It’s the Terror of Knowing What this World is About*

AnomieAny major change, especially a major social change, can make people uneasy. That uneasiness and anxiety – sociologists have called it anomie – can have drastic consequences. Some sociologists have looked at this from the broader perspective of general lawlessness. Others look at it from a more individual perspective – as a factor in deviance and lawbreaking. Either way you think about it, there’s certainly evidence for anomie in the real world.

There is in crime fiction, too, and that shouldn’t be surprising. Crime fiction deals with lawlessness, lawbreaking, and the perceived need to keep order. And from a purely literary point of view, that uneasiness and anxiety can make for a solid layer of tension and interest in a story.

Agatha Christie touches on anomie a few times in her stories. Just to give one example, in Dead Man’s Folly, Hercule Poirot pays a visit to Nasse House, in Nassecomb, at the request of his friend, detective story author Ariadne Oliver. She’s been commissioned to create a Murder Hunt as one of the attractions at an upcoming charity fête; but she’s come to suspect that there’s more going on at Nasse House than the preparations for the big event. She wants Poirot to investigate, and he agrees. On the day of the fête, Mrs. Oliver’s fears are justified when the body of fourteen-year-old Marlene Tucker is discovered in the boathouse on the property. On the surface of it, there seems no motive to murder the girl. But Poirot keeps asking questions, and discovers that Marlene had found out some things it wasn’t safe for her to know. One of the themes that runs through this novel is the set of major socioeconomic changes that came after World War II. A few characters mention, for instance, the breakup and sale of former estates, and their use as Guest Houses and hostels. Others mention the increase in ‘foreigners’ in the country. As one character puts it,

‘‘So many things are hard, M. Poirot.’’

Admittedly, anomie isn’t the reason for Marlene’s murder. But it certainly is woven through the anxiety a lot of people feel in this novel.

After the breakup of the former Soviet Union, there was a great deal of social anxiety both there and in the other Warsaw Pact nations. There was exhilaration; at the same time, there was anxiety. If there wasn’t going to be a Soviet Union any more, what was there going to be? We see that anxiety in many novels of and about that era. I’ll just mention one. In Margaret Truman’s Murder in the House, Georgetown University law professor Mackensie ‘Mac’ Smith gets involved in the shooting death of US Congressman Paul Latham. At first Latham’s death is branded a suicide. But one of Smith’s former students, who’s now with the CIA, convinces him that there’s more to this death than that. One possible explanation for the murder is that Latham had made contact with a businessman who’s trying to make inroads into the new post-Soviet economy. And there are some very dangerous Russian ‘businessmen trying to fill the power vacuum in Russia. Negotiating these waters is Yvgeny Fodorov. With the fall of the Soviet Union, everything has changed, including his mother Vani. Nothing makes sense any more, and he feels truly disaffected by what he sees as the ruination of Russia. This makes him ripe for manipulation by the new Russian Mafia, and before he knows it, Fodorov is deeply involved in a much bigger and more dangerous scheme than he knows.

When the system of apartheid in South Africa ended, many people weren’t sure what was going to come next. If the ‘old order’ wasn’t going to determine life in that country any more, than what was? As much as people rightly celebrated the end of the apartheid era, they also weren’t sure what was going to come next. We see that anomie in Roger Smith’s Dust Devils. In that novel, former journalist Robert Dell, his wife Rosie, and their children are on a drive outside Cape Town when their car is ambushed and goes over an embankment. Dell is the only survivor. For reasons he doesn’t know, he’s soon framed for the murders of his family members and jailed in preparation for what will likely be a rigged trial. His estranged father, Bobby Goodbread, comes to his rescue, finding a way to get Dell out of prison. Then, for different reasons, they go in search of the man who actually killed Dell’s family. Also looking for the same man is Disaster Zondi, a bureaucrat who’s just lost his job. And then there’s seventeen-year-old Sonto, who usually goes by her English name, Sunday. She’s trying to escape becoming the fourth wife of the man who killed the Dell family. As the fates of these people intersect, we see the larger anxiety caused by the major social changes in the country. Nothing is certain and there seems no order of any kind. And that shows in many of the events in the story.

There are also plenty of crime novels that focus more on personal anomie – on the anxiety people feel when they’re rootless, with no order in their own lives. Several of Pascal Garnier’s stories have that sort of anomie as one of the elements. For example, in How’s the Pain? we are introduced to twenty-one-year-old Bernard Ferrand. He’s rather aimless and purposeless, and not particularly good at anything. But he does have a driver license. And that’s just what Simon Marechall needs. Marechall has his own kind of anxiety. He’s an ageing contract killer who sees the end of his career coming. But he wants to get in one more job while he can. He wants Bernard to drive him to the French coast so that he can take care of his business, and Bernard agrees. What else, really, is there for him to do? What he doesn’t know at first is exactly the sort of business his new boss is in. If you’ve read Garnier, you know that this will not end happily ever after…

Natsuo Kirino’s Real World offers another look at the kind of rootlessness and anxiety that can lead to anomie. In that novel, Toshiko Yamanaka and three of her friends are drawn into a case of murder when the police suspect that Ryo, the boy who lives next door to Toshiko, has killed his mother. Toshiko has some information to share about the killing, but decides to lie to the police. She and each of her three friends interact with Ryo, who has fled, and each decides not to turn him in. As the days go by and Ryo does not return, we see how things spin out of control for all five young people. The result is tragic, and the novel highlights the alienation these teens feel. For various reasons, they don’t feel a part of their families’ society or culture. And they don’t have a strong sense of purpose in life. That anxiety and their uncertainty about where they fit in and what they’ll do plays a major role in the choices they make.

Nicole Watson’s The Boundary addresses the rootlessness and lack of purpose that change has brought to the Corrowa people of Brisbane. The real action in the story begins when a judge rules that the Corrowa people cannot prove their claim to Brisbane’s Meston Park. Hours later, the judge is murdered. Then, one by one, other people connected with the case are also killed. Among other things, this investigation forces several people involved, including the police who look into the murders, the lawyer who took the case to court, and others, to face their feelings of anxiety and unease about who they are and where they fit in.

And that’s the thing about anomie. Whether you look at it on a societal level or look at things such as delinquency, that sort of anxiety and lack of order and purpose can have real consequences. And that can add a rich texture in a crime novel



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from David Bowie and Queen’s Under Pressure.  Bowie’s loss is a blow, and he will be much missed…



Filed under Agatha Christie, Margaret Truman, Natsuo Kirino, Nicole Watson, Pascal Garnier, Roger Smith

27 responses to “It’s the Terror of Knowing What this World is About*

  1. Again you’ve chosen another fascinating subject, Margot. I’m curious. What prompted you to look at anomie in crime fiction? I feel a poll coming soon. 🙂

    • Glad you enjoyed the post, Sue. And no – honest! – no poll is in the offing, at least not on this topic. A few things inspired the post, actually. One is the world reaction to the many changes that have happened in the last few years, from the technological to the political to the… Another was the sad loss of David Bowie, who always seemed able to remake himself. The muse had a few ideas, too 😉

  2. I’m glad you included a Japanese novel in this, because I find that sense of unsettled anxiety comes through very strongly in all the contemporary Japanese fiction I’ve read. It seems to me to be a society that has thrown out all of the old rules but hasn’t yet quite worked out what to replace them with. Both of Shuichi Yoshida’s novels that I’ve read, ‘Parade’ and ‘Villain’, have this feeling about them, as does Kanae Minato’s ‘Confessions’. And closer to home the waves of immigration, both legal and illegal, with all the anxieties they bring, are being reflected in a lot of current crime fiction.

    • Oh, I agree with you, FictionFan, about Japanese fiction. I’m also glad you mentioned Confessions, as you do certainly see that uneasiness there as well. And yes, the whole issue of immigration, and all of the changes it brings, is coming up in a lot of recent crime fiction. That’s not surprising, either, if you think about it. A lot of people really are unsettled about the changes in demographics, as we know from real-life events.

  3. Indeed another great topic Margot…and crime fiction that looks at these issues are often among my favourites. I’ve read some interesting books that take into account the most recent global financial crisis and its aftermath which has created a kind of anomie for many communities. Michael Ridpath’s 66° North set in Iceland is an example where an entire country feels like it is breaking down and no one is sure what is to replace the old way of things. Yrsa Sigurdadottir also explores the same theme in the same country in Someone to Watch Over me

    • Thanks, Bernadette. And you’re absolutely right about the impact of the most recent economic and financial crises. They’ve been responsible for their own sort of anomie, and it’s interesting that both Yrsa Sigurðardóttir and Michael Ridpath have written novels about the Iceland case. I like reading their two different perspectives, since one is a native and one isn’t. In some ways, it’s a bit reminiscent of books written during and about the Great Depression of the 1930s. The old system was broken – hopelessly – so what was going to replace it? That kind of unease really can make for a fascinating layer to a novel.

  4. Margot: I am not sure how that unsettled state of mind applies to Arkady Renko of the series by Martin Cruz Smith but it is a remarkable series seeing Renko solve cases before and after the collapse of the U.S.S.R.

    • Oh, I agree with you, Bill. It’s a very, very well-written series, and certainly depicts life during and just after the collapse of the Soviet Union. I’m glad you mentioned that series, because it’s a good reminder to me to do a spotlight on one of those novels. I appreciate the nudge.

  5. Col

    Roger Smith and Pascal Garnier are two favourite authors of mine, though I’ve not read either book highlighted.

  6. When Bill mentioned the Arkady Renko series by Martin Cruz Smith, it reminded me of the Inspector Rostnikov series by Stuart M. Kaminsky. It also spanned the time before and after the collapse of the USSR.

    Under Pressure is a favorite and I love that line from the song.

    • I think Under Pressure is a great song, too, Tracy. And that is a very well-written line. Thanks for mentioning the Kaminsky series. He’s another author whose work I really want to put in the spotlight at some point, so I’m glad you reminded me.

  7. A very interesting one Margot, thank you. And a very sad week indeed this week.

  8. A fascinating subject both in real life and in crime fiction – it makes sense when people can’t imagine what the ‘new’ is going to look like it is easier to imagine that the old rules don’t apply and there are no new ones replacing them, even if this actually isn’t the case. And you started off detailing two books that are on the must read (or re-read) in 2016; The Moonstone and The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.

    • Thank you, Cleo. I think you’re quite right that it’s much easier to let go of ‘the old’ when one knows what ‘the new’ will be like. It can be downright scary when we don’t know what’s coming ahead. And that anxiety can make for a very solid layer in a crime novel.

  9. I was so sad to hear of Bowie’s death. He will be missed!!

  10. A bleak subject but one which adds an extra depth to many novels, and makes crime fiction have a really noir feel… The Japanese novels really excel at this – perhaps because it’s such a regulated society. I certainly found it not just in Natsuo Kirino’s work, but also in Shuichi Yoshida. Garnier is also fantastic at portraying that anomie, as is Jean-Patrick Manchette in ‘Fatale’, for instance. The original masters of ‘anomie’ from the 1930s are perhaps Bertolt Brecht’s Threepenny Opera and of course Christopher Isherwood’s portrayal of Berlin.

    • You’re so right about Isherwood, Marina Sofia – a real master of anomie. Brecht, too, of course. And it is interesting how so many Japanese novelists explore the topic. It may, indeed, be that it’s a very regulated society; that certainly makes sense. And you’re right, the whole thing can add real depth to a novel.

  11. Kathy D.

    Since we’re paying tributes to David Bowie, I’d like to add a tribute to the fantastic actor, Alan Rickman, who lost his battle with cancer last week at 69. He brought so much talent to every movie he was in, no matter how large or small. And he was also an activist for social justice.

  12. Margot, you have featured some splendid books here, especially “Murder in the House” by Margaret Truman that I will be looking out for. I find that men are averse to any kind of change, as opposed to women who tend to flow with the tide.

  13. Not quite a national problem, but I always remember Angus, in Christie’s Towards Zero, who tries to commit suicide because life has nothing left to offer. I thought he was a very well-drawn character and I was glad things didn’t turn out too badly for him.

  14. Pingback: Writing Links in the 3s and 5…1/20/16 | Traci Krites

What's your view? I'd love to hear it.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s