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.