Category Archives: Colin Cotterill

Show Me Don’t Tell Me*

Depicting MurdersOne of the questions I’m facing as I work on my new manuscript is whether or not to depict the murder featured in the story. On the one hand, including the murder, especially at the beginning of a story, can be a powerful way to draw the reader in. It really can be a solid ‘hook.’ Showing the murder can also give a novel a solid core around which a plot can be built, and it doesn’t require a gory description.

On the other hand, depicting the murder can be tricky. It requires thought to do it without identifying the murderer. For the whodunit author, for instance, that requires finesse. And even authors who write different kinds of crime fiction (i.e. not whodunits) need to handle the depiction carefully. Otherwise, the writer runs the risk of being melodramatic.

There are really arguments on both sides of this question. And of course, there are plenty of crime novels that are examples of each approach. And as I think you’ll see, it can work either way.

In Gail Bowen’s Deadly Appearances, political scientist and academician Joanne Kilbourn is attending a community picnic where her friend, Androu ‘Andy’ Boychuk is scheduled to make a speech. He’s an up-and-coming politician who’s just been selected to lead Saskatchewan’s Official Opposition party, so this is an important speech for him. He’s just gotten started when he suddenly collapses on stage and quickly dies of what turns out to be poison. Bowen doesn’t provide all of the details of his death, but the murder is depicted. As a way of coping with her grief at the loss of her friend, Kilbourn decides to write a biography of Boychuk. As she learns more about him, she also learns that his life was more complicated than she’d thought. And the closer she gets to an understanding of that life, the closer she gets to the truth about the murder.

In one of the main plot threads of Ian Rankin’s Black and Blue, Aberdeen-based oil worker Allan Mitchison is having some drinks with some companions. Mitchison’s drinking buddies take him back to their place, where they murder him. This killing is portrayed clearly. At first, there doesn’t seem to be a motive for the murder. Mitchison didn’t have obvious enemies, and he wasn’t important enough, if I can put it that way, to make a difference. As Inspector John Rebus discovers, though, he’d found out some secrets that it wasn’t safe for him to know.

Martin Edward’s The Cipher Garden begins with the murder of landscaper Warren Howe. He’s on the job one afternoon when he is murdered with his own scythe. This murder isn’t depicted in all of its detail. But readers are witnesses to what happens. At the time of the murder, everyone thinks Howe’s wife Tina is guilty, and she has plenty of motive. Howe is an abusive, unfaithful husband, and those are his good qualities. But the police can’t find enough evidence to pursue the case. Ten years later, anonymous tips suggest that Tina really was guilty. So DCI Hannah Scarlett, head of the Cumbria Constabulary’s Cold Case Review Team, decides to re-open the case. When she and her team do so, they find that this case is more complicated, and has deeper roots, than it seems. At the same time, Oxford historian Daniel Kind is working on a mystery of his own. He’s recently taken a cottage with an unusual garden, laid out in a cryptic shape. It turns out that the mystery of the garden is connected to the mystery of who killed Warren Howe, and why.

In all of these novels, the authors show the murders, but they do so in ways that don’t reveal the killers’ identities. What’s more, none of the authors revels in a gore-fest. So the murders aren’t depicted for ‘shock value.’

Still, there are plenty of authors who choose not to depict the murders at the core of their novels. And many readers prefer this style of mystery, as they don’t care much for a lot of violence. For those authors and readers, the ‘hook’ may be the discovery of a body. Or it may be something else.

For instance, in Colin Cotterill’s The Coroner’s Lunch, Dr. Siri Paiboun and his team face a strange case. Comrade Nitnoy, the wife of Senior Comrade Kham, suddenly collapsed and died during an important luncheon. This is 1970s Laos, where the Party is firmly in control, and where everyone knows better than to go against the wishes of a highly-placed Party member. In fact, Party instructions are the reason for which Dr. Siri has become Laos’ medical examiner in the first place. So when he is told that Comrade Nitnoy died of accidental poisoning by parasites in some raw food, he is expected to go along with that explanation, submit a cursory report and be done with the matter. But a few pieces of evidence suggest that something else caused the victim’s death. Now, Dr. Siri has to decide whether and how much to go against his superiors’ wishes to find out what actually happened. In this case, readers don’t see the murder committed. Rather, we learn about the death when Comrade Nitnoy’s body is wheeled into the mortuary. Readers find out more of the details as Dr. Siri talks to people who were at the luncheon, and as he does his own tests to find out how Comrade Nitnoy died.

Jill Edmondson’s Blood and Groom introduces Toronto PI Sasha Jackson. In that novel, she’s recently opened for business, and is eager to build a clientele. So when she gets a visit from Christine Arvisais, she’s hoping she’ll be able to help this new client. As Arvisais tells the story, she had been planning to marry Gordon Hanes. Their engagement ended, though, and Arvisais claimed she’d moved on. Hanes was shot on the day that was supposed to have been their wedding day, and plenty of people blame his ex-fiancée.  Arvisais is spoiled, rude, and malicious. But she claims to be innocent, and a fee is a fee, so Jackson takes the case. As she starts to look into the matter, she finds that more than one person could have had a good motive for murder. The murder of Gordon Hanes isn’t depicted. Rather, Jackson learns what happened as she asks questions and does research.

There are many authors who choose to have a character discover a body, rather than show the murder. That’s what happens in Christine Poulson’s Murder is Academic. Cambridge academic Cassandra James goes to the home of Margaret Joplin, who heads the English Literature Department at James’ college. She’s stopped by the house to collect some exam paper. Instead, she finds her boss’ body in the pool, and the papers scattered everywhere. At first, the death looks like a terrible accident. But soon enough, little clues suggest otherwise. As James looks into the death, she finds that the victim had a more complicated life than it seemed.

What do you think? Do you have a preference when it comes to the way authors present murders in the crime fiction you read? If you’re a writer, do you depict the murder, or allude to it? Why?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Rush’s Show Don’t Tell.

39 Comments

Filed under Christine Poulson, Colin Cotterill, Gail Bowen, Ian Rankin, Jill Edmondson, Martin Edwards

She Talks to Angels*

Communicating With the DeadIf you’ve seen M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense, then you’ll know that its main focus is a young boy who can hear and see those who’ve died. For a very long time, people have wanted to believe that they could communicate with loved ones who’ve passed away. That’s been the driving force behind countless séances.

Each culture is different with respect to whether we communicate with those who’ve died. In some cultures, there’s a vital important link between the dead and the living. In others, there is no such link, and the idea that the dead might communicate is not taken seriously.

Whatever one’s cultural or personal beliefs, the idea of communicating with lost friends and loved ones has had a powerful influence on people. And, given that a lot of crime fiction is about murder, it shouldn’t be surprising that this idea is woven into the genre, too.

Fans of Arthur Conan Doyle will know that he had a great interest in spiritualism. It’s ironic, considering that his most famous creation, Sherlock Holmes, is a man of science and logic. Holmes is not one for séances and other spiritualist traditions. But his creator certainly was.

Agatha Christie touches on this theme in a few of her stories. In The Last Séance, for instance, Raoul Daubreuil pays a visit to his fiancée Simone, who is a very successful medium. She is worn out from the work, though, and wants nothing more than to be done with it forever. But she has made one last commitment – a sitting for Madame Exe, who is desperate to stay in contact with her dead daughter Amelie. At first, Simone doesn’t want to do this last séance. She is exhausted; more than that, she is afraid. She fears the consequences of working with Madame Exe any longer. But Raoul insists that she keep her commitment, and Simone finally allows herself to be persuaded. Madame Exe duly arrives, and in the end, we see the tragic consequences. Christie fans will know that she also mentions spiritualism in Dumb Witness (AKA Poirot Loses a Client), Murder in Mesopotamia and the short story Blue Geranium, among others.

In one plot thread of Donna Leon’s The Girl of His Dreams, Commissario Guido Brunetti and his team investigate the death of twelve-year-old Ariana Rocich. She was a Roma girl who, according to the first reports, fell into a canal from a building where she was trying to rob an apartment. Brunetti isn’t so sure that she died accidentally, and starts asking questions. Brunetti doesn’t believe in spiritualism. But he can’t deny that Ariana haunts him:
 

‘…and the girl’s face…would return to him at odd times and more than once in his dreams.’
 

That’s part of what spurs him on to find out the truth about her death.

Åsa Larsson’s Until Thy Wrath be Past is in part the story of the death of seventeen-year-old Wilma Persson. One winter day, she and her boyfriend, eighteen-year-old Simon Kyrö, go diving into Lake Vittangijärvi, hoping to explore the ruins of a WWII plane that went down there. The two are deliberately trapped and killed. A few months later, Wilma’s body re-surfaces, and Inspector Anna-Maria Mella and her team investigate. In the meantime, attorney Rebecka Martinsson has been having strange dreams in which a young girl appears, trying to communicate with her. Martinsson doesn’t believe in ghosts, or in the dead communicating with the living, but she knows what she’s experienced. And it’s interesting to see how her experiences are woven into the story.

In Cath Staincliffe’s Split Second, Jason Barnes is riding a bus one day when three young people begin harassing another passenger, Luke Murray. Jason intervenes, and for a time, the bullying abates. But then, Luke gets off the bus. So do the three bullies, and so does Jason. The harassment starts up again, and this time it escalates. The fight continues all the way into Jason’s yard, where he is fatally stabbed, and Luke badly wounded. Both boys’ parents are understandably devastated by what’s happened. There is, of course, a police investigation into the incident, and Jason’s parents Andrew and Val do the best they can to help. Part of the plot involves the slow discovery of what really went on and what led up to it. Another part has to do with the impact that Jason’s death has on his family. In the end, though, Andrew and Val are able to begin healing; and, without spoiling the story, I can say that there’s one great scene in which Andrew does have a sense of really connecting with Jason.

There are many cultures in which it is believed that those who’ve died really do communicate with the living. It’s not done in the Western sense of using the planchette or having a séance. In fact, there isn’t really a strong dividing line between the living and the dead in some cultures. We see that, for instance, in Nicole Watson’s The Boundary, some of Arthur Upfield’s Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte novels, and Adrian Hyland’s Emily Tempest novels. All of these touch on Australian Aboriginal people’s connections with their dead.

We also see that link in Colin Cotterill’s Dr. Siri Paiboun series, which takes place in 1970s Laos. Dr. Siri may be a medical professional, but that doesn’t mean he ignores the unexplainable. In fact, he actually does see the spirits of people who’ve died. Again, it’s not in the traditional Western sense, but it’s quite real for him. There are other novels and series, too, that touch on this sense that those who have died communicate with the living (I know, I know, fans of Craig Johnson’s Walt Longmire stories). When it’s done effectively, it can add a fascinating layer to a story. It can also add some depth to characters.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by The Black Crowes.

24 Comments

Filed under Adrian Hyland, Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Arthur Upfield, Åsa Larsson, Cath Staincliffe, Colin Cotterill, Craig Johnson, Donna Leon, Nicole Watson

When Death Came Calling Today*

Medical ExaminersOne of critical tasks in any criminal investigation is finding out exactly how the victim died. For that, police rely on medical examiners. They have slightly different roles in different countries, but in general, their job is to perform autopsies and determine cause of death. Often that leads to a conclusion on manner of death too (accident, suicide or murder). The police rely heavily on that medical information to help make their cases, and medical examiners’ reports are also very useful for attorneys, whether they’re prosecuting or defending someone. It’s no wonder at all then that these professionals figure so often in crime fiction.

Several series feature medical examiners as sleuths, which makes sense when you consider what they do and the information they learn. For instance, Ariana Franklin’s Adelia Aguilar lives and works in 12th Century England. She’s what’s called a ‘mistress of the art of death,’ a doctor who was originally at the University at Salerno. At the request of King Henry II, she’s sent to England to investigate a murder and remains there. She may not have modern technology or science at her disposal, but she understands how the human body works, and she is good at determining cause of death.

Although he is not a doctor by profession, Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael plays much the same role . He’s a Benedictine monk, and an herbalist. He’s learned many of the telltale signs of different causes of death and that helps him draw his conclusions. And since he’s thoroughly familiar with different kinds of plant life, he’s especially good at finding small pieces of evidence that suggest where the victim was killed and in cases of poison, which kind of poison was used.

Felicity Young’s Dorothy ‘Dodie’ McCleland is a medical examiner who works in the London of the early 20th Century. There’s a real interest in the profession at this time, as it’s the era of the Crippen case and not that many years after the Whitechapel murders. It’s a profession that’s just opened to women, so McCleland faces her share of sexism and cultural barriers. Still, she’s good at what she does. And what’s interesting is that Sir Bernard Spilsbury, the famous real-life pathologist, figures into the series. In fact, Young has written that the inspiration for Antidote to Murder, the second novel in the series, came from Spilsbury’s case notes.

Garrett Quirke, the creation of Benjamin Black, lives and works in 1950’s Dublin. In The Silver Swan, Quirke gets involved in the investigation of the death of Deirdre Hunt. And in this case, we see how important the observations of a medical examiner can be. When the victim’s body is found off the rocks near Dalkey Island, the police believe that it’s a case of suicide. Deirdre’s husband Billy accepts that explanation and wants the matter to go no further. In fact, he appeals to Quirke (they’re old friends) not to conduct an autopsy, saying that he can’t bear to think of his wife’s body cut up and dissected. Quirke agrees to see what he can do, but his suspicions are raised when he discovers a mark from hypodermic needle on one of Deirdre’s arms. That mark casts a whole new light on this death, but it isn’t noticed until Quirke conducts his examination.

And then there’s Colin Cotterill’s 1970s-era Dr. Siri Paiboun series. Dr. Siri is Laos’ only medical examiner, so he deals with all sorts of different cases. He faces several challenges too. For one thing, he has very little equipment or technology as his disposal. He has to make do sometimes with very rudimentary solutions, but he manages to get answers. Another challenge is that the government of Laos at this time is in the hands of socialist leaders who demand unquestioning co-operation and obedience. They expect that Dr. Siri’s results will tally with official explanations. That doesn’t always happen though, and Dr. Siri has to be cautious and clever as he goes about his work. But Dr. Siri has a strong and loyal team: Nurse Dtui and mortuary assistant Mr. Geung are highly skilled at their jobs. In fact Mr. Geung knows more about mortuary procedures than Dr. Siri does. This series offers an interesting look at the life of a non-Western medical examiner.

There are also of course many modern-day fictional medical examiners, such as Robin Cook’s Laurie Montgomery and Jack Stapleton. They live and work in New York City, but as readers of this series know, they also travel in the course of their work. Kathy Reichs’ Temperance Brennan is another example of the modern medical examiner.

Medical examiners also play important roles in novels and series even when they’re not the protagonists. For instance, Peter James’ Superintendent Roy Grace depends a lot on Cleo Morey, a medical examiner with Brighton and Hove Mortuary. Fans of this series know that while these two begin as colleagues, their relationship changes and they become partners. Morey’s expertise is critical to Grace’s investigations. And Priscilla Masters’ Martha Gunn, who serves as Coroner for Shrewsbury, depends very much on her team members for accurate results in the cases she hears. In Ernesto Mallo’s Needle in a Haystack, Buenos Aries medical examiner Dr. Fusili is very helpful, despite great personal risk, to police detective Venancio ‘Perro’ Lescano when he investigates a murder that some highly-placed people want ‘rubber stamped.’

Medical examiners have what may seem like eerie jobs. But their expertise is extremely important, and their cases can be very interesting, too. Which fictional medical examiners have stayed in your memory?
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Mountain Goats’ The Coroner’s Gambit.

24 Comments

Filed under Ariana Franklin, Benjamin Black, Colin Cotterill, Ellis Peters, Ernesto Mallo, Felicity Young, Kathy Reichs, Peter James, Priscilla Masters, Robin Cook

‘Cause It’s My Culture, So Naturally I Use It*

Cultural PerspectivesMuch of what we think, do and value is impacted (sometimes dictated) by our culture. We don’t stop to think about each of our decisions or thoughts, but if you do stop and reflect, it’s not hard to see how deeply culture is woven into our lives and thinking patterns. You may notice it in particular if you spend time in another culture or if you read about characters from another culture. The ways in which those characters think, act and choose may seem strange or even wrong. But they may make more sense if you think about it from the point of view of that other culture. Let me show you what I mean with just a few examples from crime fiction.

In Agatha Christie’s Dead Man’s Folly, Hercule Poirot travels to Nasse House, which is owned by Sir George and Lady Hattie Stubbs, to help his friend Ariadne Oliver. She’s been commissioned to create a Murder Hunt as an attraction for an upcoming fête, but has come to suspect that more is going on at Nasse House than a planned event. Poirot isn’t there long before he too begins to think that something is wrong. Sure enough, on the day of the fête, fourteen-year-old Marlene Tucker, who was to play the part of the victim in the Murder Hunt, is actually killed. Poirot works with Inspector Bland to find out who the killer is. As a part of that process, he interviews the people involved with the fête, including Amy Folliat, whose family owned Nasse house for generations, and who actually introduced Sir George and Lady Hattie Stubbs. As Mrs. Folliat explains to Poirot, Lady Hattie is of subnormal intelligence and after her family died, was under her (Mrs. Folliat’s) care. When Sir George proposed marriage, Amy Folliat urged her ward to accept, with the idea that she would be well provided for and not have to make her way alone. It wasn’t really a love match, and Mrs. Folliat’s concerned about Poirot’s reaction to that. But from Poirot’s perpective, which is impacted by his culture, it’s a wise choice:

 

‘It seems to me…that you made a most prudent arrangement for her. I am not, like the English, romantic. To arrange a good marriage, one must take more than romance into consideration.’

 

If you’re from a culture where marriage choices are based mostly on love and romance, Mrs. Folliat may seem almost coldly pragmatic. But it’s perfectly reasonable from a different cultural perspective.

We also see how culture impacts the way characters think and behave in Faye Kellerman’s The Ritual Bath.  LAPD Detectives Peter Decker and Marge Dunn investigate when a rape occurs at Yeshivat Ohavei Torah, a secluded Orthodox Jewish community. At first, the detectives think it may be the work of a serial rapist they’re already tracking. But there are enough differences that it could also be someone else. Then there’s a murder at the yeshiva. Now it looks as though whatever is going on has to do with the people there. In the course of the investigation, Decker also works with Rina Lazarus, a teacher at the yeshiva school. She and Decker are attracted to each other and each admits it. But even though she likes Decker, she doesn’t go out with him. If you’re from a culture where people who like each other go on dates, you might wonder why on earth Rina doesn’t say ‘yes,’ to a date. After all, it’s just dinner. But in the Orthodox Jewish culture, it’s not appropriate to spend time alone with a man to whom one isn’t married. Rina’s neither prudish nor afraid of Decker. But she is deeply affected by her culture, so dating as many of us conceive it is not a part of her thinking.

There’s a fascinating look at culture’s impact on people’s thinking and choices in Colin Cotterill’s Dr. Siri Paiboun series. These novels take place in 1970’s Laos, where Dr. Siri is the country’s chief (well, really only) medical examiner. He has very few resources at his disposal, but he is a skilled doctor. He prefers logical, scientific explanations for life, and tries to provide them in the context of his work. But the traditional Laos culture in which he lives sees the world differently. To members of that traditional culture, certain things simply do not have Western-style scientific explanations, and have to be attributed to something else. The Laotian government authorities try to discourage those traditions, but Dr. Siri learns to see the merit of them. As the series goes on, he gets better able to see the world that way and he finds that it’s a very useful ‘cultural lens.’

In Angela Savage’s The Half Child, Bangkok-based PI Jayne Keeney travels to Pattaya to investigate the death of Maryanne Delbeck. Maryanne was a volunteer at New Life Children’s Centre when she jumped (or fell, or was pushed) from the roof of the building where she lived. Her father Jim has hired Keeney to find out the truth about her death, so Keeney goes undercover at New Life to find out whether someone there may have had a motive for murder.  One of the things that come out in this novel is the Thai custom of disparaging one’s own baby:

 

‘My Kob has ears like an elephant,’ Mayuree added…
‘Kob has such beautiful eyes,’ Wen said, ‘whereas my poor Moo has small eyes and they aren’t even a nice color.’

 

If you’re not from the Thai culture, you may wonder how any loving mother could speak that way about her own child. But in the Thai culture it makes sense. It’s a way of protecting a baby from malevolent spirits who might be jealous of a smart, physically appealing child. From the Thai perspective, these two women behave like the loving mothers they are.

Mark Douglas-Home’s The Sea Detective introduces readers to Preeti and Basanti, two young girls from India’s Bedia group. Their families are financially desperate, so an arrangement is made for the girls to join the dhanda – a name used for India’s sex trade. The idea is that they’ll work in that business for a few years and send their earnings back to their families. At the end of that time, they’ll return to their villages and settle down. The two girls are both nervous, but they agree. Then they’re shipped to Scotland where they fall into the hands of some very nasty people. Basanti manages to escape, but in the meantime, she has lost contact with Preeti. Her search for Preeti leads to oceanographer and Ph.D. candidate Caladh ‘Cal’ McGill, who helps Basanti find out the truth about her friend. You may very well wonder how anyone could allow a daughter to be a part of the sex trade, or how any teen could agree to it. But in that culture, family and family duty are of the utmost importance. These girls see it as their responsibility to help their families. Preeti even sees it as a source of pride. From the families’ perspective, it’s far better than allowing other children in the family to starve. This cultural and financial perspective doesn’t make underage prostitution a good thing. But it does help explain how it happens.

There’s a really interesting case of cultural impact in Paddy Richardson’s Swimming in the Dark. Ilsa Klein is a secondary school teacher in Alexandra, on New Zealand’s South Island. She’s become concerned about one of her students Serena Freeman, who’s stopped coming to class regularly, and stopped being a part of the group when she’s there. Ilsa’s choices about helping Serena have much more far-reaching consequences than she could have imagined, and through it all, there’s an interesting debate. There are many social services available in New Zealand for students who are struggling. Admittedly sometimes they work well and sometimes they don’t. But most social service professionals try to do their best. Ilsa and her mother Gerda, though, come from Leipzig, in what was once East Germany. To them, trusting any government agency is out of the question, especially from Gerda’s perspective. Government workers were responsible for a great deal of denouncement, spying, and so on that led to the disappearances and deaths of many East Germans during the Soviet era. That cultural ‘rule’ – that you don’t trust any agency – may seem strange if you come from a culture where those agencies do a lot of good. But to these women, from that culture, it makes perfect sense.

And that’s the thing about culture. It impacts the way we see the world, ourselves, others, and their actions and values. It even affects the way we see fictional characters and the way they see each other. These are just a few examples. Your turn.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Living Colour’s Pride.

33 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Angela Savage, Colin Cotterill, Faye Kellerman, Mark Douglas-Home, Paddy Richardson

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.

24 Comments

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