Please welcome SMFS list member M. A. Monnin to the blog today…
HANDSHAKES & HUGS
Or, What Would Agatha Do?
By M. A. Monnin
Handshakes and hugs, or not? That’s the question on every writer’s mind these days, it seems. Specifically, as authors, do we include references to the pandemic in our writing, showing an authentic view of life as it is in 2020, or do we leave those references out, ready to put 2020 and all its difficulties behind us? The topic comes up often when writers gather these days—in io groups, writing chapter get-togethers, and even in group pitching sessions. There is a lot of anxiety about it: on the part of authors, as those that produce fiction, on the part of agents, who have to sell to publishers, and on the part of publishers, who have to sell to the reading public.
It’s hard to see friends and colleagues stressing over this, so I thought, why not check and see what the Golden Age mystery writers did? The world-wide Covid19 pandemic is new to us, but the world has been here before.
According to cdc.gov, the 1918 influenza pandemic spread worldwide during 1918-1919. An estimated 500 million people or one-third of the world’s population became infected, with approximately 50 million deaths. Just like Covid19, with no vaccine, and also no antibiotics to treat secondary bacterial infections associated with influenza, control efforts focused on isolation, quarantine, good personal hygiene, use of disinfectants, and limitations of public gatherings. Photos of people wearing masks, as well as those protesting masks from the time period have been circulating on Facebook and Twitter, showing that humanity has pretty much remained the same when it comes to wanting to wear a mask for the greater good.
Any writer published in the years 1919 and 1920 would have been painfully aware of the influence the pandemic had on daily life. But did they write about it in their fiction? Consulting my at-home library, since I can’t browse my local in person, I looked for books and short stories published in those years.
Agatha Christie’s first book, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, came out in 1920. In the name of research, I reread it. For the fourth time. Christie makes not one mention of the flu pandemic. The setting of The Mysterious Affair at Styles is England in the grip of the Great War. Hastings, after all, has been invalided out, and goes to Styles to recuperate. Poirot is there as a result of the war also, and there are a dozen little details that relate to the changes made in everyday ordinary life due to the war. But not to the pandemic. Not one reference to “X” dying of the horrible ‘flu, no reference to sanitizing practices, no hated masks.
I read another mystery novel written from that time frame. Dope, by Sax Rohmer, was first published in 1919. Again, no mention of influenza. However, I was delighted that his heroine was described wearing a “creased Burberry.” Some styles are timeless.
Sax Romer’s short crime story “The Death-Ring of Sneferu” was published in Tales of Secret Egypt in 1918. No mention of the flu, or any pandemic influences. The same was true of Aldous Huxley’s “The Gioconda Smile.” Published in Mortal Coils in 1921, it’s a bit late for my research purposes, but it did feature a wife with a vague illness, giving it plenty of scope to pull in some recent practice involving infection or debilitating disease. But Huxley didn’t choose to. None of the stories, whether short or novel length, in my small, unscientific sample mentioned any habits, fears, or government protocols pertaining to the influenza pandemic, a world-wide phenomenon that killed 50 million people, had citizens wearing masks in public, and motivated people to protest. Why not?
It comes down to the single most important tenet of fiction writers, perhaps even more important for short mysteries than other genres. You’ve heard it. We’ve all heard it. When considering what to include in a story and what to leave out, we must ask ourselves: Does it move the story forward? If it doesn’t, it doesn’t go in.
In the mysteries I read as samples, the stories didn’t need that extra bit of setting and color to set the scene or provide motive. That’s not to say that there isn’t a plethora of stories published a hundred years ago that do include references to the influenza pandemic.
And for us, today? We will have habits that remain after the vaccines come out and we’re allowed to socialize normally again, and I do think that some of them will have a place in future fiction, if only because they’ll become second nature. Some lessons are learned bone deep. Although my mother had a lovely set of cannisters, and stacks of Tupperware, until her dying day, she washed and kept Planters cashew jars and empty Cool-Whip containers. Who knew when she might need more containers for leftovers or another cannister for that odd-shaped pasta? She was born during the Depression, and learned to keep things for a rainy day. That included money that could have been spent buying a second set of cannisters or Tupperware.
For us mystery writers, I can see that in some future tale, one of our characters might hide a valuable trinket or blackmail evidence behind that reserve pack of toilet paper he or she has stashed away on a basement shelf.
Come on now. I know I’m not the only one that will have reserve TP stashed away for the rest of my life.
M. A. Monnin ©2020
M. A. (Mary) Monnin's short mysteries have appeared in the Anthony Award-winning Malice Domestic 14: Mystery Most Edible and the pulp anthology All That Weird Jazz. Her latest story, St. Killian's Choice, will be out this month in Black Cat Mystery Magazine #8. She is a board member of the Midwest Chapter of Mystery Writers of America.
Great article, Mary. Thanks!
A very interesting post. There's no doubt that this horrible pandemic has changed our lives--including the way people think about toilet paper. I keep a personal journal but haven't written anything for publication about the virus or its effect on society. For me, it's too painful.
Too painful here as well. Just like when folks told me to write about cancer and my late wife and all she/we went through, it just is way too painful to think about at all.
A wonderful thought provoking article. I especially liked the reference to, is it important to the story? Made me think of all those specific details that go into moving the story forward, what to keep in, what to take out. I also thought of my dad’s holiday to Hawaii and folks telling him to go to the war memorial at Pearl Harbour. He told me quietly one day after that holiday, “Why would I go? I lived it.” Like you said, Kevin, too painful to think about. I’m a cancer survivor. To this day I can’t watch movies or read books about those dealing with cancer, too painful. There will be many who will have painful memories from COVID. When it comes to the story, only keep what’s relevant, I agree.
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