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 On the other hand, if a book too closely reflects a particular time, it can quickly become out-of-date.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?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Styx's Sing For the Day.