Soldiers Are Cutting Us Down*

If you’ve ever been involved in a protest against something, then you know that they are sometimes very intense and emotional experiences. Protests have led to important positive changes in society. They’ve also led to looting and killing. Some protests have ended tragically when they were brutally suppressed, too. There is often strong emotion and passion on both sides of a protest, so it’s not surprising that protests turn up in a lot of crime fiction.

Agatha Christie’s novels don’t in general focus on organised protests and the passion that can engender them. But there is a hint of the issue in One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (AKA The Patriotic Murders and An Overdose of Death). In that novel we meet successful and powerful banker Alistair Blunt. He gets drawn into a murder investigation when his dentist Henry Morley is shot in his surgery. Since Blunt is a powerful man with enemies, it’s thought that he was the intended victim. In fact, one of the suspects in Morley’s murder is Howard Raikes, an activist in a group that’s dedicated to overthrowing the current banking and government systems. Things look even worse for Raikes a little later in the novel when a friend of his, another activist, shoots at Blunt. But Poirot begins to believe that Morley’s death may not have been part of an attack on Blunt, so he looks more closely in the matter. In the end, Poirot finds out who shot Morley and how it is related to two other deaths that occur in the novel.

Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahllöö’s The Laughing Policeman starts with a violent anti-Vietnam protest at the American Embassy in Stockholm. There’s been a campaign of letters, anti-war demonstrations and more, so Martin Beck and his team have been kept busy trying to protect the embassy and its staff. Things get even worse when the protests begin to turn ugly. The police do their best to keep the demonstrators back, while the demonstrators are just as determined to have their way. It’s just when the police are proverbially stretched to the thinnest that there’s a tragedy on a Stockholm bus. Officers Kant and Kristiansson find out that a gunman has shot eight people on the bus, including Åke Stenström, a police officer. Beck and his team begin to investigate and soon discover that the gunman “hid” Åke Stenström’s death among those of the other passengers. Later they learn that the police officer’s death is related to a “cold case” he was investigating, the murder of Teresa Camarão, a “well born” Portuguese woman who’d become a prostitute. The protest here isn’t the main plot of the story, but it adds a strong layer of tension and a solid sense of atmosphere to the novel.

In John Alexander Graham’s The Involvement of Arnold Wechsler, Hewes College President Winthrop Dohrn invites Classics Professor Arnold Wechsler to his office for a private visit. Wechsler doesn’t want to go; he prefers to keep his head low, as the saying goes, and do his job. But such an invitation is really a “command performance,” so he accepts it. It turns out that Dohrn has an unusual request; he’s gotten word that Wechsler’s brother David, who was a student at Hewes until he dropped out, has returned to the area. David Wechsler may be involved in subversive activities and Dohrn wants to keep the peace on his campus. So he asks Wechsler to contact his brother and find out the truth about David’s activities. Wechsler is estranged from his brother so he has no interest in getting involved, but he wants to keep his job so he reluctantly agrees. It’s not long before Wechsler himself begins to wonder whether Dohrn might be right. David is a co-leader of The Student Liberation Committee (SLA), a radical student protest group that’s made appearances on campus. Then, some drugs are stolen from a local hospital. That’s followed by a kidnapping and later by the bombing of the Dohrn home and the resultant death of Dohrn himself. If David is to be cleared of suspicion of these events, he and his brother will have to work together to find out who has manipulated the protest group to achieve a fatal set of goals.

We also see the manipulation of a protest group in Peter Robinson’s A Necessary End. DCI Alan Banks is none too happy when an anti-nuclear group plans a protest in Eastvale. Even the most peaceful protest causes a lot of extra work and stress and this one doesn’t seem as though it’s going to be peaceful. Sure enough, the protest goes off as planned and it does indeed turn very ugly. Locals, demonstrators and the police all get involved in the mêlée, and when the proverbial dust clears, Banks learns that PC Edwin Gill has been stabbed during the arrests of some of the demonstrators. The first suspects are members of the protest group, and that’s the angle that Banks’ boss Richard “Dirty Dick” Burgess wants Banks to take. But Banks isn’t sure it’s that simple. It soon comes out that Gill was a thug who abused his authority more than once. So there are several locals who could have had a good motive to kill him. And Burgess seems to have an obsession with “getting” the protest group that Banks can’t understand. So he works his own way and in end, finds out who killed Gill and why.

And then there’s Ruth Rendell’s Road Rage. That’s the story of a protest against the construction of a new roadway around Kingsmarkham. The plan is that part of the road will pass through Framhurst Great Wood near the town, and that’s part of what’s got people upset about it. Even Inspector Reg Wexford is unhappy at the destruction of the forest, and his wife Dora is part of a group of locals that have protested to the local authorities against the planned construction. Several protest groups come into town to try to stop the construction, and soon, things turn from bad to worse. One of the groups takes a group of hostages, among them Dora Wexford. Then there’s a murder. Now Wexford and his team have to try to free the hostages, solve the murder and do their best to prevent any more deaths. In the end, we see how this situation – a protest against road construction – is manipulated to someone’s advantage.

Donna Leon’s Through a Glass Darkly begins with a protest against Venice-area glass-blowing factories. One of the leading demonstrators is Marco Ribetti, an environmental activist and a friend of Ispettore Lorenzo Vianello. Ribetti is arrested and asks Vianello for help, and Vianello agrees. He and Commissario Guido Brunetti get Ribetti freed but soon find themselves investigating a murder in the same area. Ribetti’s father-in-law Giovanni de Cal owns one of the glass-blowing factories, many of which have been suspected of illegally disposing of toxic waste. When de Cal’s night watchman Giorgio Tassini is killed after his own protests against the dumping, de Cal becomes a suspect.

Protests and demonstrations have been used for a long time to express public opinion and to try to make change. Lots of times they are peaceful, but sometimes they erupt into violence and worse. There is a delicate balance between the right to express one’s views and petition for change, and the interest in keeping order and preventing looting. Both sides in these events need to stay focused and avoid letting tempers rule. But that doesn’t always happen…



In Memoriam…


This post is dedicated to the memories of Jeffrey Miller, Allison Krause, William Schroeder and Sandra Scheuer, who were shot on 4 May 1970 during a protest against the Vietnam War at Kent State University in Kent, Ohio.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Crosby Stills, Nash & Young’s Ohio.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Donna Leon, John Alexander Graham, Maj Sjöwall, Per Wahlöö, Peter Robinson, Ruth Rendell

22 responses to “Soldiers Are Cutting Us Down*

  1. kathy d.

    Good post and it’s excellent that you dedicated to the four young people who were peacefully protesting the Vietnam war at Kent State University in 1970. Of note also is that Philip Gibbs and James Glass, students at Jackson State University, were killed 10 days later while at a protest.
    The vast majority of demonstrations are peaceful, however, the media likes to focus on those which are not or else help to whip up unnecessary angst about them, as the May Day marches and rallies yesterday in New York City. One would have thought Armageddon was coming. No so. A few rallies, marches of tens of thousands of people, peaceful.
    The most important thing is the issues that underlie the protests, and that change is needed. Certainly today, with the economic crisis, unemployment, cuts in health care services all over the country, protests will continue and grow. Today, thousands of childcare places were cut, leaving working mothers with nowhere to turn. All of this will engender opposition. If the world were stagnant and no one objected to what’s happening, nothing would ever change.

    • Kathy – Thank you for mentioning both Philip Gibbs and James Glass. They, too, were peacefully protesting when they were killed. You make an interesting point too about the media attention that is given to demonstrations that aren’t peaceful. And you’re by no means the only one who believes that the media is responsible for creating a lot of unwarranted fear and anxiety about demonstrations. But in reality, most demonstrations are peaceful. Most demonstrators are opposed to violence. They want change, and they use demonstrations to call attention to the problems they see. The few demonstrators who are violent, though, call a lot of unfortunate negative attention to the concept of demonstrating.
      When a demonstration does get out of hand, I think you have a well-taken point that that can draw attention away from the underlying issue, whether it’s poverty, health care issues or something else. That’s one reason it’s so important for everyone that demonstrations be peaceful and that peace officers behave professionally and with restraint.

  2. What a nice tribute post. And fitting too. There have been a lot of protests lately with the 99% protests in the states and various in middle eastern countries. A murder could easily take place among the chaos.

    • Clarissa – Why, thank you :-). And yes, there have been a lot of protests, from the “Arab Spring” to the 99% protests to others. Those contexts would definitely be effective contexts for murder; tensions are so high, there’s sometimes chaos and even in peaceful demonstrations, there are a lot of people around, so it’s easy to slip around practically un-noticed.

  3. So many sad things have happened in the name of one cause or another. And yet, we need to balance order and respect for others with the right to protest against things that go terribly wrong in our society. It’s hard.

    • Pat – That’s just it! There’s been so much sadness and tragedy in the course of fighting for one or another cause. But there are wrongs in society that need to be put right. People do need to be able to speak out without fear. On the other hand, order and respect for others are important values too. It’s a difficult balance…

  4. Margot: I thought of Pastor Martin Niemoller’s famous comment:

    First they came for the communists,
    and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist.

    Then they came for the trade unionists,
    and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.

    Then they came for the Jews,
    and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew.

    Then they came for me
    and there was no one left to speak out for me.

  5. We had violent protests in Britain’s biggest cities last summer. They began when a young man was shot and killed by the police. What followed was like something out of a Sjowall and Wahloo, or Leif GW Persson novel, as with so many high ranking police officers and government ministers on holiday the situation was allowed to escalate with widespread looting and arson. People were murdered during the rioting, but I am still not sure what it was all about, getting a new pair of expensive trainers, getting a new flat screen television, or showing the police who controls areas of the inner city. It was only “working class people” who lost their lives or livelihoods, so this was not about revolutionary protest more about greed and hatred of authority.

    • Norman – I read of those protests last year and felt terrible about it. When people don’t act with restraint, the result is bound to be that kind of chaos and worse. And the sad thing is that the original reason for the protest got lost. Instead of what might have been done – perhaps a closer look at the shooting – the looters defeated their own purpose.

  6. I hadn’t heard about the protesters in Ohio Margot so thanks for bringing them to my attention. In Greece the 17th November is a holiday for schools and universities in memory of the 1973 Athens Polytechnic students who were killed by the army on the orders of the Junta. They’re still not sure to this day how many students were killed.
    In crime fiction Ellie, the wife of Pascoe is often protesting against university cuts and in favour of other causes. She’s a very good counterbalance against the unreconstructed male who is Dalziel.

    • Sarah – I didn’t realise that 17 November is a holiday in Greece, so thanks for sharing. I’ve often wondered how a government can turn on its own people like that…
      And you’re quite right about Ellie Soper Pascoe. She’s always willing to speak out to try to do the right thing isn’t she? And as you mention it, you’ve a very well-taken point that she does serve as a good counterbalance to Dalziel. And somehow I think he sees in her a character as strong in its way as his own.

  7. Great post, as always, and a nice dedication at the end. As Clarissa mentioned, the number of protests have really gone up in the past year–and some have been able to create real change.

    • Elizabeth – Thank you :-). There really has been a lot of activism and many demonstrations and protests lately. As you say, some of them have made a very positive difference.

  8. Thank you for remembering those brave peace demonstrators, Margot. That was a shocking tragedy. I remember well that scene in The Laughing Policeman, and it all comes back to haunt them in the last of the series, The Terrorists.

    Unfortunately in the UK we have had an increase in the numbers of decidedly non-peaceful protests in the past year or two, with demonstrations being hijacked by “rent a thugs” and being organised using social media and the like. Hence the police retaliate by kettling and other extreme measures. Still, the camp outside St Paul’s is a good example of a relatively successful peaceful protest, though it got broken up when the church finally made up its mind whose side it was on!

    • Maxine – The Kent State University shootings really were such a terrible tragedy. Those four young people were only 19 and 20 and yes, they were brave.
      It is so important that citizens feel safe to demonstrate in order to right wrongs. That’s why I have been deeply saddened by the demonstrations I’ve read about in the U.K. that as you say have been hijacked by “rent-a-thugs” (I like that term). That kind of hijacking ends up in looting, arson and murder, and the cops retaliate as you say. What’s also tragic about that is that the original purpose for the demonstration gets lost. People forget what the real problem was in the first place and we can’t engage in the discussion and debate that are necessary to right wrongs.
      Oh, and before I forget, thanks for mentioning The Terrorists. It is definitely a fitting “rest of the story” for The Laughing Policeman. Folks, if your time limits you to just one crime series, the Martin Beck series is an excellent choice.

  9. Thanks for this thought-provoking post, Margot. Protests are free speech in action. I have, however, failed to understand how smashing windows and setting fire to cars is furthering anyone’s cause.

    • Elspeth – I like that phrase: free speech in action. People should feel safe to protest wrongs, work to right them and express their views. There is in my opinion no justification for attacking peaceful demonstrators who are simply asking for change. That said, I agree completely that freedom of expression does not extend to smashing windows, burning cars or violence against people. There’s no justification for that either.

  10. About the dedication, I didn’t know four people were shot dead in Ohio for protesting against the Vietnam War. No matter how touchy and sensitive an issue the war might have been at the time, I didn’t expect the authorities to turn its guns on its own people, at least not in America. I think Occupy Wall Street is soon going to find its way into crime fiction, just as the violent protests against G8, WTO, and climate change found their way into fiction. After reading your post, I did some research on the internet and came across “protest literature” in which great writers used their writings as a potent weapon to draw attention to critical social, political and economic issues. In context, we know what the Soviets did to writers like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and others.

    • Prashant – That’s one of the things that struck hardest that terrible day. No-one could believe that American citizens would be intentionally fired on by their own government. It’s still hard to get my mind round that part of it…
      You make an interesting point about the Occupy Wall Street and related protests. I’ll bet it won’t be long before they find their way into crime novels. Someone please put me right if that’s already been done; I’d be really interested.
      Thanks, too, for reminding us that literature has also been used as a tool for protest. Right you are indeed about Solzhenitsyn and he’s not the only one. In fact, more than one author of crime fiction has used that “bully pulpit” as a tool for social commentary.

  11. kathy d.

    We shouldn’t omit the very important Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 1960s in the U.S. South, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the Freedom Rides, the sit-ins at lunch counters, the demonstrations. Everyone was committed to non-violent civil disobedience, yet the violence against those seeking social justice was shattering.
    Medgar Evers, Andrew Goodman, Mickey Schwerner, James Chaney are just some of the names we remember of those killed. And, of course, Rev. Martin Luther King.. Fannie Lou Hamer, a leader of the Mississippi voting rights campaign, was nearly beaten to death. Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth’s house and church were bombed. He and his spouse, Ruby Shuttlesworth, were brutally beaten while trying to integrate a bus station and register their daughter in school.. Rep. John Lewis, today a hero of that movement, was brutalized beyond belief in a Birmingham bus station; he has forgiven the man who did that, who at the time was a member of the Klan. Amazing. And the Freedom Riders were beaten.
    Many of those — Black and white — who participated in various activities, peacefully — were beaten and jailed. Infamous Sheriff Bull Connor was known for attacking peaceful demonstrators with whips, water cannons and attack dogs. And this was common throughout Southern states.

    • Kathy – You’re quite right about what happened to those who worked so hard for civil rights. They faced so much hate and so many dangers. The names you mentioned should always stay with us and we should remember what they did. As I was reading your comment I was thinking too about the thousands of others whose names we don’t know who did what needed to be done. For instance, I’m thinking of the thousands of African-Americans who walked for miles to work and home rather than ride the bus during the Montgomery bus boycott. They faced such odds and were in terrible danger because of the changes they were trying to make. And yet they didn’t give up.

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