At the authors panel I attended earlier this month, we were asked why we had chosen to write mysteries in a specific era.
There are several reasons why I chose the 1950s, not all of them very interesting. But in short, it’s an era that had more colorful charm than grizzly forensics. Since I’m all about the puzzle of a good mystery, that works well for me. The 1950s had great fashion, textures, music, and it was a complicated time socially as everyone tried to create a normal — better — life after the war. Basically, there’s a lot for me to work with.
The challenge is the era’s rampant sexism and racism. Not a good thing. And while I’m not a huge history buff, I can’t simply gloss over the pieces I don’t like. Of course, I’m writing murder mysteries not social historical commentary, but I really do try to use social accuracy to enhance the story and the mystery part of the adventure, without making it so central as to distract the audience. (And I sincerely hope I’m doing a good job.)
After all, we’re reading mysteries to enjoy ourselves.
When researching my 1950s era books, I’m always referring to my old Seattle map. A few weeks ago, I posted a map-mystery about some Seattle streets that have disappeared, but my old map also shows several streets that never even existed.
Seattle’s Magnolia neighborhood is a peninsula northwest of downtown. Per my 1950s era Kroll Map, Magnolia’s footprint was expected to balloon out several blocks into Elliott Bay and Puget Sound. My map shows that future fantasy expansion complete with streets names.
I’m not sure if they planned to wash away the Magnolia hillside (that’s what happened to Seattle’s Denny Regrade neighborhood) but whatever they were planning, all that remains is an old map showing the streets and avenues of a future that never happened.
Seattle once had a neighborhood called Ross. As the city evolved, the name was lost, but my old map still shows streets overlapping the water. The Wedgewood Historical Society was nice enough to explain what happened:
When the Army Corps of Engineers built the Ballard Locks a 100 years ago (and the waterway which connects Lake Washington to Puget Sound) they dug out a few streets. The fun part is that my old 1950s Seattle map still shows those “ghost streets” in the water. Kinda spooky.
Bearing in mind that suspense and mystery or not synonyms, they often go together especially in motion pictures. So my suspenseful list (in no particular order) of the best 1950s mysteries goes like this:
To Catch a Thief– with Grace Kelly and Cary Grant, what’s not to adore?
The Trouble with Harry– dark comedy with landscapes.
Rear Window– suspense with a white knuckles.
The Hound of the Baskervilles– Almost anything with Sherlock Holmes is bound to be a treat. This version is especially dark and creepy.
I would add both Rebecca and Suspicion to the list, but they were a decade too soon. I’d love to hear any other suggestions that ought to be on this list. I’ll be adding more titles and I’d love to have a well-rounded representation.
I volunteered with some friends to usher a local theater show. Laughter on the 34th Floor is a comedy about a pack of wacky comedy writers in 1950s New York. To be honest, I wasn’t sure if I’d enjoy being an usher. The white shirt with back pants combo reminded me of my college job, but the production was delightfully hilarious and we had a great time. Here’s to small local theater!