Wednesday, August 26, 2009


Politics and poker,
Politics and poker,
Make the average guy
A heavy smoker . . .

If politics seems more
That’s because
You can stack
The deck!

- "Politics and Poker"
from the musical "Fiorello"

In these fraught times, when political arguments seem to take up all the air in any given room, how does the mystery author, one writing non-political novels, create believable characters who don’t favor one political party or opinion over another?

One way, of course, is to go ahead and give your characters political opinions. Let ’em duke it out on the page. It can be fun, and exciting – and when the book is published a year or more down the line, hopelessly dated. It’s even worse five, fifteen, twenty-five years from now when someone discovers you as an author and has to struggle through discussions on matters long settled or even forgotten.

In my own regard, with my own books, I ask myself, What Would Agatha Do?

Agatha Christie’s books appeared regularly for six decades. Yet it is rare to find even her earliest books referring to the political situation her characters lived in. Perhaps this is why they remain readable all these years later; they don’t jar by insisting you must know something about the Depression or World War II or the Cold War in order to understand them. Her characters are far too wrapped up in their own problems to comment on the politics of the time.

Go, I say to myself, and do likewise.

I played a solo game of golf last week on my usual par-three, nine-hole course and to my amazement, scored a four on one hole. That’s the best I’ve done to date. I scored a couple of sixes on two other holes and (sadly) much, much higher on the other holes. But a four – that’s a mere bogie, a perfectly respectable score for a beginner!

And then on Monday four of us went on a picnic and played croquet on a professional-size course and I finished dead last. Ah, well.


Sheila Connolly said...

There is probably a good reason why the Miss Marple series is set in a small village--where little changes. It's hard to ignore things like World Wars, but the day to day life goes on regardless. Poirot tries to insulate himself from change (much as Nero Wolfe does) even while moving through a broader world. The author creates a cozy (in both senses) microcosm, a mini-world where the focus is narrow.

From my own perspective, I think we as writers need to focus on basic values (loyalty, friendship, justice, etc.) rather than the cause of the moment, which, as you point out, will seem dated in a few years.

Karin Corbin said...

It is only in the most recent times that political discussion took place in all kinds of social situations.

Used to be men retired after dinner to discuss it away from the women. Or they talked about it at the saloon or at the men's club. Women were not allowed to vote. There was still a hangover of that behavior for a great many years afterwards as those rules of manners were passed from parents to children.

Today if you are entertaining friends and family or business associates whose politics don't agree with yours it is a subject that is usually avoided in the interest of not offending anyone.

In conversations people of like minds tend to discuss politics. People of different minds tend to avoid the subject unless they enjoy the wrangling.

I avoid such conversations by saying I have not yet completely informed myself on all the background details of the situation and issue. That is usually true and stops the folks who get all their in-depth information off the radio or news broadcast headlines but know actually know little of what they are talking about. They like to discuss endlessly what little they know as if they are experts.

riona said...

I think avoiding politicizing a novel is not only practical [for all the reasons you state] but realistic as well. For the most part, politics exists in the large world of nation states and corporations and that thing we call the economy. While there is no denying that it does have some impact on the smaller worlds in which we all live our day-to-day lives, in those small spheres, politics is less important than what happened at work, a conversation with a spouse or child, or even what we plan to eat for dinner. I am much happier knowing why Goddy always knits white socks for himself than knowing what he thinks of Obama's
latest health care proposal. Since you don't gve your characters specific political views, I can always assume that they agree with me ... after all, the main reason I read your books is that I have some affection for your characters ... an affection based on what I perceive as a certain commonality,

Ellen said...

If you give your characters politics, you are almost certain to offend many of your readers. And that makes your books sell less vigorously. Bad idea (slap whack) BAD IDEA!

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Mehndi said...

I love the poem, this reminds me of my grandfather and how much he loves these things! I think, there is an unwritten rule about these two.