Crime fiction writers are able, should they be so inclined, to explore the social and political settings in which their stories take place, often in a way that contemporary journalism or other writing cannot. In this way it is a genre that can capture the Zeitgeist* spectacularly well. Here’s my list of books which do this very well, though some may not have immediately been seen as a novel which captured the spirit of their age. For me anyway I think a Zeitgeist capturing work of crime fiction has to have been written at the time, it’s too easy to be brilliant with hindsight.
Of the many hard-boiled novels and short stories that arose out of the Depression/Prohibition era of America’s late 1920’s and early 1930’s I think Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man is the one that, for me, most clearly captures the particular spirit of that age. It has the hardships being experienced by many people, the deliberate ignoring of those hardships by some people, the desperation felt by others, the speakeasies, the after effects of World War 1…all the things I associate with that particular time and place.
So far I have only read the first of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö‘s 10-book series of Martin Beck novels collectively planned as The Story of a Crime with a mission to hold up a mirror to the social problems the authors saw in 1960’s Sweden. In Roseanna the authors tackle all sorts of subjects including the nature of bureaucracy and the rise of consumerism which they saw as being significant social issues of their time.
Earlier this year I read Alan Glynn‘s Winterland which is set in contemporary Ireland and seems to me to depict its time and place perfectly. Ostensibly a story about two deaths in the same family what made the book standout for me is that it captures the exact moment when the country’s status as the Celtic tiger of the world economy was coming grievously unstuck due to the global financial crisis and those with any political clout at all were doing whatever it took to stay afloat. It’s a brilliant read.
I thought a book I read last week and reviewed for my other blog (Fair Dinkum Crime where we are serious about Australian crime fiction) captured contemporary Australia particularly well. Alan Carter‘s Prime Cut is set in south-eastern Western Australia which is one of the centres of this country’s latest mining boom. Issues such as the impact such economic booms have on long-term residents of an area and the exploitation of various social groups, including foreign workers, are explored with a subtly that I found refreshing. It’s also got two top-notch mysteries in it.
So, what crime fiction have you read that has captured the Zeitgeist?
*my Macquarie dictionary defines Zeitgeist as the spirit of the time, general drift of thought or feeling characteristic of a particular period of time.
Bernadette – Brilliant idea for this letter – I am impressed. And you’re right; crime fiction can capture the zeitgeist of the era in which it takes place quite well. You’ve given some fabulous examples, too. One novel I thought of as I read your post was John le Carré’s The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. I believe that novel captures the Cold War era and people’s mindsets so very well.
oh you’re so right Margot – le Carre’s early spy novels are terrific.
I agree with you on Hammet and Sjowall and Wahloo. Winterland is on my TBR list and with Prime Cut, I can’t wait to read it, but am waiting for availability and a price I can afford. I like social issues with my reading.
I think Donna Leon deals with today’s issues and problems of daily life and society in her series based in Venice, Italy. I think Arnaldur Indridason does it somewhat, and so does Henning Mankell.
In the U.S., although others may disagree, I think Michael Connelly and Sara Paretsky do this to a degree.
I can’t wait to see what others say, and I know I’m forgetting favorite authors who do exactly what you describe.
It’s funny you should mention Connelly Kathy. As you know I wasn’t much taken with my recent reading of The Brass Verdict and one of the reasons is his repetition of that old cliche about Los Angeles being a place full of people who weren’t born there. I have family who live in LA and the vast majority of people I’ve ever met on the multiple occasions I have stayed with them were born right there – it was a little thing but one that grated – LA is more than Hollywood, especially for the majority of people that Mickey Haller was meant to be dealing with
Great idea Bernadette. Brilliant.
great Z Bernadette. There are probably loads of books I’ve read but cannot now bring to mind, but just thought I’d mention A Rage in Harlem by Chester Himes which I think is a brilliant example of what you are writing about here.
I didn’t remember that in The Brass Verdict. But in The Fifth Witness, Connelly deals with the foreclosure crisis of today in the U.S.., the banks and mortgage companies. And in The Scarecrow he deals with the closing and downsizing of newspaper offices. And in the Harry Bosch books he deals with a lot of issues and different types of people, not Hollywood types.
Ian Rankin’s Rebus books immediately came to my mind when I read your post.
An excellent argument in favour of reading crime fiction, and I agree whole-heartedly.
Sjöwall & Wahlöö´s series would also be my best example, but I´d say Scottish Denise Mina also does it quite well.
Yes! Denise Mina does this brilliantly. I was just thinking about her and deciding, at some point, to reread her terrific Garnethill trilogy, and then I found out that my library system had taken these books out of circulation. And I so wanted a friend to read them, too.
Great topic, great choice for Z, Bernadette.
When it comes to L.A. I like the books of Robert Crais The gang warfare which unfortunately prevails and continues to expand is a subject matter which Crais makes use of very well, he is also good at depicting the L.A. of his characters’ dreams and L.A. like it is. Crais loves L.A. and makes no bones about it though he is not immune at all to the city’s faults.
Apres 9/11 NYC, I like the books of S.J. Rozan often set in Chinatown. Though the whole city of NYC is also on display. Rozan is a native New Yorker and her love of the city, despite its many foibles, is evident.
I think Robert Parker’s later SPENSER books captured certain aspects of Boston. Most especially in his comments about the changing face of the city.
I too agree about Donna Leon’s Venetian series. (I happen to be reading them now.) I also agree about THE THIN MAN capturing its era. If you had to pick one book, this would be it.
If we’re allowed a historical choice: I’d add Anne Perry’s Victorian myseries as an example of a writer who brings that era to life and appears to capture the ‘spirit of the time’.
Another choice would be Martin Cruz Smith’s books set in the economic and political turmoil that is Russia today.
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