We Can Change the World*

Change the WorldLet’s face it; we don’t live in a perfect world. And I’m sure all of us see particular things (e.g. poverty, the state of the environment, bigotry, etc.) that we would especially like to change. That’s often why people become volunteers, engage in protests, make donations and the like. That desire to change the world can be a very strong motivator and like all driving forces, can get us into trouble. And yet, most of us would agree that somebody has to be out there working for change. There are plenty of characters in crime fiction who are driven by the desire to make the world better. Some, we might argue, are at the very least misguided. Others are people we might even call noble. Either way, they make for interesting characters in crime novels. Here are just a few examples to show you what I mean.

In Agatha Christie’s One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (AKA The Patriotic Murders and An Overdose of Death), we meet Howard Raikes. He’s a young political activist who wants badly to overthrow the current British government and economic system and start over with a new world order. It’s his belief that the cautious government and banking system hold back positive change and progress. In one sub-plot of the novel, he’s struck up a friendship with Jane Olivera, the American niece of wealthy and powerful banker Alistair Blunt. To Raikes, Blunt is the epitome of everything that needs to be swept away, and he wants Jane to leave her home with Blunt and join him in his effort to change everything. She likes Raikes and agrees with some of his beliefs. But at the same time, she’s not nearly as militant and she is fond of her uncle. One day, Blunt’s dentist Henry Morley is shot in his surgery, and it’s not long before the police begin to wonder whether the original target was actually Blunt, since he’s made his share of enemies. It turns out that Raikes was there that morning, so he becomes one of the suspects in the murder. Hercule Poirot was also at the surgery that morning, so Chief Inspector Japp asks his help in finding out who really killed the dentist and why. Throughout the novel we can see how committed Raikes is to making a better world, even if we don’t agree on his methods or all of his ideas.

Donna Leon’s Through a Glass, Darkly has as most of its context Venice’s glass-blowing industry. It’s a very old and very lucrative business, and Giovanni de Cal has made plenty of money from his glass-blowing factory. But there is evidence that those factories are major polluters and are very bad for the environment. So a group of activists stages protests of de Cal’s factory. One of the leaders of that group is his own son-in-law Marco Ribetti. When Ribetti is arrested during a protest, he asks his friend Ispettore Lorenzo Vianello for help. Vianello agrees to see what he can do, and he and his boss Comissario Guido Brunetti arrange for Ribetti’s release. But that’s far from the end of the story. One of de Cal’s employees is night watchman Giorgio Tassini, who is convinced that the company is dumping toxic waste, and who tells his story to anyone who will listen. One night Tassini is killed in what looks like a terrible accident. But Brunetti isn’t sure his death is accidental. So he and Vianello look into the matter. In the characters of both Ribetti and Tassini, we see that strong desire to change the world and make it better.

Carl Hiaasen’s Lucky You introduces us to JoLayne Lucks, a lover of the environment who gets her chance to do some real good when she wins a lottery worth US$14 million. She plans to do her bit to change the world by purchasing a piece of land in Florida and turning it into a nature preserve to keep it out of the hands of developers. But then her ticket is stolen by a group of neo-Nazis who want the money to fund a militia. Features writer Tom Krone of The Register is assigned to do an in-depth story on JoLayne, but instead finds himself drawn into her plot to get the ticket back. This brings Krone up against the thieves, some land developers and their thugs, and a religious scam.

In Deon Meyer’s Blood Safari, Emma le Roux hires professional bodyguard Martin Lemmer to escort her from Cape Town to the Lowveld. Emma has discovered that her brother Jacobus, who was thought dead for years, may actually be alive. If he is alive, she wants to find him. If not, she wants to know that too, and the trail has led to his last known whereabouts in the Lowveld.  One possible lead is at the Heuningklip Wildlife Preserve, so the two visit the place. It’s run by Stef Moller, a true lover of the environment who’s not keen on tourists visiting. He’s far more interested in the animals and other wildlife and not interested in making money from the tourist trade. And in fact that passion for the environment and for changing the world through preserving it plays an important role in this novel.

And then there’s Riel Delorme, whom we meet in Gail Bowen’s series featuring academician and political scientist Joanne Kilbourn Shreve. In Kaleidoscope, we learn that Delorme is a Métis activist who is one of the leaders of the Warriors, a group that’s dead-set against development. He also happens to be one of Joanne’s former graduate students. He and the other activists oppose the creation of a new community designed to improve the economically depressed North Central area of Regina. Their claim is that the new planned community will only put money into developer Leland Hunter’s pocket. When one of Hunter’s employees is killed, it’s quite possible that Delorme had something to do with it, but matters aren’t that simple. What’s more, it turns out that Joanne’s daughter Mieka is romantically involved with Riel, so the case is quite complicated on a personal level as well as on the larger level. And this novel addresses the whole issue of how to make the world, or at least that small part of it, a better place. There are conflicting views about how to address issues such as the disenfranchisement of the poor, racism and other social problems.

Antti Tuomainen’s The Healer takes place in an apocalyptic world in which climate change has wreaked havoc and life is descending little by little into complete anarchy. Only people with a great deal of money feel any sort of safety and that’s because they can afford the services of private security companies. It’s a dangerous and bleak world, and many people have given up on it. Against this backdrop, poet Tapani Lehtinen risks his life to find his wife Johanna, a journalist who has disappeared. Lehtinen learns that she was pursuing a story about a man calling himself the Healer. He’s claimed responsibility for the deaths of several corporate executives he holds responsible for the destruction of the planet. The murders have been committed, says the Healer, to call attention to the ruin of the planet and to avenge those whose lives have been destroyed because of it. Lehtinen follows the story, hoping that the trail will lead him to his wife. As he gets close to the truth about the Healer, he also gets closer to the truth about Johanna. Among other things, this novel addresses the whole issue of trying to make the world better. We may be against the Healer’s methods, but the more Lehtinen learns about the Healer, the more we can see where the motivation comes from.

And that’s the thing about some of those who try to change the world. Sometimes their methods are at the least misguided. Sometimes they do incredible amounts of good. And sometimes there’s a razor-thin line between the two…


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


Filed under Agatha Christie, Antti Tuomainen, Carl Hiaasen, Deon Meyer, Donna Leon, Gail Bowen

21 responses to “We Can Change the World*

  1. I recently read Charlotte Jay’s Beat Not the Bones, published in 1952 and set just after WW2 in Papua New Guinea. The book takes a long hard look at the effects of colonialism on the country, and at the different views and intentions that the white incomers had. I found it very though-provoking and very sad – partly because people with the best of intentions sometimes did more harm than good, and because good people could get diverted…

    • Moira – That’s just the thing about wanting to change the world. Even the very best intentions can end up doing more harm than good. And yes, good people can be diverted. And I’m not surprised you found it thorough and balanced. Jay was a talented writer who looked at those larger issues.

  2. I immediately thought of Betty Webb’s Lena Jones who tried to make a difference in the polygamist cult community to save girls and young women. That’s certainly a major cause. I admired her so much for tackling a topic like that..

    • Pat – That is a great example. And Desert Wives is a solid illustration of the way authors can use their novels to make social points without ‘bashing the reader over the head,’ so to speak.

  3. Johnny Ojanpera

    This is a very pertinent topic these days. I have written articles for a handful of activist websites, some as a full time contributor. I consistently found that one man’s agenda usually becomes more radical over time; especially when they begin to feel as if their cause isn’t making the sweeping changes they envision. I have gracefully bowed out more than once because of it, but not before landing on a few watch lists. Now I stick to causes that have near zero chance of becoming radicalized. Like you said, there is a fine line between activist and criminal. Great post!

    • Johnny – Thanks for the kind words. I think it really is easy to push that proverbial envelope when it comes to causes, especially those that inspire a lot of passion. As you’ve found, people really do get deeply involved in them and yes, they can become radical. And that’s when people with different kinds of goals can end up in charge. And that’s when activist can become criminal.

  4. Margot: Joanne Kilbourn Shreeve has a strong sense of social justice just like her creator, Gail Bowen. It is interesting how her pursuit of social justice has, I would say, become more practical over the two decades of the series. From a staunch left wing approach she has become more understanding of how to use business money to advance her issues. She works to bridge the gulf between Delorme and Hunter so positive change can take place.

    John Grisham’s Mississippi lawyer, Jake Brigance, in A Time to Kill and Sycamore Row fights prejudice in the Deep South through representing African Americans in legal cases. He works to change society a case at a time.

    • Bill – I’m glad you mentioned Joanne’s character. I like the way that her character has developed over the years, because it’s realistic. People do change over time and it makes sense that she would too. And you’re right of course; she remains committed to changing the world, but she’s learned how to advance her causes in a different way. And that’s definitely evident in Kaleidoscope.
      Thanks too for mentioning Jake Brigance. As you say, he wants to make the world better too, and uses each case to do that.

  5. kathy d.

    Most people who are social activists are doing good; very few fall off the edge. In reality, in the Civil Rights Movement, women’s, gay, labor, anti-war movements, nearly all are very well-intentioned, principled people.
    Sometimes people get tired and drop out. Some go to law school and become good lawyers who defend people pro bono or take cases on First Amendment and civil liberties grounds. Or others whose cases are political or people who are unpopular but who are entitled to a legal defense.
    Sometimes very well-intentioned people commit civil disobedience, like Dr. King and others in the Civil Rights Movement, who did it en masse. Many went to jail and were brutally treated. Others, like the Berrigan brothers committed civil disobedience knowing they’d land in jail. They saved hundreds from the horrendous draft for the Vietnam war. Were they violent? Not at all. Neither Civil Rights protesters nor the Berrigans and their colleagues.
    Women have fought for rights for well over 100 years. Yes, the suffragists in the pre-WWI years and during the war committed civil disobedience, but they got us the vote. Later, other rights. Now, given the Supreme Court’s recent terrible decisions, women will have to kickstart the movement again.
    I have known activists my entire life; 95% have organized, marched, petitioned, all protected activities. Or have carried out nonviolent civil disobedience.
    I say this now on the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer, where thousands of young people went to the South to join the Civil Rights Movement. Some, like James Cheney, Andrew Goodman and Mickey Schwerner paid with their lives for helping with the campaign for voting rights for African Americans. (PBS had an excellent documentary about this and it’s currently posted online.)
    I’d say that a lot of John Grisham’s books have dealt with social justice issues through legal means or exposed injustices, as The Chamber, which opposes the death penalty or several books, as A Time to KIll or Sycamore Row, which expose racism in Mississippi, a sordid history if ever there was one.
    Lawyers are often the good guys in crime fiction, going after justice. But there are others.
    If we hadn’t had people working for rights and social justice, where would we be?

    • Kathy – You make some very strong points here, including the well-taken point that the vast majority of people who want to do good in this world and make changes stay on that course. That is, they don’t usually fall off the proverbial edge. The work is hard, often thankless and unremitting, and that can lead as you say to exhaustion. But in real life, most people who work for social justice keep doing so for the best of all reasons – because it’s the right thing to do.
      Another fascinating point you make is that it’s entirely possible (and has happened more than once) to break a law in the interest of social justice. That happened so many times during the ‘Freedom Summer’ of 1964, whether it was integrating restaurants, working on voting rights or in some other way, many people broke what were unjust laws. But as Martin Luther King, Jr. said, ‘I would agree with St. Augustine that ‘an unjust law is no law at all.”

  6. WHERE do you find these pictures (the one with the rainbow in the bushes)!?? That is so COOL. Once again, thanks for the Poirot “lead”! I’ll achieve my goal, yet, of reading all of them! :))))

  7. kathy d.

    We still wouldn’t have the right to vote without the sacrifices, and in some cases, the law-breaking of Suffragists, and the Civil Rights Movement and the South would still have Jim Crow laws: segregated schools, drinking fountains, pools, restrooms and so much more.
    Mary Wilson of the Supremes was on TV recently and told of performing in hotels and not being able to stay in them in the early days before the Civil Rights Act was passed.
    Excellent film “Iron-Jawed Angels” shows Alice Paul and Lucy Burn’s movement for women’s right to vote. Now, “Freedom Summer” is posted at a pbs website.

    • Kathy – Thanks for the information about ‘Freedom Summer.’ And you’re absolutely right that our world is much better for the work of those people who took great risks to change things. It took work, courage, and dedication, and some lost their lives in the process. We have a better society because of what they did.

  8. Your post illustrates how writers of crime fiction are not simply entertainers and that reading a crime novel is not only a means to escape reality. These writers you mentioned (and many more) are highly involved in making the world a better place.
    And yes, that photo is amazing. Neat that you take your own photos. 🙂

    • Carol – Thanks for the kind words. I have to admit I enjoy taking the ‘photos I use on the blog. I do, I admit, also include .gifs and so on that I find elsewhere, so long as they’re not copyrighted. But I only do that for little touches, as in this ‘photo.
      As to your point about the purpose of reading and writing…I think it’s quite possible for a crime writer to create a story that not only entertains and draws the reader in, but also makes larger points. I think it’s a very powerful way for an author to make a difference.

  9. kathy d.

    As authors go, to just mention a few: Rex Stout, author of the Nero Wolfe canon was a champion for free speech and civil liberties.
    And in our contemporary world, Sara Paretsky, creator of the V.I. Warshawki series, speaks out all over the country on behalf of
    civil liberties and the many issues that encompasses. Her books
    reflect her principles.

    • Kathy – You’re quite right that many crime writers support social justice causes in their personal lives as well as through their writing. You’ve given clear examples, too.

  10. Interesting topic again, Margot. I have no new examples, but I am inspired to try more John Grisham books. I have wanted to read both books featuring Jake Brigance.

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