Nobody Was Really Sure if He Was From the House of Lords*

legislatorsWatch (or read) any news reports, and you’ll be reminded of something interesting about democratic governments. They are often led by presidents, prime ministers, or their counterparts. But in reality, a lot of political power rests with legislators. They may be members of Parliament, members of Congress, or of some other legislative body. Whatever their position, these people often have quite a lot of power.

It’s interesting to see how they’re treated in crime fiction, too. Legislators are natural fits for crime fiction, if you think about it. There’s power, money, status – and vulnerability. Just a quick look at the genre should show you what I mean.

In Agatha Christie’s Appointment With Death, we are introduced to Lady Westholme, MP. She and her friend, Miss Pierce, join an excursion to the famous Middle East city of Petra. With them on the trip are several other people, including newly-minted doctor Sarah King, and the members of the Boynton family, who are also touring the Middle East. From the moment that we meet her, Lady Westholme is assertive (some might even say aggressive) and quite clear in her views. There’s an interesting scene, for instance, where she has an argument with a representative from the travel company about the size and amenities of the car that’s to take the group to Petra. Needless to say, Lady Westholme wins the day. On the second afternoon of the trip, Mrs. Boynton (matriarch of the Boynton family) suddenly dies of what looks like heart failure. That’s not surprising, considering her age and health. But Colonel Carbury, who’s the investigator in the area, isn’t entirely convinced. He asks Hercule Poirot, who’s also in the Middle East, to look into the matter, and Poirot agrees. It turns out there are several suspects, too, as Mrs. Boynton was tyrannical, manipulative, and cruel to the members of her family. In the end, though, Poirot gets to the truth about the murder.

Ngaio Marsh’s The Nursing Home Murder is the story of Sir Derek O’Callaghan, MP. He’s written a controversial Anarchy Bill that specifically targets leftist revolutionaries and their activities. There’s no guarantee that the bill will be accepted, but it does have support. Sir Derek believes firmly that it will help keep the country safer. Others claim it squelches free speech. Whatever the bill’s fate, it seems clear that it’s going to spark fierce discussion. One day, Sir Derek is giving a speech when he suddenly collapses from a ruptured appendix. He’s rushed to a nearby nursing home run by his longtime friend, Sir John Phillips. There, he undergoes an emergency operation, which he survives. Later, though, he dies of what turns out to be hyoscine poisoning. Sir Roderick Alleyn and his assistant, Inspector Fox, investigate. And one important avenue they explore is the bill that Sir Derek had written. It’s not the only possibility, though, and the two end up with several suspects. I see you, fans of Died in the Wool.

P.D. James’ A Taste For Death introduces us to Crown Minister Paul Berowne. As a close advisor to the Prime Minister, he’s got plenty of power and ‘clout.’ One day, he’s found dead in a church not far from his home. Also found there is the body of a local tramp, Harry Mack. Commander Adam Dalgliesh, DCI John Massingham, and DI Kate Miskin investigate the deaths. They do, of course, look into Berowne’s political life. People in a position of power often make enemies. They also look into his personal life, and there are plenty of suspects there, too. It turns out to be a complex case that challenges the team.

As you’ll know, Margaret Truman was the daughter of US President Harry S. Truman. She was also a crime writer who wrote the well-regarded Capital Crimes series. More than one of those novels involves crime, corruption and murder in the US Congress. For instance, in Murder at the Kennedy Center, US Senator Ken Ewald is making a bid for the presidency. He has a very good chance at being elected, too, as he’s politically astute. He has an egalitarian agenda, but he also knows how to play the ‘power game.’ One night, at a glittering fund-raiser, Ewald staffer Andrea Feldman is shot. Georgetown University Law School professor Mackensie ‘Mac’ Smith discovers the body – or, rather, his dog does – during a late-night walk. Soon enough, he’s drawn into the case, because he knows the Ewalds. Ewald himself is a suspect, since his gun was used in the murder. But so is his son, who was having an affair with the victim. Those aren’t the only possibilities, though. For as many friends as Ewald has, he has enemies, too, and some of them would be only too happy to see his campaign in ruins. It’s an interesting look at the ins and outs of legislative politics. So, by the way, is Truman’s Murder in the House.

In Robin Cook’s medical thriller, Seizure, we meet US Senator Ashley Butler. He’s a conservative, who’s staunchly opposed to stem-cell research and other, similar, medical advances. He’s also a strong proponent of ‘traditional family values.’ He’s used his constituents’ concerns about the economy, social change, and other issues to cement his role as one of the most powerful senators in Congress. His next goal is the US presidency. But even as it is, he has an awful lot of ‘clout.’ The, he is diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. If the truth about this comes out, Butler knows he’ll never be elected, and may not even keep his Senate seat. So, he reaches out to Dr. Daniel Lowell, who’s been doing exactly the sort of research Butler has publicly opposed. He offers Lowell a deal: if Lowell will perform the controversial procedure he’s been studying on Butler, then Butler will withdraw his opposition to this sort of research. And that isn’t trivial. Millions of dollars ride on whether the government will or will not support medical and other scientific research. Lowell agrees, unable to resist the opportunity to try his new procedure. The two make their plans, and surgery is scheduled. It doesn’t work out the way either plans, though, and the result involves real danger.

And then there’s Gail Bowen’s Deadly Appearances, the first of her Joanne Kilbourn novels. As the series begins, Kilbourn is a political scientists and academician. She’s been working on the campaign of Androu ‘Andy’ Boychuk, who’s just been selected to lead Saskatchewan’s Official Opposition party. He’s got a very promising future as a provincial political leader, but it all ends one afternoon at a barbecue, where he’s scheduled to give an important speech. He’s just about to start, when he suddenly collapses and dies. Kilbourn is devastated at the loss of her friend, so, partly as a way to deal with the grief, she decides to write a biography of Boychuk. As she does, she gets closer and closer to the truth about his death. In fact, she could very well be the next victim…

Just because someone has a lot of power, as legislators often do, doesn’t mean one’s safe from harm. And it’s interesting to see how that combination of power and vulnerability is treated in crime fiction. Which examples have stayed with you?


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Beatles’ A Day in the Life.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Gail Bowen, Margaret Truman, Ngaio Marsh, P.D. James, Robin Cook

30 responses to “Nobody Was Really Sure if He Was From the House of Lords*

  1. “Just because someone has a lot of power, as legislators often do, doesn’t mean one’s safe from harm.” Comforting thought, Margot… 😉 (and another interesting post!)

  2. Margot, I have a question. In all of your posts, how in the world do you remember all of these characters, the books they feature in, and quotes from these mysteries? Do you take notes, highlight your favorite passages, etc?

    • Thanks very much, Sbrnseay1. When it comes to quotes, I do look them up, just because I don’t trust my memory to get them right. And there’s not much else rattling around in my brain, so there’s plenty of room for crime fiction…

  3. And people can abuse their power, taking advantage of the law and other people because of it. Those with power are at a greater risk of doing awful things — evil things.

  4. One of the first mystery/thrillers along this line, Margot, was Edgar Wallace’s The Four Just Men, from 1905, probably his most famous book. The four are men who kill people whom they see as oppressing justice – often powerful government officials.

    In this book, they threaten the life of Britain’s Foreign Minister if he insists on pushing a particular law through Parliament that would force Britain to send certain exiles back to a sure death in their native lands. While the foreign minister is set up as a fairly sympathetic character, there is never any question in Wallace’s mind – or the reader’s – that the four just men are justified in their position and in their willingness to use violence to achieve their end. The novel, then, is set up as a thriller: will the four be able to carry out their well-advertised plan, or will the minister relent. For the four make it very clear that they regard the murder of the minister as a last resort, referring to him as an otherwise honorable man.

    The minister honestly believes his bill is necessary because Britain has made promises to some of its international allies; the four just men believe just as honestly that the bill is an invitation to chaos and murder and that only they can prevent its passage.
    And throughout, they justify their actions in terms which – in today’s age of terrorist killings and intrigues – could horrify…

    • That’s an excellent example of what I had in mind with this post, Les. Trust you, as ever, to come up with such a good one. And you’re reminded me that I have yet to do a spotlight on any of Wallace’s work. I really must do that. Thanks for bringing that one into the discussion.

  5. Margot: In The Lion’s Mouth by Anne Holt and Berit Reiss-Andersen the Prime Minister of Norway, Birgitte Volter, is found dead in her office from a gunshot to the head. How and why she died goes deep into her personal past.

  6. Ooh, I don’t think I’ve read that Ngaio Marsh – I thought I’d read them all back in the day, but that one doesn’t ring any bells at all. Must rush off to see if I can acquire a copy… 😀

    • Ha! Cracked that tightly-monitored TBR! *evil cackle* 😉 – I’ll be very interested in what you think of it if you do read it, FictionFan. I think it’s an intriguing ‘howdunit’ as well as ‘who/whydunit.’ Parts of it may not exactly pass the probability test, but I forgive Marsh a lot, if you know what I mean.

  7. Power and politics seem to go well with tales of crime, Margot. Great post and a couple more books to add to my TBR list.

  8. Tim

    Postscript: Forgive the duplicate postings!

      • Tim

        I guess my duplicate postings disappeared into the WordPress ether. I had suggested Iago as a political subordinate who cause all sorts of problems for others; Shakespeare had many other examples. Sorry if this is off-topic.

        • I am sorry that your postings didn’t all make it to the blog, Tim. You do make a very good point about Iago. There’s someone who has a lot of ‘clout,’ and misuses it. An important lesson in abuse of power. Thanks for mentioning him.

  9. I used to read political mysteries and thrillers a lot, but lately I’ve focused more on psychological suspense. Now you’ve piqued my interest in this topic again, Margot. I think I have a couple of unread Margaret Truman novels in my bookcase, and I’m definitely going to look up Gail Bowen’s series.

    • I think both series are well worth the time, Pat. I know exactly what you mean, too, about moving from one sort of novel to others. Perhaps it’s a part of the way we evolve as readers. I’d suspect that very few of us read only sort of novel all the way through our adult lives.

  10. I like the story the Augean Stables in Christie’s Labours of Hercules – the Prime MInister is in trouble, and then it looks as though his wife is letting him down. But what is really going on? Hercule Poirot is in charge…

    • Yes!! That’s a great one, Moira! Thank you. I only wish that I had more space in these posts to mention such good examples. But perhaps, for everyone’s sake, it’s a good thing I’m limited…

  11. kathy d

    Then there is a fantastic British TV mystery featuring journalists as the investigators. A young woman is pushed under a train in a station and dies, of course. Who did it? Is it a politician? The reporters do their job and find out. Bill Nighty is the brilliant editor.
    That several-part political thriller brings the viewer into British political circles. It is excellent.

  12. Although I enjoyed your examples, I don’t think political thrillers are my thing. At one time, sure. But not now. We get so inundated with politics I’d rather escape the rat race while reading. Maybe that will change in time as things die down after this election.

    • I know what you mean, Sue, about wanting to escape. And I think people’s choices about what they’re going to read really are impacted in part by what’s going on in the world. Interesting point!

  13. kathy d

    I forgot to put in the title of the British thriller with Bill Nighy, very well-done; it’s State of Play. Not the U.S. version, but the British one is the excellent series.

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