The comforts of crimes past

You only have to take a quick look at the television guide or go to the crime section of your nearest bookstore to know that period crime procedurals – crime stories set in the past – are popular.

Showing or having recently aired on free-to-air television have been Foyle’s War, a police procedural show set during or immediately after the Second World War; Dr Blake Mysteries, set in Ballarat in the 1950s; Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, based on the successful books by Melbourne writer Kerry Greenwood set in late-1920s Melbourne; and Aquarius, dealing with the murders committed by Charles Manson in 1960s California. These programs feed into a much wider canon of popular period shows – everything from Downton Abbey, to Mad Men and Wolf Hall, the adaption of Hilary Mantel’s 2009 bestselling Booker Prize-winning novel.

Our desire for period crime procedurals is just as big on the printed page. In Australia alone, there are Sulari Gentill’s books featuring the 1930s sleuth, Roland Sinclair, Robert Gott’s police procedurals set in the newly formed homicide squad in 1940s Melbourne, and Geoffrey McGeachin’s award winning Melbourne police detective Charlie Berlin, to name a few.

What is driving this? Is this a symptom of our refusal to come to grips with modern reality?

Without wanting to imply anything negative about these books and television shows – some of which I am very partial to – there are a number of ways to look at our fascination with period crime procedurals on the page and screen.

When I recently asked writer friends on social media what they made of the trend, one of them sent me the following quote from a 2009 interview with US crime writer Craig McDonald, in which McDonald lamented modern technology’s impact on writing, particularly the all-pervasive mobile phones. In particular, he talked about:

‘…the connectivity we all have with one another now and the fact that so much contemporary suspense writing – be it in books or on film – all spins on the gadgets. You’d have to rewrite both of the most recent Bond films if you took away the cell phones as plot elements. I blame some of this on Bin Laden, too. In my first interview book, I kept hearing time and again from authors they couldn’t really write contemporary stuff in good conscience in the wake of 9-11 because it just dwarfed their sense of genre fiction. I’m not sure many of us have come out of that effect, even eight years later. Many of those writers drifted into historical fiction. It’s kind of why I’m writing the books I’m currently writing.’

Speaking as a crime writer myself, I can attest to occasionally feeling exhausted by technological change and the challenge of writing fiction that attempts, even in some small way, to keep up with or reflect it, and the pace of historical events more generally. The choices before me – neither of which I am keen to embrace – feel like I either have to write dystopian fiction or move into Jason Bourne territory of trans-global pyrotechnic spectacle, where the characters feel like an add-on, if they are dealt with at all.

A lot of standard crime fiction plots and twists are increasingly redundant when everything is monitored by 24-hour CCTV and GPS tracking. It is more difficult for people to hide, easier for them to be found, everything is recorded. Try putting together a plot for a heist that grapples with modern banking technology.

None of which is to say crime authors shouldn’t attempt to rise to the challenge of writing about technological change, whether it be the internet or increasingly sophisticated surveillance systems, in a way that tries to be innovative, gripping and realistic. But it takes time and with crime writers – along with genre writers more generally – under pressure to deliver more books at a fast pace, it is not easy. Historical crime fiction must seem like a tempting alternative.

But what the individual writer wants or cares to deliver is just one part of the equation. Publishers, like film and television producers, are risk-averse, more likely than not to go with projects that are a sure thing, preferably with the marketing advantages that come with tapping into a known entity. Perhaps the more important question is: why are readers and viewers are so keen on period crime?

Part of it is undoubtedly related to nostalgia – not just the retro cache that comes from mining the clothes, tastes and visual aesthetics of the past, as shows like Mad Men did so successfully, but tapping into the belief that the past was simpler, without modern complications.

As I have written for Overland before, ‘nostalgia’, both as a word and a concept, originated in the seventeenth century to describe a condition afflicting Swiss mercenaries on long tours of military duty. It was literally homesickness, a debilitating craving to return home. At some point in the last century, capitalism discovered the term and realised it could be used to make money. Arguably, global events like the 9/11 and growing fears among Western populations of disorder and chaos, have reinforced our desire to return to an age of supposed safety and predictability. Is the popularity of period crime procedurals one beneficiary of that longing?

Of course, the best period crime books and programs explore the reality of the time they are set in, as opposed to reinforcing dominant perceptions of the past. This is what Mad Men did so well. In addition to the great clothes and sunken lounge rooms full of modernist furniture, there was also grotesque gender and racial discrimination in the workplace and a profound sense of anomie at the rise of consumer culture. Foyle’s War is a sombre depiction of the deprivation and sense of loss on the home front as a result of the almost unimaginable carnage of the Second World War. Retreating further into history, Mantel’s Wolf Hall – ‘costume psychodrama’ as a recent article in Rolling Stone termed it – is almost Sopranos-like in its brutal dissection of politics and intrigue in the court of Henry VIII.

At its best, procedural crime fiction takes a scalpel to the myths and fallacies that have grown up around history, revealing the activities of previously marginalised characters within it. Miss Fisher is not just a pseudo aristocratic clotheshorse; her worldview has been shaped by a stint as a nurse on the Western Front during the Great War and she is an early feminist. Of the police characters in Gott’s historical crime procedurals, one is a Jew and the other is female reluctantly drafted into homicide investigation due to the manpower shortage as a result of the Second World War; their work bumps them up against Melbourne’s anti-Semites and right-wing nationalists.

Unlike noir, which is about loss of control and fear of the ‘other’, I’d argue the procedural in crime books and television is about our desire for order and stability. Procedurals, whether they are historically based or not, are about an ordered investigation: not only does the conclusion of the episode or series in question usually result in the case being ‘solved’ but order, in some form or another, triumphs. Similarly, no matter how realistic period crime procedurals are, they deal with a history that is largely knowable. The Second World War was a hellish conflict with an unthinkable loss of life – but we know the outcome. There’s no such predictability in contemporary conflicts in places like Syria. We are not even completely sure who the ‘enemy’ is we are supposed to be fighting.


Image: ABC TV/Every Cloud Productions

Andrew Nette

Andrew Nette is a writer of fiction and nonfiction. You can follow him on Twitter at @Pulpcurry.

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  1. I love reading and watching mysteries set in the past, simply because the past is effectively another world. If I wasn’t alive through an era, that place exists in my imagination. I’m not trying to escape into it’s supposed “simplicity,” I just enjoy a change of pace from my everyday.

    As a writer, I set my books in the past because I want to keep them “soft-boiled.” Honestly, I have no idea how anyone could keep a murder mystery tame while incorporating the grizzly details of modern forensic science.

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