Category Archives: Robin Cook

What a Brave New World We Live in*

Limits of TechnologyIn Agatha Christie’s One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (AKA The Patriotic Murders and An Overdose of Death), Hercule Poirot is talking to two young people about the brand-new world they want to create:

 

‘In your new world, my children, let there be freedom and let there be pity…that is all I ask.’

 

He touches on an important point. What should be the limits to our technological and sociological development? To put it another way, just because we can do something, does that mean we should?

It’s a complicated question and I don’t have the complete answer. But it’s addressed in a lot of novels including crime fiction. Let me just give you a few examples.

In Ngaio Marsh’s The Nursing Home Murder, Home Secretary Sir Derek O’Callaghan has prepared an Anarchy Bill which is specifically directed against leftist revolutionaries and their activities. One day he suffers a ruptured appendix during a speech in the House, and is rushed to a private hospital run by his physician Sir John Phillips. He is taken into surgery, but dies shortly after the procedure. At first it looks as though it’s a tragic case of ‘nothing the doctors could do.’ But it’s not long before it’s proven he was poisoned. Chief Detective Inspector Roderick Alleyn and Inspector Fox investigate the murder and soon find that there are several suspects. And because of the sequence of events, almost all of them had the opportunity. When Alleyn and Fox put the pieces of the puzzle together, they find that the killer believed that because something can be done, it should.

Several of Robin Cook’s medical thrillers also explore the limits of what medicine can and should do. To take just one example, there’s an interesting debate about stem cell research in Seizure. US Senator Ashley Butler has been an outspoken opponent of stem cell research. But when he is diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease, he knows that barring some sort of miracle, he will never achieve his dream of becoming President of the US. So he secretly contacts Dr. Daniel Lowell, who runs a biotechnology company that does stem cell work. The agreement that they work out is this: Butler will quietly withdraw his objection to stem cell research if Lowell operates on him. Plans are made to perform the controversial operation Lowell has in mind at the Wingate Clinic in the Bahamas. The surgery is carried out, but it has some frightening unforeseen consequences. This novel addresses both the important benefits and the potential terrible consequences of certain kinds of medical research and procedures.

One of the story arcs in Stefan Tegenfalk’s trilogy (Anger Mode, Project Nirvana, The Missing Link) has to do with a ‘wonder drug.’ Stockholm County CID Inspector Walter Gröhn and Detective Jonna de Brugge investigate what appear to be a series of killings that are committed for no apparent reason other than rage. That investigation leads to a much larger exploration as the novels go on of what science and biotechnology are capable of doing – and whether it should be done. The trilogy also explores the ramifications of the wrong people getting hold of certain kinds of technology.

In Geoffrey McGeachin’s Blackwattle Creek, which takes place in 1957, Melbourne cop Charlie Berlin gets involved in a dangerous investigation that starts with a funeral. Berlin’s wife Rebecca asks him to speak to a friend of hers Beryl Moffit, whose husband Cyril recently died. There was an oddity about the funeral and Beryl isn’t exactly sure what to do about it. Berlin agrees to talk to her and soon finds himself drawn into something much larger than he thinks. What looks on the surface like odd procedures at a funeral home is just the proverbial tip of the iceberg in a larger case of intrigue, high-level cover-ups and murder. And at the core of it all is a set of serious questions about whether ends justify means. Does being capable of doing something mean it should be done? And what are the larger consequences if it is done?

 These kinds of questions are also explored in William Ryan’s The Twelfth Department, which takes place in pre-World War II Moscow. CID Captain Alexai Korolev and Sergeant Nadezhda Slivka are asked to investigate the murder of noted scientist Boris Azarov. As it is, the matter is delicate because Azarov was working on a top-secret government project. But the detectives begin their investigation. Then there’s another murder; this time, the victim is someone Korolev and Slivka thought might be a suspect in Azarov’s murder. The Powers That Be have a theory about the killings, and that’s the one they want Korolev to ‘rubber stamp.’ But he and Slivka are fairly certain that it doesn’t explain everything. So they decide to continue with their investigations. In the end they uncover something both chilling and unexpected. And that discovery raises again the disturbing issue of the limits to which we should go.

Science, medicine and technology have moved us forward in critical ways. We need those fields, and supporting them is essential. But as crime fiction shows us, this raises some important questions. How do we support scientific and technological development, and at the same time retain our humanity if I may put it that way? How do we balance medical achievement with protecting individual people?  Just because we can push the button, so to speak, does this mean we should? The answers are not easy. What do you think?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Adrian Belew’s Brave New World.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Geoffrey McGeachin, Ngaio Marsh, Robin Cook, Stefan Tegenfalk, William Ryan

It Starts When You’re Always Afraid*

Witch Hunts and Mass HysteriaThere’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.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Agnete Friis, Colin Cotterill, Lene Kaaberbøl, Robin Cook, Walter Mosley, William Ryan

The Alphabet in Crime Fiction: Rye and Related Grains

Rye and Related GrainsWell, here we R at the Crime Fiction Alphabet meme’s eighteenth stop. We’ve been having a wonderful time thus far, and for that I thank our tour leader Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise. Today, we’ve stopped at Rburgh, a delightful village with of all things, a terrific bakery. Oh, it’s quite well known and everyone’s looking forward to sampling the wares, so to speak. We’ll be leaving for the bakery in a short while, which should give me just enough to time to make my contribution for this week: rye and related grains. 

‘What?’ you may ask. ‘How on earth can baked goods be dangerous?’ Well, let me explain. There’s a fungus called ergot which grows on rye and other grains in that family. And that fungus can have all sorts of devastating effects on humans including hallucinations, ‘rage attacks’ and a lot more. Don’t believe me?  Let’s just check out a few examples of crime fiction to show you what I mean. 

In Robin Cook’s Acceptable Risk, we meet Edward Armstrong, a noted neuroscientist who’s been just accepted an offer to work for a breakout biotechnology company Genetrix. Armstrong and his team have been doing some research into brain chemistry and they are hired to use their findings to develop a new anti-depression medication. Then, Armstrong meets and falls in love with a Boston-area nurse Kimberly Stewart. She’s in the process of renovating an old home that’s been in her family for a few hundred years and Anderson takes an interest in what she’s doing. His interest grows sharply when it’s discovered that there’s a form of ergot growing in the basement of the home. For Stewart it explains some of her family history. For Anderson it’s an exciting possibility for a psychotropic drug. He persuades Genetrix to set up a lab for him and his team and they get to work using the ergot. The end result turns out to be frightening, and it raises the question of how psychotropic drugs are developed and tested and the pressure on researchers to come up with ‘the latest and the greatest.’

Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman has to deal with ergot in Trick or Treat. Chapman is a Melbourne baker who’s devoted to what she does. For her, bread is real:

 

‘I make bread, that’s what I do, that’s what I am.’ 

 

So she’s shocked and grief-stricken when a young man jumps to his death off a nearby roof after an ergot-induced hallucination. Somehow, ergot-poisoned grain has gotten into a local bakery and Chapman’s own Earthly Delights is one of the suspected sources of the ergot. The police investigation closes the bakery temporarily and Chapman wants to clear her reputation and start baking again. So she decides to look into the source of the poisoned flour. As she does so, readers learn about how bakery flours are bought and distributed. 

Elizabeth George’s A Suitable Vengeance features ergotamine, one of the ergot alkaloids. In that novel, Inspector Lynley is planning to bring his bride-to-be Deborah Cotter to the family home Howenstow for what’s supposed to be a celebratory weekend. Everything changes though when local journalist Mick Cambrey is murdered. Then, Lynley’s brother Peter’s girlfriend Sasha Nifford dies of what seems at first like a heroin overdose. It’s not; instead it’s an ergotamine-and-quinine mixture Then there’s another death. As if the stress of investigating three murders isn’t enough for Lynley, there’s a very real possibility that someone in his family is behind it all… 

In Morag Joss’ Fruitful Bodies, cellist Sara Selkirk is reunited with her former teacher and mentor Joyce Cruikshank when Cruikshank attends one of Selkirk’s concerts. It’s soon clear that Cruikshank has developed a dangerous drinking habit and Selkirk feels obligated to help take care of her. At first, she invites her former mentor and her dachshund Pretzel to stay in her home. But Cruikshank needs more help than simply boarding with a former pupil for a bit. So Seklirk arranges for her to work at the Sulis Clinic, a new-age and alternative-medicine clinic run by Stephen Golightly. In the meantime, Selkirk’s boyfriend DCI Andrew Poole is investigating the murder of a Japanese tourist Mrs. Takahashi, who was staying at a B&B run by Golightly’s son Ivan and Ivan’s wife Hillary. Then, one of the Sulis Clinic’s patients dies. And there’s another death. Suspicions that Golightly is a charlatan have already been going around and this just makes things worse. Selkirk suspects that the deaths at the clinic have something to do with Mrs. Takahashi’s murder and she turns out to be right. And what does Selkirk find out about the clinic deaths? That’s right – ergot poisoning. Was it accidental? Is someone trying to discredit the clinic? Or is there something else going on? 

And then there’s Alison Buck’s Devoted Sisters. Elderly Lizzie Atwell and her younger sister May share their childhood home. They’ve got a safe, well-ordered existence and are happy to keep the modern world at bay. Underneath the surface of their peaceful lives though, there are some dark secrets in their past and hidden resentments. Those secrets start to come to light when the outside world that both sisters have tried to resist starts crowding in. What’s more, the sisters begin to have ‘visions’ that seem to be all too real. Little by little their nicely ordered lives start to fall apart and we learn the truth about what’s gone on in their history. And yes, ergot plays an important role here, too… 

And finally, I can’t resist mentioning Agatha Christie’s A Pocket Full of Rye. No, wealthy Rex Fortescue is not killed by ergot poisoning. He does die of poison though and what’s odd is that his pocket is full of grains of rye. And isn’t the title perfect for this post? ;-)   Then, one of the Fortescue servants Gladys Martin is murdered. Then there’s another death. Miss Marple knows Gladys; in fact, she prepared the girl for domestic service. So she takes a personal interest in finding out who and what are behind the murders. 

But enough about rye and other grains. It’s all made me quite hungry. Shall we go try out that bakery? They have lovely homemade breads make from privately grown organic grains…   ;-) 

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alison Buck, Elizabeth George, Kerry Greenwood, Morag Joss, Robin Cook

Little to Win and Nothing to Lose*

Nothing to LoseMost people weigh the consequences of what they’re going to do, at least a little, before they do it. And that’s what can make it so dangerous when people feel they have nothing to lose. That belief can push people to do some awfully dangerous and sometimes terrible things. In crime fiction, characters who feel they have nothing to lose can add to the suspense of a story, though.

For instance, in Donald Honig’s short story Come Ride With Me, a man named Gannon goes into the Quick Stop diner with a specific purpose in mind. He’s just committed a robbery that ended in a murder and now he needs to ‘borrow’ a getaway car. He waits at the diner until he sees exactly the kind of car he wants. The driver is Lee Carstairs, who’s doing well financially and who drives a fast, late-model car. Carstairs uses the telephone and while he’s doing so Gannon takes his chance and hides in the back seat of the car. But as he soon finds out, he’s picked the wrong car. As it turns out, Carstairs has other plans with his car and we learn that he has nothing to lose by carrying them out.

In Stephen J. Cannell’s The Tin Collectors, we meet LAPD homicide cop Shane Scully. One night he gets a frantic call from Barbara Molar, wife of Scully’s former partner Ray Molar. Barbara says that Ray is trying to kill her and begs Scully to help. Scully races over to the Molar home in time to save Barbara, but Molar shoots at him. Scully shoots back to defend himself. Molar’s bullet misses; Scully’s hits its mark. At first Scully thinks that what happened will be dealt with in a routine Internal Affairs investigation. After all, it was a ‘clean’ hit. But soon Scully finds himself a pariah on the force, since Molar was a beloved cop. Then it becomes clear that this is not going to be a routine investigation. The Internal Affairs authorities are planning to take Scully’s badge and perhaps charge him with murder. Scully knows now that this is far bigger than just a questionable shooting. He starts to ask more questions and finds himself targeted by some very powerful and corrupt people. Now, with little left to lose professionally, Scully goes to great lengths to try to find out who is targeting him and why.

In Robin Cook’s Seizure, we are introduced to U.S. Senator Ashley Butler. He’s been a strong force against stem cell and other kinds of controversial medical procedures and research. But everything changes completely when he is diagnosed with Parkinson ’s disease. He knows that unless he gets some kind of medical miracle, he’ll never be able to achieve his goal of becoming president. In a professional sense he has much to lose. But he has nothing to lose at all by pursuing a cure and for that he contacts Dr. Daniel Lowell. Lowell’s been conducting promising research and has pioneered a controversial surgical procedure that may be exactly what Butler needs. So together, Butler and Lowell go to extraordinary (and very, very dangerous) lengths to perform the surgery. One of the dangers for instance is that the clinic chosen for the procedure is the Wingate Clinic, located in the Bahamas. The owners of that clinic are guilty of several legal and ethical violations and when Lowell and his co-worker Stephanie D’Agostino discover that, they also find that they are in real danger of their lives.

In C.J. Box’s Three Weeks to Say Goodbye, Travel Development Specialist Jack McGuane and his wife Melissa are the proud and happy adoptive parents of beautiful baby Angelina. Everything changes though when they learn that Angelina’s biological father Garret Moreland never waived his parental rights. Now he wants to exercise them. The McGuanes are devastated by this news and they decide to do what they can to keep their daughter. They face difficult odds though. First, Moreland’s father is a powerful local judge who is determined that Angelina will be given to his son. In fact he starts off by basically trying to buy the McGuanes’ co-operation. When that doesn’t work he uses his authority and orders the McGuanes to relinquish custody of Angelina in 21 days. With nothing much to lose, Jack McGuane decides to do whatever it takes to keep his child. ‘Whatever it takes’ turns out to be more than either McGuane bargained for but to them, there is no real choice.

We also see get that sense of ‘nothing left to lose’ in Åsa Larsson’s The Blood Spilt. In that novel, Kiruna police inspector Anna-Maria Mella and her partner Sven-Erik Stålnacke investigate the murder of local priest Mildred Nilsson. Attorney Rebecka Martinsson works with Nilsson’s widower to arrange for the return of their house to the Swedish Church so she gets involved in the investigation too. Nilsson had some controversial views and was not at all afraid to share them. So there’s more than one suspect in this case. But slowly, Martinsson and the police get to the truth. In this novel, the murderer is a person who has nothing left to lose, or so it seems to that person. That sense of desperation is part of what drives the killer on instead of stopping before the murder is committed.

Lindy Cameron’s Redback is the story of a crack team of Australian retrieval specialists called Redback. They’re called in when people need to be rescued from extremely dangerous situations and that’s exactly what happens on the Pacific island of Laui. The island is hosting the Pacific Tourism and Enviro-Trade Conference when a group of rebels disrupts the meeting and takes the delegates hostage. Team Redback, led by Bryn Gideon, is called in and rescues the conferees. It’s not long before that incident is connected to a terrible train explosion, two murders and an explosion on a U.S. military base. As it turns out, a shadowy group of terrorists is using a video game called Global WarTek to recruit members and give instructions. Several local terrorist groups with nothing to lose and a lot of fanaticism are only too happy to follow those instructions. So Gideon and her team have their proverbial work cut out for them as they go up against a group that’s not supposed to even exist.

Camilla Grebe and Åsa Träff’’s Some Kind of Peace tells the story of Stockholm psychologist Siri Bergman. She is dealing with the horrible trauma of having lost her beloved husband Stefan in a diving incident. Otherwise, though, she’s managing her life – more or less. Then one day she gets a chilling letter that makes it clear she’s being stalked. Other incidents happen too, all of them designed to frighten and discredit her. Then one day she discovers the body of a patient Sara Matteus in the water near her home. As if that’s not bad enough, the death is made to look like a suicide for which Bergman is responsible. When the evidence shows that Matteus was murdered, the police even wonder whether Bergman might have committed the crime. In order to clear her name and save her own life, Bergman has to find out who is responsible for the murder and for stalking her. It turns out that the killer acted out of a sense of desperation and the belief that there was nothing to lose. While that’s not precisely the killer’s motive, it does drive the killer ‘over the edge.’

And that’s the thing about having nothing to lose. It can also mean one has nothing to keep one from pushing the limits and doing things that can turn tragic.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from  Strawberry Alarm Clock’s Incense and Peppermint.

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Filed under Åsa Larsson, Åsa Träff, C.J. Box, Camilla Grebe, Donald Honig, Lindy Cameron, Robin Cook, Stephen J. Cannell

‘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