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.