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.