Watch (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.