Category Archives: Agnete Friis

It’s No Good, There’s No Way Out*

CorneredIn Agatha Christie’s The Hollow, Hercule Poirot investigates the shooting death of Harley Street specialist Dr. John Christow, who was spending the weekend at the country home of Sir Henry and Lady Lucy Angkatell when he was killed. The case seems very clear-cut at first. As Christie fans will know, though, things aren’t exactly as they appear to be. At one point, Poirot is discussing the actions of one particular character. Here’s what he says:

‘Have you not seen a dog caught in a trap-it sets its teeth into anyone who touches it.’

He has a point. When people (and other animals) feel cornered, they often strike out. That instinct for self-preservation is very strong. Certainly the character to whom Poirot is referring does that; other crime-fictional characters do, too.

For instance, in Tony Hillerman’s The Ghostway, Jim Chee of the Navajo Tribal Police is assigned to find sixteen-year-old Margaret Billie Sosi, who has gone missing from the school she attends. Her disappearance turns out to be connected to the murder of a distant kinsman Albert Gorman. A Los Angeles Navajo, Gorman had moved to the Reservation not very long before he was killed. Chee tracks Sosi to Los Angeles, but she disappears again. When Chee learns what, exactly, links the missing teenager to the murder, he finds out the truth about both. As he does, we see the effect that feeling cornered has on Sosi. I can say without spoiling the novel that she’s not a ‘demon seed’ ‘baddie.’ But like anyone else, she has an instinct to stay alive.

That same instinct is woven into Walter Mosley’s A Red Death. In that story, Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlins gets a threatening letter from IRS agent Reginald Lawrence. The letter claims that Rawlins owes thousands of dollars to the agency; if he doesn’t pay, he’ll be imprisoned. Rawlins knows that he can’t pay the debt, and prepares to go to jail. Then, a solution comes in the form of FBI agent Darrell Craxton. Craxton wants Rawlins to help bring down suspected communist Chaim Wentzler. In return, Craxton will make those tax problems go away. Seeing no other choice, Rawlins reluctantly agrees. As he gets to know Wentzler, he forms a friendship with the man and becomes less and less inclined to be a part of Craxton’s plans. Then, one of the other residents in Rawlins’ apartment building apparently commits suicide. And there are two other deaths, both clearly murders. Rawlins is innocent, but he was present at both crime scenes, so the LAPD have him in their sights. At the same time, he’s doing his best to resolve his dilemma about Chaim Wentzler. Feeling very much cornered, Rawlins does what he feels he has to do to deal with both issues.

In one plot thread of Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis’ Death of a Nightingale, Natasha Doroshenko flees the Ukraine with her daughter Katerina after the murder of Natasha’s husband Pavel. He was a controversial journalist whose stories had angered the wrong people. At first, Natasha thinks she and her daughter have found safety in Denmark. She even falls in love again with Michael Vestergaard. Then, everything changes. Natasha is imprisoned for attempting to murder her fiancé. During her time in police custody, she overhears a conversation that convinces her she hasn’t escaped danger from the Ukraine. She manages to elude the police and heads for Coal House Camp, a Red Cross facility where Katerina has been staying. Natasha’s goal is to retrieve her daughter and flee again. As she tries to do so, we see the effect of feeling cornered on the choices she makes and the things she does.

There are also examples of what people do when they feel cornered in Geoffrey McGeachin’s The Digger’s Rest Hotel. It’s 1947, and Melbourne cop Charlie Berlin has recently returned from harrowing service in World War II. He’s seconded to the town of Wodonga, where the local police are dealing with a series of robberies committed by a motorcycle gang. The most recent one has ended in serious injury, so there’s a lot of pressure to solve these crimes as quickly as possible. In the process of working this case, Berlin gets involved in another: the body of fifteen-year-old Jenny Lee has been found in an alley. At first, Berlin thinks that her death is connected with the robberies. But he learns that the motorcycle gang was not involved. Now he has to find out the truth about both cases. And I can say without spoiling the story that that sense of feeling cornered, with no way out, plays an important role.

It does in Honey Brown’s Through the Cracks, too. Fourteen-year-old Adam Vander has finally managed to escape his abusive father, Joe. But Adam’s been so kept away from the world that he’s completely unprepared for life ‘on the outside.’ This makes him extremely vulnerable. He finds a protector in Billy Benson, a young man who visits the house just as Adam’s preparing to make his escape. Billy takes Adam under his wing, as the saying goes, and helps him with basics like a place to stay, clothes and food. During the week they spend together, the two become friends. They also get mixed up in some very real danger that threatens both of them. As the story goes on, Adam and Billy have to face some very unsettling truths about themselves and their pasts. And throughout the novel, the suspense is built as both of them react to both the danger and those truths. In more than one place, that sense of being cornered plays an important role in what they do.

When people believe they’re trapped, the instinct to stay alive sometimes takes over, as it does when any animal senses that it’s cornered. And the impact of that feeling can make for a solid layer of tension in a novel. Which ones have stayed with you?



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Jeff Lynne’s No Way Out.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Agnete Friis, Geoffrey McGeachin, Honey Brown, Lene Kaaberbøl, Tony Hillerman, Walter Mosley

Got a New Wife, Got a New Life*

NewLifeThis is the time of year when a lot of people try to make changes in their lives. You know – ‘This is the year I’ll lose weight/quit smoking/find a partner/get rid of my partner/learn a language/get that great job, etc. .’ Sometimes people do get the chance to start all over, and it’s always interesting to see whether they really can make different lives.

Starting over is a very useful context for crime fiction.There’s always the possibility of the past coming back to haunt. There’s the challenge of trying to live a new life. And there’s all sorts of possibility for conflict as the character tries for a new beginning. It’s a flexible plot point too; the author can make it hopeful or bleak, light or dark and twisted. Perhaps that’s part of why we see so much of this plot point in crime fiction.

Agatha Christie uses the ‘fresh start’ plot point in several of her stories. It’s hard to discuss some of them without giving away spoilers, but here’s one example. In The Murder on the Links, Hercule Poirot gets a letter from Paul Renauld, a Canadian émigré to France. In the letter, Renauld says that his life is in danger, and begs Poirot to come to his aid. Poirot and Hastings travel to Merlinville-sur-Mer, where Renauld and his wife and son live. But by the time they get there, it’s too late: Renauld has been found murdered on the golf course that adjoins their property. Poirot works with the French authorities (and sometimes at cross-purposes with them!) to find out who the killer was. He discovers that Renauld wasn’t born in Canada. He moved there to start over completely. Later, he and his wife returned to France. Someone has found out about Renauld’s former life and that knowledge played a pivotal role in his murder.

Martin Edwards’ Lake District series features DCI Hannah Scarlett of the Cumbria Constabulary. She leads the Cold Case Review Team, and as we first learn in The Coffin Trail, she got that position after she became a ‘sacrificial lamb’ in another case. There were several mistakes made in an earlier investigation and since Scarlett was involved, it was decided to make as much of the problem as possible go away by moving her. The job is seen as a demotion – a dead-end position – but Scarlett determines to make the best of it. And as the series goes on, we see how she tries to do as much as she can with her new start. Oxford historian Daniel Kind, the other protagonist of this series, has also started over. A well-known ‘celebrity historian,’ he got tired of television and the limelight. So he’s bought a place in the Lakes, hoping to focus on his research and his writing. Kind’s expertise in history proves extremely helpful to Scarlett as she discovers local-history links to the ‘cold case’ murders she and her team solve.

Phillip ‘Poke’ Rafferty is an ex-pat American writer who ‘stars’ in one of Timothy Hallinan’s series. Rafferty is a ‘rough travel’ writer with a home base in Bangkok. He’s also quite good at finding people who don’t want to be found. So he’s a good choice when someone goes missing in Bangkok. Rafferty’s wife is Rose, a former bar girl who has made a new life for herself as the owner of an apartment cleaning company. All of her employees are also former bar girls. Rafferty loves his wife very much, and is happy to accept her exactly as she is. But Rose knows very well that it’s hard to leave the ‘bar girl’ life behind. After all, as she points out in A Nail Through the Heart, what happens when she and Rafferty happen to be out together and encounter one of Rose’s former clients? Still, the two of them work hard to put together a good life for themselves and for Miaow, a former street child Rafferty is in the process of adopting.

Eric Burdett’s Bangkok 8 introduces readers to Sonchai Jitplecheep, a member of the Royal Thai Police. For Sonchai, his career as a police officer is an important way of starting over. He and his best friend Pichai Apiradee were involved in a murder. According to the Buddhist tradition, this has badly damaged their karma, even though the victim was a drug dealer. The way to repair the damage, so they’ve been instructed, is to become police officers and try to work for the good of the community. In Bangkok 8, Pichai is tragically killed during the investigation of the murder of US Marine Walter Bradley. The strong desire to avenge his friend’s death is part of what drives Sonchai to go after Bradley’s (and Pichai’s) killer. He is also motivated by his commitment to using his new life to do good.

In Wendy James’ The Mistake, we meet Jodie Evans. Brought up on the proverbial ‘wrong side of the tracks,’ she seems in a way destined to live the same lower-class, economically disadvantaged life that her mother has had. But Jodie is both intelligent and driven. She is determined to have a new life for herself. Her ambition and brains are enough to get her a scholarship to the ‘right’ sort of school and eventually into the company of Angus Garrow. Angus is from a ‘blueblood’ family, so as you might expect, his mother is not happy about his relationship with Jodie. But the two marry and over the years, Jodie becomes a part of the upper-class circles within which Angus has always moved. All seems well until Jodie’s past comes back to haunt her. One day her daughter Hannah is rushed to the same Sydney hospital where Jodie gave birth years earlier to a daughter Elsa Mary. No-one knows about that child – not even Angus. But a nurse at the hospital remembers Jodie and asks about the baby. Jodie says that she gave Elsa Mary up for adoption; but when the nurse checks into the matter, she finds that there are no records of the adoption. So she begins to ask questions. Those questions soon become public property and before long, Jodie is the focus of a scandal. What happened to the baby? If she’s alive, where is she? If not, did Jodie have something to do with it? As Jodie, Angus and their children face the accusations, it’s clear that sometimes, no matter how much you try to make another start, it’s not as easy as it seems…

That’s certainly what Natasha Doroshenko finds in Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis’ Death of a Nightingale. She has fled her home in the Ukraine to escape the thugs who killed her journalist husband Pavel and threatened her life and that of her daughter Katerina. At first, it seems that Denmark, where they’ve ended up, will be a safe haven for them. In fact, Natasha even falls in love again and becomes engaged to Michael Vestergaard. But everything changes when Natasha is imprisoned for the attempted murder of her fiancé. One day she happens to overhear a conversation that convinces her that her past in the Ukraine has caught up with her. She manages to escape police custody and goes to Coal House Camp, a Red Cross facility where Katerina has been staying. Her plan is to get Katerina and go away somewhere where they can start over again. But the trip to Coal House Camp is only the beginning of real danger for her, her daughter, and Red Cross nurse Nina Borg.

People often do want to make a fresh start and do things differently this time. And sometimes it’s very successful. But it doesn’t always work out that way. These are only a few examples (I know, I know, fans of Mickey Spillane’s The Big Kill). Over to you.

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Scenes From an Italian Restaurant. I know I’ve used that song before. You’re welcome. ;-)


Filed under Agatha Christie, Agnete Friis, John Burdett, Lene Lene Kaaberbøl, Martin Edwards, Mickey Spillane, Timothy Hallinan, Wendy James

Hans Plays With Lotte, Lotte Plays With Jane*

CollaborationThis year marks the hundredth anniversary of the start of WWI, a time when a host of countries, many of them (but of course, not only!) European countries who fought against each other. We’ve seen what that kind of strife can do. But the fact is, there’s also been some genuine co-operation amongst the countries of Europe as well. It’s not always easy, but it happens. It’s clear in real life, and we see how that sort of co-operation plays out in crime fiction as well.

In Agatha Christie’s The Mystery of the Blue Train, for instance, French and English authorities work together to solve the murder of Ruth Van Aldin Kettering, who’s strangled during a trip on the famous Blue Train. The first likely suspect is Count Armand de la Roche. He was known to be having an affair with the victim, and has a reputation for bilking his wealthy lovers out of their fortunes. But there’s not enough hard evidence to link him to the crime. Hercule Poirot was on the train when the killing occurred, so he’s on hand to work with the police to find out who the criminal is. In this case, there isn’t just co-operation as the murder is solved; there’s also co-operation involved in tracking down the missing jewels. Of course, not all of Christie’s stories feature such successful collaboration (I know, I know, fans of The Murder on the Links). But it’s evident here.

It’s also evidence in Bartholomew Gill’s McGarr and the PM of Belgrave Square. In that novel, Garda Chief Superintendent Peter McGarr and his assistant O’Shaughnessy investigate the shooting death of Dublin art and antiques dealer William Craig. The team starts with those closest to home: Craig’s wife, business partner and son. Any of them might have had a motive, and they aren’t the only ones. Then it’s discovered that one of the paintings Craig had in his shop is missing. This of course adds another dimension to the murder as well as an interesting clue. McGarr’s wife Noreen has a background in art history, so she follows up on that lead. The trail takes her to France, where she makes an important discovery about the painting. And that discovery helps to lead to the killer. In this case, French and Irish authorities have to share information in order to solve the murder.

Helene Tursten’s police detective Irene Huss lives and works in Göteborg. But murderers cross borders, and sometimes killings are related to things that have happened in other countries. So more than once, Huss works with other police authorities to solve murders. In The Glass Devil for instance, the murders of three members of the Schyttelius family lead the members of Göteborg’s Violent Crimes Unit to believe that someone has a personal vendetta against that family. If that’s the case, then Rebecka Schyttelius, who’s living in London, may be in grave danger. Huss travels to London and works with Inspector Glen Thompson of the Met to track down Rebecka and find out who might want to kill her family. This case has its roots in the past, in Sweden. But it takes co-operation between Swedish and UK authorities to solve it. In The Torso, Huss works with Danish authorities to solve the murder of Marcus Tosscander, whose body is found one day on a beach. Although he was originally from Göteborg, he’d moved to Copenhagen. So Huss travels there to follow up on the victim’s life and find out who would have wanted to kill him.

Stefan Tegenfalk’s trilogy Anger Mode, Project Nirvana and The Weakest Link feature Stockholm County CID police detectives Walter Gröhn and Jonna de Brugge. In Project Nirvana, German police authorities ask for help from Swedish authorities to find a Swedish national, Leo Brageler, who is suspected of murdering four German scientists. There seems to be no motive for the killings, and it’s hoped that if Swedish police look into Brageler’s background, they’ll be able to provide that. Gröhn and de Brugge and their team begin the task of tracing Brageler, but he seems to have disappeared. If they’re going to find the link between Brageler and the murder victims, they’ll have to find him as soon as possible. In the meantime, they’re faced with other crimes including a dangerous hostage situation. This case has far-reaching implications, and solving it involves German, Swedish and UK authorities.

Anya Lipska’s novels feature Janusz Kiszka, who is Polish, and DC Natalie Kershaw, who is English. Kiszka lives in London, where he is known as a ‘fixer’ among the members of that city’s Polish community. Kershaw works with the Met. Both Where the Devil Can’t Go and Death Can’t Take a Joke involve murders where both Polish and English people are concerned. In them, we see that crime isn’t just limited to one country. So authorities and civilians from different countries often have to work together to solve it.

There are also, of course, many thrillers that involve Interpol, the EU and other pan-European groups. And series such as Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis’ Nina Borg novels also show how European authorities negotiate and work together to solve crime.

And I don’t think a discussion of that sort of international co-operation would be complete without a mention of the television series The Bridge/Bron/Broen. In those series, Danish Inspector Martin Rohde and Saga Norén, who is Swedish, work together to solve cases of murder that occur on or near the bridge between the two countries.

International co-operation like that isn’t always easy. But when it happens, the result can be far greater success than any one country could have on its own.
On Another Note…


This post is in celebration of the amazing achievement of the European Space Agency (ESA). Yesterday the ESA succeeded in landing the probe Philae on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. We will all learn an incredible amount from this venture, and everyone involved in its success is to be congratulated. See? Co-operation can do wonders!

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Peter Gabriel’s Games Without Frontiers.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Agnete Friis, Anya Lipska, Bartholomew Gill, Helene Tursten, Lene Kaaberbøl, Stefan Tegenfalk

I’ve Looked at Life From Both Sides Now*

DifferentPerspectivesOne of the best things about books and reading – and I include crime fiction in this – is that they give readers the chance to explore and learn about different places, different events and so on. What’s soon clear is that a lot of those events, social issues and so on are complex. So understanding them means reading both sides (or to be more precise, all sides) of an argument. It means reading about a place from a variety of different perspectives. It means reading about an event from the perspective of the ‘winners’ and the ‘losers.’ To put it simply, the more deeply we read about something or someone, the better we understand.

Let me just offer a few examples from crime fiction. Let’s start with the issue of immigration. Many different countries face the challenges that come with immigration. It’s very complex, with many aspects, perspectives and implications that have to be considered. There are plenty of novels and series such as Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis’ Nina Borg stories that show some of the challenges immigrants face as they try to make a new life for themselves. There other novels, such as Elizabeth George’s Deception on His Mind, which depict some of the challenges that residents face when a new group of people with very different cultural beliefs comes in. There are issues of resources, bridging cultural gaps and and so on, and that’s only the beginning. Getting an informed perspective on immigration, what it means, what it entails and how best to meet everyone’s needs isn’t easy. It’s too big and complex an issue for it to be easy. But it starts with reading about it from different points of view.

Or what about the environment? Most people would agree that good stewardship is an important part of our lives on the planet. But we don’t agree on the best way to accomplish that. C.J. Box’s Joe Pickett series often addresses environmental issues. So does Ruth Rendell’s Road Rage. There are lots of others too. Those authors show that not all environmentalists are wonderful people who want to help everyone live a better life. Not all developers are evil, greedy people. On the other hand, there are heroic environmentalists and contemptible developers. The task of balancing good stewardship with sustainable economic development is an enormous one. It’s not going to be accomplished without an understanding of all sides of the problem. It requires reading up on all of the issues and implications, and understanding many different perspectives.

And then there’s the whole question of prison and our prison systems. Crime fiction addresses this issue quite frequently and that makes sense. In novels such as Jørn Lier Horst’s Dregs, Gene Kerrigan’s The Rage and Angela Savage’s short story The Teardrop Tattoos (and there are others), it’s clear that prison doesn’t necessarily reform criminals (and who counts as a ‘criminal’ anyway?). It doesn’t repair the damage they do. And sometimes, putting someone in prison does more harm than good. On the other hand, any crime fiction fan can tell you that there are numerous novels (I couldn’t even begin to list them here!) in which we see another point of view. We see that people’s lives can be saved when criminals are in custody. We see that victims of crime can start to get a sense of closure and perhaps start to heal when criminals have been convicted and are jailed. The questions of what to do about prison, prison reform and convicted criminals are extremely difficult to answer. They can’t be addressed just by reading one book or looking at one perspective. It may be that we can’t even approach any kind of solution until we understand all aspects of prison and what it means.

But…what if you couldn’t read all sorts of perspectives? What if you couldn’t find out what other people have done to face some of these difficult challenges? What if books that took certain points of view were banned? It’s not a fantasy, as anyone who’s ever lived in a place where books have been banned can tell you. It has happened and still does happen.

Among many other consequences of banning books, it means that people can’t sift through all sides of an argument – even sides they don’t agree with – to understand an issue better. It means that people can’t learn from what others do. It means that people can’t approach some kind of meaningful resolution to some of the big challenges that most societies face (poverty, class issues, inter-group relations, and the list goes on). In many ways and on many levels, it means that people cannot approach anything like the truth about an issue.

This week (in the US, at least) is Banned Books Week. I’m going to be looking at the topic from a variety of different angles as the week goes by (no worries; I promise I won’t spend the whole week ranting!).

For today, I invite you to pick a topic that really matters to you and where you have a very strong opinion. Doesn’t matter what it is; it could be race relations, the drugs trade, immigration, a particular group of people or political issue, or something else. Now, read something responsible written from ‘the other side’s’ point of view. Get an understanding of what that issue looks like from another angle. See what that does for your perspective. And be grateful there are books out there that let you do that.

To get a sense of what I mean about reading different perspectives, you’ll want to check out Marina Sofia’s excellent post on reading about the Middle East from two points of view. And while you’re there, do have a look round her superb blog. It’s a treasure trove of fine reviews, evocative poetry and lots more.

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides Now. Listen to her version and Judy Collins’ recording of it, and see which one you prefer.


Filed under Agnete Friis, Angela Savage, Elizabeth George, Gene Kerrigan, Jørn Lier Horst, Lene Kaaberbøl, Ruth Rendell

It Starts When You’re Always Afraid*

Witch Hunts and Mass HysteriaThere’ve been all sorts of fictional and historical accounts of the ‘witch trials’ in Salem, Massachusetts during 1692 and 1693. Those events have captured a lot of people’s imaginations and the term ‘witch hunt’ has become synonymous with group hysteria that can lead to injustice and much worse. And if you read history you’ll know that Salem was by no means the first instance of mass hysteria about witchcraft. There’s a line between concern for public safety and the public good on the one hand, and mass hysteria on the other. It’s sometimes hard to say precisely where that line is, but there are many cases where it’s been crossed. A quick look at crime fiction shows some interesting examples.

Hysteria about witches plays a role in Robin Cook’s Acceptable Risk. In that novel, neuroscientist Edward Armstrong is doing research on anti-depressants. He’s introduced to a nurse, Kimberly Stewart, and the two are soon involved romantically. Kimberly is a descendant of Elizabeth Stewart, who was hanged for witchcraft during the 17th Century wave of anti-witch hysteria. As Armstrong learns about the family history, he also sees another possible avenue for research. It turns out that bread baked in the Stewart home was contaminated with ergot, which has certain psychotropic effects. The house is still in the Stewart family, and Armstrong wants to experiment with the ergot that grows there to see if it has promise as an anti-depressant. The first results are truly exciting and Armstrong and his research team think they’ve made a major medical breakthrough. Then, some disturbing things begin to happen. Before long it’s clear that Armstrong, Stewart and the rest of the team are in far greater danger than anyone imagined.

During the ‘Cold War’ between the US and the UK and their allies, and the then-Soviet Union and its allies, there was a great deal of fear about communism. There was reason to be concerned about Soviet spying, and that concern led to fear and even hysteria. For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Hickory Dickory Dock (AKA Hickory DIckory Death), Hercule Poirot investigates some unusual events at a hostel for students. Odd things have been disappearing there and, as the manager Mrs. Hubbard is the sister of Poirot’s secretary Felicity Lemon, Poirot agrees to visit the hostel. On the night of his visit, one of the residents Celia Austin admits having taken some of the things. When she does, it’s believed that the matter is settled. When Celia dies two nights later, her death is put down to suicide, but it’s soon proven she was murdered. Now Poirot and Inspector Sharpe look into the backgrounds and personal lives of the other hostel residents to find out who would have wanted to kill Celia and why. In the process, they discover quite a bit of anit-communist sentiment. That discussion forms an interesting thread in this story.

We see that same sort of hysteria reflected in Walter Mosley’s A Red Death. Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlins is an amateur PI in post-World War II Los Angeles. One day he gets a letter from Internal Revenue Service (IRS) agent Reginald Lawrence, claiming that he owes thousands of dollars in back taxes and threatening jail if he doesn’t pay up. Rawlins doesn’t have that kind of money so he starts to resign himself to the very real possibility of a jail term. Then he gets a way out. FBI agent Darryl Craxton offers to make Rawlins’ tax problems go away if he’ll do something in return. The FBI wants to bring down suspected communist Chaim Wenzler, a Polish war refugee. Wenzler does a lot of volunteer work for the First African Baptist Church, and Craxton wants Rawlins to use that volunteer work to get close to Wenzler and inform on him. Rawlins isn’t interested but he sees no other way out of his tax trouble. So he agrees to the plan. As he gets to know Wenzler, he discovers that he likes the man and becomes less and less eager to set him up. Then there are two murders at the church. Since Rawlins was there at the time, he’s a natural suspect. Then the LAPD link him to an earlier death. It’s now clear that someone’s trying to frame him for murder. So Rawlins has to clear his name and strike a very delicate balance between keeping to his agreement with Craxton and keeping Wenzler out of trouble if he can. Throughout the novel there’s a strong thread of anti-communist hysteria and Rawlins is appealed to as a ‘patriotic American’ to do his share.

Anti-Western hysteria shows up in a lot of crime fiction too. For instance, William Ryan’s Captain Alexei Korolev series takes place mostly in pre-World War II Moscow. During those years of Stalinist rule, anyone perceived as having any kind of pro-Western or anti-Soviet sentiment was considered an enemy of the state. Such people were often executed or sent off to gulags for ‘re-education.’ Life was hard for their family members too. In this atmosphere people live in dread of being betrayed to the NKVD as traitors. In fact, Korolev himself has to be very careful. As a CID police investigator, he and his team are responsible for catching criminals. It’s in the Soviet interest to have a strong record of catching and punishing those who break the law. But at the same time, Korolev finds that the trail sometimes leads to the NKVD or to other highly respected and powerful Soviet citizens. To suggest that they may be involved in crime is to run the risk of being declared an enemy of the state.

We also see that kind of anti-Western ‘witch hunt’ in Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis’ Death of a Nightingale, the third of their Nina Borg series. In one plot thread of this novel, two sisters, Olga and Oxana, are growing up in the Ukraine during the terrible famine years of 1934-1936. Everyone is exhorted to make sacrifices for the greater good of the State, but that doesn’t fill people’s stomachs. Yet people who complain or worse, who seem to be too well-fed or have too much food, are in real danger. They’re perceived as traitorous and are denounced. At that time, even the slightest denunciation was enough to consign a person or family to Siberia or worse, as this was the time of Stalin’s Great Purge of people he saw as enemies. That climate of fear and the ever-increasing circle of denunciations play an important role in this plot thread of the novel. Years later, this story casts a shadow when Natasha Doroshenko and her daughter Katerina flee the Ukraine after the murder of Natasha’s journalist husband Pavel. They make their way to Denmark where at first Natasha thinks she’s found a haven. That turns out to be tragically false when she’s imprisoned for the attempted murder of her fiancé Michael Vestergaard.  Then, she overhears a conversation that convinces her that her past in the Ukraine has caught up with her. So she escapes police custody and heads for Coal House Camp, a Red Cross facility where Katerina has been staying. That’s when the real danger starts for her, for Katerina and for Nina Borg.

There are other series too, such as Colin Cotterill’s  Siri Paiboun series, which takes place in 1970’s Laos, that address themes of what you could call ‘witch hunts.’ In series like that, people are encouraged to denounce others, even friends and family members, as traitors. That climate of fear adds a layer of tension to a novel or series. It’s even more disturbing when we think how close those novels come to real life.

ps. The ‘photo is part of an illustration of Pedro Berruguete’s Auto-da-fé, which hangs in Madrid’s Prado Museum. It’s a haunting reminder that widespread fear and the fear of being denounced have a long history.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Stephen Stills’ For What it’s Worth.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Agnete Friis, Colin Cotterill, Lene Kaaberbøl, Robin Cook, Walter Mosley, William Ryan