Category Archives: Per Wahlöö

Bus Stop, Bus Goes*

BusesLike many people, I like the idea of using public transit. Take buses for instance. Besides the benefits to the environment of having fewer cars on the road, it’s nice to be able to read, work or just rest instead of actually driving. And it can be convenient to take a bus. For a writer, buses are also terrific places for people-watching and therefore, inspiration.  Here’s what Agatha Christie’s Ariadne Oliver says about that in Hallowe’en Party:

 

‘I did sit across from someone in a bus just before I left London, and here it is all working out beautifully inside my head. I shall have the whole story soon. The whole sequence, what she’s going back to say, whether it’ll run her into danger or somebody else into danger. I think I even know her name.
Her name’s Constance. Constance Carnaby.’

 

And that’s not just something Christie made up for this particular novel. Writers really do get inspired sometimes in just that way. Trust me.

A lot of people also think it’s safer to take the bus as it cuts down on the number of traffic accidents. But as crime fiction shows us, it’s not always safe. Not at all.

For example, in Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s The Laughing Policeman, Stockholm police detective Martin Beck and his team are stretched very thin, as the saying goes. The American Embassy in Stockholm has been the target of a harassment campaign in the form of protests, letters and the like because of the Vietnam War, and extra police are needed to protect it. Then word comes of a terrible tragedy. A gunman has murdered eight people on a bus; one of the victims is Åke Stenström, a fellow police officer. At first the murders look like a terrorist attack, but it’s shown that the gunman ‘hid’ Stenström’s murder among the others. He was the real target. The team looks into his personal life and the cases he was investigating. One of them was the murder of a Portuguese woman Teresa Camarão, whose murder hadn’t been solved. That case proves crucial to finding Stenström’s killer.

Colin Dexter’s Last Bus to Woodstock is the story of the murder of Sylvia Kaye. She and another young woman are waiting at a bust stop one night when it becomes clear that they’ve got the times wrong and aren’t going to be able to catch a bus. Sylvia decides to take the risk of hitchhiking and goes off. Later that night, her body is found outside a pub. Now Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis have two jobs really. One is to find out as much as they can about the victim, so as to discover who might have had a motive to murder her. The other is to trace her last movements. And those last interactions and movements turn out to be very important to the solution of the mystery.

Dona Laureta Ribeiro finds out how dangerous buses and bus stops can be in Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza’s Alone in the Crowd. One day she goes to Rio de Janeiro’s Twelfth Precinct and asks to speak to Inspector Espinosa. When told that he’s in a long meeting, she says that she’ll come back later. Shortly afterwards, she’s with a group of other people waiting at a bus stop when she falls, or is pushed, under an oncoming bus. When Espinosa finds out that the bus accident victim is the same woman who’d come to see him earlier, he begins to wonder whether this was an accident. As he traces Dona Laureta’s movements on the day of her death, Espinosa slowly puts the pieces of her life together. Then, there’s another death that seems to be related to the first. Espinosa finds that these two deaths are linked to his own past.

In Catherine O’Flynn’s What Was Lost, a bus mysteriously swallows up ten-year-old Kate Meaney. Or at least that’s how it seems. She’s a budding detective with her own agency Falcon Investigations. Kate’s content with her life, but her grandmother Ivy thinks she’d be better off away at school. So she arranges for Kate to sit the entrance exams at the exclusive Redspoon School. At first Kate refuses. But her friend Adrian Palmer talks her into going, promising that he’ll go along with her for moral support. The two board the bus for Redspoon, but Kate never returns. Palmer claims he doesn’t know what happened to Kate, but the police don’t believe him. They don’t have enough evidence for an arrest though. Still everyone is so convinced that he’s responsible for her disappearance that Palmer leaves town, planning never to return. Twenty years later, Palmer’s sister Lisa has a dead-end job at a local mall. One night she happens to encounter Kurt, who is a security guard at the mall. They form an unlikely kind of friendship, and Kurt tells Lisa that he’s been seeing something odd on his security cameras: a young girl who looks a lot like Kate, carrying a stuffed monkey who looks a lot like Kate’s companion Mickey the Monkey. Bit by bit, as Kurt and Lisa figuratively return to the past, we find out what really happened to Kate.

And then there’s Cath Staincliffe’s Split Second. One afternoon, Emma Curtis is taking a bus home from work when she is witness to a tragedy in the making. Three young people board the bus and begin to bully another passenger Luke Murray. Everyone’s upset about the bullying, but only one person does anything to stop it: Jason Barnes. When he intervenes, the harassment stops temporarily. Then, Luke and Jason get off the bus at the same stop. So do the bullies though, and the bullying starts all over again. It continues all the way to Jason’s front yard. When it’s all over, Jason has been fatally stabbed and Luke is gravely injured. The police investigate, and it turns out that Luke may not have been a random victim. As the police go after the young people involved, Staincliffe addresses questions of bullying, responsibility and the effect of being in a crowd. She also looks at the devastating impact of sudden death and terrible injury on families.

See what I mean? Buses have a lot going for them. Really, they do. But they can also be very dangerous. Now if you’ll excuse me, here’s my bus – don’t want to miss it!

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Graham Gouldman’s Bus Stop, made famous by the Hollies.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Cath Staincliffe, Catherine O'Flynn, Colin Dexter, Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza, Maj Sjöwall, Per Wahlöö

It’s Going to Take Some Time This Time*

Long Term CasesAs I mentioned yesterday, there is something to be said for the urgency of a compressed timeline in a crime novel. It can add tension to a story and it’s realistic to want as much done as possible within the first few days of an investigation. That’s when the most evidence is likely to be available, and that’s when people’s memories are likely to be freshest.

But in real life, many murder investigations take a long time. A body may be unidentified. It can take time for DNA and other forensic evidence to be processed. Witnesses and other people of interest may be hard to find or may decide to disappear. And the police may get leads that just don’t pan out. And that’s not to mention the time it takes to get background reports, financial statements, telephone records and other information. So there are plenty of murders that aren’t solved quickly. That’s just as true of crime fiction as it is of real-life murder investigations. Here are a few examples to show you what I mean.

Oh, and you’ll notice I’m more or less avoiding ‘cold cases,’ where an investigation was called off. That’s a different sort of case in my view anyway. To me it’s the stuff of a separate post.

In Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders, Hercule Poirot receives a cryptic note warning him of a crime that will take place in Andover on a certain date. The note seems like a crank letter until the body of shopkeeper Alice Ascher is discovered on the day mentioned in the note. That investigation has gotten underway when Poirot receives another note, this one a warning of a crime to take place in Bexhill. Sure enough, the body of twenty-three-year old Betty Barnard is discovered there early on the morning mentioned in that note. Then there’s another murder. One of the only things the murders seem to have in common is that before each one, Poirot receives a warning note. The other is that an ABC railway guide is found near each body. That’s not much to go on, and this particular murderer is skilled at not leaving evidence. So it takes several months for Poirot, Captain Hastings and the police to establish who the killer is.

Arthur Upfield’s The Bone is Pointed also features an investigation that takes time. Jeff Anderson goes out to work on the Karwir Ranch one morning, but only his horse returns. At first, everyone thinks his horse threw him, and that’s not a crazy idea as the horse was known to be difficult. The police are notified, but no evidence turns up of where Anderson might be. And truth be told, Anderson is not exactly the most popular person, so there’s not a lot of hue and cry raised about his absence. Still, his disappearance is a mystery and something could have happened to him. So five months later, Inspector Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte of the Queensland Police is called in to find out what happened to Anderson. In the end, as he would put it, Bony reads ‘the Book of the Bush’ and follows the evidence to find out why Anderson never came back and who is responsible for his disappearance.

Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s Roseanna begins in July when the body of an unknown young woman is dredged from Lake Vättern. The woman doesn’t match the description of any missing person, so this case isn’t going to be solved quickly. Stockholm homicide investigator Martin Beck and his team are assigned to find out who the woman was, who killed her and why. The first step is identifying her and that takes time because she’s not Swedish. Finally, though, she is identified as Roseanna McGraw, an American who was touring Sweden when she died. Once she’s identified, the police have the task of tracing her movements and relationships to find out who might have wanted to kill her. That takes a lot of time too, particularly since the investigation is taking place in two countries. What’s more, the cruise ship she was on has long since completed its trip, so the passengers and crew have scattered. After several months, the investigators finally find a clear piece of evidence. Now they have to zero in on the killer, and that takes time too. Finally the killer is caught after the investigating team sets a trap. But all of this takes time and it’s not until early January of the next year that the investigation ends.

Giles Blunt’s Forty Words for Sorrow is also the story of a long investigation. One September day, thirteen-year-old Katie Pine disappears after school. At first it’s believed that she’s run away, since she’s gone off to stay with relatives twice before. But when she doesn’t come home or contact her mother, the police are notified. Detective John Cardinal of the Algonquin Bay (Ontario) Police takes charge of the investigation, and he and his team do their jobs diligently. But no evidence of the girl turns up. Then, five months later, a body is discovered in an abandoned mine shaft on Windigo Island. The body could very likely be Katie’s so Cardinal is moved from burglaries and robberies, where he’s been working, back to homicide. When it’s established that the body is indeed Katie’s, Cardinal and Detective Lise Delorme return to the Pine case with renewed urgency and slowly find out what happened to the girl. They also discover that her death is linked to the deaths of some other young people. The pieces of the puzzle do come together, but not for several months after Katie’s disappearance.

And then there’s Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Journalist Mikael Blomqvist has recently lost a libel suit brought against him by powerful industrialist Hans-Erik Wennerström. With his publication Millennium in financial difficulty, Blomqvist is prepared to listen when Henrik Vanger hires him for an unusual case. Nearly forty years earlier, Vanger’s grand-niece Harriet disappeared. At first, everyone thought she drowned. But Vanger’s been receiving arrangements of dried flowers as anonymous birthday gifts. It’s exactly the kind of gift Harriet always sent him, so Vanger thinks it’s possible that she’s alive. And if she’s not, he wants to know who would send those arrangements and why. And he’s willing to trade evidence he has against Hans-Erik Wennerström, plus financial support, for whatever Blomqvist can find out. So Blomqvist moves onto the island where the Vanger family lives under the guise of writing a history of the family. Slowly, he and his research assistant Lisbeth Salander look into the family’s background to find out what might have happened to Harriet. They also look into company records and other archives. Bit by bit it becomes clear what happened to Harriet Vanger, but it doesn’t happen quickly. The events of the story take place over the course of a full year.

In Tarquin Hall’s The Case of the Missing Servant , Delhi investigator Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri gets a new client, successful attorney Ajay Kasliwal. The Kasliawal family had a servant Mary Murmu who went missing a few months earlier. At first, not much attention was paid to her disappearance. She was ‘just a servant,’ for one thing. For another, it isn’t crazy to believe that she might have returned to her village or run off for some other reason. Evidence has turned up though that she might have been killed. Now the police suspect Kasliwal of being responsible for raping and killing Mary and they want to make an example of him. Their not-so-hidden agenda is to prove that they are not ‘in the pockets’ of the rich and powerful. Kasliwal claims that he is innocent of any wrongdoing, and hires Puri to find out what happened to Mary and clear his name. Puri agrees and he and his team look into the case. By now, a few months have gone by, but the team slowly finds out the truth about Mary Murmu.

Sometimes it really does take quite a long time to find out the truth about a case. Gathering evidence, talking to those involved, following up on leads, all of this takes time and effort and doesn’t happen overnight. So it isn’t surprising that some fictional cases take time to solve too. I’ve only mentioned a few here; which ones do you like best?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Carole King and Toni Stern’s It’s Going to Take Some Time. Some people prefer the Carole King recording of this song (I know I do). Others prefer the Carpenters’ recording. See what you think.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Upfield, Giles Blunt, Maj Sjöwall, Per Wahlöö, Stieg Larsson, Tarquin Hall

A Plot Begins to Take Shape*

Story ShapeNot long ago, graphic designer Maya Eilam suggested a fascinating way to look at the shape of a story – through a graphic pattern. She based her ideas on Kurt Vonnegut’s theories about archetypal story patterns (e.g. ‘boy meets girl,’ and ‘creation stories,’ among others).

I got to thinking about story patterns for certain kinds of crime fiction novels and thought it might be interesting to see what those patterns look like pictorially. Now of course, each story is a little bit different. Still, let’s take a look at some basic story patterns.

Keep in mind as you read that a) I am not a graphic designer, so the graphics are not professional; b) this is all just my take on story shapes; c) there’s only space on this post for a few examples. I’m sure that you’ll be able to think of a lot more than I could.

 

The Classic/Golden Age Novel

GA

In many (‘though certainly not all!) classic/Golden Age crime novels, we meet the characters. Then something untoward happens and then, there’s a murder. The sleuth begins to put the pieces of the puzzle together, only to have to deal with a second murder or other setback. Then the sleuth puts more pieces of the puzzle together, to arrive at a resolution. There’s very often a hint of romance in such novels too (although again, certainly not always).

That’s what happens in Agatha Christie’s The Hollow. The story starts as we get to know the various members of the Angkatell family. They’re preparing for a weekend gathering that will also include Harley Street specialist John Christow and his wife Gerda. The weekend begins and we see the tensions among the characters rise. Then, John Christow is shot. Hercule Poirot is staying at a nearby cottage he’s taken, and he and Inspector Grange work to find out who the killer is. At first Poirot gets to some of the truth about the murder but of course, there are setbacks. Then, Poirot finds the other pieces of the puzzle. There’s a bit of a romance angle too for two of the characters. Of course, the novel has other depths too, but you can see how it’s consistent with this pattern.

There’s also John Dickson Carr’s Hag’s Nook. That’s the story of the murder of Martin Starberth. The Starberth family were Governors of Chatterham Prison for several generations, and it’s still the family custom for each Starberth heir to spend the night of his twenty-fifth birthday in the Governor’s Room at the now-ruined prison as a sort of initiation rite. When Martin Starberth takes his turn, he’s found dead the next morning. The story is told through the eyes of Tad Rampole, an American who’s visiting Dr. Gideon Fell, who lives not far from the prison. First, we meet the characters. The tension rises as we learn the story of the Starberth family, and then Martin Starberth is killed. There are some clues to the puzzle, but there are setbacks as this seems to be one of those ‘impossible crimes.’ It isn’t of course, and Fell finds that the key to the mystery is a cryptic poem. Again, parts of the story don’t strictly follow this story shape, but in general, it fits. Oh, and there’s a romance in this novel too.

 

The Police Procedural

PP

There are of course a lot of variations on the police procedural theme. But in general, the real action in them starts when a body is discovered. Then the police interview witnesses and those who were involved with the victim. Sometimes the detective gets a clue or even several pieces of the puzzle. Then there’s often a setback as clues don’t pan out, more victims are killed, or the police detective is warned off a case for whatever reason. Then comes the break in the case. There’s also sometimes a confrontation between the detective and the criminal. Then, even if the criminal isn’t always led away in handcuffs, we know the truth about the case.

That’s what happens in Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s Roseanna, the first of their Martin Beck series. The action in the story begins when the body of an unknown woman is pulled from a Swedish lake. After a lot of effort she is identified as Roseanna McGraw, an American who was touring Sweden when she was killed. Martin Beck and his team talk to people who might be witnesses, and there’s a parallel investigation in the victim’s hometown in Nebraska. But there are setbacks as the detectives really can’t find a viable suspect. Then there’s a major breakthrough in the case and the killer is identified. There’s a confrontation with that person and the case is solved. Of course there’s more to the novel than that, but you can see how it’s consistent with this pattern.

We also see this pattern in Katherine Howell’s Silent Fear. New South Wales police detective Ella Marconi and her team are called in when Paul Fowler is killed. He was with a group of friends tossing a football around when he suddenly collapsed. When it’s found that he was shot, the team begins to talk with the people on the scene as well as with other people in Fowler’s life. There are setbacks as several people involved in the case keep things back. There are other deaths, too. But then there’s a breakthrough, and Marconi and her team find out the truth. Again, there are other layers to this novel and there are subplots. But in many ways it’s consistent with the basic story structure.

 

The Cosy Mystery

CM

The characters in a cosy mystery are often very important. So lots of cosies start with an introduction to the characters. Then something happens that raises the tension level. Then there’s a murder. The sleuth (who’s usually an amateur, ‘though of course, not always) is drawn into the case. She or he often has a love interest or something else that brings some hope (cosies tend to be optimistic). But there are setbacks. Either the sleuth is suspected of the crime, or there’s another murder – sometimes both. However, there is support from the sleuth’s real friends and sometimes from the sleuth’s love interest. The sleuth puts the pieces of the puzzle together, sometimes having a confrontation with the killer. Then the story comes together when the case is solved. 

Lilian Jackson Braun’s The Cat Who Knew a Cardinal is like that. In that novel, a local theatre group has been doing a production of Henry V under the direction of local high school principal Hilary VanBrook. On the night of the last performance, VanBrook is murdered. Since the murder was on his property, and the suspects are people he knows, Qwill investigates the case. As he does so, he gets support from his friends in town and of course there’s his love interest Polly Duncan. There are also setbacks as there is another murder. Some of the clues don’t pan out either. But in the end, Qwill finds out who killed VanBrook and why.

We also see that sort of pattern in Dicey Deere’s The Irish Village Murder. Professional translator/interpreter Torrey Tunet has just returned to her European ‘home base’ in the Irish village of Ballynagh. She’s soon drawn into a murder case when her friend Megan O’Faolain is accused of shooting noted history writer John Gwathney. Tunet doesn’t believe her friend is guilty, so she begins to ask questions. As she does so, we get to know the various characters and we also learn about Gwathney’s personal and professional lives. In the end, and with help from her lover Jaspar Shaw, Tunet finds out who really killed the victim and why. In one sense, this novel varies just a little from the overall story structure I’ve depicted; we get to know the characters after Gwathney’s body is discovered. But in most ways it’s quite consistent.

 

The Noir Novel

Noir

Noir stories are, by their nature, not happy stories about well-adjusted people, and you can see that reflected in the story structure. In many of these stories, the main character is not overly happy to begin with. Then, something happens that propels that character on a downward spiral. The character gets involved in a murder investigation in one way or another and things don’t get much better. There are setbacks that draw the main character further down. There may sometimes be some sort of possibility for optimism as the main character finds out the truth. But in the end, solving the case doesn’t make for a happy ending, and the protagonist doesn’t come out of things ahead of the proverbial game.

That’s the case with Megan Abbott’s Die a Little, which takes place in 1950’s Southern California. Lora King is a Pasadena schoolteacher whose brother Bill has just become married Alice Steele. Lora’s not happy about this. For one thing, she doesn’t know much about Alice, and something about her is disturbing. Still, she tries to make the best of things for Bill’s sake. But as Lora slowly learns out more about Alice, she sees that her new sister-in-law has a very murky past and is hiding a lot of her life. The more Lora finds out though, the more drawn into Alice’s life she becomes. Then there’s a death that turns out to be murder. Is Alice involved? If so, Bill could be in real danger. So Lora begins to investigate and finds out that she’s pulled more and more into the case. She risks everything to try to find out the truth and save Bill, and I don’t think it’s spoiling the story to say that knowing what really happened doesn’t make life any better.

Ken Bruen’s The Guards is also fairly consistent with this sort of story shape. Jack Taylor has recently been separated from the Garda, mostly for drinking that led to a very unprofessional encounter with a speeder. Now he’s hung out his PI shingle in Galway, and Ann Henderson hires him. Her daughter Sarah recently died in what police say was an incident of suicide. But Ann doesn’t believe that. Taylor agrees to take the case and starts asking questions. He soon finds out that he’s not going to get much help from his former Garda colleagues. And it doesn’t help matters that Sarah’s death may be connected to the deaths of some other young girls – killings that some highly placed people do not want solved. But Taylor has begun to care very much for Ann Henderson. Besides, he doesn’t much like it when obstacles are put in his way. So he persists. He even stops drinking for a time and starts to put his life together. He finds out the truth about Sarah Henderson, but it doesn’t change the sadness of this case. And it doesn’t really make life better for Taylor.

One thing about well-written novels is that there’s much more to them than just their overall shape. There is a richness of character, plot and so on that keeps the reader engaged. So a story map only goes so far in describing a given novel. What’s more, each author has an individual way of approaching story shapes and structures, and many authors play with the structure deliberately. So not every novel falls neatly within one or another structure. Still, I think it’s an interesting way to think about crime novels. Thanks to  Maya Eilam for the inspiration and to author and fellow blogger Rob Kitchin for sharing the article.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Belle and Sebastian’s Storytelling.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Dicey Deere, John Dickson Carr, Katherine Howell, Ken Bruen, Lilian Jackson Braun, Maj Sjöwall, Megan Abbott, Per Wahlöö

‘Cause I Know You Understand*

Crime Writing PairsIt isn’t always easy to share your life with a crime writer. Just ask Mr. Confessions of a Mystery Novelist… Or perhaps, better not. ;-) Now, the one kind of person who does know what it’s like to be a crime writer is…another crime writer. And we do see several very successful examples of crime writers who share their lives with other crime writers.

Some of these partnerships have resulted in some memorable co-authored books and series. One of the most famous in crime fiction is arguably the partnership of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. Fans will know that these two real-life partners created the ten-book series featuring Stockholm police detective Martin Beck and his team. Each has individual writing credits too, but they’re most famous for this joint series.

You could say a similar thing about Nicci Gerrard and Sean French, the husband/wife team who write as Nicci French. They’ve written several standalones together and recently they’ve also been co-writing the Frieda Klein series – the ‘days of the week’ novels. Both Gerrard and French have written individually as well, but most readers know them best through their collaboration.

And then there are Alice Alfonsi and Marc Cerasini, who are married in their personal lives and co-authors of the Coffeehouse Mystery Series professionally. They use the name Cleo Coyle for that series, and the name Alice Kimberly for their Haunted Bookshop mysteries. They write individually as well, but their best-known work is collaborative.

Sometimes, crime-writer partners are more famous for their individual work than they are for their collaborations. For instance, Marcia Muller and Bill Pronzini have been married for over twenty years. Each of them is famous as an individual. Muller fans will know that she is the creator of the Sharon McCone PI series, which was one of the original American female PI series. Pronzini is of course the author of the Nameless series as well as several other series and standalones. He’s edited a number of anthologies as well. Muller and Pronzini have collaborated on the Carpenter and Quincannon historical series, the second of which came out in December of 2013. But each also has a very long individual ‘track record.’

The same is true of Kenneth and Margaret Millar. As Ross Macdonald, Kenneth Millar was most famous for his Lew Archer novels and story collections. He wrote and edited other work, but his name is most closely linked with Archer’s. Margaret Millar wrote a few short series including the three Tom Aragon novels. But she is possibly better known for her standalone psychological mysteries and character studies. To my knowledge (so please, put me right if I’m wrong!), the Millars didn’t collaborate on novels or series. I wonder what it would have been like if they had…

More recently both Faye and Jonathan Kellerman have each created very successful crime writing careers.  Faye Kellerman is best known for her Peter Decker/Rina Lazarus series, although she’s written other novels as well. And fans will know that Jonathan Kellerman is the author of the well-regarded Alex Delaware/Milo Sturgis series. He’s also written other fiction as well as non-fiction books. It seems the family tradition is being passed on, too, as their son Jesse Kellerman is also a crime/thriller writer as well as a playwright.

And then there’s Angela Savage and Andrew Nette. Savage is the author of a PI series featuring Bangkok-based Jayne Keeney. She has also written short fiction as well as non-fiction articles. Her partner is Andrew Nette, the author of Ghost Money. Nette is also the author of several short noir crime stories as well as several non-fiction articles. Both Savage and Nette have also been very active in the Australian crime writers’ community, and they’ve worked together on some projects, such as Crime Factory’s Hard Labour, a collection of Aussie noir stories.

There are of course other crime writers whose partners also write crime fiction. There isn’t really space to mention them all.  I know that there are some interesting conversations around my home because I write crime fiction. And only one of us is a crime writer…

 

 

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Alex Hill and Fats Waller’s I’m Crazy ‘Bout My Baby (And My Baby’s Crazy ‘Bout Me).

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Filed under Alice Alfonsi, Alice Kimberly, Andrew Nette, Angela Savage, Bill Pronzini, Cleo Coyle, Faye Kellerman, Jonathan Kellerman, Kenneth Millar, Maj Sjöwall, Marc Cerasini, Marcia Muller, Margaret Millar, Nicci French, Nicci Gerrard, Per Wahlöö, Ross Macdonald, Sean French

I Go to Extremes*

Political ExtremismThere’s something about politics and political movements that can stir up real passion, even fanaticism. I’m not a social psychologist, but my guess is that part of the reason for that is that it’s easy to get caught up in very strong feelings when there’s a charismatic speaker and an enthusiastic crowd. And when the speaker seems to offer solutions to the problems we all face (e.g. financial concerns, safety, our children’s future) and appeals to people’s need for security, that only adds to the power of a political movement. There’s a long history of political leaders appealing to people’s need for security, their sense of injustice or their desire for a better life, whatever that may be. And frank, reasoned discussions and debates about how best to meet people’s needs are important. That’s how we make social progress.

But fanaticism is a different matter. A quick look at crime fiction is plenty to show what can happen when reason gives way to fanaticism. But of course, you already know from history how dangerous that can be.

In Agatha Christie’s One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (AKA The Patriotic Murders and An Overdose of Death), we meet powerful banker Alistair Blunt. He stands for stability, caution and conservative reasoning. And that pits him against several fanatic political groups who would like to see England’s institutions dismantled and a new order begin. So when Blunt’s dentist Henry Morley is shot one day in his surgery, the Home Office takes an immediate interest. It’s believed that perhaps Blunt is the actual target, and it’s in a lot of people’s interest to keep Blunt safe. Chief Inspector Japp is assigned to investigate and one of his first conversations is with Hercule Poirot. Morley was Poirot’s dentist; in fact Poirot had an appointment at the surgery on the day of the murder. So Japp is hoping that Poirot can provide some insight. Then, there’s another death. And one of Morley’s other patients disappears. To add to this there’s another attempt on Blunt’s life. It’s now clear that there is something much larger going on than the shooting of a seemingly inoffensive dentist.

The world market crash of 1929 and the Great Depression that followed it made people very much afraid. ‘The way things always were’ clearly wasn’t working, so it’s not surprising that many turned to sometimes fanatic political movements. That’s arguably part of why National Socialism became popular. We see that in Rebecca Cantrell’s A Trace of Smoke, which takes place in 1931. When Berlin-based crime reporter Hannah Vogel discovers to her shock that her brother Ernst has been killed, she decides to find out why and by whom. She can’t really call the murder to the attention of the authorities because she and Ernst lent their identification documents to Jewish friends who’d decided to leave the country. The documents haven’t been returned yet, and Vogel knows that it’s far too risky to call attention to herself if she has no papers. So she starts asking questions herself, very quietly. As she goes in search of the answers, we get a sense of just how desperate many people were at that time. There were plenty of cases of people who quite literally did not have food and sold everything, including themselves, to eat. That desperation and panic in part made people willing to listen to anyone who would help them. And we can see in this novel how political fanaticism could be successful in Germany.

Robert Gott’s The Holiday Murders also takes place against a background of political fanaticism. Over the Christmas holidays of 1943, Melbourne DI Titus Lambert, Sergeant Joe Sable, and Constable Helen Lord investigate a series of brutal killings. The first two are the deaths of John Quinn and his son Xavier. Evidence from those murders suggests that they may be connected to the resurgent Australia First movement, which has adopted many of Hitler’s ideas. Because Australia is among the Allied powers, the movement has to stay very quiet, but it’s no less fanatic for that. Still, the police know they won’t get much information from members of the group unless they have an ‘in.’ So Sable agrees to go undercover as a sympathetic believer in the political extreme Right. Gradually he penetrates the group, and in that plot thread, we see some of the fears, assumptions and beliefs that can lead to political extremism.

The disparity between ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ also led to the rise of the Socialist movement and ultimately, to the Russian Revolution of 1917/18. Many people found real appeal in the idea of a ‘workers’ paradise’ and the end of rule by a few wealthy and powerful people. William Ryan’s Captain Alexei Korolev series, which takes place in pre-World War II Moscow, takes a look at the fanaticism of the early decades of the Soviet Union. As we learn in the series, at first Korolev himself was a believer in socialism and was caught up in the movement that promised a full, rich life for everyone. He’s since become disillusioned with what the government has done, and he’s seen too many people he knows fall victim to political denouncers. But he’s well aware that there are many political fanatics who would be only too pleased to ‘do their share for the State’ by denouncing him. So he walks a fine line between doing his duty as a member of the Soviet State and keeping hold of his own beliefs.

There’s an interesting look at the clash between fanatics from the Right and the Left in Sulari Gentill’s A Few Right Thinking Men, which takes place in 1932 New South Wales. Rowland Sinclair is an artist and intellectual, which means he’s got plenty of avant-garde friends, some of whom are quite firmly on the political Left. At the same time, the Sinclair family is wealthy and established, and Sinclair’s brother Wilfred takes that status very seriously. He has no patience with his brother’s ‘disreputable’ friends and political interest. When the Sinclair brothers’ uncle is murdered, the police theory is that his housekeeper may be responsible. But Rowland is convinced that’s not true. And he wants to know who killed his uncle and why. So he starts to ask questions. There are hints that the murderer may be a member of the fanatic Right, so Sinclair decides to go undercover as a new recruit to get some answers. Now he’s at real risk. If he’s found out, his new companions will have no compunctions about killing him. And if he’s thought to be a member of the fanatic Right, his leftist associates will feel betrayed, and some of them wouldn’t hesitate to kill him either. That tension between groups of extremists adds a strong layer of suspense to this novel.

There’s also Ernesto Mallo’s Venancio ‘Perro’ Lescano series, which takes place in the Argentina of the late 1970’s when a military junta was in tight control of the country. The fanaticism of the rightist rulers of the country is equaled by the fanaticism of some of the left-wing opponents of the government. And that political battle plays out as a very suspenseful background to these novels.

We see the disastrous results of political fanaticism in Andrew Nette’s Ghost Money too. Madeleine Avery hires Australian ex-cop Max Quinlan to find her brother Charles, who seems to have disappeared. Quinlan starts his search at Avery’s Bangkok home, where instead of Avery he finds the body of Avery’s business partner Robert Lee. The evidence suggests that Avery went to Cambodia, so Quinlan moves on to Phnom Penh, where he picks up the trail again. There he meets journalist’s assistant Heng Sarin, who proves to be invaluable as Quinlan discovers what really happened to Avery and why. The novel takes place approximately twenty years after the rule of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, and the country is still deeply scarred by that political movement and the fanaticism that came with it. The effects have been devastating and form a powerful backdrop to the novel.

And no discussion of political fanaticism would be complete without a mention of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s Martin Beck series. The authors’ leftist political views are clear in this series, but even so, in novels such as The Laughing Policeman and later, The Terrorists, we see the dangerous consequences of political extremism.

Even among individuals who aren’t fanatics, political movements can still bring up powerful feelings. Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourn isn’t a fanatic but she does have strong political beliefs. And in The Wandering Souls Murders, she meets Keith Harris, who also has strong political beliefs – quite different to Kilbourn’s. Here’s what Harris says to Kilbourn’s daughter Taylor about it:

 

‘I work for one party, and your mother works for another party. Not much of a reason to fight, when you come right down to it.’

 

And in fact, their political differences don’t prevent Kilbourn and Harris from developing an intimate relationship. The relationship ends after a time, but each respects the other and they engage in some lively debates about what is right for Canada. The undercurrent of politics may not count as fanatical, but it adds a layer of tension to these novels.

Political differences and open, reasoned debate can help move a society forward. But it’s a lot harder to do that than it is for me to write about it because people so often feel so strongly about their politics. Still, it does make for a fascinating backdrop to a crime novel.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a Billy Joel song.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Andrew Nette, Ernesto Mallo, Gail Bowen, Maj Sjöwall, Per Wahlöö, Rebecca Cantrell, Robert Gott, Sulari Gentill, William Ryan