Transparency International has released its 2015 Global Corruption Perception rankings. That’s an annual ranking of nations based on transparency of government activity, press access, independence of judiciary, and other factors. On the one hand, it’s sad, but not surprising, that no country is corruption-free. On the other, there are countries that, based on these factors, have much lower levels of corruption than others. Want to see where your country ranks? You can check it out right here.
Government corruption is a very, very common topic in crime fiction, and that’s not surprising. There’s a lot of money involved, and very important people whose careers and reputations are at stake. All of that makes for suspense and for an effective context for a crime novel. In fact, there are so many such novels that I only have space to mention a very few. I know you’ll be able to think of lots more.
Many of the novels in Maj Sjöwall and Per Whalöö’s Martin Beck series address the topic of corruption in the Swedish government and members of the Swedish business community. And that series isn’t, of course, the only one that does so. Those who’ve read Liza Marklund’s Annika Bengtzon novels know that they also feature plot threads where Bengtzon, who’s a journalist, investigates government corruption.
Ernesto Mallo’s Venancio ‘Perro’ Lescano novels also address high-level corruption, this time in 1970s Argentina. At that time, and in that place, the military is very much in power. Anyone perceived as a threat to that power faces imprisonment or worse. The government is not answerable to the press or to the people, so all sorts of crimes go uninvestigated and unpunished. In Needle in a Haystack, the crime is the murder of a pawnbroker named Elías Biterman. His death is made to look like an Army ‘hit,’ the same as many others at that time. And Lescano knows better than to question what the Army does. But there are some things that are different about this killing, and that piques Lescano’s interest. He begins asking questions that several powerful people, including government officials, do not want asked. Throughout the novel, we see how extensive the corruption is.
There’s a look at high-level corruption in Australia in Peter Temple’s Black Tide. Sometime-lawyer Jack Irish gets a visit from Des Connors, one of his father’s friends. Connors wants Irish to help him make out a will. In the course of that conversation, Irish learns that Connors’ son Gary has ‘gone to ground’ after borrowing (and not paying back) sixty thousand dollars. Now Connors is in real danger of losing his home, so Irish decides to help try to find Gary and get the money back. The search for Gary leads to some very high places, and a record of vicious ways of dealing with journalists or anyone else who might want to expose the wrongdoing. Irish is mostly concerned about making sure his client gets his money back and doesn’t lose his home; but in the end, he finds that that’s just the proverbial tip of a very dangerous iceberg.
Qiu Xialong’s series featuring Chief Inspector Chen Cao includes several plot lines involving corruption at high levels of government. For example, in Enigma of China, Chen is asked to ‘rubber stamp’ an official theory of suicide when Zhou Keng, head of Shanghai’s Housing Development Committee, is found dead. And there is reason to support that theory. For one thing, the victim was found hung in a hotel room, with no-one seen going in or out. For another, he was in that hotel room because he was under police guard after having been arrested for corruption. It’s believed that he took his own life rather than face the charges. But Chen isn’t completely convinced that this was suicide. So, very delicately, he and his assistant, Detective Yu Guangming, begin to look into the matter. They soon find that there is definitely more to this death then the suicide of someone who was about to be publicly humiliated for corruption. This isn’t the only novel, either, in which Qiu addresses the way corruption can work, at least in late-1990s Shanghai.
One of the plot points in Kishwar Desai’s Witness the Night is the way in which corruption can link the very wealthy and powerful to police and government officials who will co-operate for a price. Social worker Simran Singh travels from Delhi, where she lives, to her home town of Jullundur, in the state of Punjab. She’s there to help the police unravel the truth behind a terrible crime. Thirteen members of the wealthy and powerful Atwal family have been poisoned, and some of them stabbed. The only family member left alive is fourteen-year-old Durga Atwal. She hasn’t said anything, really, since the crime, so police don’t know whether she is guilty, or whether she is also a victim, but just happened to survive. It’s hoped that Singh will be able to get the girl to talk about what happened that night, so that police can complete their investigation. Singh begins to ask some questions, and in the end, uncovers much more than just a young girl who ‘snapped.’
Ian Rankin also explores the way corruption links up wealthy and powerful people with the government leaders who can get them what they want. In several of his John Rebus novels, Rankin looks at the impact that that corruption has on everyone. Here’s what he says about it in Black and Blue:
‘Corruption was everywhere, the players spoke millions of dollars, and the locals resented the invasion at the same time as they took the cash and available work.’
Rebus himself sometimes feels corrupt as he finds himself having to make deals and work with all kinds of people in order to get the job done.
There are plenty of novels that explore government corruption in the US, too. Margaret Truman’s series featuring Georgetown University law professor Mackensie ‘Mac’ Smith deals with this topic quite frequently. Murder at the Kennedy Center, for instance, is the story of the killing of Andrea Feldman, a campaign worker for Senator Ken Ewald’s bid for the US presidency. Smith knows Ewald, and in fact, supports his candidacy. So he’s willing to help when Ewald’s son Paul is suspected of the murder. Paul was having an affair with the victim, so he’s the most likely suspect, too. But it turns out that he’s by no means the only one. Smith discovers that there are several powerful people who want nothing more than for Ewald’s campaign to be de-railed, and are willing to go to great lengths to do just that.
And no post on government and high-level corruption would be complete without a mention of Donna Leon’s series featuring Venice Commissario Guido Brunetti. Many of the cases he and his team investigate involve corruption in very high places, and people who may or may not ever ‘face the music’ for what they do.
Government corruption is a continuing global problem. It’s not going to go away quickly. So it’s no surprise that so much crime fiction deals with it. Hopefully if people keep talking and reading about it, this will keep our attention on the problem…
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Third World’s Corruption.