Sunday, July 4, 2010

Roll With the Changes*

As I’ve mentioned more than once in my blog posts, change is an inevitable fact of life. Of course, there are personal changes, such as moving, divorce, remarriage, children growing up and the like. There are also larger social, economic and political changes. Some of these changes are positive and others aren’t, but either way, change can be stressful. It’s the way we cope with that stress that often determines whether we negotiate change productively or not. The stress that goes along with adapting to change is certainly a part of our real lives, and it can create a compelling layer of suspense and tension in crime fiction.

In Agatha Christie’s After the Funeral (AKA Funerals are Fatal), we meet Lanscombe, the butler at Enderby, the Abernethie family home. As the novel begins, he’s preparing the house for the arrival of several Abernethie family members who are returning from the funeral of the family patriarch, wealthy Richard Abernethie. He’s been at Enderby for as long as anyone can remember, and has certainly seen changes in his time. He’s having difficulty adapting, too, and in fact, can’t even remember very well the names of the younger members of the family. Lanscombe is even more unsettled when Richard Abernethie’s younger sister, Cora Lansquenet, says that her brother was murdered. At first, everyone hushes her up, but privately, everyone begins to wonder whether she was right. The next day, Cora herself is brutally murdered and now, it seems clear that she was right about her brother. So Mr. Entwhistle, the family attorney, visits Hercule Poirot and asks him to look into both deaths. Poirot agrees and visits Enderby in the guise of a representative from an organization that wants to purchase the home. During his visit, we get a real sense of how the various members of the family adapt to the many changes in British post-war society. In the end, Poirot’s visit to the family home gives him a vital clue that helps him figure out what the truth is about both deaths.

There’s a similar discussion of adapting to change in The Mirror Crack’d (AKA The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side). Council housing has now come to the village of St. Mary Mead, and several of the villagers are not happy about this change. Miss Marple remembers the “old” village fondly herself, but she also sees that these changes were bound to happen. So she’s resigned to new shops, new housing, more people shopping and so on. There’s even a new name – the living room – for the room Miss Marple’s always called the “drawing room.” One of the major changes in the village is that famous actress Marina Gregg and her husband have bought Gossington Hall, which was owned by Colonel and Dolly Bantry. One day, the new owners host an open house for the villagers and there’s plenty of commentary on the changes that have been made to the house. One of the new villagers, Heather Badcock, is especially thrilled to meet Marina Gregg, who’s her idol. She’s even more excited when Marina hands her a cocktail. Then, Heather is unexpectedly taken sick and dies. When it’s discovered that Heather was poisoned, everyone thinks that Marina was the intended victim. After all, she’d certainly made her share of enemies, and the poisoned cocktail was hers. Soon enough, though, Miss Marple and Dolly Bantry discover that Heather was the victim all along. Now, they set out to find out who’d have wanted to murder Heather Badcock and why.

E.X. Ferrars addresses adapting to change in Something Wicked. In that novel, Professor Andrew Basnett decides to spend the winter in the Godlingham cottage of his nephew, Peter Dilly. For Dilly, the agreement means that the cottage will be occupied through the winter. There’s also the rent that his uncle agrees to pay. For Basnett, it means he’ll have a peaceful place to write while his own flat is being remodeled. Dilly assures his uncle that the cottage is all electric, so heat and light won’t be a problem. At first, all seems well as Basnett settles in and gets to meet several of the villagers. One of them is Pauline Hewison, who’s been suspected for the past six years of having shot her husband, Charles. It seems that Charles Hewison had been going to financially underwrite Newsome’s, the school run by his brother, Henry, and it’s believed that Pauline Hewison shot her husband in order to inherit his considerable fortune. Basnett’s curious about this murder and begins to ask questions. Just as Basnett starts to get some answers, a heavy snowstorm strikes the village, knocking out all electricity and making the roads impassable. The only homes in the area that have light and warmth are those that are using old-fashioned fireplaces and cooking stoves. Then, Henry Hewison calls Basnett, telling him he’s found something interesting that might have a bearing on the case. When Basnett gets back to the cottage to meet Hewison, he finds Hewison’s body instead. Now, Basnett’s more deeply involved than he’d intended, and in danger from a killer, too. The stresses that Basnett goes through as he adapts to the cottage, the electricity, and the lack of it when the storm strikes give this story an interesting undercurrent of tension.

Ruth Rendell’s Road Rage also addresses adapting to change. A new road around Kingsmarkham is planned, and part of its route will take it through Framhurst Great Wood. Inspector Reg Wexford is dismayed at the changes that the road will bring, and can’t even enjoy being in the woods, since he knows they will soon be changed forever. He’s not the only one, either. His wife, Dora, is on a committee that’s formally opposing the road, and a disparate group of protest factions have arrived in town to try to prevent the road. Against this backdrop, Wexford has to deal with the kidnapping of several of the town’s citizens (including his wife) as well as a murder.

Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus has difficulty adapting to some of the departmental changes that take place during his years on the force. One of them is technology. Rebus is by no means stupid, but he’s not nearly as technologically sophisticated as his partner, Siobhan Clarke is, so he often ends up relying on her to do the computer “legwork” on the cases they investigate Departmental changes also come up in Martin Edwards’ Lake District series. DCI Hannah Scarlett has to deal with several personnel changes in her Cold Case Review team, and she sometimes finds them quite a challenge. And then there’s the healthy eating initiative promoted by Assistant Chief Constable Lauren Self. Self has instituted other changes, too, to the way in which the Cumbria Constabulary functions, and the tension between her and Scarlett adds a compelling undercurrent and a layer of interest to the Lake District novels. In those novels, we also see the small towns of the Lake District having to adapt to the changes brought on by the economy and population changes.

A very compelling story about change, adaptation and not adapting is Edwards’ short story, 24 Hours From Tulsa. That’s the story of Lomas, a sales and marketing director. Lomas is having tremendous difficulty adapting to some of the changes he’s faced with, both personally and professionally. For instance, people aren’t buying the way they used to buy; people tend to buy online now. To Lomas, computers are for kids, and he knows little about them. So it’s very difficult for Lomas to compete using the patterns and strategies that have always worked for him. He doesn’t even like hands-free ‘cell ‘phones, which are so different and, to him, just cause aggravation. Traffic patterns are changing, too, and it’s actually Lomas’ frustration with the traffic that we feel first as the story begins. Even Lomas’ family has been changing. His children are growing up and he can hardly recognize them. And he’s just found out that his wife’s been unfaithful. As the story continues, Lomas’ frustration, insecurity and inability to adapt to the world he lives in build to the breaking point. In the end, he takes a drastic step.

Change almost always brings on stress; it’s what we do with that stress and how we adapt to change that determines how much that stress affects us. Sometimes, people adapt easily and make the most of change. Sometimes that’s harder to do. Either way, “changing with the times” can lend an interesting layer of tension to a crime fiction novel. Which crime novels have you enjoyed that focus on that theme?

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of an REO Speedwagon song.


  1. I love some of the older detectives because many of them have lived through years of change. I love that. You see how they deal with the times and how computers frustrate them or the fact that it's now DNA and forensics rather than the plain old questioning-the-subject-until-he-talks-method.


  2. You come up with the most interesting ideas, and then illustrate them so very well. You make me think about mysteries in a new way. I feel like I've been at a fascinating lecture each time I come by.

  3. I agree with Nan 100 percent. Your post always inspire me to think about mysteries in ways I had never looked at them before.

    As a person who doesn't like change that much, I can see where it can lead to stress. How the characters handle that stress can add to some intriguing plots.

    Another great post. Thanks and hope you had a wonderful 4th.

    Thoughts in Progress

  4. The best thing about the Mirror Cracked.. for me? The time when Miss Marple goes to the Development with the apprehensions of an explorer visiting a village in the deepest Amazon jungle, and finding that they were people exactly like the ones she knew so well.

    That and Cherry Baker, of course.

    Thank you for yet another great post.

  5. Clarissa - Oh, you are absolutely right! That's one thing I like about the fact that Ian Rankin let his John Rebus age in "real time." Rebus has to deal with all kinds of new technology, etc., and you can see that he knows he has to deal with this kind of change. He just doesn't want to....

    Nan - Why, thank you : ). How very kind of you to say such nice things : ). I'm so glad you find my meanderings interesting.

    Mason - Thanks : ). I hope you had a terrific 4th, too! And I know what you mean. When a person doesn't like change very much, it really does add some interesting aspects to the story to put that person in a situation where s/he has to handle change.

    Rayna - Oh, I love that scene in The Mirror Crack'd, too! It's a good lesson for Miss Marple that people really are not that different from one another in a lot of ways. And of course, Cherry Baker is a great character, isn't she? Glad you enjoyed the post.

  6. - turn and greet the stranger!
    I like this post, Margot! I think we need to look to those masters to see how they did what they did and you take us there so completely. I like how Dalziel is always at loggerheads with change in terms of Pascoe but then inevitably jumps ahead just as Pascoe is giving up on him. I love Reginald Hill.

  7. Jan - Oh, how funny that you used that line from David Bowie! I almost used it for the title of this post, but I used it back in January and didn't want to re-use it. You're right about Dalziel and Pascoe; Pascoe sometimes despairs of Dalziel, only to find that Dalziel's ahead of the game. I really do like their partnership.

  8. Oh, change definitely stresses me out. I do like the effect it has on the police (from their personal life) and on suspects (which may make them slip-up and drop a clue.)

    Great post--am tweeting!

  9. Elizabeth - Why, thank you :). That's what's so interesting about integrating change and adapting into a story. It really can affect the sleuth, the suspects, and even the victim. And I know exactly what you mean about change stressing a person out; I get that way, too

  10. Very interesting that all these books had a similar theme. Also interesting is that with Christie's book, the theme of change would have been a good way to make sure readers kept up with various characters. Sometimes there are so many characters that the reader can't sort them, but if the butler is sorting them and having to remember their names, it would help the reader as well.

    Straight From Hel

  11. Helen - You have a well-taken point. When there are a lot of characters in a novel, it really is helpful to the reader if there's a way to keep track of them. One way is definitely through having a butler or some other character have to learn the names of the other characters. Interesting point...

  12. Yep. I also feel as I'm sitting in on a highly educational lecture - a privileged at that. Thanks for all the things I've learnt! I'm on my way to put learning into practice :).
    Keep 'em coming!

  13. Christine - *blush* Thank you : ). That's so very kind of you. And I can't wait to read what you write : ).

  14. I loved "The MIrror Crack'd...", but it had me at the title - "The Lady Of Shallot" was one of my very favourite poems back in my school days. Some people adjust to change well, some don't. Some are stuck back in their youth, some are scared of new technologies, some believe the old ways are the only ways. You've certainly given me something to think about Margot...

    And does this mean I've got to adjust my butler's role so he can help readers keep the characters straight? Oh...say it isn't so...

  15. Elspeth - LOL! No, please don't feel you need to change your butler's role (or any other role); I'm sure your story will be terrific as it is.

    You make a well-taken point, too, that people deal with things differently, including change. As you say, some people are lost in the past, and some are simply afraid of anything new.

    And yes, The Lady of Shallot is a wonderful poem...

  16. More often than not, we see these "life-changes" as the stepping-off point for many authors' series: Stephanie Plum loses her job and goes to work as a Bail Enforcement Agent. Agatha Raisin moves to a small village in Scotland because there's fewer advertising jobs for her in the big city. She takes up detective work as a result of this move. Emily Pollifax is bored as an "empty nester" and joins the CIA. Precious Ramotswe's marriage dissolves and her father passes away. She makes use of this life change--and her inheritance--to open her No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency. Jesse Stone's drinking problem causes him to lose his job on the big city police force and he becomes a small town police chief. Lincoln Rhyme receives severe injuries on the job as a police investigator and becomes a criminalist and consultant. Nevada Barr and Lee Child seem to use location changes for each new Anna Pigeon and Jack Reacher novel, respectively.

    There are some notable series with few, if any, changes in their characters' lives: Spenser, Hamish Macbeth, Alexandra Cooper, Kinsey Milhone, V.I. Warshawski, Nero Wolfe, and Temperance Brennan don't seem to experience deeply life-altering changes from book to book.

    I think that a character's "life-changes", or lack thereof, is another tool that authors can use to develop their stories. Their success depends on the judicial use, or non-use, of "change".

  17. I enjoyed one episode [forgotten the book] when Rebus struggling to type a report has Siobhan worrying about "A SERIAL KILTER".
    After all it is set in Scotland.;0)

  18. Road Rage is such a fine example. I admire Rendell for many reasons, but one of them is her ability to weave social issues into her crime stories.

  19. Bob - Thanks for those excellent examples of the way sleuths adapt to change. Each of the ones that you've mentioned is a really clear case of a sleuth who faces up to life's changes by adapting. In lots of cases (and I like your examples!) that change is what gets the sleuth in the "sleuthing business" in the first place.

    It's also interesting that you mention sleuths who don't seem to have to deal with a lot of life's changes. I hadn't thought about that, but you make a good point. What a contrast, too, isn't there, between Agatha Raisin and Hamish Macbeth, although both are the creation of the same author....

    Norman - LOL! Yes, that is a funny scene from The Naming of the Dead, which I think is a good story anyway. Thanks for the reminder!

    Dorte - Oh, I agree with you. Not only is Road Rage an excellent novel but yes, Ruth Rendell is quite skilled at weaving a lot of different issues into her stories. Social issues most definitely included!