by Kay Kendall
In the sixth month of this chaotic year, 2020, it is difficult for me to do anything else other than think about and read up on the various political, social, and health issues that confront America, and indeed all of Earth. Everything else pales in comparison. And as the weeks in this wretched year pile up, one on top of another, the pots labeled for these issues, set on our metaphorical stoves, appear to be reaching boiling points.
Often these days I am reminded of another difficult, tumultuous year that lives robustly in my memory—1968. And I am not the only one who is thinking about that particular year either. At least once a week I hear a commentator on television, or read a journalist’s article, harking back to 1968. Of course, in order to remember that time period, one has to be of a certain age. And I am. I am a baby boomer. Moreover, I declare myself to be a child of the 1960s. And by that I mean that decade defined me and marked me for all time.
When I began to write mysteries ten years ago, I set them in the late 1960s, wanting to explain to younger generations what it was like, As well, for others who were in my age cohort, I wanted to help them recall or relive that dramatic time. In my first book, Desolation Row, in 1968 young men rebel against fighting an American war in Vietnam that many feel is unjust. When factions develop within the ex-pat community of draft resisters in Toronto, one young man is murdered. Another American, David Starr, is jailed for the murder, but his wife, Austin Starr, believes he is innocent and seeks to find the real killer. Political upheaval provides the backdrop for this mystery.
My second book, Rainy Day Women, takes place in 1969. Social change ramps up as young women themselves become militant, rebelling against oppressive roles demanded of them by societal norms. When someone murders women’s liberation leaders in Vancouver and Seattle, Austin Starr is drawn into the investigation and she again hunts for a murderer. In the course of her sleuthing, she learns about the goals of feminism and takes up the cause.
My third mystery, After You’ve Gone, is set in 1923. A prequel, readers are introduced to Austin Starr’s Texas grandmother when she, as a young woman, solves the murder of a relative’s death all while struggling against bootleggers and gangsters during Prohibition. She even has a serious run-in with members of Al Capone’s gang when they are sent by their leader to the Gulf Coast to move in on the action—and the money to be made in illegal rum running. This story with a backdrop of widespread lawlessness makes it clear that moxie and sleuthing are in Austin’s very DNA.
Mysteries, thrillers, crime novels. Whatever label you choose to place on this genre that I write in, the drama of these books escalates by placing them in historical settings that are aflame with conflict. Just think of the thousands of books that take place during World War Two. Moreover, after a certain lull in popularity, even World War One now also garners more fictional treatments in the last several years. To me, the period of the 1960s was a comparable time in twentieth century history that called out for their own mysteries, and I have tried to fill that gap
As I delved deep into my past, conjuring up the world of the sixties, I did not give it conscious thought, but deep down I am sure that I never thought for one second that I would face another year as dramatic as 1968. And yet, here we are, slogging through the terrible year of 2020.
As a reader, when I return to the past and see how our ancestors coped with war and social unrest and pestilence, I find courage in facing up to similar global issues that now threaten to engulf us. Human nature does not change, and as the British statesman Edmond Burke (1729-1797) famously wrote , “Those who do not remember the past are destined to repeat it.”
If studying history is too dry for you, then I urge you to take up reading historical novels set in time periods that interest you. Why not learn about the past while being entertained? Just make sure the authors you choose are ones with a reputation for historic accuracy.
Award-winning author Kay Kendall is passionate about historical mysteries. She lives in Texas with her Canadian husband, two house rabbits, and spaniel Wills.
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