An interesting comment exchange has got me thinking about something you might or might not have noticed about crime fiction. But of course, you’ve probably noticed it. Crime fiction gets away with addressing some very controversial and difficult subjects. Of course crime writers aren’t the only ones who’ve done that and it’s not really a new phenomenon. Authors such as Shakespeare, Benjamin Franklin and Jonathan Swift used their pens to make statements hundreds of years ago. And they got away with it even in the days when it could be extremely dangerous to question or poke fun at society. For most crime writers the stakes aren’t so high these days. But even so, it does involve risk when an author addresses a difficult or controversial subject. And yet, a lot of crime writers have done just that.
How have they got away with it? I’m not a sociologist or psychologist, but my guess is that part of the reason is that those statements are wrapped up in well-written stories. We read those stories and get caught up in them and it’s only in the context of the story that we think about the political or social point the author is making. Also, by its very nature crime fiction deals with the darker side of human nature. People get murdered in crime fiction. So there’s a certain amount of leeway in terms of what’s considered fair game for the genre. You can probably think of a lot more examples of this kind of risk-taking than I can. Here are just a few.
Agatha Christie often held up a mirror to society in her writing. I’ll just give one example. In Hickory Dickory Dock (AKA Hickory Dickory Death), Hercule Poirot’s secretary Miss Lemon is concerned about some strange thefts and other events that have occurred at the student hostel managed by her sister Mrs. Hubbard. Poirot agrees to look into the matter and he pays a visit to the hostel. There, he urges Mrs. Hubbard to call in the police immediately. Before she can do that, hostel resident Celia Austin comes forward and admits she is responsible for most of the thefts. At first it looks as though the matter is settled. But two nights later Celia dies, an apparent suicide. As Poirot and Inspector Sharpe look into the case we get to know the various students. In their interactions there are some interesting discussions of racial prejudice, communism and anti-communist hysteria, all controversial topics for the time (the novel was published in 1955). That commentary though isn’t really the central focus of the novel. Instead the story itself is the main focus.
The same is true in Dorothy Sayers’ Strong Poison. In that novel mystery novelistHarriet Vane is arrested for the poisoning murder of her former lover Philip Boyes. There’s evidence against her, and she had a motive so the case doesn’t look particularly hopeful. Lord Peter Wimsey attends her trial and is immediately smitten with Vane. He determines to clear her name so he can marry her, and when the jury can’t agree on a verdict, he gets a month in which to do so. With help from his friends Katherine Climpson and Inspector Parker, and his valet Mervyn Bunter, Wimsey investigates and discovers who the real killer is. At the time this novel was published, it was considered socially unacceptable to live with someone and be romantically involved without being married. Women in particular were expected to live up to a very rigourous moral code. Sayers takes a look at this social ‘double standard’ in part by making Harriet Vane a sympathetic character even though she lived with Boyes without being married. There are also a few scenes in the novel where characters with more old-fashioned standards are painted unsympathetically. While women’s status is not the central focus of the story, it’s interesting to see how Sayers weaves it through the novel. She does a similar thing with the issue of the death penalty in Busman’s Honeymoon. Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane have married, and gone to a country home called Tallboys for their honeymoon. When they arrive they discover that the house’s former owner William Noakes has been murdered. Wimsey discovers who the killer is and truly agonises about contributing to the killer’s arrest because he knows the killer will be executed. Again, the question of whether the death penalty is appropriate isn’t the main focus, but Sayers does address that issue.
Maj Sjöwall and Per Whalöö used their Martin Beck series to take a good look at the Sweden of the 1960’s and 1970’s during which the series was published. Crime fiction fans will know that they were leftists who made many critiques of their society. Let me give just two examples. In Murder at the Savoy Beck and his team investigate the murder of wealthy businessman Viktor Palmgren, who’s shot during a posh dinner at the Savoy Hotel. In the course of finding out who the killer was, the team learns quite a lot about Palmgren’s history and his business affairs and it’s clear from that he made several enemies. In the context of the search for the killers, there is a critique of the Swedish class system of the times and of the business and government elites who perpetuated it. In The Abominable Man, Beck and his team investigate the murder of police inspector Stig Nyman. As they look into the case to find out who would have wanted to kill him, they find a long list of suspects as Nyman had a history of brutality. That issue – police brutality and too many people’s willingness to look the other way – is a major theme in the novel. Although there is little doubt of Sjöwall and Whalöö’s political and social agenda, the real attention in these novels is on the plots and the characters.
We also see this in A Case of Need, which Michael Crichton wrote under the name of Jeffery Hudson. The focus in this novel is the death of Karen Randall, the daughter of wealthy and powerful surgeon J.D. Randall. OB-GYN Dr. Albert Lee is soon arrested for performing an illegal abortion (this novel was published in 1968, before abortion was legal in the U.S.) that led to the young woman’s death. Lee claims that he is innocent and is being targeted because he’s Chinese-American. He asks his friend pathologist Dr. John Berry to help clear his name and Berry agrees. As Berry searches for the truth about the death of Karen Randall, Hudson/Crichton discusses the reality of the abortion controversy. There are some very ugly scenes involving people on both sides of the issue. The issue of racial prejudice is also brought up here. But in both cases the focus remains on the story – on the question of what happened to Karen Randall and why.
That’s also the case in Ruth Rendell’s Simisola. Inspector Reg Wexford has to confront his own feelings about race and class when his physician Dr. Raymond Akande asks Wexford’s help. Akande’s twenty-two-year-old daughter Melanie hasn’t been seen for a few days and her parents are getting worried. Wexford isn’t concerned at first; there could be any number of reasons for which a young woman might go off for a few days without telling her parents. But when more time goes by Wexford agrees to look into the matter. Shortly after Melanie’s disappearance, Employment Bureau employee Annette Bystock is found murdered. Since Melanie had an appointment with Bystock just before she disappeared it’s soon clear to Wexford and his team that the two cases are related. Then, the body of a young woman is found in nearby woods. At first Wexford is sure the body is Melanie Akande’s. He’s wrong. As it turns out, all of these events are tied up with the Employment Bureau in an interesting way. As Wexford and the team look closely at the bureau, Rendell holds up a mirror to the class system, the system of providing for the unemployed and the reality of what amounts to human trafficking. There’s an unflinching look at racial prejudice too. But it’s the story and the characters that keep the reader’s attention.
Y.A. Erskine’s The Brotherhood is the story of one awful morning when Tasmania Police sergeant John White and probationer Lucy Howard are called to the scene of a break-in. Shortly after they arrive White is murdered. The most likely suspect is seventeen-year-old Darren Rowley, and there are good reasons to assume he’s responsible. But he is part Aborigine and the police know that if they don’t handle the investigation precisely ‘by the book’ they’ll be accused of brutality and racism. As the Tasmania Police come to grips with the death of their beloved sergeant, we follow the investigation of the murder. And in the course of building the context and giving background information on the characters Erskine also takes an unflinching look at race relations, police brutality (or is it?), social class and corruption. This novel takes aim at social issues while at the same time telling the story of a murder investigation.
And that, to me, is part of how crime writers have gotten away with talking about controversial topics and holding up a mirror to society. They tell stories and those stories – not so much the controversy – are at the heart of what they write.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Blonde Over Blue.