Category Archives: William Ryan

I Was Listening In*

Listening InPrivacy matters to a lot of people. And that includes their conversations. It’s unsettling to imagine that anyone might be able to hear what you think is a private conversation. And yet, sometimes we don’t have as much privacy as we’d like to think we have. As uncomfortable as it may make us feel in real life, the plot point of someone listening in on a conversation can add real tension and suspense to a crime novel. There are lots of examples of this in the genre; here are just a few.

In Agatha Christie’s After the Funeral (AKA Funerals Are Fatal), Hercule Poirot is asked to investigate the death of family patriarch Richard Abernethie. When the members of his family gather for his funeral, his younger sister Cora Lansquenet says that he was murdered. At first, everyone dismisses what she’s said. Even she tells everyone not to pay attention to her. But when Cora herself is murdered the next day, everyone begins to believe that she was probably right. In the course of the story, one of the characters remembers a vital clue. When that person follows the family attorney’s instructions and telephones him about it, someone listens in on that conversation, and it has real consequences.

Rebecca Cantrell’s Hannah Vogel series takes place mostly in Berlin during the rise of the Nazis. At that time and in that place, having someone listen in on a private conversation was not trivial. Anything might be reported to the Nazi authorities, and the consequences of that were often hideous. In the series, Vogel is a journalist who often has to be careful of every word she says. On one level, she investigates stories that the Nazi authorities do not want reported. For instance, in A Game of Lies, she’s reporting on the Berlin Olympic Games of 1936. The authorities want to present a peaceful, pleasant face to the world. But the reality is quite different, and as Vogel gets closer to the truth, she has to be extremely careful of what she says, when and to whom. She has to be careful at another level too. The people she loves and cares about most are at as much risk as she is, and to protect them and herself, she has to avoid being listened in on by the wrong people. That plot point adds a thread of real suspense to this series.

William Ryan’s Alexei Korolev series also depicts a society in which listening in on conversations is a regular occurrence. These novels take place mostly in pre-World War II Stalinist Moscow. Any conversation one has may be overheard and used as ‘ammunition’ in a denunciation. And being branded as disloyal to the Party means at the very least prison and/or banishment, with serious consequences for one’s family too. What’s more, when a person is suspected of disloyalty, the authorities have no qualms about installing listening devices to make it even easier to overhear everything. So conversations have to be conducted carefully and private conversations even more so. In this atmosphere, Captain Alexei Korolev works for the Moscow CID, where his job is to catch criminals and support the Party’s vision of a crime-free ‘worker’s paradise.’ But he is keenly aware of the power of the NKVD and other Party authorities. So when the trail leads to highly placed people, as it does in The Darkening Field (AKA The Bloody Meadow), he has to move with extreme caution. Privacy isn’t easy to obtain, and the possibility that someone may be listening in adds suspense to this series.

In Paddy Richardson’s Swimming in the Dark, we meet secondary school teacher Ilsa Klein and her mother Gerda. They emigrated from what was then East Germany during the height of the Soviet Era. Gerda in particular remembers clearly how careful people had to be of everything they said and did. The Stasi – the secret police – had spies everywhere who reported any conversation that might be considered traitorous. And once suspected of disloyal activity, people were subjected to even more listening in. For example, telephones were bugged and tiny holes drilled in walls and ceilings so that ‘neighbours’ could overhear everything. For Gerda, New Zealand has been a welcome haven. Ilsa sees things differently because she was just a child when the family left Leipzig, but she too has settled into life on the South Island. Both women’s lives are changed when Ilsa begins to be concerned about one of her students Serena Freeman. Formerly a top achiever with academic ambitions, Serena has lost interest in school. When Ilsa decides to intervene, she finds herself drawn into something much more than she imagined. 

And then there’s Kishwar Desai’s Witness the Night. Social worker Simran Singh has made a life for herself in Delhi and has little motivation to return to her home town of Jullundur, in the state of Punjab. But she agrees to do just that when she gets a call from a former friend who is now Inspector General for Punjab. He wants Singh’s assistance with a difficult case. Fourteen-year-old Durga Atwal is believed to be responsible for the deaths of thirteen members of her family, and for a fire that burned the family home. At the same time, there is some evidence that she may have been a victim herself, who just happened to survive the incident. Durga isn’t talking though, so the police can’t move on the case. It’s hoped that if Singh can get Durga to talk about what happened that night, the authorities can get to the truth. There are several influential people though who do not want certain facts about the Atwal family to come out. So Singh finds that her telephone calls are monitored and her things searched. She does find out what really happened, but she also learns that a lot of people cannot be trusted, and that her private conversations have to be planned.

Sometimes the people listening in are the supposed ‘good guys,’ who aren’t so good. In David Whish-Wilson’s Line of Fire, Perth cop Frank Swann returns to his ‘home patch’ after being away for a few years. He’s learned that a friend of his Ruby Devine has been murdered and he wants to find out what happened. He soon discovers that he’s up against ‘the purple circle,’ a group of corrupt cops who are already against him because he’s reported them for corruption. ‘The purple circle’ may have been responsible for Ruby’s death though, so Swann perseveres. In the course of his investigation, he finds that ‘the walls have ears,’ as the saying goes, and he has to be very careful what he says and to whom. And several people he talks to are reluctant to say anything for exactly the same reason. That plot point adds a solid layer of suspense to this story.

Listening in on conversations is also of course, a major plot thread in espionage fiction. There are lots of spy thrillers (you could probably list more than I could) in which the plot is moved along through bugged telephones and other listening devices. That’s why there are a lot of ‘walks in parks’ where spies discuss things they don’t want overheard.

That possibility – that a private conversation is being overheard – is a creepy one. It’s little wonder we see it so often in crime fiction.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Undertones’ Listening In.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, David Whish-Wilson, Kishwar Desai, Paddy Richardson, Rebecca Cantrell, William Ryan

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

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

Looking For Evidence to Help it All Make Sense*

Light and Order from ChaosResearch on thinking and knowing has shown us for a long time that humans like things to make sense. When we encounter something that doesn’t fit our mental picture of what ought to be, we mentally wrestle with it until either our mental picture adapts or we learn more about the something we encounter. That’s arguably why so many people love crime fiction. It’s an opportunity to impose some order (who/why/howdunit) on chaos (a murder or murders and the aftermath). Even in crime novels that don’t have a happy ending, we want to know how the pieces all fit together and how it all makes sense. And readers can get very cranky if there doesn’t seem to be any order in a plot.

The drive to impose order on what seems to be chaos is also a motivator for detectives. They want the puzzle pieces to fit together. Of course there are other motivators too; murders are very human events that affect people on many levels. They’re far more than just intellectual puzzles. But at the same time, detectives still want the puzzle to fit together and make sense. Definitely fictional sleuths do. It’s the way we humans seem to be made.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes sees virtually all of his cases as opportunities to impose some sort of order on what seems like chaos. Take for instance The Adventure of the Dancing Men. Hilton Cubitt is worried about his wife Elsie. She’s never told him everything about her past, although she claims that she’s done nothing of which she need be ashamed. But she has had some dubious associations and now the past seems to be catching up with her. She’s been getting some cryptic notes that at first make no sense at all. They’re simply drawings that look like childish scrawls. But it’s precisely because they don’t make sense that Holmes is interested in them. But before he can figure out what the drawings mean, there’s a tragedy at the Cubitt home. Hilton Cubitt is killed and his wife badly wounded. Now it’s more important than ever that Holmes make sense of the drawings. Once he does, he’s able to find out the truth about the murder.

We also see this same drive for things to make sense in Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot. As Poirot fans know, his watchwords are order and method. And he’s not satisfied until every unexplained detail makes sense. That, for instance, is why he doesn’t ‘buy’ the police theory in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.  When retired manufacturing magnate Roger Ackroyd is stabbed in his study one night, the most likely suspect seems to be his stepson Captain Ralph Paton. The two had quarreled violently and what’s more, Paton was known to be in desperate need of the money he would inherit at Ackroyd’s death. But Paton’s fiancée Flora Ackroyd doesn’t believe he’s guilty. She asks Poirot to look into the matter and at first he agrees to do so for her sake. But then he begins to have questions himself about Paton’s guilt. Those questions arise mostly from small things that can’t be explained by the police theory. That desire to have all of the details cleared up help lead Poirot to the truth about the murder.

Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse also likes the pieces of a puzzle to all make sense. That’s in part why he perseveres in The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn. Quinn is the only Deaf member of Oxford’s Foreign Examinations Syndicate. That group is responsible for overseeing examinations given in non-UK countries with a British education tradition. Membership in the Syndicate is prestigious and select, and Quinn was by no means the universal choice. But he settles in and starts his work. Then one day he is killed by what turns out to be poison. Morse and Sergeant Lewis investigate the death and discover that all sorts of secrets are being hidden by Syndicate members, and that Quinn could easily have discovered one of them. Morse thinks he’s found out the truth, but then when something he learns won’t quite fit in with the rest, he completely re-thinks what happened and that leads him to the real killer.

Adrian Hyland’s Emily Tempest likes things to make sense, too. In Gunshot Road for instance, she’s assigned to help investigate the murder of Albert ‘Doc’ Ozolins at Green Swamp Well. The killing looks like a case of a drunken quarrel that ended tragically. But for Tempest the pieces don’t fit together. That explanation doesn’t account for what she knows about the man accused of Ozolins’ murder. It also doesn’t account for some physical evidence that she spots not very far from Ozolins’ cabin, where the murder took place. That urge for things to make sense is partly what drives Tempest to chart her own course in the investigation and find out the truth.

In The Twelfth Department, William Ryan’s Moscow CID Captain Alexei Korolev and his partner Sergeant Nadezhda Slivka are assigned to find the murderer of noted scientist Boris Azarov. Azarov’s work was highly classified, so the investigation has to be carefully conducted. They’ve just about settled on a suspect when that person is murdered too. The much-feared NKVD (this series takes place in pre-World War II Stalinist Moscow) has a theory about the crimes. And Korolev and Slivka have every reason to ‘rubber stamp’ that theory. It’s not implausible either. But both detectives know that it doesn’t explain everything. They want the truth about the case, and any truthful explanation has to account for everything. So despite the danger of going up against the NKVD, the two continue their investigation.

Not all fictional detectives see the process of imposing order on chaos as a completely intellectual matter. For Tony Hillerman’s Jim Chee, making sense of it all is a matter of restoring hozro – balance and beauty – to the world. Murder throws things out of balance and Chee wants to set things right and restore the balance by finding out the truth. There are several instances in the novels featuring him where he also acknowledges the sense of chaos in himself that comes from being involved in murders. He’s certainly intellectually curious but for him, it’s just as important to solve crimes to impose what you might call a spiritual order. That’s how he makes meaning.

Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe also wants to make sense of it all, even though he knows that the answers he gets won’t always be pleasant. He’s got a sense of what ‘counts’ as ‘right’ and ‘just.’ Of course, those are risky words because everyone has a different definition of what ‘the right thing’ to do is, or what’s ‘just.’ That’s the stuff of a separate post in and of itself. But for Marlowe, making sense of the world and imposing some sort of mental order on it is a matter of righting injustices if I can put it like that. It’s that way for John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee, too.

We can say that it must be an important personality trait in detectives to want to restore order – for things to make sense. But really, that’s true of all of us. We all seem to want things to make sense. Little wonder that so many of us love solving crime-fictional mysteries.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Kansas’ Chasing Shadows.

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Filed under Adrian Hyland, Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Colin Dexter, John D. MacDonald, Raymond Chandler, Tony Hillerman, 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