If you're going to look back, make sure you actually watch

One of the more interesting things about having a taste for elderly mysteries is that popular books give a lot of casual insight into contemporary society that more formal literary masterpieces don't. Whodunits have historically been regarded as sort of clever trash reading -- of no particular artistic merit, but a more sophisticated way to pass the time than sitting in a vaudeville show. Character archetypes are rampant, but with the constraints of trying to consciously produce something that would be acceptable to literary critics, they're much more illustrative of how ordinary people mentally divided up the world.

Particularly surprising to see are some of the examples of gender roles. We have this idea of the past as a uniform blanket of male chauvinism, where all women were seen as weak ornaments and kept barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen, or at least severely constrained. In fact, we mostly get this from 1950s America -- the mods, rockers, and hippies of the 1960s and 1970s were specifically rebelling against the post-war sexism that was itself a throwback to what the returning GIs thought was an earlier, better time. During the war, American women served as "WACs" and "Waves", and Commonwealth women as "Wrens", in a lot of vital positions, including medical personnel, and drivers and pilots in the supply chain. They were particularly vital to the cryptographic efforts (on both sides -- the German Engima typists were also typically women) not just as clerks and operators for the new "computers" being built in England, but also as trained linguists and mathematicians. Afterwards, the men coming home from combat led a great social push to get things back to "normal"... except it had been so long since "normal", what with the war and the Depression and Prohibition and the wild immoral "jazz babies" and all that nobody really had anything but a nostalgic conception of what "normal" was.

The change in tone in some of the books is very sudden and rather disconcerting, if you read a bunch of the things all at once. A lot of the series ran for many decades; Erle Stanley Gardner wrote more or less continuously over the course of 30-40 years. (So did Agatha Christie, but as she wrote a number of different sleuths, each series with its own tone, it's less obvious.) The earliest Perry Mason books are set in the late '20s and early '30s, and in them Perry and his confidential secretary Della are very obviously a couple. It's not clear whether he hired her because he liked her, hired her and then decided he liked her, or even whether she contrived to get herself hired because she liked him -- the point is that they're schtupping, everybody knows, and nobody cares. They get invited on vacation together and assigned to the same hotel room or ship's cabin, and Perry hides out in Della's apartment when he thinks someone is watching his place. They bang on Paul Drake's door at five in the morning once and he asks them if they've finally gone and "committed matrimony". Then WWII happens, and suddenly it's scandalous that they're sitting in a car together at a midnight stakeout. Della does less vetting of clients, less investigating, and less creative-but-necessary lying to the district attorney.

The attitude is pretty consistent through most of the series I read. I'm in the middle of one Ellery Queen from the early '30s, and he's just been informed of the existence of yet another uncooperative physician in his case -- he defaults to referring to the doctor as "he", but when corrected to "she", his only reaction is to go 'Huh. That'll teach me to assume things.' Some of the women around him are wilting flowers, but most of them have things like lives and careers and sometimes their own enormous self-made fortunes, and he's never especially surprised. In his young mind, apparently, there's nothing keeping women from being self-sufficient enough to earn their own way; it's just less common to see them heading empires. In Margery Allingham's books, the love of Albert Campion's life turns out to be a stubborn redhead whose favorite pastime is putting on grubby coveralls and tinkering with machinery. (They eventually get married, and she is also a remarkably engineer-y mother to their son.) And Lord Peter Wimsey lands a bohemian writer of potboiler mystery novels while she's up on murder charges -- he sets his sights on her specifically because she is intelligent and headstrong, and she spends an entire book turning him down before she decides the "piffle" he spouts is charming.

The things are still full of a lot of indefensible casual racism, bizarrely wrong psychological assumptions, and a wide variety of faddish claptrap that has long since fallen out of favor, but one thing they do not generally sport are helpless, screaming damsels. There are certainly sexist people in them, but if any of them ever spit out something chauvinist like "no woman will ever take over my company!", the statement itself is used to show their generally-troll like characters, and is usually pointing out a motive for murder. It's quite a fascinating glimpse into the ebb and flow of social freedoms, at least in the English-speaking world.

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