Everywhere You Look Now There’s Murder Incorporated*

Changing Bad GuysWell-written crime fiction shows us ourselves – who we are as people. We can learn a lot about what we wish for, fear, and more as we read in the genre. For instance, if you consider the ‘bad guys’ in certain crime novels, you see that they reflect sociopolitical events, societal fears and sometimes prejudices. You also see how those have changed as the world has changed.

For example, if you look at early crime fiction, or historical crime fiction that takes place during the late Victorian Era and the Edwardian Era, you see that the ‘bad guys’ were frequently members or leaders of shadowy syndicates and crime rings. The best known example that I can think of is, of course, Arthur Conan Doyle’s Professor Moriarty. Fans will know that he is a highly intelligent master-criminal who gives Sherlock Holmes quite a run for the money, as the saying goes. But he’s not the only criminal of that type. You see that influence also in Will Thomas’ Fatal Enquiry. In that novel, private enquiry agent Cyrus Barker and his assistant Thomas Llewelyn go up against Sebastian Nightwine, a dangerous opponent whom Barker exposed as a criminal years ago. When Nightwine returns to London, Barker is sure that trouble is going to follow, and he’s right. Barker ends up accused of murder and on the run, with all of his assets frozen. Then there’s another murder. He and Llewelyn will have to work hard to clear his name and take down Nightwine’s.  A few of Agatha Christie’s novels (The Big Four being one of them) also set up shadowy syndicates as ‘the enemy).

More modern novels, such as Andrea Camilleri’s Inspector Montalbano stories, have a more contemporary take on the crime syndicate. Sometimes, as in Camilleri’s work and that of authors such as Michael Dibdin and Tonino Benacquista, the syndicate takes the form of what we call the Mafia (sometimes in the US, it’s called the Mob). There are also modern takes on crime syndicates from other places, too, such as the Glasgow underworld that we see in William McIlvanney’s and Malcolm Mackay’s work.

World War I and World War II had profound influences on people’s conceptions of ‘bad guys.’ Several of Agatha Christie’s stories (N or M? and Postern of Fate, for instance) set up first the Triple Alliance, then the Axis powers (specifically the Nazis) as ‘the bad guys.’

And by no means is Christie the only author who’s used Nazis, their associates, and their modern-day incarnations as antagonists. You see that in a lot of crime fiction and thrillers, actually. Just to take a few examples, there’s Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther novels, Ira Levin’s The Boys From Brazil, and Robert Gott’s The Holiday Murders.

In fact, the Nazis-as-enemies have had a profound influence even in modern crime fiction that simply touches on the World War II years. I’m thinking, for instance, of Camilla Läckberg’s The Hidden Child, Åsa Larsson’s Until Thy Wrath be Past, and Ferdinand von Schirach’s Der Fall Collini (The Collini Case). In those novels (and many more), we see how modern relationships, interactions, and even crime has its roots in the war, in Nazi occupation and in loyalties of that time.  It will be interesting to see what happens to that theme as time goes on, and there are fewer and fewer people whose parents/grandparents/great-grandparents lived through World War II.

In the post-World War II era, one of the most important geopolitical realities was the Cold War between the UK, US and their allies, and the then-Soviet Union and its allies. This arguably set up the KGB and other Soviet-bloc spy agencies as very effective ‘bad guys.’ Read the work of authors such as John le Carré, Len Deighton and Robert Ludlum, and you’ll see that in a lot of those novels, the enemy is usually the KGB or other such agency in some form or another. Sometimes it’s one person who’s a member of such a group, but that person often represents the Soviet Union and its policies. You can even see such sentiments in books that aren’t exactly what you would call spy thrillers. For example, there’s Martin Cruz Smith’s work featuring Arkady Renko. And Walter Mosley’s The Red Death has his sleuth Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlins being asked to take down a suspected Communist. As I think about the Cold War era, I often wonder what impression I’d get if I could read Russian well enough to read some of the novels of those years that are written in that language.

When the Soviet Union broke up in 1993, the world changed, and so did crime fiction. There are arguably two kinds of ‘bad guys’ that have populated crime fiction since that time. One is the Eastern European crime gang that we see in novels such as Daniel Pembrey’s The Harbour Master. Another, very closely related, outgrowth is arguably the Eastern European/Russian human trafficking gang (check out Tess Gerritson’s Vanish as an example). The other sort of ‘bad guy’ is the Russian oligarch/shady businessman. With official Communism at an end, these businessmen came to the fore in terms of their power and ruthlessness. Several of Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus novels mention them (especially Exit Music). There are also some thrillers (such as Daniel Silva’s Moscow Rules) that touch on such people as ‘the bad guys.’

Another recent development in terms of ‘bad guys’ is the terrorist group, particularly the Middle Eastern terrorist group. Novels such as le Carré’s 1983 The Little Drummer Girl are earlier examples of such crime fiction, but by no means the only ones. Lindy Cameron’s Redback includes such terrorists as ‘bad guys.’ So do many other novels. In the wake of more recent terrorist events, we’ve seen a lot more such ‘bad guys,’ even in novels that aren’t billed as ‘thrillers.’

There’s also been another development in the sort of ‘bad guy’ authors choose: big corporations and their leaders.  I’m sure you’ve read as many novels as I have in which big developers are depicted as antagonists. Some novels (I’m thinking of Gail Bowen’s Kaleidoscope) present a more complex picture of development. But many depict big companies and developers quite negatively. For instance, there’s Peter Temple’s Bad Debts, several of C.J. Box’s Joe Pickett novels, and more.

Not all crime novels feature this sort of plot. Many are more personal plots, if I can put it that way. They feature crimes where one person (or a group of people) commit murder for reasons such as revenge, fear, or personal greed. That said though, if we look at crime plots over time, we really do see, I think, how they often use certain antagonists to reflect the kind of fears and prejudices that we have. I wonder which group will be next to be depicted in this way…


NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bruce Springsteen’s Murder Incorporated.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Andrea Camilleri, Arthur Conan Doyle, Åsa Larsson, C.J. Box, Camilla Läckberg, Daniel Pembrey, Daniel Silva, Ferdinand von Schirach, Gail Bowen, Ian Rankin, Ira Levin, John le Carré, Len Deighton, Lindy Cameron, Malcolm Mackay, Martin Cruz Smith, Michael Dibdin, Peter Temple, Philip Kerr, Robert Gott, Robert Ludlum, Tess Gerritsen, Tonino Benacquista, Walter Mosley, Will Thomas, William McIlvanney

26 responses to “Everywhere You Look Now There’s Murder Incorporated*

  1. Col

    A lot of authors mentioned that I need to try, but a few I have already. I’m envious of your encyclopedic memory!

  2. Great roundup of crime syndicate reads. I like these every now and again, although usually I’m pulled more to the “personal crimes,” as you called them. You’ve made a good point that seeing the list of crime syndicate bad guys shows us who we most fear at a given time.

    • Thanks, Elizabeth. I’m actually drawn to (and write) more personal crime stories myself. But as you say, sometimes the other kind of story makes for a good read. And it does give us a window into what we’re like as a society and whom we fear.

  3. Interesting question, Margot. I wonder who’ll be next too. Personally, I go for the more “personal” crime fiction. Perhaps novels were different years ago because the era itself was more of an antagonist than a specific person or persons.

    • It will be really interesting, I think, to see who’ll be next, Sue. Like you, I really do enjoy those more ‘personal’ kinds of crime stories. I think they happen in real life more often too. You make a really interesting point too about how crime fiction reflects the antagonism of that era. I’m thinking, for instance, of Cold War era crime fiction, where almost amorphous ‘communists’ were perceived as ‘the enemy.’ Of course, in the best of those novels, you still have a person or a few people who are the main focus of the novel. There are still human stories told, and human motivations there. But we still see that overall ‘feeling’ of the era.

  4. That dichotomy, between real life horrors and the ersatz fictional variety, is so hard to straddle in one’s life when you can see the inspiration but choose to not get too caught up and enjoy it purely as fiction – but some great examples of these here from across the decades Margot – thanks. Scary as it is, there is always a real life bogeyman and then fictional representation will never be hard to find, will it?

    • It is hard to straddle, isn’t it, Sergio? I’m sure, too, that there are topics (and fictional enemies) that people simply would rather not read about, just for that reason. And you’re right; whenever there’s a new real-life bogeyman, there are new fictional representations of that enemy. Perhaps it’s in part the author’s way of exorcising societal demons…

  5. Margot, I find government hoods in fiction and films — the guys who wear black and chase you to the ends of the earth — too close to the real thing. They are a part of a political system that makes them behave like zombies. I find them scary.

    • They really are scary, Prashant. And there are certainly plenty of very disturbing real-life examples to remind us of how close to the truth those fictional characters are…

  6. Gosh you covered the waterfront there! So many different types of baddies. Christie is cool about it, saying ‘the enemy changes as the years go by’, but her master criminals tend to be quite political. There’s less of the organized crime in her books – my own favourite in that area is (always) The Godfather – book and 1st two films.

    • You’re right, Moira. Christie did more with politically-motivated sort of crime than with crime gangs. And as for The Godfather? It really is an excellent novel. Those first two films are great, too. One of the few cases where the second film lives up to (some say exceeds) the first.

  7. Henning Mankell’s The Return Of The Dancing Master features crimes that hark back to WWII, and revenge served exceedingly cold! (In both senses of the word!)

    • Oh, Crimeworm, that’s a great example of what I had in mind with this post. Thanks very much. And Mankell really is talented. He’s one of those by-now-classic authors, I think.

  8. I adore crime noels with an ‘organisation’ in the background. The KGB, Mafia, The Syndicate and so on….and now we have the Russian Mafia and the Triads finding their way into stories. I just love it. You mentioned so many of my favourite authors and books, and it is fab seeing Len Deighton mentioned, Le Carre, Ludlum and Tess Gerritsen too. Such fab plotters and atmosphere creators. I love anything Cold War and since…those dark, shadowy entities we all pretend don’t exist. Jut been listening to an interview on BBC Radio 4 with the head of MI5 – a first ever interview live on air with the top guy still in post. Loved it. Of course all the chat was about ISIS and similar terrorist organisations but I love all that. I have loved watching (change of subject slightly) the US TV drama Odyssey, which has just finished here. Well written, acted and presented. Have you seen it? Fab story-line – so believable.

    • I’ve not watched Odyssey, Jane, although you’re not the first person to recommend it to me. I’m glad you enjoyed it. That Radio 4 interview must have been absolutely fascinating! I’ve often wondered how modern MI5, CIA, INTERPOL, and some of the other intelligence groups go about their jobs. One of the things that’s really interesting, too, about that sort of crime fiction is that it shows us a lot about who we are and what we fear at any given time. Crime syndicates, Nazis, the KGB, the Mafia (Russian or otherwise), terrorists, they’ve all been part of the landscape. I wonder sometimes what the next ‘baddie’ will be…

      • The Illuminati of course, the 5 biggest companies running the world, secret corporations holding governments in their thrall. Oh it is all fab stuff. MI5 interest me a lot Have you read Dame Stella Rimington’s books? She was the first female Director General of MI5 and she now writes thrillers with her heroine Liz Carlyle. I enjoy them a lot and you get some real insights…keeping in mind the Official Secrets Act etc. and that her books have to be vetted first – she writes well and her characters are believable, as are the situations they find themselves in. Post Cold War too.

        • Oh, they sound great, Jane! And I’m sure that Rimington has a lot to offer, given her experience. As you say, all of those secret (or highly classified) groups can make for really interesting inclusions in a story, can’t they?

        • They are and when I worked at the FCO in Whitehall many moons ago, I saw a lot first hand. So interesting and exciting and almost unbelievable too. If you get a chance to read her, please do.

        • Now I’m doubly motivated, Jane. And what stories there must be right there for the telling. I shall have to make a point of putting her work on my TBR.

        • Oh do and I am sure you will enjoy it. I hope! I have over 170 books to catch up with so goodness knows how many you have.

        • I shudder to think, Jane…

  9. Very interesting post, Margot. I usually prefer books where the story is more about individuals, maybe even misguided people who are not evil at heart. But I like all types of crime fiction. And especially anything related to the Cold War.

    • Thanks, Tracy. There just is something about the Cold War that has stayed with people, I think. And certainly it inspired all kinds of fantastic stories. Like you, I like books where we get to know individual characters. But I find it so interesting the way that other kinds of stories tell us about ourselves, if I can put it that way.

  10. I’ll mention again one of my favorite of the corporate villains, which grew out of the Cold War subgenre, that of SPECTRE, arch-nemesis of a certain Brit secret service agent. I guess we could also consider them a variant of the modern corporatist bad guy. However, like Elizabeth, I prefer stories where the crimes are committed for personal reasons.

    • Oh, SPECTRE is a great villain, Bryan. I’m glad you brought that particular nasty group up. That said, though, there’s nothing like a crime novel about a murder committed for personal reasons. Those stories are very…human.

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