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…
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.