Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Research and Changing Attitudes

by John McFetridge

Bouchercon starts today in St. Louis and I wish I was there (no matter how scary Malachi Stone makes it look) but instead I’m home working and spending most of my time in 1970.

I’m thinking about writing a book set in that year and have started doing some research. It’s brought up the question of “researchitis” – that dreaded disease where a writer wants to put every scrap of research into a book and also some questions about the way to approach changing attitudes.

1970 in Montreal is known mostly for the “October Crisis,” the kidnapping of two men (and murder of one) and the use of the War Measures Act which brought the army into the streets, suspended a lot of civil liberties and led to the largest mass arrests in Canadian history (until the recent G20 protests in Toronto).

It’s a little personal for me, I was 11 years old at the time and living in a small English suburb, Greenfield Park, on the south shore of Montreal. At the time I had a paper route delivering the Montreal Gazette before I went to school and on Sundays I delivered the tabloid, Sunday Express.

So, on October 6th, the day after the British Trade Commissioner James Cross was kidnapped from his house it was on the front page of the newspaper I delivered. I have a feeling that if a foreign dignitary was kidnapped today in a North American city it would be a huge event. At the time it was sort of one more thing in a growing list of things going on.

There had been a lot of bombs, starting in 1963 when a night watchman (wow, we really don’t use that term anymore, do we?) was killed by a bomb that went off in a Canadian Armed Forces recruiting office. Another man was killed by a bomb in 1966 at a shoe factory, targeted because the owners had locked out striking workers and brought in scabs. In 1969 a bomb blew out a wall of the Stock Exchange building and injured a couple dozen people and lots of mailboxes were blown up. Also, we were quite used to bomb scares, I can remember being in a department store with my mother and being told to wait in the parking lot, which we did, until they reopened the store. I have no idea if they found a bomb or not, but I know that hundreds of bombs were discovered and dismantled by the bomb squad.

On one night in 1970 six bombs went off in Westmount, the “rich” part of Montreal, and two more were discovered and dismantled.

So, by the time of the kidnapping I guess it was like that frog in the cold water slowly heating up to the boiling point.

Then a member of the provincial government, a cabinet minister, Pierre Laporte was kidnapped from the front lawn of his home on the south shore. So now it was getting a little closer to home. And then a week later Mr. Laporte’s body was found in the trunk of a car near the St. Hubert air force base on the south shore. I remember the picture that appeared on the cover of the Sunday Express I delivered; the open trunk, the body.

James Cross was held for another six weeks before his kidnappers negotiated a deal that provided them a flight to Cuba in exchange for letting him go.

And now that I’m doing this research I realized, kind of for the first time, that while all this bombing and kidnapping and murdering was going on a few miles from my house, I’d get up before anyone else and walk through the neighbourhood in the dark.

There is no way I’d let either of my sons do that now. But my parents weren’t neglectful or irresponsible. They just lived in a different time.

I can look up all the news events in archives but those different attitudes are the real challenge.

One of my favourite books written recently and set in the 70’s is Charlie Stella’s, Johnny Porno, which perfectly captured the attitudes and the feel of 1973 New York.

What are some of your favourite books set in the late 60’s and early 70’s?


Dana King said...

THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE comes to mind, but that was written during that period, so it may not be what you're looking for, a story that looks back.

James Ellroy's BLOOD'S A ROVER covers that period and then some, though through a somewhat distorted lens. JOHNNY PORNO also ranks high on my list.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I highly recommend BAD HAIRCUT by Tom Perotta, a collection of stories all set then.

Sean Patrick Reardon said...

Great topic and thanks for reminding me about Charlie Porno. A must read after that endoresement.

I loved:
- "Wiseguy"
- "Casino"
- "Blow: How a Small Town Boy Made a $100 Million with the MedellĂ­n Cocaine Cartel and Lost It All"
- "Snowblind: A Brief Career in the Cocaine Trade"

Yeah, all non-fic, but oh so good!

Al Tucher said...

Laws of Our Fathers, by Scott Turow. The typically intricate story alternates between 1970 and 1996, and as I read the 1970 sections, I remember thinking, "I'm glad we don't have to do this anymore." Black Power and the antiwar movement were inevitable, given what came before them, but a lot of people became casualties.

John McFetridge said...

Dana, I just finished the Ellroy, great stuff.

Patti, I like Perotta but I've never read the short stories, thanks.

Sean, non-fiction, great suggestions.

Al, it's amazing as I go through these old newspapers how much of "this" there was going on. It seems there was a major riot in every city in 1968 from Paris to Prague to all over America. A lot of news stories about "skyjackings," and today I was reading about the Manson Family murders.

No wonder people were so annoyed when I showed up with the newspaper ;)

Don McLean really nailed it:

But February made me shiver
With every paper I’d deliver.
Bad news on the doorstep;
I couldn’t take one more step.

But I was oblivious, really. I actually got most of my news on Saturday morning TV from "In the News with Christopher Glenn."

Al Tucher said...

That kind of reception could really have traumatized an 11-year-old!