Another Scandal Every Day*

corruptionTransparency 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.


Filed under Donna Leon, Ernesto Mallo, Ian Rankin, Kishwar Desai, Liza Marklund, Maj Sjöwall, Margaret Truman, Per Wahlöö, Peter Temple, Qiu Xiaolong

29 responses to “Another Scandal Every Day*

  1. Not exactly corruption, but there are so many crime/mystery novels/stories in which the law enforcement authorities are inept; hence — citing a couple of examples among hundreds or more — Holmes/Watson and Poirot/Hastings must save the cops from further embarrassment. Yeah, I’m off topic, but that is the way my mind is working today. Hey, at least my mind is working (i.e., the rest of my body is in revolt, which I’ve noted at Beyond Eastrod).

    • Given everything going on with you, Tim, I can completely understand why your body needs a break. And you do make an interesting point about how often the police are depicted as inept at best in a lot of classic/Golden Age crime fiction. And there are plenty, too, that take up the topic of police corruption – another issues in and of itself.

  2. Postscript: Corruption is a synonym for government. Hmmm.

  3. Anna Jaquieury’s novel Death in a Rainy Season deals with corruption in Cambodia when Serge Morel gets involved investigating the murder of a French national there.

  4. Is Black Tide a contemporary novel or historical? I’ve heard so many good things about Peter Temple’s character, Irish.

  5. Gordon Ferris’ ‘Gallowglass’ is based around corruption within the banking system just as the Marshall Plan is being agreed. The Chairman of the Scottish Linen Bank has been kidnapped and MI5 are up against a deadline to solve the case and keep it quiet, so it doesn’t get in the way of the negotiations. Ferris’ most recent book ‘Money Tree’ is also about corruption in banking – this time banks in America and England. I guess it must be subject he feels strongly about…

    • You know, you have an interesting point, FictionFan. It could be that that sort of government corruption is one of Ferris’ ‘hot spots.’ If so, he wouldn’t be alone. I admit I’ve not yet read Money Tree, but if it’s up to his other standards, I know I’ll want to read it. Folks, if you’ve not read Ferris’ Douglas Brodie novels, of which Gallowglass is the fourth, I can strongly recommend them.

  6. Col

    Timely post. Interesting to see things playing out at the minute with FIFA and the IAAF. Looking forward to Mallo and more from Peter Temple at some point.

    • It is interesting, isn’t it, Col, to see what’s happening with FIFA and the IAAF. I suspect there’s plenty going on with the IOC, too. As to the Mallo, I really do recommend it. It’s a well-written series with a solid backdrop. And I think Peter Temple is one of the really talented novelists out there.

  7. Virtually all the Italian crime novels (or those set in Italy) deal with corruption of officials at local or national level to some degree – a fact of life that has to be reflected in the novels, I suppose. Michael Dibdin’s Aurelio Zen series seemed particularly eloquent to me.
    Attica Locke is acutely politically aware and has written a couple of novels looking at the corruption and hand-in-glove relationship between big industry and government in Texas and the US.
    But I love pretty much all of the ones you mention above, which probably shows that the political layer is certainly a plus in my reading.

    • I’m so glad you mentioned both Michael Dibdin and Attica Locke, Marina Sofia. As you say, both treat the theme of that sort of corruption, and both write good stories, too. Thanks for filling in that gap. You’re right, too, as I think about it. There are a lot of Italian crime novels (and novels set in Italy) where there’s corruption. It’s certainly a theme in those books….

  8. Kathy D.

    Glad Guido Brunetti is here; every book by Donna Leon featuring the Venetiian commissario involves corruption in government, banking, industry, the army, the church — and usually the culprits get away with the crimes. As Leon says, people with wealth and power do get off.
    Salvo Montalbano often runs into all sorts of corruption, too.
    Just finished Attica Lockes Pleasantville which I missed after finishing it. Great characters. And she does investigate corruption in Texas.
    Malla Nunn’s detective Emmanuel Cooper uncovers corruption in apartheid-era South Africa in all kinds of places.
    This is such a big topic as globalization has made the world bigger with a lot more possibilities for international corruption between corporations, governments, etc.

    • That’s quite true, Kathy. With today’s international corporations and easy travel, corruption has, indeed, ‘gone global.’ You’re right, too, about Andrea Camilleri’s Salvo Montalbano. He does indeed run into his share of government corruption, doesn’t he? And yes, I couldn’t have imagined a post about government corruption without mentioning Guido Brunetti…

  9. Yes, timely indeed, Margot. Though when is it ever not? You’ve reminded me that the writing duo who were Emma Lathan also wrote a series under the name, R.B.Dominic, with Congressman Ben Safford as the lead character. They are all about government corruption of various kinds.

    • Thank you, Christine. And thanks for the reminder of that R.B. Dominic series. I’m not as familiar with it as I am with their other series, I ought to dip into it more than I have, and I appreciate the nudge.

  10. Margot have you read any Tony Cavanaugh? Kingdom of the Strong is particularly relevant to todays post. (and a great read)

    • Oh, good suggestion, Carol! I’ve heard of Tony Cavanaugh, but not (yet) read his work. Time to put him on the list, I suspect.

      • The first few books in the series Margot are very dark. The latest book – Kingdom of the Strong has a different emphasis and is more character driven I think as opposed to an extremely brutal crime driven narrative – very compelling.

  11. I like (if that’s the word) that dread feeling you get when you’re reading a thriller/crime story and you realized that ‘the authorities’ are not all they should be – that the people we’re relying on to be on the side of good, aren’t. It’s a dire situation – terrifying in real life, and can be very cleverly done as a shock or a twist in a book.

  12. I do like mystery novels that have government (and police) corruption as a theme. I can mention a couple of series that have that theme, although I have only read one or two of each: Leighton Gage’s series set in Brazil and Pieter Aspe’s series set in Bruges, Belgium.

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