Friday, September 2, 2016

Social Change and Crime Fiction, by Susan Oleksiw

Last month, while visiting friends in Washington State, we stopped at a huge tulip nursery. We were out of season, and the farm was almost empty except for a few men tending one of the gardens near the gift shop. We chatted with the woman behind the counter, talking about farm issues in the state, the increasing number of turbines and solar panels on farmland, and the issues surrounding migrant workers. She asked about temporary workers in New England, and that put me in mind of our many small farms.

Crime fiction has many virtues but one of its least discussed is the way it records the everyday world and social change. The isolated socially stratified villages of Miss Marple give way to housing developments sprouting in former pastures, with a wider variety of residents.

This attention to the contemporary world in crime fiction is one of its strengths. It would be hard to set a mystery in any part of New England today that didn't include some acknowledgment of the diversity of its people. When I imagine the typical scenario in an urban setting that could lead to the discovery of a murder, I come up with at least two or three ethnic groups. A businessman works late to cover up his embezzlement, but his midnight departure is noted by the Brazilian cleaning crew. He takes a taxi driven by an East African because he missed the last subway. The driver detours around road construction, where the workers are white, Latino and African-American. He passes drivers heading into the Flower Auction, where women of all heritages make their purchases for their flower shops and pick up a few foreign words as they negotiate.

In the Anita Ray stories, I get to bring together a diverse population in the foreigners visiting Hotel Delite as well as in the many different caste groups of Indians who populate a village or neighborhood. One character's distinctive viewpoint might be tied tightly to his social standing in a small village, and another's might be influenced almost entirely by her exposure to life overseas as a student. Both perspectives give the writer tools for developing the mystery and readers something to ponder.

Some writers do more with this aspect of crime fiction than others. In the Supt. Peter Diamond series, Peter Lovesey paints detailed picture of a theatrical production that doesn't miss a detail, in Stagestruck. Lots of novels are set in the theater, but Lovesey explores every corner, teaching the reader things about the theater we could never learn otherwise.

In "Crimson Shadow," a short story in Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned, Walter Mosley takes the reader step by step through the process of preparing a meal from a rooster a teen has stolen and killed. This is the background for a dialogue between the teen and the rooster's owner. There are many levels to this story, and much to admire, but I love it for the way the author uses the teaching of a skill to reach a young person, and to remind everyone of what we used to know how to do and used to do regularly. Each of these stories is richer for the accuracy of its depiction of the people as well as the story line.

In the Anita Ray series, Anita moves through layers of society, her behavior acknowledging the change in social position. It would be impossible to tell a story set in India without a diverse population. In The Wrath of Shiva, Anita must remember to conduct herself in a manner the senior female member of the family will find acceptable, interact with the family servants, and maneuver around the village shop owners. But in the most recent book, WhenKrishna Calls, Anita must assert herself against a village moneylender and uses her caste status to do so.


Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi Susan,

Crime fiction is often under-rated. Crime is very much a part of our society and significant issues are dealt with in mystery and crime fiction. Those of us who write this type of fiction handle serious topics in thoughtful ways.

Susan Oleksiw said...

I absolutely agree with you, Jacquie. The best writers in this genre explore difficult issues with thoroughness and care. In the future I think historians will turn to this genre to better understand our time and problems. Thanks for commenting.

Pamela S Thibodeaux said...

Great post Susan.

I know a lot of people love Crime fiction...although I'm not one of them.

I wish you good luck and God's blessings


Anne Louise Bannon said...

I agree. In a way, older mysteries are a great primary source for the kinds of daily life details we historical writers crave.

Anne Louise Bannon said...

I agree. In a way, older mysteries are a great primary source for the kinds of daily life details we historical writers crave.

Susan Oleksiw said...

Thanks, Pam and Anne. The accuracy of detail found in crime fiction will be useful in many ways. Thanks for commenting.