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.
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.