There’s something about political movements that gets people really passionate. Some, of course, are drawn to the potential power involved. But for a lot of people, it’s the vision of what they see as a better future that drives them.
Political movements have been responsible for a lot of positive social change, such as better working conditions, universal suffrage, and anti-discrimination legislation. They’ve also done much to right long-standing wrongs (forced removal of Native American/First Nations children from their homes to attend government schools being just one example).
But political movements have their dark sides too. For one thing, we don’t all agree on what counts as ‘a better future.’ For another, even when a movement has what we might call a positive purpose (e.g. support for the working class), that doesn’t mean that everyone involved in the cause is noble, or that ugly things don’t happen.
Plenty of crime fiction includes or at least touches on political movements and struggles. They’re well-suited to the genre, I think. Space only permits me a sampling; I know you’ll think of lots more.
Agatha Christie’s One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (AKA The Patriotic Murders and An Overdose of Death) introduces us to Howard Raikes. Young and idealistic, Raikes is involved in an activist movement to tear down existing governments and re-build the world. To him, entrenched government officials and those who support them need to be swept away in order for positive change to happen. Raikes is romantically involved with Jane Olivera, niece of powerful banker Alistair Blunt. On most things they agree, although Jane is much less violent in her views and more patient. They both get drawn into a case of murder when Blunt’s dentist Henry Morley is shot in his surgery. One theory of the murder is that someone was trying to get to Blunt, which makes Raikes a natural suspect. Hercule Poirot was also a patient of Morley’s and was at the victim’s office on the morning of the murder. So he works with Inspector Japp to find out who the killer is.
One of the characters we meet in Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourne Shreve series is Riel Delorme, a Regina-based Métis activist. When we first encounter him in Kaleidoscope, he’s trying to put together opposition to a new development in the economically depressed North Central section of Regina. Delorme has a troubled past, and plenty of personal demons. But as the saying goes, his heart’s in the right place when it comes to wanting to improve the lot of the people who live in North Central. He and his group believe that the planned development will disenfranchise the residents, increase the gap between ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots,’ and concentrate local wealth and power in too few hands. So he’s a very likely suspect when one the development company’s employees is murdered. Shreve and her attorney husband Zack get involved in this case on two levels. First, his law firm is representing the development company. On another level, her daughter Mieka is romantically involved with Delorme. This isn’t a simple case of ‘greedy developer vs crusading protectors of the downtrodden.’ In this novel, the developer is hardly all ‘bad,’ and the activist group isn’t exactly a chorus of angels. It’s an interesting look at how a smaller-level political movement impacts those involved.
Wendy James’ Out of the Silence: A Story of Love, Betrayal, Politics and Murder is the fictional re-telling of the real-life case of Maggie Heffernan. In 1900, she was convicted of the murder of her infant son. As James tells the story, Maggie meets and falls in love with Jack Hardy. They become secretly engaged, and Jack leaves for New South Wales to find work. When Maggie learns that she’s pregnant, she writes to him several times, but gets no answer. Knowing her family will reject her, Maggie moves to Melbourne and finds work in a Guest House. When the baby is born, Maggie moves both of them to a home for unwed mothers. Then she learns that Jack has moved to Melbourne. She tracks him down, only to have him reject her utterly. With nowhere to go, Maggie tries to find lodging. She and the baby are turned away from six lodging houses, and that’s when the tragedy occurs. Maggie is arrested, imprisoned, and marked for execution. She finds a champion in Vida Goldstein, the first woman to run for Parliament in the British Commonwealth. Vida is a leader in the movement for women’s suffrage and women’s rights, and that group is happy to have Maggie as a sort of ‘textbook case’ of gender inequity. There’s also an interesting look at the women’s suffrage movement in Felicity Young’s The Anatomy of Murder.
Robert Gott’s The Holiday Murders takes a look at another political movement, Australia First. On the surface of it, the movement stands for supporting Australian businesses, protecting the country from subversion by outside forces, and so on. It all sounds quite patriotic. But this novel takes place in 1943, when the country is at war with the Axis powers. There’ve been disturbing links between Australia First and Nazism, so the group died out. But when John Quinn and his son Xavier are found brutally murdered, it becomes clear that the group may be re-forming. If so, Melbourne police Inspector Titus Lambert and his second-in-command Joe Sable have a serious problem. One thread of this novel concerns the way idealism and the hope of a better future can be manipulated in appalling and horrible ways.
Glen Peters’ Mrs. D’Silva’s Detective Instinct and the Saitan of Calcutta places readers in 1960’s Calcutta/Kolkata. Joan D’Silva, a teacher at a Catholic school, gets involved in a case of murder when her son discovers the body of a former student Agnes Lal. After the inquest, two other former pupils tell Mrs. D’Silva that the victim was murdered; then they ask her help in finding the killer. Soon afterwards, one of those students is arrested in connection with the stabbing of a factory manager. He claims he’s innocent, and has been forced to confess, and D’Silva begins to look more deeply into the case. That’s when she discovers that all three former students were members of the Workers Revolutionary Movement of Bengal, which is dedicated to overthrowing the current Indian government and stripping high-ranking Anglo-Indians of their power. As Mrs. D’Silva tries to clear her former pupil’s name and solve the murder, readers see how passionate people can be about political movements and righting what they see as society’s wrongs. We also see how that idealism can be used for certain people’s purposes.
There’ve been several novels featuring the IRA and other groups who’ve championed Irish independence and self-determination. Authors such as Brian McGilloway, Bartholomew Gill and Will Thomas, among many others, have looked at the vision those groups have had of a better future for Ireland. As we know, it’s not been as simple as that, and no side of the conflicts in that part of the world has been really innocent.
And that’s the thing about wanting a better future, and agitating for it. It’s messy and complicated; and it sometimes results in conflict and a lot worse. Little wonder such movements are popular contexts for crime novels.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Michel Schönberg and Herbert Kretzmer’s Do You Hear the People Sing?