I’m sure we all have times when we wish we could do whatever we wanted. But life’s not like that and if you put it in perspective, it’s a good thing it isn’t. Imagine for instance a world where there was no recourse if someone swindled you because they wanted to, or a world in which people who were larger, more powerful and better-armed could take whatever they wanted from you. Of course things like this do happen. But those are often exceptions, rather than the rule. In case you’re having trouble imagining the way life would be without a sense of order, all you need to do is look at crime fiction to see what happens when anarchy starts to gain the upper hand.
In Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None (AKA Ten Little Indians), a group of people is invited for a stay at Indian Island off the Devon coast. For different reasons, each person accepts the invitation and everyone gathers at the island. On the first day all seems to be going well and the guests settle in. Then, after dinner on the first night, each one of the people on the island is accused of causing the death of at least one other person. As if that’s not shocking enough, one of the guests suddenly dies of what turns out to be poison. Late that night there’s another death. It’s soon clear that one of the people on the island is a murderer whose plan is to kill all of the others. Meanwhile a storm has come up and cut the island off from the mainland. One by one, the guests continue to die and the survivors have to do whatever they can to stay alive. It’s an interesting and eerie case of what happens when paranoia combines with the lack of a sense of the normal order of things.
In Michael Connelly’s The Black Ice, L.A.P.D. detective Harry Bosch discovers that one of his fellow cops Calexico “Cal” Moore has apparently committed suicide and that it happened on Bosch’s patch. He goes to the scene of the death only to be told to leave the case alone, that Moore had “turned” – gone dirty – and the department doesn’t want to be embarrassed by that. In fact, Bosch is given a set of eight other cases to solve to keep him away from the Moore case. But this being Harry Bosch, he doesn’t let the case alone. He begins to find little signs that Moore did not commit suicide and starts exploring Moore’s possible connections with a Mexican gang that’s been dealing in “black ice,” a dangerous drug that contains heroin, cocaine and PCP. Bosch traces Moore’s dealings and history to a Mexican border town area that’s basically a “no-man’s land” ruled by the drug gang. He’s warned several times and with good reason not to go there, but that doesn’t stop him. In the end, Bosch finds out what the connection is between the Mexican drug gang, the death he’s investigating and two other deaths that occur in the novel. And no, it’s not the obvious connection.
There’s a real sense of what happens when anarchy starts to take over in Alex Scarrow’s Last Light and Afterlight. Those novels tell the story of Andy and Jenny Sutherland and their children and what happens to them when the world’s supply of oil is suddenly and deliberately cut off. In Last Light they happen to all be in different places when the oil is cut off, and each of them tries desperately to re-unite with the others. Throughout that novel we see how the old saying that “only the strongest survive” plays out as people scrabble to survive. In Afterlight, which takes place ten years after the events of Last Light, some groups of people have established more or less orderly communities. One of those communities, located on an oil rig, is led by Jenny Sutherland. The members of the community have managed to put together a life and a sort of social order that allows people to live together reasonably well. Then the group rescues a badly wounded man Valerie Latoc, whom they find in a town not far from the oil rig. They bring Latoc back to the rig and nurse him to health. That’s when the trouble begins as Latoc begins to sabotage the fragile sense of community that the group has developed. Together these novels offer among other things a gripping look at what happens when the normal sense of order breaks down and anarchy begins to prevail.
There’s also a look at what happens when anarchy threatens in Deon Meyer’s Blood Safari. Emma le Roux hires personal bodyguard Martin Lemmer to protect her as she takes on a very dangerous challenge. Twenty years earlier, Emma’s brother Jacobus disappeared from Kruger National Park where he was working in a special branch of the South African military – the Nature and Environmental Conservation Unit. At the time it was assumed that Jacobus le Roux had run afoul of poachers and paid the ultimate price for it. But Emma has recently seen a man on television whom she believes strongly is her brother. So she decides to find out for herself what the truth is about Jacobus’ disappearance. Emma and Martin Lemmer leave Cape Town, which has its own very real dangers, and travel to the Lowveld, which has nearly no law at all – at least no dependable responsible law enforcement. They quickly find that there is much, much more to Jacobus le Roux’s disappearance than a fight with poachers. It turns out that the truth has everything to do with some very ugly political, social and economic realities. Throughout the novel, we see that in a lot of ways, this is a “kill or be killed” kind of situation. As Lemmer and le Roux try to find out answers, they also have to face off against some very, very nasty people who don’t mind killing and who have little to fear from law enforcement. That adds a solid layer of suspense to this novel.
We see a similar effect of the suspense brought on by anarchy in Roger Smith’s Dust Devils. In that novel, former reporter Robert Dell is the only survivor after he and his wife and two children are ambushed not far from Cape Town. Then, Dell is framed for the murders and sent to prison to await trial – a trial that’s likely to be a sham. He’s freed from prison when his father, with whom he hasn’t had contact in twenty-five years, manages to engineer his escape. Dell’s father Bobby Goodbread has “inside information” on the murders of Dell’s wife and children and he has his own reasons for going after the killer. So Dell and his father leave Cape Town and head towards Zululand where the killer has a home base. Along the way we learn that the murderer is Inja Mazibuko, a locally powerful Zulu warlord who committed the murders on orders from his boss. Also traveling to Zululand, but for a different reason, is Disaster Zondi, a bureaucrat who’s just lost his job. The three men get ready for a confrontation with Mazibuko, but Mazibuko is a very powerful man with connections all the way to the top of the South African government. And in the part of Zululand where they’re headed, there really is no trustworthy law enforcement, especially not for “regular” people. Throughout the novel we can see how the feeling of anarchy has affected people. Nearly no-one can be trusted, and many of the characters live in fear for their lives and stay as inconspicuous as they can, just to stay out of trouble and survive. In the end, though, we find out exactly why Dell’s family was attacked and who’s behind it, and we see how Goodbread, Dell and Zondi deal with the chaos in which they find themselves.
There are of course other crime novels that feature this theme or context of anarchy; space has only allowed me to mention a few. It can be an effective tool to ratchet up suspense and to add interesting plot twists and threads.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Sheryl Crow’s Everyday is a Winding Road.