Category Archives: Robin Cook

Somebody Get Me a Doctor*

ContagionThe human instinct for self-preservation is powerful. So it makes sense that we have a deep-seated fear of contagious disease. That’s part of the reason, for instance, that the recent news about Ebola in West Africa (and a few cases elsewhere) is so frightening. Ebola is a deadly virus and it’s contagious. So it’s only natural that we fear it.

That fear is certainly understandable, so it’s realistic when you see it in a novel. It can also add a great deal of tension to a story. Here are just a few examples. I know you’ll be able to think of more than I could anyway.

In Charles Dickens’ day, there were many illnesses people feared. One of them was smallpox, and we see that as part of the plot in Bleak House. The central plot of that novel concerns the Jarndyce case, a dispute over a will that’s been going round the Court of Chancery for generations. The novel traces the lives of some of the people concerned in that case, including philanthropist John Jarndyce, who’s distantly related to one of the original parties to the dispute. He takes an interest in the well-being of an orphan Esther Summerson, and arranges for her to be hired as companion to Ada Clare, who is also distantly connected to the Jarndyce case. The two women get on very well together, and Esther builds a solid life for herself. As it turns out, she is also connected to the Jarndyce case, and as the novel moves on, we see how the lives of these people, and some others also linked to that case, intersect. While this isn’t always considered a crime novel, there is murder involved, and a police inspector who investigates the case. There is also trouble in the offing for Esther. At one point in the novel, she helps nurse a sick young boy back to health. The result is that she becomes ill herself with what is likely smallpox. It leaves her with permanent physical scars, and while she goes on with her life, it’s a solid example of why so many people feared that particular contagious illness.

The worldwide influenza pandemic that broke out after World War I was also frightening to many people. We see a bit of that fear in Chris Womersley’s Bereft. Quinn Walker returns to his home in Flint, New South Wales, after serving in the Somme during The Great War. He’s hoping for the chance to rest and heal from the physical and emotional wounds he’s suffered. But he finds that Flint is far from a peaceful place right now. The influenza pandemic has reached his home town and even touched his family, as his own mother has fallen ill. Everyone’s frightened by the illness. Walker knows that he’s not welcome in his own home in any case, since many people, including his father, believe that he’s responsible for the murder of his sister ten years earlier. So he hides out in an abandoned shack. There he meets a young girl Sadie Fox who’s also hiding. With her help, Walker starts to get past his scars and he discovers what really happened to his sister. He also finds the courage to get word to his mother that he’s alive.

Caroline and Charles Todd, who write as Charles Todd, also use the influenza pandemic as a theme in An Unmarked Grave. In that novel, World War I battlefield nurse Bess Crawford has become accustomed to dealing with soldiers who’ve been wounded in combat. But as the pandemic begins in 1918, she finds herself and her colleagues overwhelmed with influenza patients as well. There’s special concern too because this illness has also spread to some of those caring for patients, which makes it all the more dangerous. Then, the body of a soldier who’s been hidden among the influenza patients is discovered. His identification’s been removed, so it’s hard to know who he is. But it’s clear that he’s been murdered. And it turns out that he’s a friend of Crawford’s family too. Moved by the death, Crawford wants to find out who killed the man and why, but now she faces a major complication: she’s caught influenza herself, and may not live long enough to solve the murder.

In Thomas N. Scortia and Frank Robinson’s The Nightmare Factor, we are introduced to Dr. Calvin Doohan, a Scottish transplant to San Francisco. When Doohan learns of an outbreak of a virulant influenza-type virus, he volunteers his services to the local Public Health Department to track down the source of the virus and try to contain it. The Centers for Disease Control, in the form of Dr. Suzanne Synge, join the local team and work begins in earnest to try to stop this outbreak. After patient interviews and other medical detective work, it’s established that many of those affected attended a convention at the Hotel Cordoba. The team also discovers that this particular illness was spread deliberately. Now Doohan is faced not just with the challenge of trying to contain the illness, but also with the challenge of finding out who’s responsible. And when he finds that out, he also discovers that there are people in important places who do not want anyone to know the truth.

Those who’ve read Robin Cook’s medical thrillers will know that several of his novels include the plot theme of a virus that’s deliberately spread. One example comes in Outbreak. Oh, and as a side note, the novel is nothing like the 1995 Wolfgang Peterson film with Dustin Hoffman, Morgan Freeman and Rene Russo. The plot of the novel is quite different. In it, a dangerous illlness seems to be spreading through the Los Angeles-based Richter Clinic. The Los Angeles health authorities ask for help from Atlanta’s Center’s for Disease Control, which sends Dr. Marissa Blumenthal. After a short time, Blumenthal and her team establish that these patients are dying from the highly contagious Ebola virus. The team manage to stop that particular outbreak, but soon there’s another, this time in St. Louis. Then there’s an outbreak in Phoenix. Now it’s clear that someone or some group is spreading the illness deliberately. Blumenthal slowly tracks down the truth, and discovers a deadly conspiracy.

With today’s straightforward air travel and regular contact among people at gatherings, it’s quite easy to imagine a quick and deadly spread of illness. And as we know from recent news, it happens. The fear of that sort of contagion is real, and that’s part of why this plot point can add suspense to a crime novel as well.

On another note, the vast majority of you folks who are kind enough to read this blog are in no danger from the current Ebola outbreak. But thousands of people have already died from it, and more probably will. There are many health professionals who’ve donated their time to fight Ebola in West Africa, which is a lot more than I would have the courage to do. You can help them in their work. One of these groups is Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders). You can check them out and support what they do right here.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Van Halen.

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Filed under Caroline Todd, Charles Dickens, Charles Todd, Chris Womersley, Frank Robinson, Robin Cook, Thomas N. Scortia

When Death Came Calling Today*

Medical ExaminersOne of critical tasks in any criminal investigation is finding out exactly how the victim died. For that, police rely on medical examiners. They have slightly different roles in different countries, but in general, their job is to perform autopsies and determine cause of death. Often that leads to a conclusion on manner of death too (accident, suicide or murder). The police rely heavily on that medical information to help make their cases, and medical examiners’ reports are also very useful for attorneys, whether they’re prosecuting or defending someone. It’s no wonder at all then that these professionals figure so often in crime fiction.

Several series feature medical examiners as sleuths, which makes sense when you consider what they do and the information they learn. For instance, Ariana Franklin’s Adelia Aguilar lives and works in 12th Century England. She’s what’s called a ‘mistress of the art of death,’ a doctor who was originally at the University at Salerno. At the request of King Henry II, she’s sent to England to investigate a murder and remains there. She may not have modern technology or science at her disposal, but she understands how the human body works, and she is good at determining cause of death.

Although he is not a doctor by profession, Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael plays much the same role . He’s a Benedictine monk, and an herbalist. He’s learned many of the telltale signs of different causes of death and that helps him draw his conclusions. And since he’s thoroughly familiar with different kinds of plant life, he’s especially good at finding small pieces of evidence that suggest where the victim was killed and in cases of poison, which kind of poison was used.

Felicity Young’s Dorothy ‘Dodie’ McCleland is a medical examiner who works in the London of the early 20th Century. There’s a real interest in the profession at this time, as it’s the era of the Crippen case and not that many years after the Whitechapel murders. It’s a profession that’s just opened to women, so McCleland faces her share of sexism and cultural barriers. Still, she’s good at what she does. And what’s interesting is that Sir Bernard Spilsbury, the famous real-life pathologist, figures into the series. In fact, Young has written that the inspiration for Antidote to Murder, the second novel in the series, came from Spilsbury’s case notes.

Garrett Quirke, the creation of Benjamin Black, lives and works in 1950’s Dublin. In The Silver Swan, Quirke gets involved in the investigation of the death of Deirdre Hunt. And in this case, we see how important the observations of a medical examiner can be. When the victim’s body is found off the rocks near Dalkey Island, the police believe that it’s a case of suicide. Deirdre’s husband Billy accepts that explanation and wants the matter to go no further. In fact, he appeals to Quirke (they’re old friends) not to conduct an autopsy, saying that he can’t bear to think of his wife’s body cut up and dissected. Quirke agrees to see what he can do, but his suspicions are raised when he discovers a mark from hypodermic needle on one of Deirdre’s arms. That mark casts a whole new light on this death, but it isn’t noticed until Quirke conducts his examination.

And then there’s Colin Cotterill’s 1970s-era Dr. Siri Paiboun series. Dr. Siri is Laos’ only medical examiner, so he deals with all sorts of different cases. He faces several challenges too. For one thing, he has very little equipment or technology as his disposal. He has to make do sometimes with very rudimentary solutions, but he manages to get answers. Another challenge is that the government of Laos at this time is in the hands of socialist leaders who demand unquestioning co-operation and obedience. They expect that Dr. Siri’s results will tally with official explanations. That doesn’t always happen though, and Dr. Siri has to be cautious and clever as he goes about his work. But Dr. Siri has a strong and loyal team: Nurse Dtui and mortuary assistant Mr. Geung are highly skilled at their jobs. In fact Mr. Geung knows more about mortuary procedures than Dr. Siri does. This series offers an interesting look at the life of a non-Western medical examiner.

There are also of course many modern-day fictional medical examiners, such as Robin Cook’s Laurie Montgomery and Jack Stapleton. They live and work in New York City, but as readers of this series know, they also travel in the course of their work. Kathy Reichs’ Temperance Brennan is another example of the modern medical examiner.

Medical examiners also play important roles in novels and series even when they’re not the protagonists. For instance, Peter James’ Superintendent Roy Grace depends a lot on Cleo Morey, a medical examiner with Brighton and Hove Mortuary. Fans of this series know that while these two begin as colleagues, their relationship changes and they become partners. Morey’s expertise is critical to Grace’s investigations. And Priscilla Masters’ Martha Gunn, who serves as Coroner for Shrewsbury, depends very much on her team members for accurate results in the cases she hears. In Ernesto Mallo’s Needle in a Haystack, Buenos Aries medical examiner Dr. Fusili is very helpful, despite great personal risk, to police detective Venancio ‘Perro’ Lescano when he investigates a murder that some highly-placed people want ‘rubber stamped.’

Medical examiners have what may seem like eerie jobs. But their expertise is extremely important, and their cases can be very interesting, too. Which fictional medical examiners have stayed in your memory?
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Mountain Goats’ The Coroner’s Gambit.

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Filed under Ariana Franklin, Benjamin Black, Colin Cotterill, Ellis Peters, Ernesto Mallo, Felicity Young, Kathy Reichs, Peter James, Priscilla Masters, Robin Cook

Don’t Care If It’s Chinatown or on Riverside*

NewYorkCityIf you’ve ever been to New York City, then you know that it defies easy description. It’s a city with a long and rich history, and today, it’s a mix of so many cultures and different kinds of people that the word ‘diverse’ doesn’t even begin to describe it. What’s interesting about New York, too, is that you’ll find some of the wealthiest areas of the city just a few blocks from some of the poorest. It’s an intense, fascinating place, and there are plenty of people who couldn’t imagine living anywhere else. There are famous museums, top musical artists, Broadway shows, world-class restaurants, and lots more there. Oh, and Billy Joel was born there, too.

Ahem – right – back to New York City. It shouldn’t be surprising that lots of crime fiction is set there. It’s just a natural context for a murder mystery, especially if you consider the number of real-life famous murders that have occurred there. There’s a long list of authors who’ve set their novels or series in New York. Here’s just a small smattering.

Any dedicated crime fiction fan will be able to tell you that Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe series has a distinctive New York City setting. Although Wolfe does travel a few times, the vast majority of the books are set in Manhattan, where Wolfe has his famous brownstone home/office. His employee/business partner (sometimes it’s hard to tell, really) Archie Goodwin does the ‘legwork’ on Wolfe’s cases, and his travels take him all over New York. Through his eyes, we get to see many of New York’s different ‘faces,’ from ‘society’ homes and mansions to tenements, and just about everywhere in between. Want to explore Nero Wolfe/Archie Goodwin’s New York? Check out your options with the Wolfe Pack, the Official Nero Wolfe Society.

Fans of Evan Hunter/Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct series will know that although he called his setting Isola, it’s a thinly disguised New York City. Beginning with Cop Killer, these novels focus on murders in all sorts of different New York City settings. And what’s especially interesting about this series is that it looks at crime among all socioeconomic classes, too. Because the series is enduring (it lasted from 1956 to 2005), we also get to see how the city changes through the decades, and how factors such as immigration, technology and so on have affected it.

Lawrence Block’s PI series featuring Matthew Scudder is also set in New York. Beginning with The Sins of the Fathers, the series follows Scudder as he begins life as a PI after leaving the NYPD. Since most of Scudder’s contacts are informal, we also get a look at New York’s local restaurant and bar scene. I don’t mean necessarily trendy ‘popular’ places, although New York certainly has more than its share of them. I mean the smaller places that are popular with the local people. And New York City has plenty of those, too. Scudder has clients from several different socioeconomic strata too, so this series also gives readers a look at the different kinds of lives New Yorkers have.

Margaret Maron’s Lieutenant Sigrid Harald series is also set in New York City. Harald is a member of New York City’s Police Department, so she investigates all sorts of different kinds of cases. Beginning with One Coffee With, she takes on murders at university campuses, high-priced apartment buildings, attorneys’ offices and Greenwich Village ‘arty’ places, just to name a few.

Mary Higgins Clark has set some of her novels in New York City as well. For example, While My Pretty One Sleeps features murder in the world of fashion when a client of boutique owner Meeve Kearny is murdered. Loves Music, Loves to Dance follows jewelry designer Erin Scott and decorator Darcy Scott as they move to New York to pursue their careers. Then, they place personal ads in local newspapers to do some research for a TV producer friend who’s planning a feature on the topic. The research proves fatal when Erin disappears and is later found murdered. And in I’ll Be Seeing You, reporter Meghan Collins is following up on the story of the mugging of a US senator. When he’s rushed to Manhattan’s Roosevelt Hospital, she goes along with other members of the press to learn of his condition. That’s when an ambulance team rushes in with a woman who’s just died – a woman who looks exactly like Meghan…

And then there’s S.J. Rozan’s Lydia Chin/Bill Smith series. Chin and Smith are both private investigators who sometimes partner up in their cases. Chin is a member of New York’s Chinese/Chinese-American community, so she is especially in demand for cases that require some knowledge of that culture. In China Trade for instance, she is hired to track down some rare and valuable Chinese porcelain items that were donated to a local museum. The trail leads to the Chinatown underworld of gangs and in this case, shady art dealers. While not every novel in this series features the Chinatown setting, it’s the area of New York that Chin knows best.  Readers who are interested in Chinatown can also read Henry Chang’s Jack Yu series.

There are of course many more novels and series that take place in New York. Just a few examples are Jeffery Deaver’s Lincoln Rhyme novels, Ellery Queen’s New York-set novels (most are, some are not), Robin Cook’s Laurie Montgomery/Jack Stapleton novels and several of Stuart Palmer’s Hildegarde Withers/Oscar Piper novels. And those are only a few examples. I’ll bet you could think of many more.

 

Now if you’ll excuse me, that’s my train. Time to head uptown…

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s New York State of Mind. Really? You were surprised? ;-)

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Filed under Ed McBain, Ellery Queen, Evan Hunter, Henry Chang, Jeffery Deaver, Lawrence Block, Margaret Maron, Mary Higgins Clark, Rex Stout, Robin Cook, S.J. Rozan, Stuart Palmer

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