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.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Andrew Nette, Ernesto Mallo, Gail Bowen, Maj Sjöwall, Per Wahlöö, Rebecca Cantrell, Robert Gott, Sulari Gentill, William Ryan

20 responses to “I Go to Extremes*

  1. Laurie (R) King’s books often deal with extreme political groups – Sherlock Holmes and Mary Russell have to do their bit to fight them and I always enjoy that.

  2. Another interesting topic, Margot. With the exception of the two I have already read (Rebecca Cantrell, Robert Gott), the rest of the books you have listed are in my plans to read sometime.

    • Thanks, Tracy. I hope you’ll get the chance to read some of then at some point. I always think it’s interesting to see how different authors approach the question of politics.

  3. This is a really interesting subject, Margot. One obscure Golden Age book that focuses on Fascism is R.C. Woodthorpe’s Silence of Purple Shirt. Rather than making ponderous political points, Woodthorpe deploys the weapon of satire – very effectively.

    • Martin – Thanks for the kind words and for that suggestion. I’ll admit I’ve not read that one, but I know of other books where satire is used effectively in that way; Shakespeare did it beautifully. And as you say, it’s much more effective than a sermon is.

  4. Margot: Your post was timely in that I just read I Am Pilgrim in which Middle Eastern Islamic extremism leads to a terrorist threat to America. Readers in the United States will have to wait until the end of May to be able to purchase an excellent thriller.

    In Darkness at the Stroke of Noon by Dennis Murphy there is a Turqavik cell (radical violent Eskimos) involved in the plot. Implausible in real life it is a unique creation of Canadian extremists.

    In several of Louise Penny’s recent books in the Inspector Gamache series there is reference to a terrorist plot by extremist Cree Indians from Western Quebec.

    • Bill – Thanks for filling in the Louise Penny gap I left. Right you are of course about the Cree group. As to I Am Pilgrim, I’ve heard from several people that that’s an excellent thriller and when I do get access to it, it’s on my TBR.
      I’ve not (yet) read the Murphy, although I remember your fine review of it. It may be implausible in real life, but it’s an excellent example of what I had in mind when I wrote this post.

  5. Terrific examples, Ms. Kinberg. Your theme reminds me of the many WWII and Cold War novels I read back in the 80s and 90s that had strong political and fascist overtones. The KGB was the favourite whipping boy of many writers. Some of the novels of Jack Higgins (Harry Patterson) revolve around the IRA, rather sympathetically. In recent years, I read and liked Hemingway’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls” set around the Spanish civil war. I think Agatha Christie’s “The Secret Adversary” also falls within the ambit of this post. John le Carré’s “The Tailor of Panama” is another fine example.

    • Prashant – Thanks for the kind words. And you’ve mentioned excellent examples yourself of novels in which political fanaticism plays an important role. I think you’re quite right that many WWII and Cold War spy/thriller noels focus on political extremism and its consequences.The thought is quite sobering isn’t it that there really are people who feel that strongly about their politics.

  6. I can’t help but remember Charles Manson here. Wish that had been only fictional. Or the Patty Hearst case. No one is immune from persuasion.

  7. More for my reading list. So many books . . .
    Nicholas Blake (aka the poet C Day Lewis) is an interesting writer in this regard. Day Lewis was a communist in the 1930s In The Smiler and the Knife (1939) Nigel and Georgia Strangeways uncover a nest of crypto-fascists in the heart of the establishment. Day Lewis grew disillusioned in the 50s and in The Sad Variety (1964) the daughter of a research scientist is kidnapped by Russian spies.
    And then there is Michael Chabron’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union – truly one of a kind.

    • Chrissie – I know just what you mean about the number of good books there are out there…
      Thanks for mentioning Lewis’ work. I think it’s fascinating to see how an author’s real life is intertwined with her or his work, and your examples show that. And you’ve reminded me that I must read the Chabron, so thanks for that too.

  8. Col

    Interesting post again. I love books that touch on the Cold War, Nazism, the KGB, the Stasi etc. A different spin on the coin, would be the Neo-Cons in the US and the lengths they abuse civil liberties and the rule of law to preserve our freedoms (and oil)……they might be doing it in our name, but they are some of the scariest fanatics I’ve read about……both in fiction and in the newspapers!

    • Col – They are indeed scary! Some of the things that go on in real life are more suspenseful and eerie than anything people write as fiction. You’re right too that in novels, those plots can be compelling when they’re well done. Extremism wherever you find it is scary and suspenseful, whether it’s the Nazis, the KGB, US Neocons or anyone else.

  9. Really enjoyed this and all the comments too. A subject I really find fascinating and which I would love to write about in such an informed way like Le Carre and Jack Higgins and so many others. The spy in our midst is so tantalising and horrific at the same time. Someone who has two faces and is a fanatic too. The mistrust and fear created, everyone a suspect. Riveting stuff. Authors I grew up with and love reading and still go back to time and again. I am enthralled with the Secret Services, the hidden warriors and their chasers. Such wonderful material. So complex now in the world of today….it all seemed a bit more clear cut back in the Cold War days and the early days of the IRA and the German Bader Meinhoff gang, Red September and the like. Now things are really messed up with so many factions involved in the same conflicts but for differing reasons. Al Quada, and many of the off-shoots etc. Writing about all these conflicts today and the infiltration by various groups into major organisations, into the government agencies around the world has blown the whole genre wide open. Imagine the power of Google and what it could do as an organisation working under the radar for a political end we have no idea about until everything is known and can be used by them….what a thriller that could make. Makes the KGB look like the Scouting movement.

    • Jane – It does indeed. As you say, the world has gotten so very complex that it’s hard to say exactly who’s on which side sometimes if I can put it that way. And fanaticism is just as strong as it ever was. As we’ve seen so tragically, political extremists can wreak so much havoc, and what’s both appalling and fascinating is their utter and complete dedication to their cause. We can think of all sorts of examples of political groups that will commit kidnapping, murder and lots of other crimes to further their cases. And as you say, they don’t wear signs that let us know what they’re planning. Makes for a truly suspenseful plot thread in a novel when it’s done well I think.

  10. Hi Margot – Another fascinating topic. I wonder if there are mysteries in which crowd dynamics and a charismatic speaker play a part in the plot. Though it’s not a mystery I’m reminded of the riot scene in Nathaniel West’s Day of the Locust in which crowd gets carried away.
    Now that I think of it, wasn’t one of the Spenser novels about a client whose family was killed in a terror attack by a fanatical group. I think it was The Judas Goat.

    • Bryan – You have a good memory! Right you are about The Judas Goat. You’ve got the plot point spot on. And there are other novels too in which charismatic speakers and group dynamics play important roles. They’re not all political fanatics of course, but your point reminds me of John D. MacDonald’s The Green Ripper and Ngaio Marsh’s Spinsters in Jeopardy among others. You have a very interesting point here, for which thanks.

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