Today (or tomorrow, depending on when you read this) is Guy Fawkes Day, which commemorates Robert Catesby’s failed plot to assassinate England’s King James I (Fawkes was one of Catesby’s fellow plotters). Of course, there’ve been lots of plots against governments since then, some of them more threatening than others. And that premise – a group of people plotting against a government or governments – has been popular in crime fiction, too. That’s not surprising, really; it can make for a tension-filled story. So I thought today might be a good day to take a quick look at the way this theme plays out in crime fiction.
For example, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s His Last Bow, Holmes and Watson take on the delicate and difficult case of Van Bork, a German émigré to England. As it turns out, Van Bork has been quietly collecting intelligence on the British government and its military capabilities for the past four years. He’s planning to pass that information on to his own government as World War I approaches. When Holmes discovers Van Bork’s real identity and intentions, he and Watson come up with an ingenious plan to stop Van Bork. I don’t want to give spoilers; this dénouement’s more effective if you don’t know what’s coming.
Agatha Christie mentions plots against governments in more than one of her stories and novels. And of course, her sleuths Tommy and Tuppence Beresford get involved in foiling several espionage plots. I’d like to focus on just one of Christie’s stories that mention this theme. In her short story The Kidnapped Prime Minister, Poirot and Hastings get an unexpected visit one night. The Leader of the House of Commons and a member of the War Cabinet secretly ask his help in finding Prime Minister David MacAdam, who’s apparently been kidnapped. MacAdam was scheduled to make a critical speech at a gathering in Paris. World War II is looming, and MacAdam’s plan is to make a “rally the troops” speech. MacAdam’s political enemies, though, want to bring down his government and move England towards an appeasement approach to the unfolding crisis. Poirot and Hastings are given one day to find the Prime Minister, since his speech is scheduled for the next day. They begin their investigation and in the end, find out what happened to MacAdam and who is responsible for the kidnapping.
Oh, and incidentally, Christie’s short story Murder in the Mews has nothing to do with political plots, but does take place on Guy Fawkes Day. So I felt compelled to mention it ;-).
Ngaio Marsh’s Died in the Wool also has a theme of political plotting. New Zealand MP Flossie Rubrick goes to one of the sheep pens on her husband’s farm to prepare a speech she’ll soon be giving. She doesn’t return and the alarm’s raised, but her body can’t be found (Hmm… another case of a politician who disappears just before a major speech; seems these politicians risk more than just a drop in the polls ). Three weeks later, her body turns up encased in a bale of wool. This murder looks as though it might be politically-motivated, and even involve espionage. So Rubrick’s nephew contacts Inspector Roderick Alleyn, asking him to investigate. It turns out that several members of Rubrick’s family – including Rubrick herself – are hiding secrets. So Alleyn has to dig deeply to find out whose political interests were served by Flossie Rubrick’s death.
Vince Flynn has written several political thrillers that include this theme of plotting against governments. In Term Limits, for instance, three powerful Washington politicians are murdered in very quick succession. A group of rogue military commandos claims responsibility, saying that the murders will continue until power is restored to the people. This group believes that all politicians are corrupt and deserve to die. Former Marine Michael O’Rourke believes the killings bear the hallmarks of Special Forces operatives, and he teams up with the FBI to catch the killers. What’s interesting here is that although O’Rourke wants the killers caught (his brother Tim is a junior Congressman), he also sympathises with the group’s views. O’Rourke’s personal conflict adds a solid layer to his character and to the story.
Glen Peters’ Mrs. D’Silva’s Detective Instinct and the Saitan of Calcutta also has a theme of political plotting. In that novel, which takes place in 1960 Calcutta, Joan D’Silva is a teacher in a Catholic school. One day, D’Silva’s son Errol finds the body of former student Agnes Lal washed up on a riverbank. After the inquest, two other former pupils, Anil Sen and Philomena Thomas, tell D’Silva that Lal was murdered and ask for her help in finding the killer. Then Sen is arrested for stabbing factory manager Thomas James during a riot and forced to confess, although he says he is innocent. As D’Silva begins to look into the case, she discovers that all three former pupils were members of the Workers Revolutionary Movement of Bengal, which is a group dedicated to overthrowing the current Indian government. Led by a saitan called Dutta, It also has the goal of upsetting the privileged position that most Anglo-Indians have held in that society. So while D’Silva is trying to find out who killed Lal and clear Sen’s name if she can, she also has to contend with the machinations of Dutta and his followers, who’ve been encouraged to wreak as much havoc as they can.
Shona MacLean’s The Redemption of Alexander Seaton, which takes place in 17th Century Scotland, also weaves in a theme of political plotting. Former candidate for the ministry Seaton is now undermaster at the local grammar school in Banff. Early one morning, Seaton is shocked to learn that the body of local apothecary’s assistant Patrick Davidson has been found in Seaton’s own classroom. Soon afterwards, Seaton’s friend Charles Thom is arrested for the murder. Thom was Davidson’s rival for Marion Arbuthnott, the apothecary’s daughter, so he is a logical suspect. But Thom claims he’s innocent and begs Seaton to clear his name. Seaton agrees and begins to ask questions. It’s not long before he discovers that several people might have wanted to murder Davidson. Some drawings Davidson left behind suggest that he might have been part of a Spanish plot to overthrow the British government and bring Catholicism back to Scotland. If that’s true, then Davidson could have been killed by someone who found out about that plot, or by one of his political compatriots. In the end, Seaton finds out who really killed Davidson and why, and as he does, we learn how the political intrigues of the time influence people’s attitudes.
There’s worldwide political intrigue in Lindy Cameron’s Redback. That’s the story of a crack Australian retrieval team led by Bryn Gideon. The team is called into action when a group of delegates to the Pacific Tourism and Enviro-Trade Conference is taken hostage by a group of rebels. The team rescues the hostages and soon learns of other seemingly random incidents in other parts of the world. There’s a devastating train-bombing in France, an explosion at a U.S. military base and a group of murders, including that of Australian Attorney-General Barnaby Cross. Journalist Scott Dreher begins to put the pieces of the puzzle together, and before long, it’s clear that these events are related. They’re the work of a shadowy terrorist group and Team Redback is soon drawn into the search for the group and its leaders. It’s a game of “cat and mouse” as Redback and the terrorist plotters square off against each other, and Redback proves itself more than a match for them.
Political plots and conspiracies can form the basis for a compelling and suspenseful novel. Or they can fall flat if the plot is too unbelievable and the characters too “flat.” But what’s your view? Do you enjoy novels with political plots as their theme? Penny for the Guy? (I know…outdated, but I couldn’t resist)