What Will My Future Be?*

The worst of the danger from the Covid pandemic seems to have passed, although it’s by no means over. And in many ways, that’s a wonderful thing. People can meet with friends and family, get their hair cut, travel, shop, and a thousand other things. Many children are back at school, and life seems to be moving on. But it’s not an easy transition. There are still a lot of issues. If you’ve been on a flight recently, you know that security lines are excessively long, lots of flights are either delayed or altogether cancelled, and everyone’s temper is short. People don’t know whether or not to wear masks for certain things. More importantly, the nature of the way we work, spend our leisure time, interact socially, and worship has changed. We know that going back to the way things were is probably not going to happen. But what’s going to happen now? It’s a very unsettling time in that way.

The fact is, we’ve been through a lot of unsettling times. Whenever there’s a major change either in our personal lives or in society, there’s anxiety as we try to work out the new reality. There are many examples of this uneasiness, and it’s interesting to see how crime fiction explores it.

For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Taken At the Flood (AKA There is a Tide), World War II has recently ended, and Lynn Marchmont has been demobbed from the Wrens. At first, she’s delighted to be home, and glad her mother Adela is safe and well. But it’s soon clear that things are not the same, perhaps permanently. There’s still rationing, and sometimes real privation. More than that, Lynn’s no longer sure of what she wants out of life. As if that wasn’t unsettling enough, Lynn and her mother had always depended on her wealthy Uncle Gordon Cloade. In fact, he even told his siblings and their families that they wouldn’t need to worry about money. Then, to everyone’s shock, he married a widow, Rosaleen Underhay. Before he could write a new will, he was killed by a wartime bomb. Now, the family can no longer depend on that money, as Rosaleen is set to inherit everything. So, if there won’t be money, what will there be? What will everyone do? Against this backdrop, a stranger calling himself Enoch Arden comes to town. He claims that Robert Underhay, Rosaleen’s first husband, is not dead. If that’s true, she cannot inherit. When Arden is murdered, it upends everything again. Hercule Poirot investigates, and finds that little is as it really seems.

Jacqueline Winspear’s private investigator Maisie Dobbs started life in domestic service. At that time, there were clear lines between social classes, lines people simply did not cross. But the war changed everything. People of all classes fought and died. People of all classes endured hardships on the home front, too, and gave up a lot for the war effort. When the war ended and everyone came home (including Maisie), things had changed. There suddenly seemed to be more questions than answers. How would people who fought together, but were of different classes, interact in a post-war world? What about the role of women? During the war, they had jobs, served on the war front, and more. In a post-war world, what lives would they live? And what of the veterans, especially those who were wounded? It was all very well to praise their courage and give them medals, but where would they fit in? How would they earn a living? All of these questions are explored in the Maisie Dobbs series, and Winspear offers some interesting insights.

Apartheid was the law in South Africa from 1948 to 1990. During those years, it dictated just about every aspect of life, from where one lived and worked, to whether and where one’s children were educated, to whom one could marry, and much more. Many people never knew any other system. When apartheid ended, people celebrated and were eager to have a better life. But there was also a lot of unease. If there wasn’t going to be apartheid, what was there going to be? What would society look like? Roger Smith’s Dust Devils explores this anxiety, as we follow Cape Town journalist Robert Dell as he searches for the man responsible for killing his wife, Rosie, and their children. Dell gets help from his estranged father, Bobby Goodbread, and as they journey to Zululand, where the killer lives, we see how ordinary citizens’ lives have been upended by the end of apartheid. South African society is rebuilding itself, but no-one’s exactly sure what it’s going to look like.

When the Soviet Union broke up in 1993, people were excited to see the end of the regime. There was hope for a new, more democratic society. But whatever else the Soviet government had been, it was familiar. So, when it ended, people didn’t know what was coming next. What would the government be like? How would people find housing, get jobs, and go to school, for instance? There are a number of novels that explore post-Soviet anxiety. One of them is Margaret Truman’s Murder in the House, in which Congressman Paul Latham is shot. At first, it looks like suicide. But there’s more to it than that. Georgetown Law School professor Mackensie ‘Mac’ Smith gets involved in the case when a former student, who’s now with the CIA, tells him the death is suspicious. Among other possible motives, Latham had been in contact with a businessman who was trying to make inroads into the new post-Soviet economy. As it turns out, there’s a real power vacuum now that many of the former government leaders are gone. And there are some dangerous businessmen and members of the Russian Maifa who are only too happy to fill it. Throughout the story, we see the unease of many citizens through the eyes of Yvgeny Fodorov, whose life has been completely turned around by the end of the Soviet government.

Whenever there is a major change, it’s hard (some would say impossible) to go back to ‘normal.’ Very often, that’s a good thing. But it doesn’t mean there’s no unease or anxiety about what’s to come.

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Richard Rodgers’ I Have Confidence.


14 thoughts on “What Will My Future Be?*

  1. Margot, what a great topic. In the last few months, I have felt a lot of anxiety and it seems so strange to have this feeling when things are getting better. And I definitely feel unsettled. Reading your first paragraph, I immediately thought of life after World War II and wondered if people felt the same at that time.

    My favorite series that covers life in Russia after the Soviet Union broke up is the Inspector Rostnikov series by Stuart Kaminsky, as you are probably aware. It shows the Inspector’s life before and after the break up and it is surprising how little things change for his family and in his job. Martin Cruz’s Arkady Renko series also covers before and after those changes in Russia, but in different ways.

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    1. Thanks, Tracy. And you’re not the only one who feels a sense of unease and anxiety. Things have definitely changed because of the pandemic, and the thing is, we don’t really know what they are going to be, if I can put it that way.

      Thanks for mentioning both the Kaminsky and the Cruz series. They both really do, I think, a good job of showing what life was like right after the end of the Soviet Union. And it’s interesting to see how they both portray that time I think that sort of unease can happen no matter what the major change is…

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  2. I’m now trying to read some of the longer, detailed historical and biographical non fiction that has accumulated among library books I borrowed ages ago and paperback and kindle acquisitions, and my current big non fiction read is The Warmth of Other Suns, about African Americans moving to cities outside the South, hoping to move away from a world of “Jim Crow” explicit discriminatory laws and overt racism. Though this started before WWII, some of the people who moved later had seen different possibilities through the war and military service, and I know this has been discussed as one of the reasons for the growing demands for civil rights and other social and economic change after the war. though there was clearly a lot of pressures for conservativism and repression too.

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    1. You really bring up an interesting example of major change, Elkiedee! For African Americans who’d served in the war, coming back and being expected to live ‘the same as always’ must have been very difficult; it’s little wonder that inspired, at least in part, the Civil Rights movement. Those people probably wondered, too, what sort of world they wanted to create, if it wasn’t going to be the world they’d known. And thanks for mentioning The Warmth of Other Suns. The migration from South to other places had a profound impact on society, and I’m sure they, too, wondered what sort of world they’d make for themselves. I appreciate your perspective.

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  3. There’s a vague sense of unease around and I’m not sure it’s all down to what the pandemic is doing. I don’t think many people expected Putin to kick off or here in the UK for there to be so much industrial unrest and talk of a fuel poverty winter. It seems endless and you wonder when the world is going to catch a break.

    My first thought when you introduced today’s topic was the Maisie Dobbs books. I love how she introduces aspects of the fallout of war that I had never thought about. The books are so thoughtfully written. I’m keen to find out how Winspear introduces WW2 and deals with the dread people must’ve felt when they realised it was coming.

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    1. There really is a lot of unease, Cath, and I don’t think it’s down to just one thing. Perhaps it’s made worse by a number of things going on at the same time. As you say, this is one of those times when the world just doesn’t seem able to catch a break. I hope it eases up.

      I’m glad that you had the chance to read the Maisie Dobbs books. I think Winspear handled the post-war atmosphere really effectively. You really feel the unease as well as the attempt to get back to normal life, whatever that was going to be. And it will be interesting to see how she depicts the anxiety people felt as they saw another world war approaching.

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  4. We’re still trying to come to terms with what a post-Brexit Britain will look like, and that theme is running through quite a lot of our fiction at the moment, including crime fiction. Val McDermid explores the impact on policing across borders in Still Life, the latest in her excellent Karen Pirie series.

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    1. That’s a really good example of the sort of change I mean, FictionFan, so thanks. And, yes, it’s running through a lot of fiction right now. I suppose it’s a way to explore that unease and perhaps come to terms with it? And thanks for mentioning Still Life. Trust McDermid to weave current events into her stories in an effective way.

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  5. Great post, Margot Thanks for the reminder of Roger Smith. It’s been too long since I read him. I like David Downing’s ‘Station’ series featuring English journalist John Russell in pre-war Berlin. Hitler has just come to power, and changes are afoot. It’s kind of the reverse of some of your examples, in that normality has ended and a new normal is coming into existence.

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    1. Thanks, Col; glad you enjoyed the post. And I ought to get back to Smith’s work, too. It’s powerful, sometimes gut-level. Thanks also for mentioning Downing’s series. I think it’s easy to forget what it was like when the ‘normal’ we’d known ended, and the forces that led to WW II came into existence. As you say, a new normal took over, with tragic consequences.

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  6. Really interesting post, Margot. I’m not sure that we’ll ever get back to where we were before, and I suppose human history is full of constant change if we look back – just something we need to adjust to. Certainly makes a good plot element though!

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    1. Thanks, KBR. I’m glad you enjoyed the post. You’re right, too, about human history. Things are always changing in one way or another, and we have to adapt. And the ways we adapt (or don’t!) can, indeed, be great fodder for a plot!

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  7. Margot: I think of John Le Carré and the ambiguities and uncertainties and anxieties after the end of the Cold War. There was much less predictability in the world of espionage.

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    1. You’ve got a very well-taken point, Bill. It was certainly an uneasy time, and those novels capture it well. Even the world of espionage changed considerably, as it does when there are major geopolitical changes.

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