Any 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…