pick a year, any year…
The Tuesday Night Club has chosen history as this month’s theme, in any way the blogger likes to interpret it.
Bev at My Reader’s Block has, as ever, produced a great logo for us, and she is also collecting the links this month.
I recently read two crime books set in 1956: one was written then, one was written in 2016. I was fascinated by the differences, and have decided to take that as my theme this week.
Jane Austen is reputed not to mention any current events, particularly the ongoing Napoleonic Wars. This is not quite true (remember where Anne Elliot’s beloved, Captain Wentworth, got his money from…. ?), but it marks the difference between contemporary and historical fiction. Pretty much all books set in the past are full of ‘Have you heard the news from London?’ and gossip about the top level of society and awkward amounts of exposition. Those writing about their own times don’t feel the need to put all that in, and they also don’t know which are going to be the key features of their own era.
So I’m continuing my researches into 1955 & 1956… through contemporary eyes and more modern ones.
My first modern version is Elizabeth Wilson’s She Died Young, published this year. She does a great job of creating 1956, and I would say did a lot of research. The Hungarian Uprising is recent and important, as is the Suez crisis. There are criminal gangs, madams and brothels, and there’s a vivid picture of a London half-life involving police and villains. There is a character who is clearly gay.
Then there’s Miss Hogg and the Bronte Murders by Austin Lee: published in 1956, set maybe 1955. No political features here, as I said on the blog:
There is no consideration of the Hungarian Revolution, or prostitutes, or secretive gay activities.
But Miss Hogg is rather good, I liked her and her straightforward manner and fondness for a tipple – as in so many English books of the 1950s (and later), opening time for pubs looms from time to time. And in a most unconventional moment, she takes back the tip left under a saucer on a café table because she needs the pennies for a call from a phonebox. (This is the kind of authentic detail that may have escaped the estimable Elizabeth Wilson).
And there is another nice contemporary detail. The town of Bletchley is very famous for something: the proverbial fact that it is exactly half-way between Oxford and Cambridge. No-one would nowadays think that was what was most notable about Bletchley, but back then its key wartime role (see the Robert Harris book Enigma) was unknown still, a desperate secret. ….
Agatha Christie produced Hickory Dickory Dock and Dead Man’s Folly in 1955 and 1956. They are very much of their time: she may not have had much political detail, but she was exercised by the post-War changes in the English way of life, and she documented them very carefully. There is a village fete, and I loved this casual throwaway remark: the fortune-teller must not pretend to be a gipsy because ‘everyone in agricultural districts hates gipsies': the kind of crass but authentic detail you can rely on in Christie, and nothing could be more true to its time.
Folly is very clearly set in Christie’s own house, Greenway, in Devon. In the book she mentions the pleasure boats from Dartmouth making a commentary on ‘Nasse House’ as they go past: nowadays they comment on the fact that it was Agatha Christie’s house, which gives you a weird post-modern feeling if you are reading it on site, as I did recently.
The multi-cultural hostel in Hickory Dickory Dock is not something you could imagine in Christie’s earlier books – you could seeTuppence living in a hostel for nice young ladies (like Muriel Spark’s Girls of Slender Means), but not the establishment run by Miss Lemon’s sister. The book is clearly an attempt to be more uptodate, and there is some very cautious investigation into ‘modern’ race relations, and 'modern' relations between the sexes.
Hickory Dickory Dock is a very reasonable Christie, but unfortunately in my mind is always associated with the comment on it in Robert Barnard’s A Talent to Deceive, which may be unfair but makes me laugh every time I think of it:
Evelyn Waugh's diary records that [Hickory Dickory Dock] 'began well' but deteriorated 'a third of the way through into twaddle' – a judgment which, unusually for him, erred on the side of charity.Which brings me nicely onto Robert Barnard’s own Scandal in Belgravia, - published 1991 - with its intricate plot switching back from a 90s framework to a crime in 1956. Again, homosexuality is important, and so are all kinds of political issues of the time – the Foreign Office, spies, lefties and debs all to the fore. I liked this look at changes in phraseology over the years:
Displaced persons - what we today would call refugees, I suppose— one of the few instances of our language becoming less euphemistic in recent years.
My Halloween book this week – Six Were Present by ER Punshon – is also a 1956 book, and, like Christie, the author is interested in a post-war world, and even in post-colonialism. Bobby Owen is contemplating a world where people use Christian names too much, and there is an attempt to see people in other countries as equals, and their beliefs as more than mere un-Christian mumbo jumbo.
There are some crime stories published around that time that really have little to link them with 1955/6. JC Masterman’s The Case of the Four Friends is very much a Don’s Delight set partly at a New Year’s Eve party. It also has an Oxford college High Table element, but couldn’t be more different from Robert Robinson’s Landscape with Dead Dons, also 1956. You could read these books one after another and not get any remote feeling that they were set in exactly the same time and place.
Patricia Wentworth came up with Poison in the Pen and The Silent Pool in these years, but I would defy any reader to find any content illuminating current events. And Ngaio Marsh’s Scales of Justice reflects important events in the past without showing much about the present.
Mary Stewart’s Wildfire at Midnight is a 1956 book with a very definite setting in 1953 – it makes much of the Coronation and the first ascent of Everest, nice contemporary ideas. I recently criticized Peter Robinson’s Before the Poison, published 2011, for getting details of exactly that time wrong…his book was another switching from modern times to a crime in the early 1950s.
But the whole question of inauthenticity, anachronisms and mistakes in crime fiction set in the past is too big to take on in this blogpost – in other words don’t start me on that particular topic.
So we’ll leave it at this: a book written in the 1950s will be rich in details of the clothes, the manners and the households of the time. Those written 20, 30 or 40 years will feel more researched and less natural, and have a lot more about politics. I didn’t find any references to Suez, Hungary or McCarthyism in any of the older books…
Those are genuine 1950s debs and nobs above, along with a fake fortune-teller from the Library of Congress (should've used her for this week's Halloween/seance piece for the Guardian), and TKR's pictures of the boat house and river at Agatha Christie's house.