How the Mighty Have Fallen*

Being powerful certainly has its advantages. Things get done on your say-so, and you have access to things that you otherwise wouldn’t. It’s not surprising that a lot of people would like to be powerful.

But that’s just the problem. People in power can be very vulnerable, because others want that power. And there’s no guarantee that someone with power will stay in that powerful position. Just ask Thomas Cromwell, who was arrested on this date in 1540. As you’ll know, he was one of King Henry VIII’s most trusted advisors. And he had a great deal of influence. But that didn’t stop the king having him arrested and, a bit more than a month later, executed.

Hilary Mantel’s historical novels, Wolf Hall, Bring Up the Bodies, and the upcoming The Mirror and the Light, tell the story of Cromwell’s rise, fall, and execution. They may not be, strictly speaking, considered crime fiction. But there are plenty of crimes mentioned in them. And they show how illusory power can be. And there are plenty of other historical figures whose stories show that, too. I’m sure you can think of many more than I could. We certainly see it in historical crime fiction, right, fans of C.J. Sansom’s Matthew Shardlake novels?

We see how vulnerable the powerful can be in lots of crime fiction, actually. For instance, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Scandal in Bohemia, Sherlock Holmes gets a visit from the King of Bohemia. He’s soon to marry a wealthy Scandinavian princess, and that union is expected to advance both of their fortunes. But there’s one big problem: an actress named Irene Adler. She and the king are former lovers, and she has a compromising photograph of them. The king wants Holmes to get that photograph, because he knows that if his fiancée finds out about it, the marriage won’t happen. Holmes agrees, and soon learns that he is up against a most worthy adversary. In fact, as fans of the Holmes stories know, she bests Holmes.  In this case, power has advantages for the king, but it also leaves him at a disadvantage.

In Claudia Piñeiro’s Thursday Night Widows, which takes places in the late 1990s, we are introduced to the wealthy, powerful families who live in an enclave called The Cascade Heights Country Club. Known as ‘The Heights,’ it’s a gated, ultra-exclusive community located about 30 miles from Buenos Aires. Only the very wealthiest and most powerful people can afford to live there, and even they are ‘vetted’ carefully. The people who live in The Heights are protected from the daily struggles that a lot of people in Argentina face, and they are in completely unassailable social positions. Everything changes, though, when Argentina’s economic problems find their way into the community. The very power that has protected its residents also means that they have to live up their reputations. Many aren’t prepared to leave the community, find more affordable places to live, and so on. And for some, their social status has become so important that they can’t imagine life without it. And that leads to real tragedy.

Olavo Bettencourt learns how vulnerable power can make a person in Edney Silvestre’s Happiness is Easy. He’s an advertising executive whose services are much in demand. And, with Brazil’s political process getting more open, Bettencourt has found that political candidates are advertising more and more. And this means he’s steadily acquiring more and more power. But he’s trapped, although he’s not really aware of it, because he’s engaged in several corrupt business deals. He’s certainly being manipulated more than he thinks. That becomes all too painfully clear when a gang decides to kidnap his son, Olavinho. It’s a logical choice, given Bettancourt’s money and power. But the gang abducts the wrong boy. Instead of Olavinho, they take the son of the Bettancourts’ housekeeper. Now, the gang has to decide what to do with the boy they kidnapped, and what to do about their original plans. And Bettancourt has to decide how much to tell the media and the police. After all, if he shares too much information, he could be vulnerable to prosecution. Not enough, and the result could be tragic.

Fans of Qiu Xiaolong’s Chief Inspector Chen Cao series can tell you that these novels often focus on those in power – the High Cadre. On the one hand, they are very important people. They make the decisions, they have all of the ‘perks’ that power brings, and so on. On the other hand, because they’re in such enviable positions, there are plenty of other people who would like nothing better than to take that power for themselves. So, even though they tend to protect each other, they are also very vulnerable to one another. And, they’re vulnerable to the ‘court of public opinion.’ Their public reputation can be, and is, used against them.

Louise Penny’s Chief Inspector Armand Gamache isn’t what you’d call wealthy. And he’s not at the proverbial top of the tree when it comes to his position within the Sûreté du Québec. But he’s legendary in terms of his ability to solve cases. And he’s well-known as a person who supports his teammates, and coaches his juniors in helpful ways. So, in that sense, he has a certain amount of ‘clout’ within the Sûreté. And that’s part of what makes him vulnerable. In one story arc, we learn that several people would like to see him fail, and will stop at very little to succeed in that.

And that’s the thing about power. It’s most definitely got its advantages. But it also puts a person in a very vulnerable position. These are only a few examples. Over to you.


*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Hoodoo Gurus.


Filed under Arthur Conan Doyle, C.J. Sansom, Claudia Piñeiro, Edney Silvestre, Hilary Mantel, Louise Penny, Qiu Xiaolong

16 responses to “How the Mighty Have Fallen*

  1. Hmmm, not sure if this is political commentary or not, Margot! 😉

  2. The theme of a powerful person’s abuse of that power is found in many of the wonderful Judge Dee books by Robert Van Gulik, Margot. The judge, an uncorruptible magistrate in seventh-century China, often finds himself up against high officials who may turn out to be involved in a variety of sordid schemes, including murder. The theme is central to many of the books, including Necklace and Calabash and The Haunted Monastery among others,

    • You’re quite right, Les. The Judge Dee mysteries often focus on that sort of corruption. I’m glad you’ve brought that series up, as it’s an excellent example of exactly what I had in mind with this post. And, among other things, Van Gulik presented a very vivid portrait of the time and place.

  3. In A Scandal In Bohemia, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle never described the photograph. Was it just the King and Irene Adler standing together or were they in a compromising position. In the Jeremy Brett/Granada adaptation of the story, the two were taking an ordinary photo with the two of them standing next to each other. Was the King afraid that if the photo was found, that the impending marriage would be over because the King had an affair with a commoner? Would the fact that that the King had a relationship with someone below his station be considered scandalous in those days?

    • I honestly don’t know, Sbrnseay1, what, exactly, that photograph shows. As you say, Conan Doyle never specifies it. Whatever actually is in the photograph, it threatens the king’s marriage. I’m no expert on the Victoria Era, but from what I do know, it was tacitly accepted that men ‘had their fun’ before they married (and sometimes after). But there had to be a veneer of respectability. A photograph with another woman threatened that respectability and, therefore, the impending marriage.

  4. Margot: The Time of Murder at Mayerling by Ann Dukthas delves into the deaths of Prince Rudolph, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, and his teenage lover, Maria, late in the 19th Century. History says they had a suicide pact in which he killed her and then shot himself. Despite his position and wealth he was still very vulnerable.

    After reading the book I thought about how European history might have been different had he lived. Would there have been a WW I?

    • That’s a really good question, Bill. I don’t know if there would still have been a war, but certainly history would have been very different. And you’re right; that story shows just how vulnerable even the very wealthy and powerful can be. Folks, do check out Bill’s excellent review of The Time of Murder at Mayerling.

  5. Of course, all rich and powerful people should be toppled from their positions, have all their goods confiscated and most of them should be sent to the guillotine. Workers of the World Unite! Up the Revolution!

    Oh, I do beg your pardon – too much reading about the Russian Revolution, I fear. I shall read a nice book about the wonders of capitalism and democracy and restore my mental equilibrium… 😉

    • 😆 No need for apologies, FictionFan. The Russian Revolution has that effect. Or have you been reading A Tale of Two Cities again?? 😉 – I think a good dose of Adam Smith ought to help. 😉 –

      In all seriousness, it is, I think, the seeming impregnability of those at the top of the tree that can help foment that sort of unrest. Especially when it’s seen to be at the expense of those at the bottom.

  6. kathy d.

    Oh, gosh, I just read Fred Vargas’ latest tome: “A Climate of Fear,” which has a few plot lines which intersect at the end. One is about re-enacters of aspects of the French Revolution. A lot of heads literally rolled. Vargas is a genius, but after that book, I needed a rest and got it with Sara Paretsky’s latest book with V.I. Warshawski, “Fallout.” And now I’m in Norfolk, England, with Ruth Galloway in the wonderful “The Chalk Pit.”
    When those at the top do everything possible to harm those at the bottom or in the middle, time for a big change. The voters in Britain showed that change is happening among the population. There is a lot happening here, too, although not so obvious.

    • Thanks, Kathy, for mentioning both the Vargas and the Paretsky. The Griffiths, too. All three show how vulnerable even the people with the most power really are.

  7. There’s a few characters in Agatha Christie’s works with a lot of power and attitude, I’m thinking of Alistair Blunt in One Two Buckle My Shoe, and the millionaire Rufus Van Aldin in Mystery of the Blue Train. And there are quite a few more.

    • I like both of those examples, Moira. In both cases, you have a powerful person who is vulnerable, in a way, because he is powerful, if that makes sense. It’s an interesting sort of character, and Christie did do them well, I think.

  8. I cannot think of any examples to suggest, but you have mentioned several authors in this post that I want to read: Hilary Mantel, Claudia Piñeiro’s Thursday Night Widows, and I have a huge stack of books by Qiu Xiaolong that I have not read yet.

    • Oh, I hope you’ll like the Qiu Xiaolong novels, Tracy. I think they paint a very interesting portrait of Shanghai in the late 1990s. And Thursday Night Widows is a fascinating character study, among other things. The Hilary Mantel novels have such nicely-research history in them… you’re in for some fine reading, I think.

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