Thursday, January 6, 2011

Ageless and Timeless as Dorian Gray*

Like everyone else, writers are products of their times. Their work's affected by the culture, the technology, the prejudices and assumptions, and the social structures of their eras. In many ways, that's a good thing. After all, people want to read books that have some relevance to their lives, and they may not identify with books that seem anachronistic. On the other hand, if a book too closely reflects a particular time, it can quickly become out-of-date. I'm sure we can all think of books that we might have read and enjoyed when we were younger, but that seem quite dated now. What is it that makes some crime fiction novels timeless, and others (even novels written in the same era) seem old-fashioned and dated? Here are just a few ideas of mine:

Focus on Technology

Technology is an important part of a crime fiction novel. Detectives use communication technology, travel technology, forensic technology and data analysis technology, among others, to solve crimes. And since technology has evolved the way it has, a crime fiction novel that didn't include, say, the use of mobile 'phones, computers and DNA testing wouldn't ring true. Most readers expect that technology.

That said, though, if there's too much detail provided about the technology, or too much focus on how it's used, this can date a book. This is one reason why Agatha Christie's novels are still as popular as they are nearly 100 years after her first one was written. Those novels do refer to the technology of Christie's day, but don't focus on it. For example, in
Death in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air), Hercule Poirot is traveling by air from Paris to London. On the same flight is Madame Giselle, a well-known French moneylender. By the time the flight lands, Madame Giselle's been murdered by what turns out to be poison. So Poirot works with Chief Inspector James "Jimmy" Japp to find out how and by whom Madame Giselle was killed. In the course of the investigation, Poirot looks into the backgrounds of the other passengers in the same cabin, as they're all suspects to one degree or another. To find out the information he needs, Poirot gets in touch with people in several parts of the world. He communicates with Paris, with Canadian authorities and with authorities elsewhere in the world. But the important focus in those communications isn't how it's done. It's what Poirot finds out. So even though overseas communication is dramatically different in today's world, the story still rings true.

In Christie's
Murder on the Orient Express, wealthy American businessman Samuel Ratchett is stabbed to death on the second night of a three-day journey across Europe on the famous Orient Express train. Poirot is traveling by that train and is asked to solve the murder. One thing that affects his investigation is that there is no way to communicate with the outside world. The train ends up snowbound and in Christie's era, of course, there were no mobile 'phones or computers with wireless Internet access. But Christie's focus is not on the technology (or lack thereof) that might have dated this story. Instead, it's on the characters, the clues, Poirot's investigation, and the history that's led up to the murder. And if you think about it, a similar thing could happen today. There are plenty of places where there is no mobile 'phone reception. And trust me, I've been on trains that were not "wired." So the story still rings true in terms of what's possible.

Focus on Fads

People's tastes change. Fads in eating, music, clothes and other things come and go, sometimes with lightning speed. So a novel that depends too much on a particular fad can quickly lose its edge. On the other hand, there's something to be said for acknowledging what's popular. It can help readers identify with the characters and setting, and it can make a story believable. However, focusing too much attention on fads can make a book outdated very quickly. There are ways to integrate what's popular and fashionable without making a book feel passé. One way is to focus on slightly broader descriptions and themes. For instance, in Ellery Queen's
The Fourth Side of the Triangle, Queen and his father investigate the shooting death of well-known designer Sheila Grey. One suspect is wealthy businessman Ashton McKell, whom she's been secretly seeing. Another is McKell's wife Lutetia, who'd found out about her husband's relationship with the victim. And then there's their son Dane McKell, who was also having an affair with the victim. There are other suspects, too. In the end, Sheila Grey herself leaves a cryptic clue to her killer. Once Queen figures out what that clue means, he's able to find her killer. Throughout this novel, although Grey's profession plays an important role, there's not an inordinate focus on fads and trends in clothing. Rather, her work's mentioned more broadly and the focus is on the plot and on the relationships among the characters.

That's also true in Yrsa Sigurðardóttir's
Last Rituals. In that novel, Reykjavík attorney Thóra Gudmundsdóttir is hired by the Guntlieb family to find out the truth behind the murder of their son, Harald, who was studying in Iceland at the time of his death. A former friend of Guntlieb is arrested for the crime, but the Guntlieb family doesn't believe he's guilty. So they send their family banking representative Matthew Reich to work with Thóra to discover who the real killer is. In the course of the investigation, the two get to know several of Guntlieb's university friends and colleagues, but the focus is not so much on the way they dress, the trendy things they do or the shops and restaurants they visit. Rather, it's on their personalities and interactions. You could say that frees this story from the constraints it might have if there were a heavy focus on the fads and trends that university students often start.

Focus on Current Events And Issues

This is a somewhat tricky balance because current events can be a real inspiration for a well-written crime novel. And some events (for example, World War II, major terrorist attacks and certain natural disasters) resonate long afterwards, so that readers can identify with them. They also can be highly effective backgrounds for a mystery novel. On the other hand, too narrow a focus on one current event or issue can confine a book to a particular time period. Crime fiction that treats events and issues a little more broadly is likely to be a lot more durable.

For instance, in Ruth Rendell's
Simisola, Inspector Wexford confronts his own prejudices as he searches for Melanie Akande, his doctor's daughter. Melanie was last known to have gone for a job interview at a local job placement bureau, and when her consultant Annette Bystock is found murdered after what looks like a robbery, it seems that the two events may be connected. When Wexford and his team find the body of a young woman whom they think might be Melanie, the case gets even more complicated. As Wexford and his team investigate these cases, Rendell treats the issues of unemployment, racism, modern slave trafficking and immigration with a broad enough focus so that over fifteen years after its publication, the book's themes are still relevant.

James Lee Burke's
The Tin Room Blowdown takes place in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans in 2005. In that novel, Burke's protagonist Dave Robicheaux is looking for his friend Jude Leblanc, a parish priest who disappeared while trying to save some of his parishioners who were trapped in a church. As Robicheaux tries to trace Leblanc's whereabouts, he finds out that the boat that Leblanc used has been stolen by some thugs for a looting spree. So Robicheaux tries to track down the looters. The more he learns about what happened to them and to Leblanc, the more he's aware that this isn't just a case of the theft of a boat. It's a complex web of events. Although those events take place against a backdrop of Hurricane Katrina, the story could really have taken place after any hurricane or other terrible storm. Burke focuses not as much on the specifics of that particular hurricane (although they're mentioned) as he does on the individuals in the novel.

I've only had space to mention a few things that can trap a book in the time in which it's written (and so, date it). What do you think? Have you read books that were dated? What made them seem dated to you? If you're a writer, how do you avoid this trap?

: The title of this post is a line from Styx's Sing For the Day.


  1. There's a part of me that loves to throw in older technology and fads because those who read my books 20-50 years from now will know what life was like at this time. However, as writers we need to make sure we stay away from slang or acronyms that can not be looked up and understood. Also, throwing too many things that future readers don't understand will be distracting.

  2. Clarissa - Very interesting point. Writers really do need to avoid slang, acronyms and so on that could be misunderstood. It's best, I think, to stick to language that's more general unless there's a very specific term or set of terms that's relevant to the story.

    ...and it would be really interesting to see what readers fifty years from now will think of what is being written today...

  3. Death in the Clouds was a new-to-me Christie mystery which I just read last year. I was fascinated by the air cabin setting - the layout of the seats was so different back then.

  4. Belle - How nice to "see" you again :-). Thanks so much for visiting. And yes, isn't it interesting how flying has changed since Christie's day? I have to say I miss real complete meal service...

  5. Personally, I love stories that are dated because they take me back to a different age in addition to taking me back to a different time. Sherlock Holmes, for instance, relies heavily on the technology of his times, and if he had access to the tools we now have, his stories would have been so different.
    But those hansom cabs and the deductions he makes about gas lights based on the soot accumulated on the hat is half the charm of his novels.

    The best example of technology (not) used would be Issac Asimov. In the Lija Bailey series, and in those numerous short mystery stories of his, he often refers to future technology, but never once cheats the reader by soloving the case by using a invention none of us is aware of.

    Thanks for another great post, Margot.

  6. Great post, Margot. Striking the right balance is so important - you need some amount of technology, fads, and current events, but an overdose kills.

    For me, the personality of the sleuth is important too. While being a person "of the time" is important, having qualities that transcend time is imperative. I can see Sherlock Holmes and Poirot being successful in any setting, but not so some others. I truly enjoyed the modern adaptation "Sherlock". I am not sure I am getting my point across here at all now - bad brain day!

  7. I enjoy reading books that are dated. Like Rayna, I think it takes you back in time to different eras and gives a look at how life was then. I remember listening to an audio book by Sandra Brown that was an early release of her's. She did a little introduction to it saying that it was dated but that the main focus of the story remained the same - two people finding their way to each other.

    Another great post Margot. Thanks.

    Thoughts in Progress

  8. Some older books don't seem dated at all (one simply accepts the anachronisms without really noticing them) whereas others seem rather laboured. It is interesting how timeless some authors are. Sherlock Holmes for example - he has been modernised for a UK TV series (I heard it while others in the house were watching it, and some of the updates were rather witty takes on the original situations), but the "traditional" Sherlock is just as popular, as evidenced by Guy Ritchie's film version. Discerning audiences can enjoy both!

  9. Rayna - You're right, I think. The way in which Holmes goes about solving his cases relies on the technology of his time and that really does give the reader a good look at that era. Now, I've seen the most recent Sherlock Holmes series starring Benedict Cumberbatch, where Holmes (a modern-day Holmes) and Watson live in today's London. In that series, Holmes uses modern technology like texting, Google maps and more to catch the criminal and it actually works. I like that series. But I do love the Victorian atmosphere of the original series.

    And Lige Baley is a fascinating character; I'm glad you brought him up. Yes, Asimov (who was a brilliant scientist), does indeed weave technology through those stories, but I don't think he cheats the reader, either. If technology is used, it's explained. I like that about those stories very much.

    Book Mole - Thank you :-) No worries; you got your point across just beautifully. And "balance" is just the right word. You need enough things like technology, fads and so on to "place" a novel, but not enough to trap it. You're right, too. Some sleuths would just fit in almost wherever they'd be. Others are products of their times to the extent that they would not be suitable anywhere else. There is something timeless about Holmes; there really is. And yes, I can see someone like Poirot fitting in today's world, even though he's so much associated with Christie's era.

    Actually, I'm very much enjoying the "new" Sherlock Holmes with Benedict Cumberbatch, myself :-).

    Mason - Thanks :-). No doubt about it. Reading a dated book can give the reader a look at the times it was written in. That can be very interesting. How interesting that you got to hear that little comment by Sandra Brown about her own writing. It reminds me of something I read by Michael Crichton. His A Case of Need and his Five Patients were both written quite a long time ago and in later editions he included a foreward that mentioned that both books were dated, but pointing out the underlying themes that are not. Interesting point!

    Maxine - Oh, absolutely! Sherlock Holmes really does seem timeless. And I think that new series with Benedict Cumberbatch is the "talk of the day" here on this blog :-); everyone's been thinking about it. I enjoy that series quite a lot and I do like the wit. I still say my favourite line, from the first episode, is when someone accuses Holmes of being a psychopath. His response: I'm a high-functioning sociopath. Do your research!. And yes, it's interesting that people just loved the most recent "take" on the traditional Sherlock Holmes, too. In fact, I've heard Ritchie is doing a sequel to that film, and I'll be one of those who sees it. Some characters and stories really do endure, and as you say, readers accept the anachronisms and love the stories. The Holmes stories belong in that category, I think.

  10. This is one reason I'm glad my mystery takes place in the past! I think trying to write in the present without dating it would be very tricky indeed. How much technology do you put in it? How much of today's vocabulary? Yes, a very tricky balancing act.

  11. Elspeth - Oh, no doubt about it at all; historical mysteries allow a person to focus on one time period and not worry too much about whether things might be out of date. They're supposed to reflect a particular time. And with all of the careful research you've done about the '30's, I'm sure your novel will really ring true.

  12. Hi Margot .. I love the points you make about the technologies of life .. Poirot's plane flight would be so different if we used today's planes, but Christies way of obtaining the information Poirot wanted to add another piece the jigsaw makes perfect sense. Something certainly I hadn't thought about - but the way you point it out .. just rings true.

    Thanks - so interesting to read .. Hilary