What’s Going On*

There’ve been a number of major changes in society just in the last few decades, never mind the last hundred years. From society to technology and a lot more, things have changed over time, sometimes dramatically. One of the challenges writers face, especially if they’re writing a series, is how to incorporate those changes, while still keeping the ‘soul’ of the series. Some writers choose to keep their series ‘frozen in time,’ so that this issue doesn’t arise. But there are also plenty of writers who integrate what’s happening in the outside world. If it’s done well, that integration can make a series feel authentic, and can give the reader a solid sense of what happens to a place over time.

For example, Agatha Christie’s work spanned more than fifty years, and she documented many of the changes that happened during that time. The Mysterious Affair at Styles was published in 1920, just after the end of World War I. The novel touches on issues like wartime economies and frugality, returning veterans, Land Girls, and more. As Christie continued to write, she integrated aspects of the many changes in the UK over time. The books written between World War I and World War II mention things such as Prohibition, the beginning of commercial air travel, and the advent of women who had their own careers and businesses. While she didn’t specifically discuss a lot about World War II, she did mention wartime blackouts and, in later books, characters who died in the war. After the war, Christie’s books included post-war rationing and privation, the re-integration of veterans, and the breakup of old estates, as well as the coming of council housing. Later, her work mentioned new social customs, pop culture (such as Mods, pop music and so on), and more. Her work kept up with the times in that way, even though her characters didn’t age in real time.

Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe series spanned the years between 1934 and 1975. And the novels reflect the major changes that took place during that time. The series begins with 1934’s Fer de Lance. In it, Wolfe decides to give up bootleg beer (the story takes place just after the end of Prohibition). He wants to choose legal beer, and his decision-making is touched on in the novel. The main plot concerns the search for Carlo Maffei, an Italian immigrant, and the resultant murder investigation when he’s found dead. One reason Wolfe takes the case is that the Depression has cut into his income, making it all but necessary for him to do so. As the series goes on, we see other changes and developments reflected in the books. There are a few that touch on World War II and wartime espionage. Archie Goodwin even does a stint with the military. The last of the series, A Family Affair, was published in 1975 and makes reference to, among other things, the Watergate scandal. While the series doesn’t focus on a social agenda, Stout did bring up several of the issues of the times in which he wrote.

Reginald Hill’s Dalziel and Pascoe series begins with 1970’s A Clubbable Woman. Between then and 2009’s Midnight Fugue, Hill’s series explored a number of the many changes that were taking place. In books like An Advancement of Learning, Hill looked at student activism. In Underworld, there’s a discussion of the miner’s strike of 1984 and the political and financial conflicts of the time. Other books explore major changes like the growing women’s movement and the changing social climate for the LGBT community. Importantly (and this might be said of many of these series), these events and social changes are woven into the stories. The plots and characters are at the forefront of the books, so that changes and issues don’t overshadow the stories.

Ian Rankin’s John Rebus series begins with 1987’s Knots and Crosses; the latest in the series, A Heart Full of Headstones is due for release in October of this year. Most of the novels take place in and around Edinburgh, and as the years have gone by, Rankin has traced the many changes that have taken place there and in the larger society. He’s explored the political changes in the country and has woven that into the novels’ plots. He’s also addressed other issues such as terrorism, climate change, economics, and more. Interestingly, the novels also show the ways in which crime has evolved over time. The thuglike crime gangs people sometimes associate with Scottish crime fiction don’t really hold sway the way they did, and that’s evident in the Rebus novels. Yes, of course, there’s murder for hire, drugs smuggling and so on. But there’s also sophisticated financial crime, identity theft, and different sorts of loan sharking and extortion. It’s a different world, and Ranking has woven that through his novels.

Walter Mosley’s historical series featuring Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlins is set in the post-World War II years. The first one, Devil With a Blue Dress is set in 1948. The most recent, Blood Grove, is set in 1969. In those short twenty years, a great number of things changed. There were major post-war economic changes, for instance, and that’s highlighted in Devil With a Blue Dress, when Easy is laid off from his job at a wartime airplane factory. There was also the Cold War and the era of McCarthyism; Mosley explores that in A Red Death, when Easy is coerced into helping to bring down a suspected communist. There was also the hippie movement (check Little Green for a discussion of that). Throughout the whole series, there’s also an exploration of the changing attitudes towards race. In some ways, nothing changes, but there are also great strides forward.

In all of these series (and many others) the author keeps a finger on the pulse of what’s happening in the larger world, and weaves those changes into the novels. Importantly, they don’t overshadow the plot or the main characters. But they do keep the series linked to real life. Which series have done that for you?

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Marvin Gaye, Renaldo Benson and Alfred Cleveland.

 


16 thoughts on “What’s Going On*

  1. I immediately thought of the Nero Wolfe series (of course) as an example of this. At one point Civil Rights issues are addressed in A Right to Die, one of the later books.

    Another series I have been reading recently that kept up with the times is Stuart Kaminsky’s Inspector Rostnikov series, set in Russia, with 16 books between 1981 and 2009.

    I need to read more in the Rebus series by Rankin and Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins series.

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    1. You know, I always liked the way Stout was able to weave the changes in society into his books, Tracy. He did it without preaching or overloading the story. That’s one of the things that kept that series interesting throughout. Thanks also for mentioning that Kaminsky series. I’m more familiar with his Toby Peters novels, and this is a good reminder to get to know the others better. As for both Rankin and Mosley, I think both do gritty novels very well. They address the issues, the characters are realistic, and they do stay relevant to the times, if I can put it that way.

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  2. This a tough one because other than Agatha Christie I can’t think of anyone that spans the years and includes current events. I can think of an author that ‘doesn’t ‘ and that’s Georges Simenon. His Maigret books, as far as I remember, never mention the war. Did I read something about Simenon’s sympathies being a bit questionable…. hmmm, not sure now.

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    1. You make an interesting comparison, Cath, between Christie and Simenon. I’m not sure about Simenon’s sympathies, but whatever the truth of that is, you’re quite right about the way he handles the passage of time in his writing. Some authors simply don’t touch on current events.

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  3. Interesting post, Margot, and I do like it when an author incorporates the changes in the world at large, letting the stories and the detectives reflect those changes. Of course, there aren’t that many writers that were working for as long as Christie, but I like a one-off GA mystery that reflects its times too – for example, those set in WW2 have wonderful atmosphere. And the Martin Beck books, even though they only ran for a decade or so, did reflect societal changes.

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    1. Thanks, KBR. And thanks for mentioning the Martin Beck series. I agree completely that they integrated some of the societal changes that were going on as the series progressed. And I think that lends authenticity to the stories, not to mention the sense of history in them! And, yes, there are definitely some great GA crime novels that integrate WW2 effectively. And I sometimes think there’s a difference between the way writers of historical novels depict the war and the way those who lived through it do.

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  4. Margot: I thought of the Maisie Dobbs books by Jacqueline Winspear. The stories have currently covered the first forty years of the 20th Century with the focus on her adult years starting in WW I. They are brilliant at melding the past and present as we do in real life. I have come to wonder how far Jacqueline will take the series. With Maisie at 43 in 1940 I see the potential for up to another 40 years!

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    1. Winspear is really good at weaving the then-current events of the WWI – WWII era into her stories, Bill. I’m glad you brought them up. As the stories go on, we see not just how Maisie changes with the times, but how the times change the world in which she lives. Thanks for that perspective.

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  5. You’ve named the two series that stand out for me as incorporating social change – Rebus and Dalziel and Pascoe. Both seem to me to accurately reflect the concerns of the day, which is not always the case, especially in Scottish crime writing where I feel authors too often play up to the stereotypes in society rather than recognising the fairly seismic social changes of the last few decades. Reginald Hill perhaps takes too much of a political “side” on occasion, but I suspect not many people could work out Rankin’s personal political stance from the Rebus novels – he does a great job of showing how things are changing without inserting his views of those changes into his books. I’ve said for years that his books could almost form part of the historical record for future students of social change in Scotland.

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    1. You make an well-taken point, FictionFan about authors who play up to stereotypes. I don’t think that just happens in Scottish (Scotland-set) crime fiction. Not being Scottish, I can’t speak to the accuracy, but I do think Rankin presents what feels like an authentic picture of modern Scottish crime and the issues and social change happening in Scotland. And I’ve always appreciated that, if you read the books in something like chronological order, you can see how things change in the country over time. Hill did the same in his series, and I like the way both authors either integrated those changes into the main plots or wove them in a way that doesn’t detract from the main plot. I’m also intrigued by your point about revealing one’s political (or other) leanings in one’s writing. Of course, a really balanced depiction of a place/culture is the most informative (and most difficult to achieve!), and that makes for a richer story. And yet, I believe authors are free to write from a particular angle if they wish. I’ll have to think about that one, and perhaps even do a post on it….

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  6. Interesting read. I try to incorporate what’s going on in the world when I am writing. My author group thinks I should not ‘upset’ anyone by slipping such events into the story – got to be politically correct – and so they don’t like a character expressing views (political, etc) as it will ‘distance’ readers and could upset them! I think if it is done with care, what is the problem? How do you feel? My characters live in the real world.

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    1. Thanks, Jane. And thanks very much for sharing your experiences integrating what’s going on in the world into your writing. It really is a delicate balance sometimes, isn’t it? On the one hand, you want to, as you say, share characters who live in the real world. Their opinions may not be popular. and readers might not like those opinions. But there are lots of different opinions in the world. The way I see it, since you asked, is that if you do it thoughtfully and not deliberately to provoke or (as my granddaughter says) cause drama, then unpopular opinions don’t have to be a big problem in writing.

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      1. My thoughts exactly, and you have a wise young granddaughter! No preaching, just a character trait, they do have opinions the same as real people I think. Have a fab week. xx

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  7. I don’t think I can recall a series of books I’ve read that spans a length of time and encompasses a lot of societal changes. Maybe the focus of a lot of those stories has been quite narrow. I would like to pursue several of thpse you’ve mentioned though, Mosley, Rankin and Hill in particular.

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    1. I really think you’d like Mosley, Col. The Easy Rawlins character’s very well done, I think, and the writing style is right for the sort of stories they are. Rankin and Hill have excellent series, too, and both series endured over time. I don’t think you can go far wrong with any of them!

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