But That’s How Things Were Yesterday*

As society changes, the things we’re accustomed to, and depend on, change. Sometimes social customs change, and sometimes change happens because of technology. Either way, there are some people and customs you just don’t see very much. But they’re still there in books from earlier times, and well-written historical novels. And in crime fiction, they sometimes play an important role in the plot.

One custom that you don’t see much of in contemporary life is a doctor who makes rounds and house calls. In the US (I admit I don’t know how this works in other countries), the very wealthy can afford to pay for concierge medicine, and those programs often include home visits. But for most of us, doctors don’t make house calls. They used to, though, and that plays a role in a few Agatha Christie novels. One of them is The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. One of the central characters in the novel is Dr. James Sheppard, who serves the community of King’s Abbot. When his good friend, Roger Ackroyd, is stabbed to death, he’s called out immediately, and soon gets involved in the investigation. The story is told from Sheppard’s point of view, so we follow along as he makes his rounds, holds his surgery hours, and so on. It’s an interesting look at a profession that’s changed dramatically.

With the prevalence of email, texting, and other electronic communication, most people don’t write physical notes these days. That’s especially true when they’re communicating with someone local. But in the days before telephones (and now the Internet), people regularly sent notes to each other. And very often, those notes were hand-delivered. We see that custom in several crime stories. For example, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Copper Beeches, Sherlock Holmes gets a handwritten note from Violet Hunter, who wants to consult him about a possible job. She has been offered a position as governess in the home of Jeprho Rucastle, and isn’t sure whether she should take the job. There are some things about the offer that concern her (for instance, Rucastle wants her to cut her hair), and yet, the salary is attractive. Holmes counsels her against accepting the job, and that’s her plan. But Rucastle increases the salary offer so much that she can’t refuse. Holmes reassures her that if she needs him, all she has to do is let him know. It’s not long before she does, as she’s been drawn into a dangerous mystery. There are lots of other handwritten and hand-delivered notes among the Holmes stories, too.

People aren’t doing a lot of traveling right now, of course, but up until this year, it was quite common to take a trip, sometimes a long one, by plane. Air travel, though, hasn’t always been possible for people of moderate, middle-class incomes. And, of course, commercial air travel didn’t exist until the last century. Before then, there were trains. And even after the advent of air travel, most people took the train. Of course, people do still take the train for commuting and sometimes for other travel, but it’s not as common as it used to be. And yet, there’s something about a long train journey. People are at close quarters with strangers, and just about anything can happen. For instance, in Ethel Lina White’s The Wheel Spins, socialite Iris Carr is returning to England from a Continental holiday. Not long after she boards the train, she meets a governess, Miss Winnifred Froy. The two get to talking, and eventually have tea together. After tea, Iris drops off for a nap. When she wakes up, Miss Froy isn’t there. When Iris asks around,  the other people in the car say that there is no such person. Not sure what to believe, Iris begins to search for Miss Froy on the train. No-one has seen the governess, and there’s even a suggestion that Iris is having some sort of delusion. Before long, she’s drawn into a dangerous intrigue as she searches for a woman she isn’t even completely sure exists. Oh, I know, fans of Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, and of Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train.

One of the big advantages of the Internet is that artisans such as candlemakers, knitters, and carpenters can serve their markets from their homes. But there was a time when those people had to travel in order to do business. They might be a few weeks in one place, a week or so in another, and then a month or so at home before going out again. That’s the sort of life that Eleanor Kuhns’ Will Rees has. He is an itinerant weaver who lives and works in New England just after the American Revolution. He owns a small farm, but he spends a great deal of time on the road. On the one hand, this lifestyle can be hard on him and his wife Lydia. It strains his relationship with his son David. But it also means he gets involved in all sorts of different mysteries in different places. And this series offers an interesting look at life in that part of the world just before the turn of the 19th Century.

Today, most people go shopping for their food and other supplies. They might go to supermarkets, farmers markets, or small groceries, but it’s the custom to go out (or, in these times, to have a supermarket or food company deliver). But even into the 20th Century, it was common for people to shop separately from the butcher, the fishmonger, the baker, and so on. The butcher’s delivery boy would bring the day’s meat order, and the baker’s boy would bring bread. The coal seller would have someone deliver the coal. And the iceman delivered blocks of ice so the icebox could be used. Families ran an account with each seller and paid every month or at some other regularly scheduled time. Those connections – between families and suppliers – offer a lot of opportunities for sharing clues and other information in a crime novel. Emily Brightwell’s Mrs. Jeffries often takes advantage of that. She serves as housekeeper for Inspector Gerald Witherspoon. As such, she often hears about his cases, and she has a network of household staff and local suppliers who provide lots of helpful information.

If a crime novel is to be realistic, it’s got to reflect authentic customs and characters. That’s why contemporary crime novels rely on things like emails and virtual chats. And that’s why a lot of crime novels include customs we don’t see any more, like sending handwritten notes. Or taking a long train trip. Or having coal delivered. Or…

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s The End of the World.

Published by Margot Kinberg

I'm a mystery novelist and professor who loves to read, write, and talk about crime fiction.

6 thoughts on “But That’s How Things Were Yesterday*

  1. I guess technology has done a lot to make life easier in many ways, but I do think it has an adverse effect on crime novels! I never find electronic methods of detection nearly as interesting as the old gumshoe approach of getting out there and meeting people in their own setting, and yet the idea of police officers especially not spending hours each day in front of computer screens is becoming sadly unrealistic.

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    1. I don’t think it would be realistic, either, FictionFan, although I don’t know that it makes for interesting reading. There is something to be said about interviewing people, finding clues, and that sort of thing. In fact, there’s an good debate about that in Peter Lovesey’s The Last Detective: Introducing Superintendent Peter Diamond. Diamond is an old-school detective; in fact, he considers himself the last true detective. He believes in legwork to solve cases. His workmates are more comfortable with computers, and believe the computer is essential to solving cases. If you haven’t read the book, it’s a solid read.

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  2. I would love to travel by train. While writing historical true crime, I fell in love with the past. In New Hampshire we have a small community that hasn’t been touched by modern advancements. It remains in the 1800’s and welcomes people from all over the country to bask in the simple life. We also have a scenic railroad with train cars that have been restored back to their original versions, with rich mahogany in the upper-class cars and a dining car that looks like I can’t even afford to step into it. 😉

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    1. Oh, Sue, that sounds so fantastic! I’m so glad that the past is preserved in that way. I mean, there’s a lot to be said for modern technology and conveniences (I would not want to use a wringer to do the laundry). But that train sounds fabulous, and it’s nice to take a break from modern life at times. Your comment about the scenic railroad makes me think of the world-famous Orient Express, where you can travel from London to Paris to Berlin… I hear it’s amazing, and it’s vintage, so it’s kept its history preserved. I’d love to take that train.

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  3. i think I have Luddite tendencies in everyday life and also in my reading. And if you believe my family in the music I listen to. Nostalgia rules. Novels with an over-reliance on technology and gadgets don’t really do it for me as a rule. There are exceptions of course.

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    1. I’ve heard the same thing about my taste in music, Col. And you do have a well-taken point about too much reliance on technology. The real focus of a story (at least as I see it) should be character and plot. When the focus becomes hi-tech, I think a story can lose some of its power. That, to me, makes it less appealing.

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