These Times Are So Uncertain*
The pandemic we’ve all been living through has made some fundamental changes in the way we interact and live our lives. Even when the time comes that we can safely travel, visit others, go to an indoor event (or a large outdoor event like a concert), things won’t be the same. And we’re not even sure what ‘normal’ is going to look like. It all makes for anxiety and uncertainty, especially as science keeps finding out new things about this particular pathogen.
That uncertainty isn’t very much fun to live with, admittedly. But it can make for a really interesting context within which to set a crime novel. That sort of uncertainty can add tension and suspense to a story, and it can help provide interesting background.
That’s what causes part of the tension in Agatha Christie’s Taken at the Flood (AKA There is a Tide…). World War II has just ended, and Lynn Marchmont has been demobbed from the Wrens. She returns to her home village of Warmsley Vale to find that the war has changed everything. Many things are rationed, or are in very short supply, and people don’t know what’s coming next. Lynn feels uncertain about herself, too. She’s been changed by her wartime experience, and she isn’t sure she wants to go back to what used to be considered ‘normal.’ At the same time, she doesn’t want to leave Warmsley Vale, either. It all makes for tension that only gets worse when Lynn’s wealthy Uncle Gordon Cloade is tragically killed in bomb blast, leaving a young widow and no will. This means that his widow stands to inherit the entire fortune, although Cloade had always promised his family he’d take care of them. Then, there’s a murder. Hercule Poirot is drawn into the case, and he finds more than one motive and possible killer. Throughout the novel, we see the role that uncertainty plays. Things aren’t going to be the same anymore, and that has an impact.
It does in Matsumoto Seichō’s Inspector Imanishi Investigates, too. The novel is set in 1961 Japan. World War II is still very much on people’s minds, and there’s a great deal of uncertainty about Japan’s future. The world is changing, and the old cultural ways are being questioned. On the other hand, the peace between Japan and the US (and other Western countries) is still fragile and feels new. And yet, many younger intellectuals embrace the Western influence on new music, drama, literature, and so on. Imanishi Eitaro is a Tokyo police detective who more or less prefers the more traditional ways of doing things in Japan. But that doesn’t mean he’s not open to thinking about things in new ways. In the novel, he’s called in to investigate when the body of an unknown man is found under a Tokyo train. As Imanishi and his team look into the matter, they follow the trail from Tokyo to the village where the dead man lived. They find that this murder has everything to do with a past that someone wants very much not to reveal. Throughout the novel, we see the contrast between the way things were before the war, and the way things are now. It makes for an interesting backdrop for the story.
Vicki Delany’s Klondike Mystery series takes place late in the 19th Century in Dawson City, Yukon Territory. Fiona MacGillivray owns the Savoy Dance Hall, which is one of the town’s social gathering places. The Dawson City of that time is an exciting, unsettling place. The traditional ways of doing things don’t always work; it’s a new, raw sort of town without a lot of the amenities or infrastructure that older places have. What’s more, many people have flooded into Dawson City because of the discovery of gold. So, the town hasn’t evolved, as many towns do. Instead, it’s boomed quickly, and there hasn’t really been the set of norms established that there are in places that have evolved over time. On the one hand, that allows for a lot of exciting new things. On the other, it also makes for tension. And that makes for a very effective backdrop for these mysteries, and for Fiona as the sleuth.
Two of Kate Grenville’s historical novels take place in Sydney at the beginning of the 19th Century. The Secret River tells the story of the Thornhill family, that migrates to Sydney when William Thornhill narrowly avoids execution for stealing a load of wood. Instead, he’s sentenced to transportation to Australia, and he takes his family with him. It’s a whole new and uncertain world for the Thornhills, who are accustomed to life in London. And, since Sydney is a new town, it’s not really established yet. So, no-one is really sure what sort of place it will be. Still, transportation is better than execution, and the Thornhills settle in to make the best of it. William gets a job delivering goods by barge; his wife, Sal, opens a pub. Then, William finds the perfect piece of land that he wants for building the family a real home. But it won’t be easy. There’ve been people living in the area for many thousands of years, and they have their own languages and ways of doing things. Clashes with the new arrivals are inevitable, and sometimes bloody. William himself wants no part of the terrible brutality he sometimes sees among his fellow newcomers. At the same time, he doesn’t want to isolate himself. The uncertainty of life adds to the suspense in this novel as the Thornhills try to make a new life.
There are also C.J. Sansom’s historical mysteries, featuring London-based lawyer Matthew Shardlake. These novels take place during the reign of King Henry VIII, a very uncertain time in history. No-one really knows what the end result of the king’s break with the Catholic Church will be, and there are real risks for those who choose to follow the Catholic tradition. At the same time, the idea of a Christian church outside of Roman Catholicism is still fairly new, and there are plenty of questions about how this new church will develop. Matters aren’t made easier by the dangers that befall anyone who incurs the king’s anger. That uncertainty is an important part of the atmosphere of the times, and even though Shardlake is an attorney with a good reputation, he is not immune from risk. So, he feels the anxiety as well.
Uncertainty is a part of the process of change, and it can be unsettling. That’s part of what makes it such a useful tool in a crime novel. It can add to the tension and serve as a solid plot layer. These are just a few examples. Your turn.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Don Henley’s The Heart of the Matter.