Reading books written as contemporary even 20 years ago can show how much the world has changed. Communications, especially mobile phones and social media are the most obvious changes, but reading an early book by one of my favourite crime writers produced a different focus - money.
The classic advice for authors is to avoid mentioning specific sums. The reader can fill in the detail, with whatever amount seems reasonable to them. One woman's fortune is another woman's pin money. But sometimes it's not that easy to leave the space blank. When writing Masquerade on the Riviera I knew I had to decide on a price that would be asked for the famous Cleopatra Necklace. There was no way around it. After some long and careful thought, I settled on five million. It might be considered rather on the low side, when compared with some of the lottery wins that happen nowadays, but I thought about the character of the person making the request, what they thought they could get away with and what they thought they would need to set themselves up in a new life. Five million seemed about right, so that's the sum I chose.
The book that prompted these reflections was Past Caring, by Robert Goddard. As I have said, he has been a favourite over the years and this was his first book. I assumed that I had already read it, so it was a pleasant surprise to find that I hadn't. The time lines of the book were interesting. Published in 1986, it was set mainly in the 1970s - understandable as the action stretched back to 1910, with characters who have seen action in the Boer War. The constraints of writing about suffragettes and First World War soldiers who were still alive but very elderly is similar to those of us who currently write about survivors from World War Two.
But I digress.
The sum of money that brought me up short was the mention of £210,000 as sufficient to ensure the continued solvency of a middle aged character at the end of the book. It was fascinating to reflect on the value then of a sum that would now barely cover the cost of a modest terraced house in an area outside London. We'd have to be talking around a million these days, I guess, but in the early 1980s, when the book finishes, that sum must have seemed like the equivalent. It makes you think, which is always good. Genre novels often get overlooked as social history, but they've got a part to play just as much as literary and non fiction.