Red Flags Are Flying*

Right now, it seems to a lot of people as though the world has turned upside down. Whether it’s politics, public health, climate, social justice, or something else, things are not the same. In some ways, that’s a good thing. In other ways it’s not. Either way, major changes, including changes for the better, can be unsettling. That’s even more the case when the change is unpleasant or dangerous (or worse).

Everyone’s got a different way of coping with upheaval. And it’s interesting to see how that coping is treated in crime fiction. For instance, World War I changed society, geopolitics, and a lot more. And the world didn’t return to ‘normal’ after the war. We see that, for instance in Agatha Christie’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles, in which her Hercule Poirot makes his first appearance. When his benefactor, Emily Inglethorp, suddenly dies of what turns out to be poison, Poirot is determined to find out who is responsible for her murder. As we get to know the members of the victim’s household, we see how the war has changed things. Captain Hastings, for instance, has been wounded, and is in the slow process of recuperation. While Christie doesn’t dwell on it, there are signs that the family doesn’t have the money and power that it once did (although Emily Inglethorp still has a lot of local ‘clout’). Even things such as the dinner hour, the use of electricity, and so on have been changed because of the war. The household has coped by making some adjustments, while at the same time, trying to keep some semblance of what to them is a normal life.

There are many other examples, too, of books that were written, or take place, in those troubled years during and directly after World War I. Paddy Richardson, Jacqueline Winspear, Chris Womersley, and the Charles Todd writing team have all addressed the unease of the times, as well as some of the serious challenges (e.g. a pandemic, veterans’ issues, physical and psychological war wounds, and social upheaval). And in those stories, they’ve also shown how ordinary people adapted (or didn’t) and coped (or didn’t).

Of course, this sort of upheaval can happen on a small scale, too, and that can be just as unsettling. For example, Donna Morrissey’s The Fortunate Brother explores what happens in a family when one of its members is killed. In the novel, Sylvanus Now, his wife, Addie, and their son, Kyle, have had to cope with the death of Kyle’s older brother, Chris. So has Kyle’s sister, Sylvie, who’s moved away. Chris’ death was ruled an accident, but the family has been torn apart. As the novel begins, a local bully named Clar Gillard is found murdered. He will not be missed, but the police have to do their jobs, and they start an investigation. Some of the evidence points to members of the Now family, which disrupts their lives even more. For Kyle, especially, it seems that the whole world is turned around, especially as some family secrets start to come out. In this case, the chaos draws the family a little closer together, so that they can begin to heal. That doesn’t make their troubles go away, but it does open lines of communication.

Many other authors have also explored what it’s like when things spin completely out of control (I’m thinking, for instance, of Antti Tuomainen’s The Healer, where the focus is on the chaos caused by environmental disaster. Against this backdrop, Tapani Lehtinen searches for his journalist wife, Johanna, after she goes missing. The last story she was working on before her disappearance had to do with a man known as the Healer. He’s been responsible for the deaths of several executives of companies that the Healer blames for the climactic catastrophe. In the novel, we see how people are coping the best they can with overcrowded cities, scarce food, little if any police protection, waves of climate refugees, and other hardships. It’s a harsh world, and Tuomainen explores how we deal this a world that seems to have fallen apart.

Of course, not every author makes that choice. Agatha Christie, for instance, wrote both Sad Cypress and Evil Under the Sun during the upheaval caused by World War II (among others she wrote at that time). In both novels, the focus is a murder and its investigation. Sad Cypress takes place in a village and shows village life and the lives of the residents; Evil Under the Sun takes place at a seaside hotel. Interestingly, neither novel addresses the war or its costs and privations.

Ed McBain’s Cop Hater introduces some of the police who work in the 87th Precinct of fictional Isola (a thinly disguised New York City). Detective Steve Carella leads the investigation into the deaths of two of his fellow officers. At first, it seems that they were killed by someone who has a vendetta against the police. But the truth is both simpler and more complicated than that. The novel, which was first published in 1956, is not what you’d call a light, fun novel. But its focus is on the members of the 87th, their investigation, and the truth about what happened to the victims. There isn’t really a focus on the ‘Red Scare’ of that time, and the way it caused personal and professional upheaval for thousands of people. To many, it must have seemed that the well-ordered life they’d known was gone. In this case, though, McBain chose not to address that issue.

There are lots of ways to cope with a world that seems out of control. When it comes to crime fiction, one way is to address it head-on. Another is to focus on other things. Both have their advantages and disadvantages, and both approaches can help a reader get through times like these. Do you have a preference? Do you cope in different ways? If you’re an author, how do you explore what’s happening in the world?


NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Storm Front.