Get Away From These Demagogues*

DemagoguesLet’s face it: the world can be a very scary place. Tragedies happen, changes happen; and sometimes, life seems to be full of frightening news. At times like that, some people try to use others’ uncertainty and fears to gain power, or at least ascendency, over others. And that sort of demagoguery can have devastating and lasting consequences. We certainly see it happen in real life. We’re seeing it now.

It’s certainly not unique to real life, though. There’s plenty of demagoguery in crime fiction, too. And that makes sense. For one thing, the use of rhetoric and bigotry instead of reasoned debate has been going on for a lot time. For another, the sort of conflict that demagogues exploit can serve as a very useful tool for building tension in a story. There are a lot of examples of this in the genre. I’ll just mention a few.

Some novels and series explore the consequences of the actions of real demagogues. For instance, both Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther series and Rebecca Cantrell’s Hannah Vogel series are set (at least partly) in Berlin just before and then during the Nazis’ rise to power. In both of those series, there are good reasons for people to be uncertain and afraid. It’s the height of the worldwide Great Depression, there’s little food, and the currency isn’t worth very much. There aren’t many jobs, either. Against this background, as you’ll know, Hitler rose to power in part through exploiting people’s fears, and setting up easy targets for them to blame. You’ll also know just how horrible the consequences of that demagoguery were.

We also see that pattern in William Ryan’s Alexei Korolev series, which begins in Moscow just before World War II. Josef Stalin is firmly in power, and has consolidated his control of the Communist Party. He’s done that in part through playing his political rivals off against one another, and by preying on people’s fears of what might happen if he’s not there to steer the proverbial ship of state. And that’s not to mention the fears people have already had about securing life’s basic necessities. The consequences of that demagoguery have been tragic, too, as hundreds of thousands of people have died in Stalin’s purges and other oppressions. Against this background, Korolev and his assistant, Sergeant Slivka, have to move very carefully. One wrong move and they could be next on the list, so to speak. At the same time, they are charged with upholding the law and catching criminals. It’s not an easy balance to strike, and Ryan acknowledges that fact.

U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy was also arguably a demagogue. He exploited Americans’ fears of Communism to the point where many people were jailed and worse. Others lost their jobs (and any chance of getting another one), were shunned by others in their communities, and more. We see part of the impact of that demagoguery in Walter Mosley’s A Red Death. Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlins is a sort of unofficial PI in post-WWII Los Angeles. One day, he gets a letter from Internal Revenue Service (IRS) tax agent Reginald Lawrence. The letter says that Rawlins owes thousands of dollars in back taxes – money he has no way of paying. He’s resigning himself to prison when FBI agent Darryl Craxton offers him a way out. If Mosley helps the FBI bring down suspected Communist Chaim Wenzler, Craxton will make those tax problems go away. Mosley has little choice but to accept. And in any case, he, too, has been taught to fear Communism, and Craxton appeals to his patriotism on that issue. The case turns out to be much more complicated than Rawlins imagined when he finds himself becoming friends with Wenzler. It’s even more complicated when he’s framed for two murders.

Argentina has had more than its share of demagogues. Many of the military rulers have used people’s fears, as well as their concerns about meeting their basic needs, to get and maintain power. For instance, Juan Perón came to power with the backing of (and a great deal of appeal to) the working classes. Once in power, he maintained his position through increasingly authoritarian decisions. The impact of that demagoguery lasted for many decades, long after Perón was no longer in office. Ernesto Mallo’s Venancio ‘Perro’ Lascano series takes place in late 1970’s Argentina, a time when a military dictatorship is in control of the country. People have been taught to fear the political left; and those who are suspected of having leftist sympathies are brutally silenced. So are those who are suspected of questioning or, worse, opposing, the existing government. It’s a very difficult political landscape for a police officer who’s just trying to do his job, and Mallo depicts this faithfully.

In Sulari Gentill’s A Few Right Thinking Men, artist Rowland ‘Rowly’ Sinclair runs directly into demagoguery when he gets involved in finding out who murdered his uncle, also named Rowland. There’s a good possibility that Uncle Rowland was killed by members of the New Guard, an ultra-right political group led by Colonel Eric Campbell. Campbell’s been taking advantage of people’s misery (the novel takes place in 1931, and the Great Depression is taking a toll) and fear, and appealing to their patriotism to gain power. He and the New Guard are planning to install a new government in Australia, one run by ‘a few right thinking men’ who will preserve traditional ways of life and the current class order. He’s gotten plenty of people afraid of Communism, working-class revolts, and other perceived threats, and is set to gain real power. The radical left isn’t taking this lightly, and is preparing for an all-out battle. Rowly wants not only to find out whether Campbell sanctioned his uncle’s murder, but also to prevent violence if he can. But it won’t be easy.

And then there’s Robin Cook’s Seizure, in which we are introduced to US Senator Ashley Butler. He’s a demagogue who’s used people’s fear of the unknown to gain quite a bit of power. He’s strongly opposed to stem-cell research and other, similar, scientific advances. He’s also a staunch supporter of the ‘traditional’ family and ‘traditional family values.’ And he’s used his constituents’ worries about societal change, the economy, and other issues for his own purposes. Then, he is diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. Butler knows that if the facts of his medical condition are made public, he’ll never succeed at becoming president, which is his goal. So, despite the rhetoric he’s used, he reaches out to Dr. Daniell Lowell, who’s been doing exactly the kind of research Butler has publicly opposed. Lowell is no friend to Butler, as he’s seen quite a lot of scientific progress stymied by Butler. He’s also not a fan of Butler’s rightist social leanings. But when Butler offers to withdraw his opposition to stem cell research, Lowell can’t resist the opportunity to use his controversial procedure to see if he can help Butler. Technically speaking, this is more a thriller than a crime novel. But the character of Ashley Butler was too good an example of a demagogue not to mention it.

In case you hadn’t noticed, demagoguery is alive and well. In crime fiction, it almost always has unfortunate, sometimes tragic consequences. I think it does in real life, too.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bob Dylan’s Nettie Moore.


Filed under Ernesto Mallo, Philip Kerr, Rebecca Cantrell, Robin Cook, Sulari Gentill, Walter Mosley, William Ryan

35 responses to “Get Away From These Demagogues*

  1. Excellent piece, Margot, here in the U.S. we are seeing very frightening demagoguery in the forefront of the presidential election. Great idea to single out some good examples in crime fiction. I recommend also Hans Fallada, “Everyone dies alone,” not exactly classic crime fiction, but a fascinating piece of detection set in the forties — in Fallada’s lifetime, Fallada’s last novel. (The English title in the recent translation is, I believe, “Alone in Berlin.” I prefer the German title, “Jeder stirbt fuer sich allein.” Thanks for this very good piece.

    • Thanks, Dorothy, for the kind words. And you’re absolutely right about the demagoguery in our US election. It’s actually part of what inspired this post. Thanks, too, for mentioning Fallad’s work. It’s not one I’ve read yet, but I’ve heard good things about it, and I really ought to read it. I appreciate the reminder.

  2. Tim

    So, I double-check the definition of demagogue, and this is what I find:
    I now wonder two things:
    (1) What crime fiction can I recall in which such a creature or attitude exists? I can think of none beyond those you’ve already highlighted, but I look forward to reading about others as suggested by your readers/followers.
    (2) What current event and individual(s) motivated your posting? I will not hazard any guess about whether or not you and I would agree. However, I will hazard this statement: All the major political leaders in both parties in the U.S. shame themselves and their country in recent days, weeks, months, and years.
    Now, coming down off my soapbox, and now intending any dispute about current events, I return to my reading of William Shakespeare’s King John, a timely study in the ups-and-downs of political shenanigans and power lust. I hope to find time also for some of the crime fiction you’ve mentioned.

    • I look forward to hearing others’ examples of fictional demagogues, too, Tim. And you guessed correctly: the rhetoric related to the US election was partly what inspired me to do this post. I hope that at some point, we can really address the issues that need to be addressed, rather than exploit people’s fears. And I think an exploration of Shakespeare’s work is entirely appropriate.

  3. An excellent and timely post, Margot – thank you. As an outsider, I admit to watching recent events in the US with growing fear and horror over the past few months. If we don’t learn from the history of the depths to which 20th century demagoguery took us, then what hope is there for us all? I keep wishing people would read more history but I know that’s not everyone’s cup of tea. You’ve reminded us that fiction, including crime fiction, is a great resource for learning and understanding our history too. And perhaps if we do, we won’t be condemned to repeat it.

    • Thanks for the kind words, FictionFan. I admit I’ve been more than a little uneasy myself about what’s been going on. I couldn’t possibly agree more that all we need do is look to history to see the horrifying impact of demagoguery. It’s right there in front of us if we just look it up, and we do need to learn from what we’ve been through. Not everyone may be a history buff, that’s true. But it’s right there in fiction and in other places, too. I just hope people will be aware of it. The alternative is a frightening prospect…

    • Miso agree with you! Very good post, Margot. Demagogues and fanatics are frightening.

  4. kathyd

    Very good points and I agree about the horrific demogoguery going on in the U.S. elections right now, and scapegoating and fear-mongering. It’s awful to hear it.
    And because of bigotry and hatred, 49 people are dead in Orlando and 53 injured, and the fear-mongering continues. I am glad to see signs at vigils and remarks by gay leaders telling people not to scape-goat people who are immigrants or of different religions. So good.
    Anyway, I would read Kerr’s and Cantrell’s books except they’re about Nazis, and I know enough, but if I did, I’d read their series. I do recommend them.
    I will read Mosley’s and Gentill’s books. Have never heard of that particular book by Cook, but it sounds interesting.
    A recommendation of a good movie: Trumbo. Dalton Trumbo was one of the most famous of the Hollywood Ten, screenwriters and others who were blacklisted by McCarthy. He wrote Johnny Got His Gun, a brilliant anti-war book and movie, and wrote the screenplay for Spartacus. Otto Preminger and Kirk Douglas broke the blacklist to hire him.

    • That’s very interesting background, Kathy, about that film. I always like to learn some of the ‘behind the scenes’ things about films. And you’re right: the demagoguery going on right now is awful, and it’s led to terrible results. But then, that’s happened throughout history. I hope that people will take heed to the pleas not to fear=monger. What we need now is healing, working together, and productive solutions. And that takes working together, not fearing each other.

  5. mudpuddle

    very apt post. courageous of you. i think education is the only answer to put a stop to “civilization’s” recycling of the same social disasters going back thousands of years. the only demagogue i can remember is whatsisname (haha) in “all the king’s men”.

    • Thanks for the kind words, Mudpuddle. And I agree with you about education. People need to learn and to think critically if we’re to have a chance of avoiding a ‘replay’ of the disasters we’ve had in the past. And thanks for mentioning All the King’s Men. Now, that’s an example of a demagogue!

  6. Col

    You’re not alone with the scaremongering, we’re seeing it in the UK with the debate on EU membership, maybe to a slightly lesser degree. Playing on people’s fears always seems a vote winner. Kerr, Ryan, Mallo and Mosley – all waiting to be read!

    • I’ve been following the Brexit/Bremain debate, Col. It’ll be really interesting to see how that plays out. And you’re right: playing on people’s fears seems to get attention (and votes). Hopefully we can all learn from the past. As to the books, I think you’d like Kerr, Ryan, Mallo and Mosely. All of them have created strong characters and solid stories.

  7. Margot, an excellent theme, as others have pointed out. I’d like to read all these authors and especially William Ryan’s Alexei Korolev series and Walter Mosley’s “A Red Death,” given my interest in international political affairs.

    • Thank you for the kind words, Prashant. Ryan’s work really does blend history and politics in quite effectively with the crimes that his Alexei Korolev investigates. And I think Walter Mosley’s ‘Easy’ Rawlins series is excellent. Both authors recommended.

  8. With a new job in sight I can only daresay: I would love to read Margot Kinberg on it, as I long had the ‘suspicion’ that links like the following one can be used alike some manual for villains in crime fiction, too:

    But a horror, based on the clarity of the human mind, was the following quote vs Adolf Hitler:

    “You have delivered up our holy German Fatherland to one of the greatest demagogues of all time. I solemnly prophesy that this accursed man will cast our Reich into the abyss and bring our nation to inconceivable misery. Future generations will damn you in your grave for what you have done.”
    – Erich Ludendorff

  9. Reblogged this on e. michael helms and commented:
    Margot Kinberg strikes again with another interesting & informative post!

  10. Margot, you continue to “wow!” me with your incredible knowledge of the mystery/crime/thriller/suspense-related genres. Outstanding post!

  11. Thank you for another amazing post, Margot!

  12. Another thing that makes for good stories is that very thin line between real life threats and conspiracy theories. Take Senator McCarthy’s excesses and paranoia versus the very real threat of Russian spies embedded in our society, and you see what i mean. The spies were really there and the basis for some excellent fiction such as the TV series The Americans. Those Senate hearings, however, were the height of paranoia. As writers, we need to keep our heads out of the sand, observe, and write our truth as we see it. I like that you’re doing that here, Margot.

    • Thank you, Pat. And you’re absolutely right. There is a difference between paranoia and actual threats, but it is sometimes a very fine line. That’s why, rather than resorting to automatic hysteria, we need to handle possible threats in a more reasoned way, if I can put it like that. It’s not easy, of course. As you point out, threats are there. But nothing is solved by hysteria or appeals to bigotry.

  13. Fear is such a powerful tool and it’s so unfortunate that so many people fall into its trap!

  14. tracybham

    I wonder what crime fiction / mysteries we might see many years in the future featuring Trump and / or Clinton.

    I have read several of these authors, but still waiting to read Mallo, William Ryan, and I don’t think I have read any Robin Cook.

    • I’m wondering what our crime fiction will look like, too, Tracy. I do recommend Mallo and Ryan; both do a fine job of evoking that time and place. And I think both have created strong characters.

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