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.