I Used to Rule the World*

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.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Anthony Bidulka, Hilary Mantel, James Lee Burke, Stieg Larsson

23 responses to “I Used to Rule the World*

  1. Pingback: I Used to Rule the World* | picardykatt's Blog

  2. Tim

    Regarding H8 and Cromwell et al, does capital punishment constitute murder? If it did or did not then, does it or does it not now? ‘Tis a slippery slope when governments execute people; in other words, sometimes it is proper (morally acceptable) but sometimes . . .

    • That’s quite true, Tim. And I think that’s part of why the question of whether there should be capital punishment is such a difficult one. The answer to your particular questions is, I suppose, that it depends on one’s view of capital punishment.

      • Tim

        Ethical standards cannot be left to subjective individuals (and governments). Either killing another human being is right or wrong. Exceptions to the absolute (relativism) concern me. Consider the irony in my concerns, then, since I was in the military for 25 years. All of this, of course, hints at the popularity of crime fiction: people usually cannot abide the chaos in society when crimes occur, and they demands restoration to good order and discipline (at least vicariously through reading crime fiction). So goes my theory about why people read about crime but otherwise despise crime.

        • Now, that’s an interesting possibility, Tim. It could very well indeed be that people read crime fiction in part to restore order in what is often a chaotic and changing world. Perhaps it’s in our nature to want to impose some sort of order.

  3. Wow my memory is totally shot. I read Morning for Flamingos a long time ago, but after reading your description, it’s as if I never read it at all….

  4. The combination of assassination and Hilary Mantel reminded me of her short story called The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher – a fictional account of exactly what it says in the title. I wasn’t convinced it was in the best taste being published quite soon after Mrs Thatcher died, but it’s a good story and quite a powerful account of how some politicians rouse such strong emotions, both for and against…

  5. Col

    I’m the same with AMFF and I think I actually read his early stuff twice! There’s no hope for me.

  6. Margot: Gail Bowen began her crime fiction writing career after attending a political picnic where she saw an unattended carafe of water waiting for the Premier and thought what if it were poisoned. Soon after Deadly Appearances was written and fictional Saskatchewan Premier, Andy Boychuk, was dead on the opening page and her sleuth, Joanne Kilbourn, had her first case.

    • And that case, Bill, is such a great example of how someone can be vulnerable, even if that person is powerful, or wealthy, or well-connected (or some combination). I like that story of how Bowen was inspired, too. You never know what will be a source of inspiration.

  7. Great examples, Margot. To me bringing down the powerful figure in a story is intriguing because they are usually so well protected but have mistreated someone close to them in a way that leaves them vulnerable.

    • That’s exactly it, Mason. They may be rich, powerful, well-protected, and so on. But if they hurt someone close to them, or if they don’t know the people close to them as well as they thought they did, all bets are off, as the saying goes.

  8. I agree. A character without at least some vulnerability tends to fall flat, IMO. I much prefer characters that are more rounded, because we all have vulnerabilities, even killers. Some may hide it better than others, but when we get a peek at their softer side, the character really comes alive on the page.

    Playing catch up today. Two feet of snow knocked out my internet for almost two days. Ugh!

    • Sorry to hear about the weather problems and Internet outage, Sue! ‘Ugh’ is right. I hope it’s all settled soon. And about characters? You are 100% absolutely positively right. Characters who don’t have any vulnerabilities don’t feel genuine. They are, therefore, a lot less interesting.

  9. kathy d

    I think we, thinking people, can’t just agree with their own government killing people, as in a war because the government is doing it. What about the Vietnam war? Huge movement against it. What about the Iraq war? Same thing, worldwide opposition. What about apartheid, brutal with executions. Opposed inside and outside the country. People have a responsibility to follow their own consciences.
    What about WW II killings by fascist armies and agents in the millions. Lots of opposition during, with resistance groups and armies against them. And they lost because of it.
    And on the death penalty, the EU, Australia, Canada and other countries ban it. If one is opposed to it, then say it. It’s one’s own conscience.
    I had a friend who said, “I am against pre-meditated murder.” Period. He was referring to the death penalty.
    And in many mysteries, as in Donna Leon’s Guido Brunetti’s series, usually the perpetrator is either not caught or is not tried and convicted because, as Leon says, often the wealthy and privileged are not punished and the system isn’t fair.
    Leon also says European readers can accept those endings, but U.S. readers want justice at the end of a book, catch killer, punish killer.
    Interesting differences which I often think about.

    • You’re quite right, Kathy, about a lot of Donna Leon’s books. In many of them, the culprit is well-enough connected, wealthy enough, and so on, to make it very hard to prosecute that person. Brunetti manages it at times, but that is a thread that runs through Leon’s work.

      And you’re by no means the only one who’s opposed to the death penalty. You make a well-taken point, too, about the need to think critically about what the government does, and speak out when we need to. That’s the responsibility we all have.

  10. kathy d

    Yep. We only have one life, one lifetime in which to stand up and act on our consciences and ethics.

  11. So glad to read your mention of the wonderful Hilary Mantel books – perhaps that crime element is why I love those books so much.

    • Oh, I think they’re beautifully done, Moira. Mantel has done her ‘homework,’ but the books don’t really feel like ‘history tomes.’ And the crime element is woven in quite effectively, isn’t it?

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