Category Archives: Margaret Truman

Let Me in, Immigration Man*

Immigrant CommunitiesOne of the major social and technological developments of the past 150 years or so is increased mobility. That’s meant that it’s been much more feasible for people to migrate to different places. And they have. But leaving one’s home country doesn’t mean one necessarily wants to give up one’s culture and language. That’s one reason so many places have developed immigrant communities. On the one hand members of those communities need to function within the dominant community. On the other, they have their own unique languages, cultures and ways of looking at life. In a lot of cases immigrant communities are a little like a smaller world within a larger, different world. Immigrant communities are an important part of larger communities, so it’s both interesting and authentic when a novel takes a look at the way those smaller communities function and what they’re like.

For instance, there’s a strong Russian community in New York City, especially in the Brighton Beach area of Brooklyn and surrounding areas. Members of the community have their own customs, language, and so on, and understanding that part of New York City means understanding at least a little about that community. And there are several novels that show us how that community works. For instance, Margaret Truman’s Murder in the House is the story of the murder of U.S. Representative Paul Latham. His death looks like a suicide at first, but Georgetown Law School professor Mackensie ‘Mac’ Smith knows Latham well enough to know he wouldn’t have killed himself. Then a former student who’s now in the CIA contacts Smith to tell him that there was much more going on in Latham’s life that it seems on the surface. One thing that Smith learns for instance is that Latham was connected to powerful U.S. businessman Warren Brazier, who wants to establish a solid foothold in post-Communism Russia. When one of Brazier’s Russian contacts comes to the U.S., he stays for a short time in the Brighton Beach area where he’s fed, housed and so on. Through his visit we get a look at the way that immigrant community functions.

Of course, New York City is home to many other immigrant communities; space doesn’t allow me to mention all of them. So let me just give one more example. Henry Chang’s New York-based noir series features police detective Jack Yu. Yu grew up in New York City’s Chinatown and in the series debut Chinatown Beat, he’s just been stationed there as his police assignment. The Chinatown community has been a part of New York City for a very long time, so in this series we see an interesting phenomenon. We don’t just see what this community is like and how it functions; we also see how it’s integrated into the larger community and how each influences the other.

Elizabeth George gives us a look at the Pakastani community in England in Deception on His Mind. Haytham Querashi has moved from Pakistan to the seaside town of Balford-le-Nez. His plan is to set up a business and marry Salah Malik, who is the daughter of an already-established successful businessman. When Querashi is found murdered, Sergeant Barbara Havers wants to be a part of the investigating team for a few reasons. One is that it’s headed by one of Havers’ personal heroes DI Emily Barlow. The other is that Havers’ own neighbour Taymullah Azhar may have a connection to the case. So Havers gets herself assigned to the team and travels to Balford-le-Nez to help in the investigation. As we get to know the various people in the victim’s life, we also get to know more about the Pakistani community and it’s an interesting perspective.

There’s a strong and vibrant Ukrainian community in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan and we see it in several series set there. For instance, in Gail Bowen’s Deadly Appearances we meet political science specialist and academic Joanne Kilbourn. She’s a member of the campaign staff for up-and-coming political leader Androu ‘Andy’ Boychuk. When he is poisoned during an important campaign speech Kilbourn is devastated. She decides to cope with her grief by writing a biography of Boychuk and begins to look into his background. That’s how she gets to know more about the Ukrainian community from which he came. The more she learns about Boychuk’s history the more Kilbourn discovers that there were things in Boychuk’s life that nobody knew. And it turns out that Boychuk’s past is the key to solving his murder. As Kilbourn interviews people, attends Boychuk’s funeral and so on, we get a look at the Saskatchewan Ukrainian community.

We see it also in Anthony Bidulka’s series featuring Saskatoon PI  Russell Quant. Quant is half Ukranian so his family background gives us a sense of the way that community has established itself. Then too there’s Colourful Mary’s, a popular local restaurant that features the cooking of one of its owners Marushka Yabadochka. As Bidulka describes it, Marushka’s cooking is like

 

…everyone’s mother, most notably her own.’

 

It’s mostly a Ukrainian menu and we can see how that culture has made its way (through the food) into the larger local culture.

Donna Leon’s series featuring Venice Commissario Guido Brunetti introduces us to several of Venice’s immigrant communities. I’ll just mention one. In Blood From a Stone, a Senegalese immigrant is shot execution-style while he’s working at an outdoor marketplace. No-one admits to seeing anything, and very few people even admit to knowing the victim, so it’s hard at first for Brunetti and Ispettore Vianello to find out anything about the killing. Matters aren’t helped by the fact that there’s a lot of local prejudice against the immigrants (especially against illegal immigrants). For their part the local immigrant community is not exactly trusting of the police. So it takes quite some time to find out anything about the murder. But in the process of investigating it, Brunetti and Vianello begin, just a bit, to penetrate the Senegalese immigrant community, and through them we learn a little about it.

There are many other novels in which the author gives us a sense of these smaller immigrant communities within larger ones. For instance, there’s Anya Lipska’s Where the Devil Can’t Go, in which London PI Janusz Kiszka investigates the disappearance of a waitress, and DC Natalie Kershaw gets her chance to make good when a dead body is discovered in the Thames. The two stories of course intertwine and in the investigation we get a fascinating look at London’s Polish community. And if you’ll let me stretch a point just a bit, Agatha Christie touches on the topic in The Mysterious Affair at Styles in which we first meet Hercule Poirot. He’s a member of the Belgian community in the village of Styles St. Mary. When his benefactor Emily Inglethorp is poisoned, Poirot gets involved in the investigation.

Immigrant communities are sometimes very tight-knit. And even when they’re not, members tend to help each other and very often those communities keep alive their original language, cultural and spiritual traditions and social mores. They can add quite a lot of interest to a larger novel, and they’re a fairly authentic reflection of what’s been happening in the world for a long time.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Graham Nash’s Immigration Man.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Anthony Bidulka, Anya Lipska, Donna Leon, Gail Bowen, Henry Chang, Margaret Truman

I’ll Stand By You*

Most of would probably say that loyalty is a good quality. Certainly we want our friends to be loyal to us; we want to know that there are certain people who can be counted on no matter what happens. And loyalty really is important in a lot of ways. But is it possible for loyalty to be taken too far? Are there times when one should not be loyal? It’s a tricky question actually, which makes it also a very interesting one. Little wonder it’s explored in crime fiction as much as it is.

Loyalty plays an important role in Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express. Wealthy American businessman Samuel Ratchett is stabbed on the second night of his journey across Europe on the famous Orient Express. Hercule Poirot is on the same train and agrees to look into the case. He soon finds that Ratchett has a hidden past that has, as the saying goes, came back to haunt him. Poirot also discovers that the only possible suspects are the other passengers whose compartments are in the same coach as Ratchett’s. So Poirot gets to know the different passengers and in his own unique way, gets them to talk about themselves and their backgrounds. As the novel goes on Poirot finds out how much of what the suspects tell him is true and how much is not. Here’s a bit of the conversation that ensues when Poirot confronts one suspect with the fact that that suspect has lied:

 

“‘In fact, you deliberately lied to us…’ [Poirot]
‘Certainly. I would do the same again…I believe, Messieurs, in loyalty – to one’s friends and one’s family and one’s caste.’”

 

As it turns out, that sense of loyalty has everything to do with this particular murder.

In Christianna Brand’s Green For Danger, Inspector Cockrill is called to Heron’s Park military hospital when postman Joseph Higgins dies there during what’s supposed to be routine surgery. At first it looks as though Higgins’ death was a tragic accident as sometimes happens during surgery. So everyone thinks Cockrill’s main role will be to file the official “accident” paperwork. But then, Sister Marion Bates has too much to drink at a party and blurts out that she knows Higgins was murdered and that furthermore, she knows how it was done. Later that night she herself is murdered. Now it’s clear that Higgins’ death was no accident, so Cockrill looks more deeply into the case. He finds that there are only six people who could have killed both Higgins and Bates, so his focus is on those suspects as he investigates. When Cockrill discovers exactly how Higgins was murdered he also finds out who the killer was. In this novel, you could argue that in a sense, Higgins was killed partly out of loyalty. It’s also fair to say that loyalty plays a role in hampering Cockrill’s investigation.

In Margaret Truman’s Murder at the FBI, we meet special agent Christine Saksis. When fellow agent George Pritchard is murdered at the FBI’s Washington DC headquarters, Saksis and her partner Ross Lizenby are tapped to investigate the murder. They have to move very carefully on this case because one of the most important things that the FBI drums into its employees is “Don’t embarrass the bureau.” One theory of the case is that Pritchard was murdered by a terrorist group whose membership he was going to reveal. It’s a credible explanation too and Saksis and Lizenby are under an awful lot of pressure to pursue it. But little by little other possibilities arise, including the fact that Pritchard was going to reveal some ugly secrets at the agency itself. As the investigation goes on Saksis finds herself with very conflicting loyalties. She is proud to be an FBI agent and is loyal to the agency. At the same time the more she learns about this case the more she questions that loyalty. It’s an interesting look at the role loyalty plays in the way people think.

Stephen J. Cannell’s The Tin Collectors also gives readers a look at loyalty within a group; in this case it’s the L.A.P.D.  Homicide detective Shane Scully gets a call one night from Barbara Molar, the wife of Scully’s former cop partner Ray Molar. Barbara is frantic because she’s afraid her husband is about to kill her. Scully rushes to the Molar home where he confronts Molar. Molar fires at Scully but misses. Scully’s return bullet hits its mark and soon enough Scully finds himself the target of an internal investigation led by prosecutor Alexa Hamilton. Although Ray Molar was in reality a brutal man who abused his wife and his authority as a cop, he was also beloved on the police force; he was considered a “cop’s cop” who mentored several of the newer cops. So right away Scully becomes a pariah. It’s soon clear too that the “Powers That Be” are not going to treat Molar’s killing as a “typical” internal investigation. Scully learns that the department is angling to have him charged with murder. In order to protect himself, Scully starts asking questions to find out why he’s becoming the department’s fall guy. He soon learns that Molar was involved in several things that the department “higher ups” want kept quiet. In this novel, there’s quite a lot of discussion of loyalty, both to the force and to Molar.

Loyalty to the force is also a major theme of Y.A. Erskine’s The Brotherhood. The Tasmania police force is rocked when one of its members Sergeant John White is stabbed while he’s investigating a break-in/robbery. The most likely suspect in the case is Darren Rowley, a part-Aboriginal teenager who’s been in and out of trouble with the law for a long time. Everyone says that John White was a true “good guy” – a dedicated cop who stayed “clean” and mentored many, many younger officers. Everyone loved him and all of the other members of the force are devastated by his murder. We see this murder and its after-effects from several perspectives, including those of White’s friend DI Richard Moore, who’s investigating the death; probationer Lucy Howard, who was with White at the break-in scene when he was killed; police commissioner Ron Chalmers, who has to handle the investigation at the “higher-up” level; and Constable Cameron Walsh, for whom White was a mentor. Loyalty plays a critical role in the way these people see both White and Darren Rowley, and in the way people on the force deal with the investigation, with Rowley’s lawyer, with the press and with the public.  We also see it in the way the various members of the police force see the justice system that seems to them to be rigged in favour of criminals.

Family loyalty is another important kind of loyalty and we see that in action if you will in Martin Clark’s The Legal Limit. In that novel, brothers Gates and Mason Hunt are coming home after a late night one night when they encounter Gates’ romantic rival Wayne Thompson. Gates Hunt already had a confrontation earlier in the day with Thompson and now the argument heats up again and almost before anyone realises what’s happening, Gates Hunt has shot Thompson. Mason feels a strong sense of loyalty to his brother because of the way his brother protected him from their abusive father when they were younger. So he helps his brother cover up the crime. Life goes on for both brothers and Mason Hunt becomes a successful commonwealth prosecutor for Patrick County, Virginia. Then Gates Hunt is arrested for cocaine trafficking and given a long sentence. He begs his brother to help him get out of prison but Mason refuses. Gates Hunt has squandered every opportunity he had, and Mason refuses to bail him out any more. So Gates threatens to implicate his brother in the Wayne Thompson shooting if Mason won’t use his “pull” to free him from prison. When Mason refuses again, Gates makes good on his threat and Mason Hunt finds himself charged with murder. Now he’ll have to find a way to clear his name and outwit his brother’s legal team if he’s to avoid being imprisoned himself.

Loyalty can be a powerful and positive trait. It colours our perceptions and often, our actions. It’s not always a clear-cut force for good, but it’s most definitely a force to be reckoned with, as the saying goes.

 

 

 

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a Pretenders’ song.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Christianna Brand, Margaret Truman, Martin Clark, Stephen J. Cannell, Y.A. Erskine

I Won’t Be Righteous Again*

Most of us don’t like to be wrong, or to be confronted with the fact that we might have a skewed view of things. But sometimes being too sure of ourselves and of our own motives can be very dangerous. That’s especially true if we think we have moral right on our side. Self-righteousness can blind us to what’s really going on in a situation and can lead to disaster. If you don’t already know what I mean, a quick look at crime fiction should suffice to make my point clear.

Agatha Christie explores this whole sense of self-righteousness in more than one of her works. Just as an example, we can look at Christie’s short story The Edge. In that story, we meet thirty-two-year-old Clare Halliwell. She’s well-liked in the village of Daymer’s End, is an efficient parish worker and is generally thought of as a good sort. For years, she and Gerald Lee have been friends and in fact, Clare thought they would marry. But then Gerald suddenly married Vivien Harper, a woman few in the village like very much. Clare certainly doesn’t like her. One day by accident, Clare finds out that Vivien has been having an affair. Now she’s faced with a dilemma: should she tell Gerald what she knows since they’re friends, or should she say nothing? As she debates about what the right thing to do is, she fails to really accept her own very personal interest in breaking up the Lees’ marriage. Vivien begs her to say nothing and Clare agrees, at least for the present. But very slowly their relationship changes. Vivien becomes afraid of Clare and in this story, the tension mounts as Clare moralises about what to do while Vivien becomes more and more afraid. In the end, Clare’s unwillingness to look at her own motives and her own behaviour leads to disaster.

Ellery Queen’s The Fourth Side of the Triangle is in part the story of the McKell family. Successful entrepreneur Ashton McKell seems to be having an affair with fashion designer Sheila Grey. When McKell’s son Dane discovers what his father’s been doing, he’s determined to confront his father’s mistress and stop the affair, mostly for the sake of his mother Lutetia. When he meets Sheila Grey he decides to make her fall in love with him so as to ruin her relationship with his father, or so he tells himself. But instead Dane McKell finds himself falling in love with Grey, and the two begin an affair. Then one night, Sheila Grey is murdered. Inspector Richard Queen is assigned the case and he and his son Ellery begin to investigate. All three of the McKells fall under suspicion at one point or another, but each has a solid alibi. In the end, it takes a cryptic clue that the victim left behind for Queen to figure out who really killed Sheila Grey. Throughout this novel we see how Dane McKell is not honest with himself about his motives. He tells himself that he wants to help his parents keep their marriage together. He also tells himself that his motive for continuing to see Sheila Grey is that he genuinely loves her. And it’s not clear if either of those things is really true.

In Margaret Truman’s Murder in the White House, Ron Fairbanks is tapped to be special counsel to US President Robert Webster. He doesn’t agree with Webster politically, but Webster doesn’t mind that; he claims that he wants Fairbanks’ unvarnished opinions. So with some misgivings Fairbanks accepts the job. Then disaster strikes. Secretary of State Lansard Blaine is murdered one night in a part of the White House without public access. Webster gives Fairbanks carte blanche to investigate so that it will be clear that the administration has nothing to hide. Fairbanks takes his boss at his word and begins his search for the truth. In doing so he uncovers some secrets in Blaine’s life as well as the lives of the Websters. In the end it turns out that the person who shot Blaine was convinced that the murder had what you could call an altruistic motive. That belief in the rightness of the murderer’s thinking turns out to have disastrous consequences.

We also see that kind of self-righteousness in Alexander McCall Smith’s The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. Mma. Precious Ramotswe has recently opened the first female-owned detective agency in Botswana and is of course interested in getting new clients. So when wealthy Mr. Paliwalar Patel expresses interest in hiring Mma. Ramotswe, she is eager to find out what the case will be. When she hears what Patel wants though, she is less sure that she really wants to take it. Patel is convinced that his sixteen-year-old daughter Nandira is seeing a boy and he wants Mma. Ramotswe to shadow Nandira and find out who the boy is. Mma. Ramostwe doesn’t think that Patel is right to have his own daughter followed, nor does she see anything wrong with Nandira finding a boyfriend at the age of sixteen. She tries to reason with Patel, but he refuses to listen, insisting that letting children live their own lives is “modern nonsense.” Mma. Ramotswe finally agrees to at least find out what she can. When she discovers the truth behind Nandira’s behaviour, we see even more clearly how Patel’s self-righteousness has affected his thinking and his relationship with his daughter.

And then there’s Thea Farmer, whom we meet in Virginia Duigan’s The Precipice. Farmer is a retired school principal who had a beautiful home built in New South Wales’ Blue Mountains. After making a disastrous financial decision, Farmer lost her money and her beautiful home and has had to settle for a house she calls “the hovel” next door to her dream home. Farmer resents it greatly when Frank Campbell and Ellice Carrington purchase the home that was once hers and move in. Not only does she mourn the loss of her home but she doesn’t want to live near anyone. So she feels nothing but hostility toward her new neighbours whom she refers to as “the invaders.” She doesn’t like it any better when Frank’s niece, twelve-year-old Kim, moves in with Frank and Ellice. Bit by bit though, Farmer gets to know Kim and gradually develops a friendship with her. In the meantime she’s also met Frank and Ellice a few times and finds herself thawing towards especially Frank. The better she gets to know Kim the more suspicious Farmer becomes about what may be going on in the house she thought of as hers. Those suspicions may be completely groundless – or not. But Farmer is thoroughly convinced of the rightness of her own views on the matter and is unwilling to see clearly how her own past affects her judgement in this particular matter. She’s also unwilling to question her own behaviour in the matter. That self-righteousness turns out to have devastating consequences.

And that’s the thing about self-righteousness when it goes too far. When one’s convinced one’s on the moral high ground it’s hard to look closely at one’s own motivations and behaviour. Not doing that though can lead to tragedy.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Shades of Gray.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Ellery Queen, Margaret Truman, Virginia Duigan

‘Cause She’s Still Preoccupied With 1985*

As our society changes, those changes are reflected in crime fiction. That’s a blatantly obvious statement but behind it is a fascinating purpose that crime fiction serves. In reading crime fiction from or about a given era, we get a perspective on that era. For example, if you think about it, several major changes socially and politically happened during the 1980’s and it’s interesting to see how they’re reflected in crime fiction.

One of those major changes was the beginning of the end of the Cold War between the Soviet Union and its allies and the United States and its allies. While the Soviet Union didn’t officially break up until 1993, the process started during the 1980’s. This change had, of course, many effects in the real political, economic, social and military worlds and we see that in crime fiction. For instance, in Margaret Truman’s Murder in the House, US Congressman Paul Latham is shot one night just before his confirmation hearings to become the next US Secretary of State. The first explanation for the death is that Latham committed suicide. But that explanation doesn’t hold much water, especially when it comes out that Latham’s assistant Marge Edwards was about to accuse him of sexual misconduct. Then, Edwards disappears and the mystery around Paul Latham’s life deepens. Georgetown Law School professor Mackensie “Mac” Smith gets drawn into the case when a former student contacts him to tell him that there was a lot more going on in Latham’s life than it seems on the surface. Smith and Latham were friends too and Smith is fairly certain that Latham wasn’t guilty of sexual misconduct, nor was he suicidal. So Smith begins to investigate. He discovers that Latham was involved with Warren Brazier, a successful American business entrepreneur who wants to make inroads into the new economic climate in the Soviet Union. As Smith explores that angle to this case, we see how the end of the Cold War meant a complete renegotiation of the relationship between the US and the Soviet Union.

Even before the Soviet Union officially broke up, there was an easing of restrictions against travel between the USSR and the United States, and this is reflected in crime fiction too. In Robin Cook’s Vector, we meet Yuri Davydov, an émigré to New York City who was lured (or so he feels) by promises of great success. He’s become disenchanted though because life in the US isn’t the “easy ride” he’d thought it would be. In the Soviet Union Davydov was a technician in Biopreprat, the Soviet biological weapons program. He has therefore well-developed and highly professional scientific and technical expertise. But in the US he’s only been able to find work as a taxi driver. So he’s easy prey, as you might say, for a group of skinheads who also feel cheated by “the system.” When they find out about Davydov’s skills, his new associates decide to plan the ultimate revenge against the government: the release of the anthrax bacteria. New York medical examiners Laurie Montgomery and Jack Stapleton become aware of a possible terrorist plot when a carpet dealer dies of anthrax poisoning. Now Montgomery and Stapleton have to find and stop the conspirators before they carry out their plan.

Robin Cook has of course written a number of medical thrillers and so have Michael Palmer and other authors too. Although there’ve been medical mysteries for a long time, the discovery and identification of the HIV virus in the early 1980’s arguably brought a lot of attention to viruses, virus transmission and medical procedures. So it’s not surprising that Palmer’s and Cook’s medical thrillers became popular during the 1980’s. In fact it was during those years that the medical mystery really became what you might call a separate sub-genre. As medical advances took place during that decade, they found their way into those novels.

Another major change of the 1980’s was in the role of women. Of course the women’s movement and women’s issues had been around for a long time before the 1980’s. And there’ve been female fictional detectives for generations. But during the 1980’s more and more female protagonists were not just clever, intuitive and sometimes strong-willed but very strong and independent characters. For instance, Joan Smith’s Loretta Lawson is a visiting professor at Oxford, where she’s met and befriended Oxford don Bridget Bennett. In the course of this five-novel series, which begins with 1987’s A Masculine Ending, we see Lawson’s perspective as an ardent feminist who’s trying to map out a life for herself in a world of new “rules” for women. By today’s standards, Lawson’s militant brand of feminism may seem dated. But series like this one highlight the evolution of the women’s movement as women began to insist on having access to the same power and privilege as men.

Sara Paretsky introduced her private investigator sleuth V.I. Warshawski in 1982’s Indemnity Only. In that novel, Warshawski is hired to find a missing young woman Anita Hill. Soon after she begins her search, Warshawski discovers the body of Hill’s boyfriend Pete Thayer, who is the son of a wealthy Chicago banker. As Warshawski continues her search, she discovers that both Pete Thayer’s death and his girlfriend’s disappearance have everything to do with insurance fraud, union graft and high-level corruption.

In 1982 we also saw the release of Sue Grafton’s first Kinsey Millhone novel A is for Alibi. This novel introduces another strong female protagonist. Although Millhone has been compared to Warshawski (which makes sense since they do have some similarities) she’s quite different in her own way. As this series has continued we see how Millhone has carved out a place for herself as a private investigator in a male-dominated career. These PI’s highlight the journey many women have taken as they’ve negotiated their place in the world. They are not simply “women who act like men so they’ll be taken seriously.” They are strong female protagonists.

The 1980’s also saw the rise of the cocaine trade. Of course, drug smuggling has been around for a long time, but during the 1980’s, drugs gangs and “drug lords” made huge profits from cocaine trafficking. Because of the incredible amounts of money to be made there were gang rivalries and of course murder. In his last novel The Lonely Silver Rain, John D. MacDonald takes an uncompromising look at the ugliness of that business. Travis McGee has just located a wealthy friend’s missing yacht. When he goes on board, he makes the grisly discovery of several brutally murdered bodies. His discovery puts him right in the middle of South Florida’s “cocaine wars” and therefore makes him a target for some extremely nasty people. Of course, this novel is richer than just that plot line, but to say much more gets (in my opinion) too close to “Spoilerville.”

There were other sociopolitical changes during the 1980’s – many more than there is room for in this one post. So grab your down vest, your cassettes and your copy of Back to the Future and share your favourite 80’s themed crime fiction. You can even use your loooong-corded telephone to ‘phone in your thoughts. ;-)
 

ps. Yes, folks, that’s a genuine 1980’s vintage Members Only jacket in the ‘photo. The red CD on the left is of Billy Joel’s Концерт (Concert) – from his late ‘80’s concerts in the Soviet Union. The CD on the right is Paul Simon’s 1986 Graceland.

 

 

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bowling For Soup’s 1985.

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Filed under Joan Smith, John D. MacDonald, Margaret Truman, Michael Palmer, Robin Cook, Sara Paretsky, Sue Grafton

But I Won’t Cry For Yesterday*

In crime fiction, many people who commit murders do so because to them, there is no other alternative. But that doesn’t mean they have no feelings; many fictional killers recognise the enormity of what they’ve done and in some cases, it’s even a sort of relief when they’re caught. But there are some killers who have what you might call no conscience at all about what they do. I’m not referring here to the all-too-common serial killer who takes pleasure in killing or in something about killing. I’m also not talking of killers who are glad for what they’ve done (as in a vengeance killing or a murder for gain). I’m talking more of killers who simply don’t feel anything about what they’ve done. To those killers, the taking of a life is a means to an end or serves some other useful purpose, and the humans involved simply don’t matter, or they don’t matter much. That kind of killer is in a way an especially chilling kind of killer, and not easy to depict in fiction. But when it’s done well, stories that feature that kind of killer can be gripping.

For example, in Agatha Christie’s Lord Edgware Dies (AKA Thirteen at Dinner), Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings investigate the stabbing death of George Alfred St. Vincent Marsh, 4th Baron Edgware. His wife Jane Wilkinson is the most likely suspect; she threatened her husband in Poirot’s presence, and it’s known that she wanted to divorce him so that she could re-marry. What’s more, someone giving her name and looking like her was at the Edgware home on the night of the murder. However, there are twelve witnesses who swear that Jane Wilkinson was at a dinner party in another part of London on the night of the murder and that she didn’t leave the party until after the murder had been committed. So Poirot, Hastings and Chief Inspector James “Jimmy” Japp have to look elsewhere for the killer. In the end, and after two more murders, Poirot discovers who killed Lord Edgware and why. And in the end, Hastings describes the killer as “completely conscienceless.”

Patricia Highsmith has described her Tom Ripley as “utterly amoral. “ And so he is. He commits fraud, murder and identity theft all without second thoughts, although he’s never entirely convinced he won’t be caught. And in Ripley Under Ground, he’s no sooner settled into a comfortable life in France with a wealthy wife when he once again gets drawn into the world of crime. In this case, it’s the business of fraud and art forgery, and Ripley has no compunctions about committing the crimes he commits. The closest he gets to even considering the larger consequences of what he does is to think he’d “rather not” have to go as far as murder. He doesn’t glory in killing, but he doesn’t stick at killing someone if murder is necessary. He’s a very compelling character as much for that complete lack of conscience as for his appealing, almost suave ways.

The killer in Margaret Truman’s Murder at the FBI is also what you might describe as amoral. In that novel, the FBI is rocked when special agent George Pritchard’s body is found at the agency’s own rifle range. The murder has to be investigated quickly and thoroughly in order to prevent the bad press that might result if the investigation doesn’t seem transparent. So agents Chris Saksis and Ross Lizenby and their team immediately begin to look into the matter. As they begin to untangle Pritchard’s complicated life though, they find that he was privy to several secrets, some professional and some personal, that could have been good motives for murder. For instance, he knew the identities of several members of a dangerous terrorist group and was about to reveal them. He was also writing a book about the FBI and was possibly going to reveal things that some highly-placed people didn’t want him to reveal. In the end, Saksis uncovers the real killer and we learn that this killer had no qualms about killing, nor seemingly any “pricks of conscience” about taking a life. That fact makes the killer that much more of a creepy character.

That’s also true of the killer in Thomas N. Scortia and Frank M. Robinson’s The Nightmare Factor. World Health Organization (WHO) doctor Calvin Doohan has moved from his native Scotland to San Francisco. He’s working there when he gets involved in the investigation of a frightening outbreak of what looks like a particularly virulent strain of influenza. He volunteers his services to the local Public Health Department to try to find out what exactly is killing the victims of what looks more and more like an epidemic. It’s not long before Doohan and Centers for Disease Control (CDC) doctor Suzanne Synge trace the epidemic to people who attended a recent conference at San Francisco’s Hotel Cordoba. Before long, the CDC, the Public Health Department and the Army Chemical Corps, led by Major Lawrence Hanson, are all working on this strange outbreak. Doohan discovers to his dismay that the outbreak was deliberately caused. What’s worse, the pathogen is not naturally occurring; it was synthesised. So Doohan comes to the conclusion that whoever started this epidemic is using the deaths as a means to some kind of end. When he discovers what that purpose is, Doohan also learns just how amoral his enemy is. He’s up against a force with no conscience or particular feelings one way or the other about the victims.

Adrian Hyland’s Aboriginal Community Police Officer (ACPO) Emily Tempest finds herself up against a similarly amoral enemy in Gunshot Road. In that novel, she’s on her first day on the job as an ACPO when the team is called to Green Swamp Well, where prospector Albert “Doc” Ozolins has been murdered, apparently as a result of a drunken quarrel with John “Wireless” Petherbridge. Tempest doesn’t think Petherbridge is guilty though and begins to ask questions. Against the specific instructions of her boss Bruce Cockburn, Tempest investigates Doc’s murder and finds that he had made a very dangerous enemy. The closer Tempest gets to the truth about what really happened, the more danger she finds. And when we do learn who’s behind Ozolins’ murder, we see that the killer is conscienceless about having taken life. It simply doesn’t matter.

There are other examples of amoral killers in crime fiction – more than there is space for here. They have to be depicted with a deft hand though; otherwise one risks either the stereotypical serial killer or a character that’s too hard for the reader to “buy.” When it’s done effectively, though, an amoral killer – a killer with no feelings one way or the other about having taken a life – can be a very chilling antagonist. Have you read novels with killers like that? If you’re a writer, have you experimented with a truly amoral killer?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Duran Duran’s Ordinary World.

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Filed under Adrian Hyland, Agatha Christie, Frank Robinson, Margaret Truman, Thomas Scortia