Six Reasons Near-History Creates Great Mystery
The majority of contemporary thrillers are set in the present day. But there are valid reasons to forgo that convention and set the story in an earlier timeframe, such as near-history (roughly defined as the middle part of the twentieth century). A few advantages of near-history mystery:
1) Technology was available only to a few. If you worked in some top-secret data lab, you might have access to an enormous supercomputer capable of adding 1 + 1. But the regular Joe Schmoe on the street? No cellphone, no internet, no GPS. In short, no way to track anyone’s whereabouts. If the villain needed to make a victim disappear, it was much easier to accomplish that without leaving a trace.
2) Missed phone calls. Related to the above, answering machines and voicemail systems were gadgets of the future. Say the killer is closing in and you call your besties in a desperate attempt for rescue. Good luck if they’re out seeing a movie tonight. That phone’s gonna ring and ring, and in the meantime, you’ll be stabbed without so much as the opportunity to leave a terror-stricken voicemail as evidence.
3) No DNA testing. The first use of DNA in a criminal case was in 1986. Before then? Fingerprints, ladies and gents, and handwriting analysis if written evidence was discovered. If the perp had even the slightest knowledge of how to hide incriminating prints, it significantly reduced the chances of positively IDing an offender. Not-so-smart criminals generally left careless prints—or, even worse, an incriminating note with nary an attempt to disguise the handwriting.
3) Everybody was an amateur sleuth. There were legal dramas featuring clever-but-compassionate attorneys like Perry Mason, who excelled at unearthing the real criminal in what initially appeared to be an open-and-shut case. You could root for (and armchair-sleuth beside) astute detectives like Dragnet’s Joe Friday. Into a bit of scare? You might take it up a notch by missing your bedtime to catch the late-night suspense/mystery series Lights Out, which featured episodes such as one in which an everyday detective attempts to apprehend a body-snatching alien. And that’s just TV. For readers, everyone from Agatha Christie to a legion of pulp crime writers provided an endless supply of whodunits just aching to be solved—and only for the small price of a dime-store paperback. Mid-century readers and viewers considered themselves extraordinary gumshoes with insatiable appetites for cracking a case.
4) If you wanted to turn pro, there were correspondence courses. These learn-by-mail classes promised to turn you into an investigator with coursework you could complete “in your spare time.” You received a fingerprinting kit, a booklet with crime detection facts and anecdotes, and tests you were required to pass before receiving the next lesson. Complete the course and you were assured that a satisfying career in crime detection awaited you!
5) Women’s choices were limited. The damsel-in-distress truly was in distress because her choices included either marriage (and usually motherhood) or else a career, but rarely both. If she became a wife, her marriage might, on paper, be a matter of equals, but everyone knew who made the major decisions in most households. Men ruled politics, business, and the home. And women who made waves—with their husbands, fathers, bosses, or any other males in their lives—set themselves up for trouble. This provided an abundance of diverse female victims. Women and girls from every walk of life could find themselves targeted by an array of despicable fellows.
6) Actual historical events added to the creepiness. Communism, conspiracy theories, and the threat of nuclear war hung heavy. A sense that society required you to keep your head down and stay out of trouble caused a mild but persistent level of anxiety in many people. You couldn’t walk away from these pervasive (and, in many cases, genuinely alarming) news stories. But you could immerse yourself in true-to-life mysteries that featured the tension of everyday public life as their backdrop. Moreover, you could relish the satisfaction of solving such crimes alongside your favorite fictitious sleuths.
Near-history mystery provides readers with the best of both worlds: a page-turning whodunit and the atmospheric disquiet of a setting that’s chilling, manipulative, and, in many cases, downright terrifying. It was a winning combination then and it continues to be so today.
Cynthia Swanson is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of The Bookseller. An Indie Next selection and the winner of the 2016 WILLA Award for historical fiction, The Bookseller is being translated into more than a dozen languages. Cynthia has published short fiction in numerous journals and was a Pushcart Prize nominee. She lives with her family in Denver, Colorado. The Glass Forest is her second novel. Find her at CynthiaSwansonAuthor.com.