As this is posted, it’s the Ides of March, the day of Julius Caesar’s assassination. It was a pivotal moment in history, and it shows that even the most powerful and well-protected people can also be quite vulnerable.
We see that clearly in crime fiction, too. In fact, that theme of the powerful person with enemies is arguably a trope in the genre. Certainly Agatha Christie uses that plot point in several of her stories. For instance, in Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (AKA A Holiday For Murder and Murder For Christmas), we are introduced to wealthy patriarch Simeon Lee. He’s manipulative, unpleasant and tyrannical. But he is also very wealthy. When he decides to have the members of his family to the family home for Christmas, no-one dares refuse the invitation. On Christmas Eve, Lee is murdered. Hercule Poirot is spending Christmas in the area, and he’s persuaded to work with the police to find out who the killer is. As it turns out, Lee’s money and power weren’t enough to protect him. In one scene of the novel, Lee’s daughter-in-law, Hilda, warns him about all that he risks by treating others as he does. He doesn’t listen to her, though, and that has disastrous results. I know, fans of Murder on the Orient Express…
In James Lee Burke’s A Morning For Flamingos, we meet New Orleans crime boss, Tony Cardo. He’s fended off rivals and the police, and has established a powerful place for himself. Now, a special Presidential Task Force on Drugs has targeted Cardo, and wants to go after him. He’s both wealthy and well-protected, though, and it’s going to be a difficult task. So, former Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) agent Minos Dautrieve asks his old friend, police detective Dave Robicheaux, for help. His idea is that Robicheaux will pretend to be ‘dirty,’ get close to Cardo, and bring him down. Robicheaux isn’t interested at first. He’s recovering from injuries he suffered in another incident, and in any case, wants to spend time with his daughter, Alafair. But Dautrieve tells Robicheaux that Jimmie Lee Boggs, who is responsible for Robicheaux’s injuries, is one of Cardo’s known associates. So, if Robicheaux goes after Cardo, he may very well get Boggs, too. Robicheaux finally agrees, and the operation begins. As time goes on, though, Robicheaux gets to know Cardo, and finds that this is a more complex situation than he’d thought.
One of the important plot threads in Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo has to do with bringing down powerful Swedish industrialist Hans-Erik Wennerström. Journalist Mikael Blomqvist and his publication, Millennium, made allegations against Wennerström – allegations that Wennerström has claimed are false. In fact, he sues for libel, and wins his case. He is both wealthy and well-connected, so it seems that it will be impossible to do anything about the situation. Then, Blomqvist gets his chance. Henrik Vanger (also wealthy and well-connected) wants Blomqvist to find out the truth about a forty-year-old case. Vanger’s great-niece, Harriet, disappeared years ago, but her body was never found. Nor did she ever contact the family again. Yet, someone’s been sending Vanger arrangements of pressed, dried flowers each birthday, something Harriet and only Harriet did. So, Vanger wants to find out if Harriet is still alive, and if so, where she is. In return for Blomqvist’s work, Vanger will give the journalist the ‘inside information’ he needs to bring Wennerström down. Blomqvist agrees, and he and his research partner Lisbeth Salander start investigating. In the end, they find out the truth about Harriet Vanger, and Salander finds a way to penetrate Wennerström’s protection and get the details she needs.
In Anthony Bidulka’s Tapas on the Ramblas, Saskatoon PI Russell Quant gets a new client. Charity Wiser is a wealthy executive and heiress, who has begun to believe that someone in her family is trying to kill her. She’s not sure who, but she’s sure it’s one of her relatives. She sends her granddaughter, Flora, to visit Quant and ask him to investigate. The plan is that Quant will join the Wiser family for a cruise on Charity Wiser’s private boat. During the cruise, he’s to ‘vet’ the various members of the family, and then report back to his client. Quant agrees, and makes his travel plans. Once aboard, he meets the different members of the Wiser family, and learns that just about all of them have reasons for wanting to murder Charity. For one thing, she’s manipulative, and seems to delight in putting her family into uncomfortable situations. For another, there is the matter of her money. The situation is stressful for Quant already, but gets even more so when there is an attempt on his client’s life. It turns out that money and power do not always keep a person safe.
Hilary Mantel explores this in her novels featuring Thomas Cromwell. As you’ll know, Cromwell was chief minister to King Henry VIII. Over time, he acquired a great deal of power and authority, and the king came to rely on him. But that power and wealth didn’t save Cromwell. Once he fell out of the king’s good graces, he was executed. The three novels featuring Cromwell (Wolf Hall, Bring Up the Bodies, and the forthcoming The Mirror and the Light) tell Cromwell’s story and show how precarious power can be. Certainly, Henry VIII knew this, and took sometimes ruthless measures to protect himself. And Cromwell found out as well. Granted, these novels are not, strictly speaking, crime novels. But they do feature murders that are committed, and the sense of justice (whatever that really means) that people at the time had.
It all just goes to show that, at least in crime fiction, anyone can be vulnerable, no matter how wealthy, powerful, or well-protected. It makes for a trope with a lot of possibilities. And it offers some interesting layers of character development.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Coldplay’s Viva la Vida.