There’ve been all sorts of fictional and historical accounts of the ‘witch trials’ in Salem, Massachusetts during 1692 and 1693. Those events have captured a lot of people’s imaginations and the term ‘witch hunt’ has become synonymous with group hysteria that can lead to injustice and much worse. And if you read history you’ll know that Salem was by no means the first instance of mass hysteria about witchcraft. There’s a line between concern for public safety and the public good on the one hand, and mass hysteria on the other. It’s sometimes hard to say precisely where that line is, but there are many cases where it’s been crossed. A quick look at crime fiction shows some interesting examples.
Hysteria about witches plays a role in Robin Cook’s Acceptable Risk. In that novel, neuroscientist Edward Armstrong is doing research on anti-depressants. He’s introduced to a nurse, Kimberly Stewart, and the two are soon involved romantically. Kimberly is a descendant of Elizabeth Stewart, who was hanged for witchcraft during the 17th Century wave of anti-witch hysteria. As Armstrong learns about the family history, he also sees another possible avenue for research. It turns out that bread baked in the Stewart home was contaminated with ergot, which has certain psychotropic effects. The house is still in the Stewart family, and Armstrong wants to experiment with the ergot that grows there to see if it has promise as an anti-depressant. The first results are truly exciting and Armstrong and his research team think they’ve made a major medical breakthrough. Then, some disturbing things begin to happen. Before long it’s clear that Armstrong, Stewart and the rest of the team are in far greater danger than anyone imagined.
During the ‘Cold War’ between the US and the UK and their allies, and the then-Soviet Union and its allies, there was a great deal of fear about communism. There was reason to be concerned about Soviet spying, and that concern led to fear and even hysteria. For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Hickory Dickory Dock (AKA Hickory DIckory Death), Hercule Poirot investigates some unusual events at a hostel for students. Odd things have been disappearing there and, as the manager Mrs. Hubbard is the sister of Poirot’s secretary Felicity Lemon, Poirot agrees to visit the hostel. On the night of his visit, one of the residents Celia Austin admits having taken some of the things. When she does, it’s believed that the matter is settled. When Celia dies two nights later, her death is put down to suicide, but it’s soon proven she was murdered. Now Poirot and Inspector Sharpe look into the backgrounds and personal lives of the other hostel residents to find out who would have wanted to kill Celia and why. In the process, they discover quite a bit of anit-communist sentiment. That discussion forms an interesting thread in this story.
We see that same sort of hysteria reflected in Walter Mosley’s A Red Death. Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlins is an amateur PI in post-World War II Los Angeles. One day he gets a letter from Internal Revenue Service (IRS) agent Reginald Lawrence, claiming that he owes thousands of dollars in back taxes and threatening jail if he doesn’t pay up. Rawlins doesn’t have that kind of money so he starts to resign himself to the very real possibility of a jail term. Then he gets a way out. FBI agent Darryl Craxton offers to make Rawlins’ tax problems go away if he’ll do something in return. The FBI wants to bring down suspected communist Chaim Wenzler, a Polish war refugee. Wenzler does a lot of volunteer work for the First African Baptist Church, and Craxton wants Rawlins to use that volunteer work to get close to Wenzler and inform on him. Rawlins isn’t interested but he sees no other way out of his tax trouble. So he agrees to the plan. As he gets to know Wenzler, he discovers that he likes the man and becomes less and less eager to set him up. Then there are two murders at the church. Since Rawlins was there at the time, he’s a natural suspect. Then the LAPD link him to an earlier death. It’s now clear that someone’s trying to frame him for murder. So Rawlins has to clear his name and strike a very delicate balance between keeping to his agreement with Craxton and keeping Wenzler out of trouble if he can. Throughout the novel there’s a strong thread of anti-communist hysteria and Rawlins is appealed to as a ‘patriotic American’ to do his share.
Anti-Western hysteria shows up in a lot of crime fiction too. For instance, William Ryan’s Captain Alexei Korolev series takes place mostly in pre-World War II Moscow. During those years of Stalinist rule, anyone perceived as having any kind of pro-Western or anti-Soviet sentiment was considered an enemy of the state. Such people were often executed or sent off to gulags for ‘re-education.’ Life was hard for their family members too. In this atmosphere people live in dread of being betrayed to the NKVD as traitors. In fact, Korolev himself has to be very careful. As a CID police investigator, he and his team are responsible for catching criminals. It’s in the Soviet interest to have a strong record of catching and punishing those who break the law. But at the same time, Korolev finds that the trail sometimes leads to the NKVD or to other highly respected and powerful Soviet citizens. To suggest that they may be involved in crime is to run the risk of being declared an enemy of the state.
We also see that kind of anti-Western ‘witch hunt’ in Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis’ Death of a Nightingale, the third of their Nina Borg series. In one plot thread of this novel, two sisters, Olga and Oxana, are growing up in the Ukraine during the terrible famine years of 1934-1936. Everyone is exhorted to make sacrifices for the greater good of the State, but that doesn’t fill people’s stomachs. Yet people who complain or worse, who seem to be too well-fed or have too much food, are in real danger. They’re perceived as traitorous and are denounced. At that time, even the slightest denunciation was enough to consign a person or family to Siberia or worse, as this was the time of Stalin’s Great Purge of people he saw as enemies. That climate of fear and the ever-increasing circle of denunciations play an important role in this plot thread of the novel. Years later, this story casts a shadow when Natasha Doroshenko and her daughter Katerina flee the Ukraine after the murder of Natasha’s journalist husband Pavel. They make their way to Denmark where at first Natasha thinks she’s found a haven. That turns out to be tragically false when she’s imprisoned for the attempted murder of her fiancé Michael Vestergaard. Then, she overhears a conversation that convinces her that her past in the Ukraine has caught up with her. So she escapes police custody and heads for Coal House Camp, a Red Cross facility where Katerina has been staying. That’s when the real danger starts for her, for Katerina and for Nina Borg.
There are other series too, such as Colin Cotterill’s Siri Paiboun series, which takes place in 1970’s Laos, that address themes of what you could call ‘witch hunts.’ In series like that, people are encouraged to denounce others, even friends and family members, as traitors. That climate of fear adds a layer of tension to a novel or series. It’s even more disturbing when we think how close those novels come to real life.
ps. The ‘photo is part of an illustration of Pedro Berruguete’s Auto-da-fé, which hangs in Madrid’s Prado Museum. It’s a haunting reminder that widespread fear and the fear of being denounced have a long history.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Stephen Stills’ For What it’s Worth.