Thursday, November 11, 2010

Let's Give Them Something to Talk About*

One of the things that makes crime fiction so engaging is the “window” it gives us on ourselves. A quick look at crime fiction, for instance, can show us how our attitudes about a lot of things have (or haven’t) changed over time. In subtle and not-so-subtle ways, crime fiction shows us what we’re like as a society and historical crime fiction shows us what we were like. As our values and priorities change, so does crime fiction. That’s one reason crime fiction can be such a powerful teaching tool. It’s also a reason crime fiction captures our imagination the way it does.

For example, consider social attitudes towards marriage. It used to be that people were expected to marry and not expected to live together until they did. In fact, that’s a critical issue in Dorothy Sayers’ Strong Poison. In that novel, mystery author Harriet Vane stands trial for the murder of her former lover Philip Boyes. There’s evidence against her, too. She had arsenic in her possession. Also, the two quarreled and in fact Harriet broke off the relationship shortly before the murder. That quarrel was over the fact that they’d lived together without marriage for a year before Philip Boyes proposed. Harriet Vane saw this as an unfair test of her love that for her, cost her reputation. So she broke off the relationship. Lord Peter Wimsey attends the trial and falls in love with Harriet Vane. He resolves to clear her name so that he can marry her. In the end, Wimsey finds the real killer.

We see a similar theme in Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Scandal in Bohemia. Holmes gets a secret visit from the King of Bohemia, who’s preparing to get married. The king is worried because Irene Adler, his former lover, has a compromising photograph of the two of them, and publication of that photograph could ruin his prospects with the princess he’s engaged to marry. The king hires Holmes to retrieve the photograph from Adler and Holmes agrees. Little does he know he’s up against a formidable opponent, as Adler manages to elude him and even keeps the fatal photograph in case she ever has need of it.

Today, it’s very common for people to live together without marriage. There are dozens of example of this kind of home in crime fiction; I’ll just mention two. Deborah Crombie’s Gemma James and Duncan Kincaid are lovers throughout several of the novels that feature them. They live together for quite a while, too, and their relationship is depicted as perfectly natural. Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum and Joe Morelli are also live-in partners who aren’t married for most of the Plum series. The same is true of the relationship between Liza Marklund’s Annika Bengtzon and Thomas Samuelsson. They do marry, and we see their very real-life marriage depicted in The Bomber. But for quite a while (e.g. in Prime Time), they’re live-in partners. Again, this relationship is shown as perfectly natural. In fact, that’s part of Annika Bengtzon’s appeal; she’s a very real-life character who faces everyday, normal challenges as she balances her family life and her career.

Of course, cultural attitudes towards marriage vary quite a lot. We see this in novels such as Zoe Ferraris’ Finding Nouf, Elizabeth George’s Deception on his Mind and Ruth Rendell’s The Monster in the Box. Those stories address the question of whether marriage is important and just exactly how important it is in different cultures. What’s interesting about these novels is that several of the characters in them don’t assume that marriage is the only option.

There’s also a marked change in the way that crime fiction treats unwed parents. For example, in Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None (AKA Ten Little Indians), we meet Miss Emily Brent. She and several other people receive mysterious invitations to visit Indian Island off the Devon coast. She accepts and travels to the island. On the first night there, Miss Brent is accused of being responsible for the death of Beatrice Taylor. As the story unfolds, we find that Beatrice Taylor became pregnant while she was in service with Miss Brent. When Miss Brent found out, she forced Beatrice to leave because of what Miss Brent saw as her immorality. Beatrice Taylor then drowned herself.

There’s an interesting discussion about unwed parenthood in Christie’s Sad Cypress . In that novel, Hercule Poirot solves the murder of Mary Gerrard, daughter of the lodgekeeper at Hunterbury, an estate in the village of Maidensford. At one point in the novel, Mary discovers that her parents were not married when she was born. She tells her friend, village nurse Jessie Hopkins what she’s found out.

“‘Well, after all, what of it? Don’t go worrying about that, at this time of day!’

‘But Nurse, I can’t help it!’

Nurse Hopkins spoke with authority:

‘There’s many couples that don’t go to church till a bit after they should do so. But so long as they do it in the end, what’s the odds? That’s what I say!’”

As Poirot finds out, the circumstances of Mary Gerrard’s background have a lot to do with her murder.

Today in many cultures, unwed parents don’t face the social stigma they once did. For instance, Yrsa Sigurðardóttir’s series features Reykjavík attorney Thóra Gudmundsdóttir, a divorced mother of sixteen-year-old Gylfi and six-year-old Sóley. In Last Rituals, the first novel in the series, we learn that Gylfi’s fifteen-year-old girlfriend Sigga is pregnant. The news is a shock to all four parents, and what’s interesting is the differing reactions. Sigga’s parents are deeply upset and they are only too eager to blame Gylfi and his parents. Thóra is furious at their reaction and, although she isn’t happy at the prospect of her teenage son becoming a parent, she takes a much more modern attitude as she says to Sigga:

“Sigga, the baby will always be welcome in my house – as will both of you if you want to live there together.”

In Martin Clark’s The Legal Limit, successful attorney Mason Hunt gets involved in the case of his life when his own brother Gates accuses him of a long-ago murder that Gates himself committed. Along with the stress of the trial comes the news that Mason’s fifteen-year-old daughter Grace is pregnant. At first, he’s shocked and angered. But it’s not long before he remembers that Grace needs him now more than ever. So he reminds her that he’ll always be there for her and at the end of the novel, there’s a very positive scene in which Mason Hunt is out walking with his grand-daughter.

There’s also been change in social attitudes towards homosexuality, and we see that reflected in crime fiction. In a few of Agatha Christie’s novels, for instance, homosexuality isn’t presented in a positive light. In Three Act Tragedy (AKA Murder in Three Acts), for instance, Hermione “Egg” Lytton Gore is smitten with famous actor Sir Charles Cartwright. She confesses the attraction to her friend Mr. Satterthwaite, who mentions that Sir Charles has a reputation as a ladies’ man. Egg says she likes the idea of a man having affairs, because,

“It shows they’re not queer or anything.”

In Christie’s Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, Ariadne Oliver is working with playwright Robin Upward to adapt one of her novels for the stage. At one point, Upward wants to include a love interest for Oliver’s sleuth Sven Hjerson. Oliver objects saying,

Sven Hjerson never cared for women.’…

‘But you can’t have him a pansy, darling. Not for this sort of play. I mean, it’s not green bay trees or anything like that. It’s thrills and murders and clean open-air fun.’”

Today, there are all sorts of crime fiction novels where homosexuals are integral to the story and their lives are depicted as perfectly natural. For instance, there’s Val McDermid’s Lindsay Gordon, an investigative journalist who appears in several of McDermid’s early novels. Gordon has long-term relationships with Cordelia Brown and later, Sophie Harley. There’s also Mark Richard Zubro’s Paul Turner/Buck Fenwick mysteries and his Tom Mason/Scott Carpenter series. Both of those series feature gay detectives as well. In Louise Penny’s Armand Gamache series, we meet Olivier Brulé and his partner, Gabri Dubeau. Together, they own a Bed-and-Breakfast/bistro in the small Québec town of Three Pines.

As society changes, so do our social attitudes. I’ve only mentioned a few examples of the way crime fiction reflects this; there are many, many more. There’s a strong argument that this is one of the great appeals of the genre. It shows us ourselves.

On Another Note…

I am able to write this post today in part because of the dedicated and generous men and women who have served and who continue to serve their country in the military. Their bravery cannot be quantified; their generosity is beyond description. I thank them and their families for their service.


If you'd like to contribute a story for my upcoming Fifty Words to Kill Your Victim post, there's still time! Please Email me your stories by Saturday, 13 November!

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bonnie Raitt's Something to Talk About.


  1. Margot in Val McDermid's latest book Trick in the Dark all the five main characters are lesbians something that would have removed it from the main stream a few years ago. Are our attitudes changing so much, or is the author so very successful she is able to write what she wants?

    Irene Huss [Helene Tursten's detective] and Guido Brunetti [Donna Leon] seem almost to be an exception as they are happily married rather than in an on off relationship [Camilleri's Montalbano and Livia] or cohabiting [Hannah Scarlett and Marc] or divorced [Wallander, Martin Beck, Van Veeteren].
    We now can choose our investigators to fit our own preference.

  2. Excellent post about changing attitudes!

    I have written Danish stories about homosexuals, drags, paedophiles etc, but when I write cosy mysteries, I am more cautious. Not for my own sake, but there is no need to embarrass or scare potential readers away, is there? ;D

    One thing my older daughter and I discussed recently was all these spinsters who lived together in the Golden Age mysteries. No doubt many of them did because there was a shortage of men, and they just enjoyed having someone around the house to come home to, but we wondered whether the writers or readers of that time saw (some of) them as lesbians. Somehow it seems as if people did not care as much, whereas gay men were often beaten up and ostracized by ´real´ men.

  3. Norman - You ask a very good question! Highly talented authors can often take more liberties in terms of the kind or characters they write than can writers with less skill. I'm sure in McDermid's case, that's a factor.

    You're also right that there are now so many different kinds of sleuths that it's possible to read about any sort of lifestyle one's comfortable with. As you say, readers who prefer married couples can read about Rendell's Reg Wexford, Leon's Brunetti or Caroline Graham's Tom Barnaby. Those with other preferences have many choices, too - more than ever. You've made a terrific argument that I've always believed: crime fiction has something in it for just about everyone.

    Dorte - Thank you :-). You make a very interesting point about the effect of sub-genre on what's considered socially acceptable. Cosy mysteries like your Knavesborough series probably aren't the best sub-genre for exploring some themes; most cosy readers prefer less controversy. Other kinds of sub-genres (thrillers, police procedurals, etc.) lend themselves much better to more controversy.

    And you may very well have a point about Golden Age spinsters. I was just thinking of Katherine Climpson's "Cattery" in the Lord Peter Wimsey series as I read your comment. One does wonder, as you say, whether people of the time minded those possible hints of lesbianism much less than they minded the thought of gay men in novels. Interesting, interesting point!!

  4. Well, I hope you're getting a lot of entries because it's really fun to do. I didn't think I could do it but it didn't take much time (even with NaNo.)

    It is amazing how the morals in novels have changed. I even read lately that the Hardy Boys are getting modernized. I guess they have to keep up with the times to sell.


  5. Clarissa - ...and your stories are great, too!

    You're right that a lot of those classic series for young people are getting updated. That makes sense because, as you point out, good sales depend on readers being able to identify with the characters. That's harder to do if the characters don't reflect real life.

  6. Wonderful post on changing attitudes. Looking at books from different time periods one can see how our culture has changed. You can also see how other things in our life have changed such as less people smoking, children having more freedom with cellphones in grade school and teenagers driving and having their own cars earlier.

    Great tribute to the veterans for what they have done for us and continue to do.

    Thoughts in Progress

  7. Great post Margot. Certainly crime fiction books provide a unique example to understand different time periods, their values and priorities.

  8. Yes, times have certainly changed. I think this theme comes up quite a bit in novels set in the present, where the plot turns on people who are now adults might have been a child born "out of wedlock" at a time when this was considered shameful. Of course my mind is blanking on examples, but I think Camilla Lackberg addresses this in at least one of her novels, and in a slightly different sense, the plot of Jar City by Arnaldur Indridason hangs on the secrets of past parenthood and how they "curse" young people in the present of the novel.

    Excellent post, as usual, Margot, and a wonderful tribute to those to whom we owe our liberty.

  9. Changing attitudes...I can't remember the book title but this author said in an introduction that he produced his draft copy of a novel set in 1920s Detroit referring to African Americans throughout. His editor and friends said it sounded ridiculous and took them completely out of the time.

    Buchan, Sapper and Sayers etc spatter their books with a little anti-Semitism [usually spouted by unpleasant characters] racism and jingoism. It gives a realistic impression of the time, and beyond into the 1960s when it was quite legal in the UK for medical schools to discriminate on grounds of religion.

  10. Mason - Thank you :-) And I agree; our veterans have truly done so much for us...
    I'm glad you brought up some of the other social things that have changed. You're absolutely right that children having 'cell 'phones and fewer people smoking are examples of ways in which our culture has changed. Novels that make use of those subtle touches are so much more realistic, aren't they, than novels that don't.

    José Ignacio - Thank you :-). That is one of the real attractions for me of crime fiction. They really are social and cultural mirrors.

    Maxine - Why, thank you :-) - you're very kind. And you are right; we do owe so much to those in uniform.

    I hadn't thought about it, but you're right. There are a number of novels where the plot turns on that kind of old secret. I'm less familiar than you are with Indraðason, but your comment made me think of a character from Yrsa Sigurðardóttir's My Soul to Take and that person's reaction when a long-ago story of a child born out of wedlock comes to light. Interesting point!!

    Norman - Oh, that's interesting about the term African-Americans. You're right that the term would pull a reader out of 1920's Detroit. On the other hand, there is the issue of today's readers who might be put off by other terms. What an interesting dilemma!

    And it is interesting about those Golden Age authors. When they wrote, the attitudes expressed in their books were perfectly natural, and their books reflect the times. Ellery Queen does (did?) the same thing.

    I didn't know that about UK medical schools, but it's quite similar to what many US schools and universities have done in times past.

  11. Yes, indeed - the antisemetism in Murder Must Advertise (Dorothy L Sayers) is shocking. When I first read that book as a young girl (primary school age, maybe 10) it completely passed me by probably because I did not understand it. When I began to re-read the book as an adult I could not actually get past it and had to stop.

    I appreciate that attitudes were that way in those times (some of the upper classes in Britain rather regretted we did not join in with the Germans agaist the French in the war, and Hitler was quite admired not only by the Mitfords but by several in their set), but in older times, people could learn. I am thinking of Dickens who was criticised for his stereotype of Fagin in Oliver Twist and who is said to have made amends by a character (whose name I now forget, obviously not as colourful!) in Our Mutual Friend.

    Pity that these lessons have to be learnt and relearnt so many times.

  12. PS and of course Wilkie Collins who wrote many excellent novels exposing the awful legal and social position faced by women in his day - mid nineteenth century. Qutie a few of his melodramas used some awful anti-woman law or other as a "peg".

  13. Maxine - You are absolutely right about Murder Must Advertise. I have to admit to a lot of difficulty with that aspect of the book, although I often mention the novel when the plot or characters, etc., are relevant. It also happens to be a well-written and interesting mystery. Some scholars say that that particular book shows that Sayers was herself quite anti-Semitic. Other scholars say that she was holding up a mirror to the society of her day to show the ugly truth of attitudes in that time. As you say, many of the "best families" in the U.K. were, indeed, sympathetic to the Nazi cause. Murder Must Advertise was published in 1933, and it's quite possible that Sayers was warning readers. I am not intimately familiar with her background, so I don't know what she really thought. That aspect (and the sexism!) of that novel is hard to take, but there it is...

    You're right, too, that some of those lessons have been raised for a very long time in literature. A very long time. Dickens raised so many important issues about class that still, I think, haven't been learnt. Even Chaucer raised issues about religion and tolerance that we keep having to re-learn. Maybe Santayana was right about remembering the past.

    And thanks for mentioning Wilkie Collins. You're quite right about his writing, and I'm going to mention just that thing when I spotlight his The Moonstone.

  14. As you know, Margot, I love historical fiction but sometimes cultural attitudes can get in the way. I don't really want to read about antisemitism as Maxine points out, or other antiquated beliefs. Yet an author of historical fiction is being dishonest if they try to impose today's values on a past time period. It's a conundrum, no doubt.

  15. Karen - It really is a conundrum. An historical novel has to be believable and that includes attitudes and behavior that we might find intolerable today. Like you, I don't enjoy that aspect of characters from those novels, either. On the other hand, because such novels have to be believable, they wouldn't seem right (at least I don't think so) with too much modern thinking. It would probably jar the reader out of the story, and certainly wouldn't be accurate. That's why I really admire authors who can create historical fiction that I can really enjoy.

  16. I think Laura Wilson does this well in her "Stratton" books - but I know Norman did not think the middle one, set in a London hospital in the war, an authentic view of then-doctors. Nevertheless, I think they are pretty good at "getting" the times while with a slight unspoken author perspective - particularly the most recent one, A Capital Crime, perhaps because the war is now over and she's moved into the 1950s, so is describing a more "normal" life for her characters, as then experienced, without the external disruption caused by a war.

    I do remember enjoying Murder Must Advertise when I did read it as a young consumer, but not an awful lot about the plot apart from the slogans. Having grown up at a time when prejudice was quite common, I happen to believe that books and conversation in the day did reflect the writer/speaker's beliefs, and were not meant ironically or to expose the prejudice. I think in those days, a lot of things were unquestioned, partly for class reasons which Laura Wilson skilfully brings out in her novels (without banging her readers over the head with it!).

  17. Maxine - Thanks for your insights. You could very well be right, too. After all, we are affected by the times in which we live, among many other things. That's got to include the belief systems and prejudices of the generation in which we grow up. And that's just as true of writers as it is of anyone else. That being the case, it's hot such a shock ('though I admit it's a bit disappointing) to believe that Sayers and other authors of her day had prejudices that today we find repugnant. Really interesting insight!!!!

    And thanks for mentioning Laura Wilson's books. Folks, Maxine has done some excellent reviews of Wilson's work. Here is Maxine's review of A Capital Crime, and here is Maxine's review of An Empty Death.

  18. Every book is a reflection of the time in which its written - be it a conscious decision or not. As a writer whose stories take place in the past, I do try to reflect the attitudes of the time. It's the way it was, just like the attitudes today are the way it is now. Regrettable? Yes. But I'm not writing history the way I wish it could have been, but the way it was.

  19. Elspeth - Oh, so well-put!!!! A talented author has to write what really was, not what s/he wishes had been. That's part of what makes a story more realistic and also more interesting, if you wanna know the truth. As you say, writing what really was entails reflecting the attitudes of the time in which your stories occur.

  20. Sometimes I wonder. If someone wrote a book set in the 30s, would they use the term Negro or African Americans? Sexual mores have changed, but in a book set in a earlier time, would the new mores be shown or the old ones?

  21. Rayna - That's a very interesting term. In books written during those times, the mores of the times are observed. The terminology of the times is also used. But in modern books written about earlier times, it's harder to do. My guess is, it's probably more realistic if the mores and language of the times are used, but I imagine that is harder for the author.

  22. I agree with many of you that the book has to be historically accurate, but there certainly are authors who stretch the limits by, for example, depicting a woman character who pushes the boundaries of her time -- the boundaries being the historically accurate part. I think fiction has the right to move beyond that.

  23. Karen - Now, that's an interesting point. Well-written fiction can, indeed, stretch the limits. There's a delicate balance, isn't there, between making a novel believable and something the reader can "buy," and creating interesting characters, plot, etc., that spark imagination.