Between World War II and the early 1990’s, the conflict/rivalry between the US and its allies and the Soviet Union and its allies was arguably the most influential political reality the world faced. The Cold War, as that conflict is called, had far too many effects for me to mention here. Science, the development of technology, culture, education, literature, the arts and many other areas were deeply affected by the Cold War. So it makes sense and is only logical that the Cold War would play a major role in crime fiction, and it has. There isn’t space in this one post for me to mention all of the novels that have the Cold War as their theme, so I’ll touch on just a few.
Agatha Christie’s post-World War II novels mention Communism and Communists more than once. For instance in Hickory Dickory Dock (AKA Hickory Dickory Death), Hercule Poirot is asked by his ultra-efficient secretary Miss Lemon to help her sister Mrs. Hubbard get to the bottom of a series of odd thefts at the student hostel she manages. Poirot agrees and visits the hostel one evening. When one of the residents Celia Austin confesses to some of the thefts everyone thinks the matter is settled. But then, two days later, Celia Austin dies of poisoning in what looks like a suicide. It’s soon proven though that she was murdered, so Poirot works with Inspector Sharpe to find out who killed the victim and why. It turns out that Celia Austin knew too much about another resident’s secrets; that’s why she was murdered. In the process of finding out which resident is the killer, Poirot and Sharpe uncover the fact that someone is a member of the Communist Party. There are other references too to the Cold War. For instance, one of the residents Sally Finch is an American who’s had a creepy feeling for a while that something was very wrong at the hostel. Several people put down her feelings to anti-Communism although that’s not true. This novel weaves the sentiment of the times throughout the plot although it’s not directly relevant to the mystery.
Walter Mosley’s A Red Death was written in 1991, but takes place in the early 1950’s and captures the Cold War sentiment of that time. Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins is a former employee of a Los Angeles-area aircraft company who’s been laid off. He’s found a new career “doing favours for friends” and as a result of one of those favours he’s earned quite a lot of money on which he hasn’t paid taxes. One day he gets a letter from an Internal Revenue Service agent threatening him with jail if he doesn’t pay the taxes he owes, something that Rawlins cannot afford to do. He’s resigned to doing time in prison when he gets an unexpected way out. FBI Agent Darryl Craxton tells Rawlins that the FBI is investigating former Polish Resistance fighter Chaim Wenzler as a possible Communist. If Rawlins will help the FBI bring Wenzler down, Craxton will work with Lawrence to make Rawlins’ tax problems go away. Seeing no other option, Rawlins agrees. Wenzler is an active volunteer for the First African Baptist Church, so Rawlins gets involved as a co-volunteer to get close to Wenzler. The better he gets to know Wenzler, though, the more Rawlins likes him. He finds what he has to do increasingly distasteful, but Craxton begins to pressure him for information and Rawlins knows the consequences if he doesn’t co-operate. Then, two other members of the church community are murdered. And an earlier death that looked like suicide turns out also to be a murder. Now Rawlins, who was at both scenes, is suspected of murder and has to clear his name as well as find out the truth about Wenzler.
There are also of course many thrillers by authors such as John le Carré that focus on Cold War-era government plots, spies and spying. Those novels have made many contributions to the thriller genre.
In 1993, the former Soviet Union dissolved. But that didn’t end the misunderstanding and distrust between the former enemies. It’s been extremely interesting to see how the crime fiction that’s been written since that time depicts interactions between former Soviet citizens and citizens of Western countries who were allied with the US during the Cold War.
For instance, in Margaret Truman’s Murder in the House, Congressman Paul Latham is set to become the next US Secretary of State. On the night before his confirmation hearings, though, he’s shot. The first explanation for his murder is suicide but that isn’t accepted for long. It then comes out that his former assistant Marge Edwards was possibly going to accuse him of sexual misconduct. That lurid story is blazed across all the newspapers, but then, Edwards disappears. Now, Georgetown School of Law professor Mackensie “Mac” Smith gets involved when a former student who’s now in the CIA contacts him to tell him that there was much more going on in Latham’s life than it seemed on the surface. Smith was a friend of Latham’s and is sure that he wasn’t guilty of sexual misconduct. He’s even surer that Latham wouldn’t have committed suicide. As it turns out, Latham was connected to a powerful US businessman who’s been trying to make another fortune in the new economy of post-Soviet Russia. He’s made several contacts there and it’s quite possible that Latham’s connection with these newly established business ties could be behind his death. It’s very interesting to see how Truman treats the Russian businessmen and their associates who figure in this novel. She (Truman) was of course the daughter of US President Harry Truman whose administration was the first of the Cold War.
Robin Cook’s Vector features a look at post-Cold War US/Russian feelings. Yuri Davydov is an émigré to New York City. In the Soviet Union, he was a technician in the biological weapons program Biopreparat so he’s got well-honed technical and science skills. But in the US, Yuri Davydov has only been able to find work as a taxi driver. He’s miserable and is convinced that he’s been cheated by the illusion of the “American dream.” He finds sympathetic ears in the persons of a group of skinheads who blame the government (among other “villains”) for all of their misfortune. When Davydov’s new friends learn of his biological warfare knowledge, they know they’ve found a valuable ally and Davydov ends up getting involved in a plot to unleash the anthrax bacteria. New York City medical examiners Jack Stapleton and Laurie Montgomery begin to suspect terrorism when a carpet dealer dies of what turns out to be anthrax poisoning. Bit by bit the two medical examiners put the pieces of the puzzle together and try desperately to catch the conspirators before they unleash the poison.
And then there’s Ian Rankin’s Exit Music, in which Edinburgh Inspector John Rebus and his partner Siobhan Clarke investigate the murder of poet Alexander Todorov, whose body is found in a disreputable neighbourhood. At first it looks as though he was the victim of a mugging gone wrong, but soon enough it turns out that the murder was more deliberate than that. Before his death, Todorov was at a dinner with members of a group of wealthy Russian businessman who’ve made new homes and fortunes in Edinburgh. They’re not fans of Todorov’s controversial poetry and in fact one of them actually said he wished Todorov was dead. Rebus finds that out and discovers that those businessmen may be involved with his nemesis Edinburgh crime boss Morris Gerald “Big Ger” Cafferty; that’s all he needs to assume that somehow Todorov’s killing was ordered. That assumption leads Rebus in the wrong direction, as Todorov’s murder was both more complicated and simpler than that.
In the roughly twenty years since the end of the Cold War, it’s been very interesting to see how crime fiction has come to depict relations between the former enemies. That relationship is complicated and fascinating and I’ll be really interested to see how the crime fiction of the coming decades portrays Russians and Americans and their interactions.
On Another Note…
The ‘photo is of an egg painted in the Russian tradition. It was given to me by a friend and colleague Peter Serdyukov, whom I’m honoured to know. He and I have co-authored a book and co-written a paper based on a presentation we did. We grew up on opposite sides of the “Iron Curtain,” but fortunately for me, Peter and his family moved to the US several years ago. He’s an expert in language teaching methodology, models of education and online teaching and I am a better person and a better professional because of my friendship with him.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Leningrad.