Where should the coronavirus pandemic figure in modern mystery fiction? Should it figure at all? It seems to me as I write this (late 2022) that most of the world is doing its very best to forget it ever happened. By that reasoning, arguably no one wants to read about it in a novel.
Yet back in the day, it was all-preoccupying. It was a massive part of our lives. You couldn’t switch on a radio or TV, or speak to a friend or relative, or browse social media, without hearing something about it. It was everywhere. So how much of that constant awareness should be reflected in fiction set at that time?
This was the puzzle I confronted when preparing my latest mystery novel for publication. Back in early 2020, when I had the original idea for the story, the first phase of the pandemic was at its peak. People were wearing facemasks in public spaces; they were self-isolating when they fell ill; they were being told to stay home from work. Travel bans were being imposed across the world. People were dying in their thousands. And at that point there was no vaccine to combat the disease.
Packed with coronavirus plot points
As a result, the first iteration of my new book was packed with coronavirus plot points. The characters were constrained in their work and travel opportunities; couples were marooned apart from each other; businesses were failing; and some of the characters were falling ill.
For various reasons (not just coronavirus reasons) I wasn’t happy with the original draft, and in the end I put the book on hold for a year and a half. When I revisited it in 2022, I had some new ideas about how the plot should play out, and I revised it extensively. Things were looking promising.
But what about the coronavirus elements? They now seemed hopelessly outdated. Vaccines had come along. The omicron variant had proved far less invasive than the original strain. And perhaps most important, people were tired of having news about the virus pumped out at them all day long. They wanted to move on. Surely the last thing they needed was to have it thrown at them in fiction?
I decided that these concerns were justified, so I did another revision of the book, and expunged about 80 per cent of the covid references. Suddenly it seemed to work! I retained covid mentions that were essential to the plot, plus occasional comments about the strangeness of life at that time, but in other respects the story was now covid-free.
The benefits of a applying retrospective filter
The outcome? In my opinion it’s a far more effective novel now. Covid is seen with a retrospective filter; it’s there, but in small amounts, simply providing a backdrop to events at a moment in time. The story pretty much works without it.
What I’ve discovered from this experience is just how difficult it is to write a book that reflects a world crisis before there is any certainty about if, and how, the crisis will be resolved. This perhaps explains why, for example, only a limited amount of great fiction was written during the second world war. There are many war stories celebrating specific achievements or focusing on the impact of the war on individuals, but there wasn’t much attempt to present the “big picture” because no one at the time knew what the big picture was. Apart from propaganda, most great books and films about the war were created after it was over.
It seems to me that fiction requires basic assumptions to be fixed – a bit like the painted scenery that formed the backdrop of those old animated cartoon films. So before I start crafting a novel around the cost of living crisis or the Ukraine war, I’ll be reminding myself to stop, take stock, and wait until the fog clears. The result will be much better in the long run; I’m now convinced of that.