially the amount of traffic in Torquay and Paignton near her home at Greenway.

  6. Norman - You've a very good point. The speed of social change has very much increased in the last few decades. Not having been to Torquay or Paignton, I'll defer to what you say about those areas. But I think in general, there've been an incredible number of social changes since Christie died.

    I agree with you, too - Christie was an accurate social historian who faithfully recorded the social changes she did witness.