Whenever I start reading a crime or mystery novel, the first thing I do is take a look at the copyright date. My reason for doing this is twofold. First, I need to know whether the film that will play out in the theater of my mind will be in color or black and white. My rule of thumb is that anything before 1960 will be B&W, while anything from the Sixties forward will be in color. Needless to say, that will also affect the garb of the characters and the vehicles they drive. Second, I need to understand the context of the currency, and that's the hardest part of reading a period crime novel.
For example, Philip Marlowe is always paying off some informant, slipping him a dollar for some valuable information. Nowadays, try to buy info for a buck and your stoolie might say, "Hey, buddy, where's the other nineteen to go along with that?" On the other hand, he might decide to loosen someone's tongue with some liquor, some slugs of Old Forester. Even then, it's a cheap investment, since he can get an informant drunk, have a few shots himself, and still get change back from his $5...and that includes sliding a dime to the bartender as a tip. Even Marlowe's rates ($25 a day, plus expenses) sound picayune by today's standards, where a lunch can cost that much easily. It helps, though, when I remember that my grandfather was at the time making $3,500 per year, and that was a excellent salary, him being a stationary engineer. In comparison, a journalist on the same census report was listed as making $2,800 a year, with a teacher earning slightly less. Understanding Marlowe's rates also helps me to understand his clients. Somebody who could pay him $25 a day, plus expenses (let's call it $35) is pretty well heeled. Could you hire a detective for $450 a day? It explains why Marlowe's clients often wore diamonds.
In crime books, there are often robberies, kidnappings and murders. More often than not, the motive is money. When I read about a robbery that nets a cool $5,000 or even $10,000, my first thought is, You could have got that with a job at Burger King...no guns involved. Even a ransom demand of $50,000 seems petty, less than a year's salary in a mediocre job. I remember an episode of the old TV series The Saint where an actress and an actor were kidnapped from the stage of an Italian sword & sandal film. The kidnappers wanted $25,000 for the actress, but only $5,000 for the musclebound actor. When the aggrieved actor complained to the kidnappers, he was told, "Well, we had to ask for something we thought they would pay." An insult in comparison, perhaps, but still a princely sum, equal to about $60,000 today...well, I guess it was rather insulting after all since that's still a mediocre job these days. When you move into the rather rarefied air of millions you begin to get away from actual sums and start dealing with ideas and concepts. A title like Million Dollar Murder evoked a response from a reader that had nothing to do with the actual sum. A million dollars was an unreachable amount, a synonym for "more money than you can imagine"...which was also a common line in crime novels back in the day. Today, a million bucks is a lot of money only in an abstract sense, a tenuous tie with tradition. In reality, it's not much to get excited about. Anyone in a mediocre job ($50,00/year) will earn that much in just twenty years. The whole point of citing a million dollars was to evoke the feeling that that was more than the average reader could ever make...doing something legal,
Even the lofty billion ($1,000,000,000) is on the verge of becoming an endangered species. If a million bucks was unimaginable, then a billion was inconceivable, the sort of thing that might cause an embolism if a crook considered it too long. Nowadays, billion has become the new million, which has become the new thousand. If this keeps up, the next time you pay your bill at McDonald's, you might have to say, "Sorry, I don't have anything smaller than the new Booker T. Washington $20,000,000 bill." It can get quite depressing reading a period crime novel, not for any action in the book itself, but because the devolution of our money really hits home. Sure, wages were low, but so were prices, and the money you earned actually had value. People might look down on what my grandfather earned in the Thirties, but his six kids never went hungry and always had shoes.
So, when I read crime novels and money invariably enters the picture, I have to make adjustments to keep the amounts in perspective. However, it's too depressing to think of what that would be equal to now. I find it is better to immerse myself in the story and the times, adjusting myself to the book rather than the book to me. Yeah, I'm happier that way.