All Human Life is There in a Caricature and Cartoon*

As this is posted, it’s 291 years since the publication of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. As you’ll know, that novel takes a satirical look at British society of the day. Swift used the story to skewer social classes, politicians, and more.

Swift, of course, wasn’t the only author to use satire as a tool; plenty of others have done the same. That includes crime writers. And it’s interesting to see how crime writers have used their novels to skewer institutions, people, and so on.

Agatha Christie isn’t usually known for mocking wit in her stories. But she did use satire, including poking fun at herself. In Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, for instance, one plot thread concerns detective novelist Ariadne Oliver, who is said to be Christie’s tool for self-deprecation. Mrs. Oliver is visiting the village of Broadhinny , where she is collaborating with up-and-coming playwright Robin Upward on an adaptation of one of her novels for the stage. She gets drawn into a murder investigation when Hercule Poirot takes another look at the murder of a charwoman whom everyone believes was killed by her lodger. Mrs. Oliver works with Poirot to find out who the killer is. Besides having a bit of fun at her own expense, Christie also takes a satirical look at plays, playwriting, and the process of adapting a work. The story itself isn’t comical, but it’s interesting to see how Christie fits in some sly satire.

Robert Barnard uses quite a bit of satire in Death of an Old Goat. In it, Bobby Wickham and the rest of the English faculty at Drummondale University are awaiting a visit from noted Oxford scholar Professor Belville-Smith. He’s on a lecture tour of Australia, and will be making a stop in rural Drummondale along the way. Right from the start, though, things don’t go well. For one thing, Belville-Smith is insufferable; he’s not accustomed to life in rural Australia, and wastes no time finding ways in which it falls short of his expectations. For another, Belville-Smith is also boring. Worse, he’s getting on in years, and finds it hard to keep track of his points when he lectures. The visit is going badly enough, but things get far, far worse when Belville-Smith is found murdered in his hotel room. Inspector Bert Royle investigates, but he’s not going to find it easy to do so. This is his first murder, so he’s unaccustomed to a lot of the procedures involved. What’s more, there are plenty of suspects, both in the academic community and among the ‘townies.’ Still, he persists, and in the end, finds out who the killer is. Throughout the novel, Barnard lampoons academia, rural Australians, pedants, and other ‘types.’

Ruth Dudley Edwards’ Corridors of Death is also a satire, this time of politics and politicians. In the novel, we meet Robert Amiss, who works as Private Secretary to Sir Nicholas Clark, Permanent Secretary to the Department of Conservation. One day, during a break in proceedings at a meeting of the Industry and Government Group, Clark is murdered. The police are called in, and Detective Superintendent James Milton takes charge of the investigation. He believes that Amiss might be a useful source of information, since he knew the victim quite well. For his part, Amiss finds the investigation process intriguing. So, the two begin to work together. And they soon find that there’s no lack of suspects. Clark was a malicious person who took pleasure in sabotaging the careers of other members of the department. And every one of them was on hand at the time of the murder. Still, Amiss and Milton get to the truth about the killing. In the process, there’s a very satirical look at political life a few tiers down from Downing Street, so to speak. There are plenty of inflated egos, sycophants, layers of bureaucracy, and more.

Teresa Solana’s A Not So Perfect Crime introduces Barcelona PIs Eduard and Josep “Pep” (who goes by the name Borja) Martínez. They happen to be twins, but in many ways, couldn’t be more different. One day, they get a new client: conservative Catalonia politician, Lluís Font. Once he is assured of the brothers’ discretion, he tells them that he believes his wife, Lídia, may be having an affair. Not only is this devastating news on a personal level, it could also cause great trouble for Font on a professional level, since he stands for traditional values such as home and family. The Martínez brothers take the case, and follow Lídia for a week. They don’t find any evidence of infidelity, though, and are ready to report as much to their client. But then, Lídia suddenly dies of what turns out to be poison. Now, her husband is a suspect in a murder case. He asks the Martínez brothers to continue working on his behalf, this time to clear his name. Eduard is reluctant, but Borja is eager to do the job – and get the fee. In the end, we do learn who killed the victim and why. Along the way, Solana paints a satirical portrait of life among Barcelona’s very well-to-do. There’s a good look at the social backbiting, machinations, and superficiality of that group of people.

And then there’s the work of Carl Hiaasen. Fans of his novels will know that many of them are set in different parts of Florida. Through those stories, Hiaasen uses satire to comment on the ultra-wealthy, the press, bureaucracy, the different cultures in Florida, and much more. He puts his characters into a variety of absurd situations that highlight the many foibles that he explores.

These are by no means the only crime writers who’ve used satire to make their points. And it can be a very effective tool when it’s used well. Which novels like this have stayed with you?


NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Comsat Angels’ Zinger.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Carl Hiaasen, Robert Barnard, Ruth Dudley Edwards, Teresa Solana

20 responses to “All Human Life is There in a Caricature and Cartoon*

  1. Two hundred and ninety-one years! My, time sure ‘travels’ SWIFTly by, does it not?

  2. The crime fiction novel that I recently read in Romanian ‘Spada’ was a satire: underneath the story of a serial killer targeting Roma and petty criminals, there was a really biting satire about politics and mass media. Intriguing!
    I’ve also recently finished Anatomy of a Scandal by Sarah Vaughan, which is not a comical story at all, but has a lot of barbed wit at the expense of politicians, their affairs and penchant for sexual harassment, as well as their spin doctors. Very timely!

    • Ooops, my sentence structure is starting to resemble Trumpian tweeting. I have to stop using single word sentences with exclamation marks.

    • Both of those sound like interesting reads, Marina Sofia. I always give authors credit when they can use satire like that. And that Vaughan sounds very timely, indeed! Those are excellent examples of exactly what I had in mind with this post, so thanks for suggesting them.

  3. Col

    Hiaasen definitely plays it for laughs, but underneath he’s making a serious point.

  4. Brian

    Wasn’t there a bit from “Mrs. McGinty’s Dead” where playwright Robin Upward was going to make Ariadne Oliver’s detective Sven Hjerson a younger man than the one she wrote? Very similar to what was done earlier in Christie’s career when Poirot was made younger, specifically in the play called “Alibi” based on The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. And not only that but they also gave young Poirot a love interest! This is one of the reasons why Christie decided to take her books and turn them into plays herself. Wonder if Ariadne Oliver considered doing the same? Though Agatha Christie included bits of herself in Mrs. Oliver, I just can’t see her writing for the stage like Christie did. I find Christie a bit more industrious, but like Christie, Mrs. Oliver isn’t going to settle for needlessly altering her books to another medium.

    • No, she isn’t, indeed, Brian. And you’re absolutely right about that scene in Mrs. McGinty’s Dead. It’s a very funny moment, folks – recommended. Interesting, isn’t it, how those moments in the book (and in other books that feature Mrs. Oliver) are drawn from Christie’s own background. And yet, as you show, Mrs. Oliver isn’t really exactly the same as Christie. Thee are bits and pieces, but they aren’t identical.

  5. Keishon

    I thought Jeff Lindsay’s Dexter series a good satire of Florida in. general and of people to a certain extent. I loved the first two novels but it went off the rails and I moved on. Didn’t Dorothy L. Sayers use satire in Have His Carcase? I never finished that novel (plan to read it later) but Harriet Vane is a mystery writer who made money off of her infamous trial for murder and then is involved in a murder investigation with the besotted Lord Peter Wimsey and she makes use of her writer knowledge to help in the investigation – that’s all I got for that topic. My apologies if I am off topic again.

    • You’re not off-topic at all, Keishon. It’s a really interesting question about Harriet Vane, actually. I don’t think (I could be wrong, of course) that Sayers intended to use her for satire. But that doesn’t mean she doesn’t serve that purpose. And there are incidents in that and in Strong Poison where Sayers does poke fun (or, at least it seems so to me) at some sociopolitical institutions.

      As to Dexter, I must admit I haven’t read the novels. I hear that the first ones are good, but I’ve not (yet) tried them. Thanks for adding that in – it was a gap that needed to be filled.

      • Keishon

        You’re right, she’s not meant for satire. I didn’t think that thru (multitasking is bad for me). I just thought that her being a novelist was interesting. I love satire so I will def. give these titles a look. I have one Carl Hiaasen book and Jeff Lindsey almost always comes up when Hiaasen is mentioned. Although there are probably little similarities outside of satire.

        • Perhaps there aren’t that many other similarities, Keishon, but that just goes to show (at least to me) what a diversity there is just within that one style. I do recommend Hiaasen. I think he does a truly effective job with satire.

  6. Spade & Dagger

    I love a bit of satire, but find Ruth Dudley Edwards’ books hard to read as they verge on the slapstick, although some would say it’s humour. She brings many insights to the books, but I always stop short at enjoying them.
    I’ve found Robert Barnard books can sometimes appear rather twee in style, but they often contain sharp observations on behaviours & conventions, & Catherine Aird’s Sloan and Crosby series is similar in this respect.

    • You’re right, Spade & Dagger, about the Aird series. It is quite similar to Barnard’s work in those observations about people and their ways. I’m glad you mentioned her work. And it’s interesting about Ruth Dudley Edwards. Some, like you, find her work too close to slapstick. Others find it, as you say, very funny. I think everyone’s taste differs when it comes to what’s considered ‘funny,’ just as it does about nearly everything else.

  7. Robert Barnard is one of my favorite authors, but I still have a lot of his books to read (and reread). I have several books by Ruth Dudley Edwards and I have never read them. I have got to do that soon.

    • Barnard really was talented, wasn’t he, Tracy? He was also prolific, though, so I know what you mean about not getting the chance yet to read them all. I haven’t come close to it, truth be told. If/when you get to RUth Dudley Edwards’ work, I hope you’ll enjoy it.

  8. Satire can become out of date quickly, or even alienate readers who don’t agree with the author. But you found some great examples that avoid those problems: I think Mrs McGinty’s Dead is a great Christie, and very funny. And Death of an Old Goat is marvellous.

    • You have a point about the risks inherent in satire, Moira. That’s why I think it’s especially admirable when an author can create a satirical story that feels just as funny/biting/etc.. years later. Not everyone thinks of Mrs. McGinty’s Dead as funny, but it does have some witty moments and subtle skewering.

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